This Was Then: Razors, shotguns, and brass knuckles

Public displays of aggression

Edgartown, turn of the 20th century. It didn’t always end well.

Islanders have long been frighteningly well-armed. General Charles Grey seized 388 guns from Vineyarders in the British raid of the Island in 1778, but new weapons soon arrived. It’s been claimed that the first choke-bored gun was designed on the Vineyard.

Island death records are riddled with firearm fatalities, like 22-year-old Isaac Butler of Edgartown in 1770, “killed by ye accidental discharge of a gun.” Some were accidentally self-inflicted, like the case of Moses Crosby of Tisbury in 1844, who took his gun out to go fowling and was later found by his neighbors, shot dead. (“It is supposed he undertook to take the gun from the cart he had with him, and that it accidentally discharged,” reported a Philadelphia newspaper.) Others were killed by friendly fire, like 15-year-old Etta Pease of Edgartown, shot and killed in 1861 by her teenage cousin, who was teasing her with a weapon he thought was unloaded. Many suicides were also recorded.

There have been several shoot-outs at sea. Notorious rumrunner Frank Butler of Chilmark was shot through the wrist by a Coast Guard machine gun when the armor-plated, liquor-laden speedboat he captained was fired upon and sunk in a wild 1931 nighttime chase off Nomans. Another notable sea battle went mostly unrecorded in 1923 except for the eight corpses found floating in Vineyard Sound off the Chilmark shore, Cedar Tree Neck, and Menemsha — the result of what was evidently a violent massacre of the crew of the rumrunner John Dwight off Cuttyhunk by criminals unknown. In 1949, an innocent fishing boat tied up at Nomans was strifed by an F-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane after a mix-up over permission to use the wharf. Twenty slugs peppered the thirty-foot Sharker I, but the crew was able to leap to safety.

It wasn’t just guns. In 1926, New Bedford fisherman Antone Kakalesiris attempted to board the boat of Antone Madeiros off Cuttyhunk, with a knife in one hand and a boat hook in the other, following a heated argument. Madeiros responded by striking Kakalesiris in the head with an oar, killing him. Madeiros was arrested, held in the Edgartown jail on a manslaughter charge, and sentenced to two years of hard labor. But moments after the judge read his sentence, widow Mary Kakalesires rose from her seat in the packed Edgartown courtroom and struck Madeiros over the head with a eight-inch cast iron wrench wrapped in newspaper, knocking him unconscious, hissing “Two years is not enough, murderer!” Edgartown police officer Leon Brown caught her arm before she was able to strike a second blow.

Then there was Cottage City’s tar and feathering incident of 1874 which resulted in the shooting death of Caleb Smith. And the unsolved axe murder of a Holmes Hole storekeeper in 1863. And W. W. Douglass, proprietor of a Vineyard Haven grocery, who in 1887 shot an angry, drunk customer who came into his store belligerent over a bill.

There is the story of George Swain of Vineyard Haven, agent for the Beach Wharf Company, who sued auctioneer Jonathan White over the title to a property near Five Corners in 1882. Swain won, but White refused to pay the damages. Swain took possession of the land, but when White showed up to collect his personal possessions from the barn, Swain jumped him and beat him with a set of brass knuckles that was later fished out of the harbor as evidence.

A dance on Circuit Avenue was at its height one evening in July 1900 until shots from a revolver were heard outside. Everyone came to the door to see a brawl in progress. A half dozen or more men were involved, and the Boston Globe noted, “razors and pistols were freely used.” Evidently sparked by an argument over a game of craps, popular bicycle instructor Charles Goff, Jefferson Scales, and Joseph “Lucky Joe” Gardner were at the center of the fray. Spectators from the dance hall witnessed Goff “brandishing a razor in one hand and blazing away with a gun in the other.” Lucky Joe — whose nickname was confirmed in this incident — dodged a bullet to the head but was not so lucky with Goff’s razor. Scales was shot at least once, and several others injured. Goff then reportedly struck Scales on the head with a “loaded club” or baseball bat. Friends among the dancers stepped in and stopped the fight, but Goff fled the scene. Later arrested and tried, he was fined $25 and jailed for sixty days.

Another fight in Oak Bluffs in 1937 resembled “a tale of a Kentucky feud,” according to one Globe article. Frank Rich was a disabled World War I veteran who made a living selling pencils and razor blades door-to-door. An old wound had severed some of the muscles in his neck, so he couldn’t lift his head from his shoulder. He lived in the rear of an Oak Bluffs novelty shop owned by Alden Childs, and the two ate breakfast together daily. One January morning they argued, and Childs lunged at Rich with a butcher knife. They made peace, but later that day Childs let loose Rich’s thoroughbred hound dog from his store. Enraged, Rich grabbed his shotgun and left. When Childs ventured out later onto Circuit Avenue, Rich opened fire in an ambush from near the post office. The first shot missed, but the second peppered Childs and riddled a newspaper delivery truck. Both were arrested and charged with assault with intent to murder.

Police broke up a “gang fight” in Oak Bluffs in August 1958 in front of the bowling alley. A group of Edgartown teenagers carried metal pipes and clubs; their opponents, a group of Oak Bluffs boys, carried “switch knives.” No injuries were reported in the “rumble”, but twenty-one arrests were made. Ultimately, some faced $10 fines. 

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 June 2018.