This Was Then: Lost graves of Martha’s Vineyard

Some of the Vineyard’s most legendary graves are nowhere to be found.


Jonathan Tilton, here he lies, 
Nobody laughs and nobody cries; 
Where he’s gone and how he fares, 
Nobody knows and nobody cares.

Jonathan Tilton (1770–1837) of Tisbury was described by author Charles Hine as “one of the odd characters who lived at the head of the Lagoon in days gone by.” He was unmarried, and his three brothers had all died before reaching the age of 25 (his brother Elisha was killed while imprisoned during the Revolution; his brother Francis at sea; his younger brother Eliakim in the West Indies). As he approached his 60s, Tilton agreed to give his property to a relative in Chilmark in exchange for his care. But Tilton, according to Hine, was “a crusty old bachelor.” It was said that he stored his engraved gravestone and his coffin under his bed.

Tilton reportedly wrote his own epitaph, but there is a discrepancy as to what the epitaph actually read. Some quote the bleak verse above; others quote the following, equally uncomfortable, lines:

Here lies the body of Jonathan Tilton, 
Whose friends reduced him to a skeleton. 
They wronged him out of all he had, 
And now rejoice that he is dead.

This second rhyme, quoted by Hine in 1908, appeared in the syndicated column “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” twice, in 1966 and 1974, as “Epitaph of Jonathan Tilton, Chilmark, Mass.” The first verse was referenced as early as 1871, and recited with relish into the 20th century by Chilmarkers old enough to have remembered Jonathan Tilton.

Hine claimed in 1908 that Tilton’s epitaph, whatever it was, “wore out in a single night, so ’tis said” after his death. And while a collection of Chilmark cemetery records published in 1904 suggests that his grave marker could then still be found in Chilmark (presumably Abel’s Hill Cemetery), the headstone’s whereabouts is unknown today.

One famous stone still exists, even if the location of the grave itself is less than certain. Sometime in the 1830s, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Holmes Hole (which he described as “a rather shabby-looking town.”) He wrote, “In a ramble, one Sabbath afternoon, we came to a secluded spot, hidden among the surrounding hills, and found three grave stones, of which the inscriptions were not likely to be often read.” Historian Charles Banks would later describe it as “a little enclosure on the heights overlooking the harbor of Vineyard Haven, back of the U. S. Marine Hospital.”

But Hawthorne found one of them worth reading: a 1770 stone memorializing a newly married couple, John and Lydia Claghorn, aged 24 and 23:

John and Lydia, 
That Lovely Pair
A Whale kill’d Him,
Her Body lies here.

But where’s “here” exactly? The cemetery, which was somewhere in the vicinity of Skiff Avenue, held more than a dozen graves, some dating to as early as 1760. For reasons forgotten, the gravestones were moved across town to Oak Grove Cemetery in April 1919, right around the time much of “Mount Aldworth” was being built upon by developers. Did they move the graves or just the stones?

The epitaph of 11-year-old John Ferguson (1777–1787) of West Tisbury has attracted much attention over the years. It reportedly read:

The oil of vitriol he did taste
Which caused his vitals for to waste 
And forced him to retire again
Unto the earth from whence he came. 

“Oil of vitriol” — an archaic term for concentrated sulphuric acid — was used by the up-Island fulling mills in the preparation of locally woven woolen cloth. According to author Joe Allen in his 1938 book “Tales and Trails,” young Ferguson, while “visiting the mill, found a bottle which he believed contained liquor of some sort, and which he sampled. It was vitriol, used in shrinking the cloth, and the boy’s death immediately followed.”

A crumbling stone marked “John Ferguson” is all that apparently remains of this stone in the West Tisbury Village Cemetery, located next to his father’s. His famous epitaph appears to be long gone.

Stories of another unusual epitaph have made the rounds since at least 1833. It is attributed to an old grave on West Chop near the lighthouse (although it may well predate it; the first lighthouse was built here in 1817).

Three brothers (or in some tellings, two friends) set out in a small fishing sloop (or, alternately, taking shelter under a cedar tree) when the men (either from Holmes Hole, or heading for it) were killed, when their boat capsized (or, some say, when they were struck by a bolt of lightning.) They were interred in a single grave, marked, in some tellings, by a cedar pole. Their friends prepared a gravestone but were unable to agree on an epitaph. An old woman from Holmes Hole (in some tales, the boys’ grandmother) volunteered the lines that were ultimately chosen.

A dozen variations of the epitaph have been reported, but most go something like this:

Three brothers a fishing went
Who were never known to wrangle
Holmes’ Hole,
Cedar Pole,
Crinkle, crinkle, crangle.

The rhyme varies widely in the retelling. Some end it in “Stringle, strangle”; some throw a conveniently rhyming name in, like “Jerry Cole” or “Crandall.” In 1898, the New York Times described zigzag lines engraved next to the epitaph, which together with the last line were intended to suggest an electrifying event. An 1861 report in Harper’s Magazine described the stone as “fallen … the letters are nearly obliterated.”

The whereabouts of this stone, like so many others, is unknown today. Unto the earth, perhaps, from whence it came.

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.