It was 1:20 am on a Sunday morning in November 1937. Twenty-eight-year-old Manuel Phillips of Wing Road was walking along the beach, south of downtown Oak Bluffs near Harthaven, with a light. A gale had blasted the coast Friday night, and Phillips was out at low tide picking up scallops. He spotted a dark form near the highwater line, which at first he thought was a dog or seal. “I had to flash the light four times,” he later told a reporter from the Boston Globe, before he realized what it was: the battered, nearly nude body of a 40-year-old woman.
“When I saw it was a body,” reported Phillips, “I began running to tell the police. All she had on was a stocking on the left leg and a pink girdle. She had very black hair, but some of it was worn out, probably by the tide and sand, so that only tufts were left. It gave me quite a scare.’” Both arms were above her head, he said, and she was covered with bruises. It was clear her body had been in the water for many days.
The remains were taken to the undertaking parlors of Hinckley & Renear in Vineyard Haven, and a preliminary exam was made by associate medical examiner Francis Buckley and Dr. Clement Norris. They noted her costly gold dental work and extensive bruising. Meanwhile, state trooper George Barker and Oak Bluffs night watchman Alton Bunker searched the beach. They found a woman’s shoe — a single suede pump — but nothing else.
District Attorney William Crossley of Fall River arrived later that day, and after noticing a bruise over the woman’s right eye and a hole in the skull — which, he said, “might be a bullet wound” — he ordered an immediate autopsy.
The Parsons case
The public quickly connected it to the case of missing socialite Alice McDonell Parsons. Parsons, a 38-year-old New York socialite, had disappeared from her fashionable 11-acre estate on Long Island on June 9. Her Russian housekeeper reported seeing her drive away with a middle-aged couple. A penciled note, addressed to Parsons’ husband and placed on the front seat of her car, demanded $25,000 in ransom. The story quickly went national, and J. Edgar Hoover took charge of the investigation.
The Parsons story took a local turn when an agitated man with iron-gray hair, a thick mustache, and “large, round, unblinking, bulging eyes” rushed into Capt. Ernest Mayhew’s fish market in Menemsha, entered a payphone booth, and asked for “Emergency, Police.” In a Southern accent, he told Sgt. Joseph Fratus of the State Police, “That Parsons woman who was kidnapped in New York can be located at Robinson’s Camp at Menemsha!” Joseph Amancio, the market clerk, watched him leave the store and drive away in a black coach with New Jersey plates, together with two women.
Twenty-five state and local police and a dozen Coast Guardsmen searched every cottage in Chilmark and Gay Head that day, together with all the boats offshore. G-men arrived the next day and checked the ownership of all 82 cars with Jersey plates on the Island. Nothing turned up. Although the man Amancio saw in Captain Mayhew’s market matched the description of the kidnapper, and although New York Police were actively pursuing a theory that the kidnappers might have taken Parsons off Long Island by boat, D.A. Crossley soon concluded the call was a “crank.”
The dark-haired, blue-eyed body found in Oak Bluffs five months later was not Parsons (although the Department of Justice dispatched a G-man from Boston to make sure). Nor was it a woman named Eva, who had recently gone missing in Providence.
The Oak Bluffs body wore two rings — one an imitation diamond engagement ring, the other a thin white wedding ring inscribed with initials “R.B.S. to E.H.N., Feb. 14, 1916.” Police quickly identified her as another missing socialite: Ellen Shackelford.
Shackelford was the daughter of John Reed Nicholson, who long served as both attorney general and chancellor of the state of Delaware. She was married to successful Philadelphia businessman Randolph Shackelford, and they had a daughter. The Shackelfords became estranged in 1931, and he began divorce proceedings, which were still pending in Pennsylvania at the time of her death. Later in 1931, Mrs. Shackelford was arrested for drunken driving in Atlantic City, and soon afterward was involved in a minor auto accident in Philadelphia in which she was arrested again, together with her driver, when a half-pint of whiskey was found in her handbag by police. Struck from the Philadelphia social register for her embarrassing escapades, she moved to a hotel in Cambridge, and over the next few years embarked alone on at least two lengthy cruises — one to Italy, another to Russia. She reportedly owed a $350 hotel bill in Philadelphia and a $300 hotel bill in New York.
On Oct. 30 her elderly father was struck by a car, gravely fracturing his hip. She visited him in his Delaware hospital, and reportedly racked up another big unpaid hotel bill. Her brother would later declare her, apart from their father’s circumstance, as “in good spirits and happy.” She disappeared soon afterward.
Investigators announced that the autopsy in Vineyard Haven failed to disprove the police theory that Shackelford had been “assaulted and probably murdered.” The cause of death was still undetermined. No water was found in her lungs, suggesting that she was dead before she entered the water. The external injuries were judged to have been probably caused after her death. The autopsy left police uncertain. “It could be either” murder or suicide, reported Sgt. Fratus to the press.
Providence Police, meanwhile, provided a new clue. A pocketbook, monogrammed “E.N.S.”, had been found in a stateroom of the steamship Arrow on Nov. 1, bound from New York to Providence. In it was a letter, signed by Shackelford, addressed to the manager of the Walton Hotel in Philadelphia, discussing her unpaid bill. The letter, said police investigators, “hinted suicide.” Oddly, though, she had not registered on the steamship, and no one had seen her on the deck. D.A. Crossley eventually admitted he was unable to find any proof that she had ever booked passage on the boat.
Her estranged husband, now living in Washington, D.C., arrived on the Island, together with her brother John. The body was viewed only by her brother, but he was unable to positively identify it in its decomposed condition. Her husband identified the ring. Her internal organs were removed to Boston for additional testing by the state pathologist, and the rest of the remains were released to the family for cremation. It would have been her 40th birthday.
A month passed. Dr. Timothy Leary, Boston medical examiner (and first cousin of the famously tuned-in psychologist of the same name), eventually reported finding “salt in her heart’s blood,” and declared the death was caused by “asphyxia due to probable drowning, with nothing to indicate homicide.” The case was closed.
Mr. Shackelford remarried four months later. D.A. Crossley resigned in disgrace in 1944. Among other issues, Crossley had long been criticized for not bringing cases to trial that had been pending for years. (Among the open cases under his jurisdiction was the murder of Clara Smith at the Rice Playhouse in Oak Bluffs in 1940.) Parsons, the Long Island kidnappee, was never found.
“It was not something that my mother [Ellen’s daughter] liked to discuss,” writes Ellen’s grandson Michael Avrick of Maryland. “I was told that they weren’t sure what happened, but it was most likely suicide.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.