Finding a mate on the Island has always had its challenges. “At Martha’s Vineyard,” wrote the Rev. Charles Brooks in 1855, “they have a particularly bad time. The island is a sea-girt. The youth cannot go a-courting elsewhere, because of the rolling billows, and so they content themselves with Marthas in the Vineyard. The island in consequence is ‘full of illustrations,’” referring to the topic of his speech, titled “Intermarriage of Blood Relations.” “Their minds are moderate; their health is feeble.”
An unsourced newspaper story circulating nationally in 1937 recalled, “Candles were used as time guides in the old days on Martha’s Vineyard island. Records reveal that when the boy friend called, he could tell how long he could stay by the length of the candle. If the candle were short and stubby, he knew he was an unwelcome guest. Inversely, a tall taper was a symbol of welcome.”
But sometimes the boyfriend was the one to be a-courted. Thirty-five-year-old sheep farmer Sam Thompson “was thought in West Tisbury to be a confirmed bachelor,” according to a 1915 Boston Globe story. Born and raised on his parents’ West Tisbury farm, where future President Chester Arthur once stopped for a drink of water, Thompson became one of the Island’s most successful 20th century sheep farmers. He was appointed West Tisbury superintendent of streets for a while, and served as an official of the Agricultural Society. He was West Tisbury’s town auditor for many years, although with an annual salary of only $1.50, he was the town’s lowest-paid official. But, as the Globe reported, “His farm is one of the best on the upper island.”
In the summer of 1914, North Tisbury cobbler Calvin Tilton stopped by Thompson’s farm with a guest: Mehitable Crapo, a visiting 30-year-old stenographer from New Bedford who was interested in animals, and, evidently, romance as well. (“There are few likable men” in New Bedford, she later quipped.) Sparks flew, and a wedding was set for January.
Thompson made extensive renovations to his farm in preparation for his wedding — he installed indoor plumbing, bought new furniture, and even purchased a piano. “The neighbors for miles around, with characteristic island exuberance, prepared to serenade the couple with kettles and pans, cowbells and revolvers,” reported the Globe.
But less than 48 hours before the ceremony, the wedding was called off by mutual consent. Crapo left the Island on the pretext of having dental work done, and didn’t return. Thompson called it “no surprise, and in fact a relief to me,” noting that “Miss Crapo had not seemed satisfied with anything,” even though he had “made every improvement about the house and on the farm.” The Fall River Globe added, “While his farm in West Tisbury looked good to Miss Crapo in summer, it didn’t appeal to her in the winter.” Thompson concluded, “I guess I can stand the embarrassment if Miss Crapo can.”
Surprisingly, the Boston Globe chose to run the story above the fold on page one. Shortly after its publication, more than 20 young women from the Boston area began writing to Thompson after reading about his failed wedding. One letter stood out to him — a note from Cambridge billing clerk Edith Godfrey — as it was mostly about music. Thompson, a first tenor at his church in Chilmark, discovered that she had a nearly identical musical taste. Her letter included the program for an upcoming church cantata in which she was to perform as a soprano soloist. Thompson attended the Boston concert, and in June they were married.
Alas, there would be much heartbreak to come. Thompson’s great-grandson, Kerry Fisher of Fairhaven, recalls learning that Edith “wasn’t particularly enamored with Island life.” His great-grandmother, he heard, “would go into town and spend large amounts of money on jewelry — thus putting him in debt.” In 1926, after 11 years of marriage, Thompson took his own life in his barn at the age of 45, leaving Edith and their two young children behind. The official record lists his cause of death as “suicide by stabbing and hanging.” Edith subsequently sold the farm and raised their children in Vineyard Haven, where she died in 1939.
Their son Richard Thompson, a budding Vineyard carpenter, enlisted the next year in the Army Air Corps, and was deployed to the Philippines. His squadron surrendered to the Japanese in the spring of 1942, and Richard died shortly afterward in the horrific forced trek that became known as the Bataan Death March. There were few happy endings for the Thompson family.
What became of Mehitable Crapo? The year after her almost-wedding to Sam Thompson, she married a blacksmith from Dartmouth. She finally found her likable man.
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 published in 2018.