This Was Then: Poison Vineyard

Rough on rats, and people, too.

This Island is full of native poisons. Black widows, water hemlock, jimsonweed, baneberry, amanita, man o’ war, and many, many others. Moshup, the legendary Wampanoag giant, smoked pokeweed rather than tobacco in some versions of his stories, exhaling a fog which envelops Nantucket to this day. (Health tip: Don’t do this. Pokeweed, too, is toxic.)

The English settlers were a venomous species as well. The Island’s native foxes, skunks, and raccoons were poisoned off by Vineyard sheep farmers and completely extirpated from the Island. (More than a century later, two out of three have returned.) The state ornithologist, visiting North Tisbury in 1915, found corn farmers waging poison warfare against armyworms. “A great deal of poisoned bran evidently had been used … the worms were said to be over a foot deep in some of the ditches,” they reported. “We saw very few birds, the inference being that the poisoned bran had poisoned the birds, or else they had been poisoned by eating the worms.”

Rodents, too, were common targets. In 1936, rat poison was incorrectly prepared at the SBS grain store on the Vineyard Haven waterfront; the resulting explosion blew out all the windows and doors and set fire to the mill.

By the turn of the 20th century, poisoning had become the leading cause of suicidal death in the U.S., and Martha’s Vineyard was not immune. Twenty-year-old Hattie Knowles of Dennisport, abandoned by her friends and family, came to Cottage City in 1885 under the name “Emily Wixon.” Destitute, she was placed by local authorities on a farm in Tisbury. Under the welfare laws of the time, the town of Dennis was financially responsible for her room and board. But when a Dennisport representative arrived on the Island to take her home, she took arsenic instead. “Her death did not come for twenty-four hours,” reported the Boston Globe, “she suffered in the meantime the most terrible agony.”

In another tragedy in 1895, 19-year-old Grace Pratt of Cottage City drank a vial labeled “belladonna” she secreted from the veterinary medicines her father, an Oak Bluffs liveryman, kept. She had been “despondent and ill,” according to the newspapers. She died within several hours.

In 1904, Anna May Strahan, a 25-year-old nurse and governess from Vineyard Haven (and daughter of renowned ex-Confederate Oak Bluffs newspaperman Charles Strahan) died from a morphine overdose, shortly after taking a job in New York City. Whether it was an accident or suicide was never determined.

Morphine abuse was a widespread problem in turn-of-the-20th-century America, and it was often difficult to distinguish accidents from suicides from homicides. In 1901, Mrs. Hattie Walker Cleveland of Vineyard Haven succumbed to a morphine overdose, but the “suspicious circumstances” surrounding her death triggered an official investigation. “Mrs. Cleveland, it is said, was living with a man not her husband, at the time of her death,” wrote the Boston Globe. (To be fair, her husband George Cleveland was at the time living with at least three women not his wife in the Canadian Arctic.) The investigation, turned over to the district attorney, was ultimately inconclusive.

Another suspicious death was the 1902 case of Harriet Jeffers of Edgartown. The cause of her demise was determined to be “mercurial poisoning,” but “suspicious circumstances” again triggered an autopsy and investigation, also inconclusive.

But not every investigation went cold. In 1889, 28-year-old Billy Benson of Chilmark was arrested for the attempted murder of his aging father, West Tisbury farmer David Benson, and stepmother, Orinda, for putting Paris Green (a highly toxic rodenticide) and arsenic in their eel chowder and in David’s whiskey. He gave a confession to police, which he later denied giving, in which he tried to implicate his stepmother in the plot. “William has been a thorn in the flesh of the aged parent for a long time,” noted the Boston Globe, “The residents of Tisbury believe William guilty of the awful charge, and say it was a common expression of the young man’s when about leaving company that he guessed ‘he would go home and see if the old man had croked.’” Benson was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 10 years in state prison. He returned to the Island, and later in life became a chauffeur and handyman for Chilmark painter Thomas Hart Benton, as well as the subject of two of Benton’s 1923 paintings, “The Yankee Driver” and “Profile of an Old Man.”

Rough on Rats, a popular brand of rat poison, was the cause of at least two tragic Vineyard incidents. William Johnson, a 30-year-old seaman, died of “arsenical poisoning” in 1899 at the Marine Hospital; the Tisbury town clerk added “Rough on Rats” in the margin. He was buried in the Marine Hospital cemetery; the circumstances of his poisoning are not recorded.

Rough on Rats was involved in at least one criminal act, though: In 1915, Isabella De Grasse, 20, of Oak Bluffs was arrested for attempting to kill her husband, Manuel. She allegedly put the arsenic-based rat poison in her husband’s cup of tea over a period of 24 days. Manuel made a living digging clams and catching fish, and Isabella sold his fish, house to house, “pulling it about in a rude little cart made of a large box set on a pair of small wheels,” according to the Boston Globe, and accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter. He became critically ill, but there’s no record of his death. She was held on $15,000 bail, and sentenced to many years in prison in Bridgewater.

In 1929, fine artist and reputed “psychic” Frederic L. Thompson of Chilmark was arrested for the attempted murder of his wife, Caroline. Mrs. Thompson testified that she had discovered that poison had been put in her food and drink, leaving her violently ill. Later, letters to Thompson’s mistress, written in hieroglyphic code, were discovered hidden in a secret chamber in their South Road house, detailing his alleged plots to feed her arsenic-laced fruit and to mail her a box of poisoned candy. Three days of court testimony ultimately ended in his acquittal, but their million-dollar suits and countersuits dragged on for years.

Taste your eel chowder with care.

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.