The history sleuth

Chris Baer spins the tales of Martha’s Vineyard’s past.

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“All eyes were on Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1932. Charles Lindbergh Jr., 20-month-old son of the famed transatlantic pilot, had been kidnapped in what would be called the ‘crime of the century.’ After a $50,000 ransom was paid, the kidnappers gave instructions to look for the child on a boat named Nellie, off the coast of the Vineyard. A frantic search followed.”

So begins “The macabre story of Vladimer Messer,” a story written by Chris Baer in 2018, for his column in The Martha’s Vineyard Times called “This Was Then.” Since 2014, Baer has written more than 200 of these mysteries and historical curiosities, most of which appeared in The MV Times, and he’s published many of these stories in his book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales … From Pirates on Lake Tashmoo to Baxter’s Saloon.”

Baer is the chair of the Art, Design and Technology department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, but in his spare time he delves into the dusty attic of Martha’s Vineyard’s past. In the introduction to his book, Baer describes the stories he tells: “Some are bizarre, some are quirky, some are sad, some are touching, some are familiar, some are just awful, and many are surprising. All are true.”

Baer comes to his historical curiosity by way of his grandfather, Stan Lair. “My grandfather was a plumber in Vineyard Haven,” Baer said. “He got around, he knew everyone, and he collected photographs. He’d borrow people’s family albums and put them on a copy stand, make copies, and file them in fat, three-ring binders.” Baer says he must have thousands of his grandfather’s photos, and estimates that about 80 percent of the images he uses come from his grandfather’s pictures.

“He’d also make audiotapes,” Baer said. “He had this gravelly, pipe-smoking voice, and he’d narrate slideshows, and record his memories and people’s stories.”

In addition to using Stan Lair’s photographs and slide shows, Baer will also search newspaper archives for old pictures, and often families will share photographs with him. While the ideas for many of Baer’s stories come from pictures, other times he works backward. He’ll search through old censuses, immigration records, or Masonic records, and sometimes a story will jump out at him. “Having genealogical databases like ancestry.com has made my job a lot easier,” Baer said. Paulo DeOliveira, the Vineyard Haven registrar of deeds, has been digitizing the Registry of Deeds, which has been very helpful to Baer as well.

“My grandfather had a set of the Banks histories (“The History of Martha’s Vineyard, Dukes County, Massachusetts,” by Charles Edward Banks) that he kept over his bed,” Baer said, “and I rely on those a lot as well.” Baer searches dozens and dozens of historic journals, and because many of the volumes are digitized, he can use keyword searches to make his job easier. And where the books are not digitized, he scans each book, page by page, himself.

Baer figures about half the stories he writes are inspired by a picture, and half from something he reads. The problem is that when you start with a story, it’s often hard to find a picture, and when you have a picture, sometimes you have no idea what the story is.

“I like the stories where I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen,” Baer says. “I write to entertain myself as much as anyone.” Stories like the Vladimer Messer one.

“When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped,” Baer said, “there were tons of reporters from national papers here, and everyone suspected that the kidnapper was a guy who blew himself up at the brickyard in Chilmark. But Linsey Lee in her ‘Vineyard Voices’ book interviewed the guy who found the body, and he claimed it was a bootlegger who had been killed by his competitors. In the end, the baby’s body was found in New Jersey,” Baer said. “I just enjoy doing the research.”

A case where Baer’s sleuthing paid big dividends was the story of “Stella,” which he told in a 2017 “This Was Then” column. Going through immigration records for 1917, Baer noticed a woman named Stella Ryan from Gay Head, who was making multiple trips back and forth to Nigeria. This piqued Baer’s interest: “What was a woman from Gay Head doing going back and forth to Nigeria?” he thought. By scanning old immigration records and eventually talking to Stella’s family, he uncovered the story of Stella, who had originally gone to Donga, Nigeria, to work with a missionary, formerly of the Gay Head Baptist Church. Stella would eventually fall in love with an English trader, but would die before their marriage. “Stella” turns out to be an adventure story and a love story, all because something jumped out at Baer from an old immigration record.

Baer’s columns for The Times and his book are full of fascinating and surprising stories. Three of his favorites are “The Joggins,” “Welcome and the Ape,” and the story of George Cleveland.

In 1888, a raft constructed of 24,000 logs, measuring an eighth of a mile long and informally known as the Joggins, pulled into Vineyard Haven. It was powered by two tugboats, and was delivering spruce from the Bay of Fundy to New York. “It was simply enormous,” the New York Herald reported.

In 1915, Welcome Tilton of Chilmark was working in the woods when he spotted a large animal, which at first he thought was a black bear, but there hadn’t been bears on the Vineyard for 300 years. Many sightings were reported after that, and one story was that the animal was thrown from a passing ship and swam ashore. “Remarkable stories were rife,” reported the Boston Globe.

George Cleveland of Vineyard Haven was a harpooner on a whaling ship who spent several winters in the Arctic, where apparently he made the most of his time ashore. Known there by his Inuit name, Arvagasugiaqqtut Kinguvaanginnik Qaujinasungniq, he fathered 15 children with 10 different women, and today he has over 1,000 living descendants.

Baer has published hundreds of these Vineyard historical curiosities, but he’s intrigued by the stories he hasn’t told. Recently the Martha’s Vineyard Museum asked Baer to do a talk on the untold stories on Martha’s Vineyard. As luck would have it, Baer has folders of fragments of dozens of stories that he would love to investigate.

“A gentleman in Vineyard Haven in his late 90s told me a story about college kids who used to come to the VIneyard for the summer with pet skunks on leashes, and then they’d let them loose at the end of the summer,” said Baer. “Skunks on leashes, now there’s a story!”

And dovetailing with that, Baer came across a factoid that claimed the Island used to have its own native variety of large, stripeless skunks, until they were hunted to extinction in the 1800s — they were also known as polecats or woods pussies.

“I found an article about Martha’s Vineyard having a new artificial flower factory in the 1880s, and I thought that could be interesting,” Baer said. “I also came across a picture of a shop that sold sea moss, and I thought, What was that all about?”

Baer says that anything with dead bodies can make for a good story: “There was one found in Farm Pond and another in Sunset Lake … I hope to get back to those stories.”

A seven-foot skeleton was dug up on Hines Point, and he’d love to write something on that.

“Apparently there were two sisters who became brothers,” Baer said. “They were from West Tisbury, and in the 1800s they both changed genders and went off-Island to lead normal lives. That would be a good story.”

A lot’s been written about the deaf people in Chilmark. Baer wants to track down the last deaf person who lived here; he thinks that could be interesting.

In the 1800s, Silvia Hardy lived in Maine, and was known as the tallest woman in the world. Her grandparents lived on the Island, and Baer figures there’s got to be a story there.

Same with the Adams sisters, who were dwarfs and lived on the Island — one of them married Tom Thumb. “But they were pretty famous, so I’m a little reluctant to do anything on them,” Baer said.

Where does Baer find time to track down all these Vineyard curiosities? “I’m such an armchair historian,” he said, “part by laziness, and part by practicality. I have a full-time teaching career, and a family who need me. So I do this with scraps of time at odd hours — a few minutes here or there. I rarely have time to get to the museum or the courthouse. But I love pulling stories together; researching is fun, discovering is fun.”

 

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