The first of the two Benefit brothers to arrive on Martha’s Vineyard at the turn of the last century used many names and spellings — sometimes he went by Angelo, sometimes by Eugene. His surname was recorded variously as Benfeito, Bemfeito, and Benefito, but as he could neither read nor write, he just signed his paperwork with an X. (“Bem Feito” means “well done” in Portuguese, although it is sometimes used sarcastically.) The brothers were natives of São Miguel, the largest island in the volcanic Atlantic archipelago known as the Azores.
Eugene soon found work in Edgartown as a self-employed fisherman and shellfisherman. He happened to be on the docks in Edgartown Harbor early one stormy morning in January 1910, when he was approached by Manuel Sylvia, pilot of the steamship Uncatena. Sylvia brought alarming news: the six-masted schooner Mertie B. Crowley, carrying coal to Maine, had wrecked on the shoals about three miles off Chappaquiddick (the ones which periodically coalesce to form Skiff Island). The captain of the 297-foot schooner had mistaken Edgartown Light for Block Island Light, and now 14 people were clinging to the rigging in deadly January seas and gale-force winds. The waves were estimated at 10 to 20 feet.
Sylvia asked Benefit, who was undoubtedly still learning English, to go find Levi Jackson, the captain of the 37-foot power fishing boat Priscilla, and a skilled seaman who had been involved in past rescues. And so Benefit did. Jackson gathered his three crewmen, and Benefit joined them aboard their little vessel. It took all day, but working from dories in extremely rough seas, they managed to rescue all 14 from the Crowley, one by one, from the half-sunk vessel. Benefit’s role was to remain aboard the Priscilla and pull the numb and exhausted sailors off the dories to the deck. In 1912, Benefit, together with Jackson and his three crew, was presented with the Carnegie Hero Medal for brave action. Benefit was also given a $1,000 prize toward the purchase of a home.
Eugene and his wife, Mary Packish, would raise eight children in their Edgartown home. Their second son, Henry Packish Benefit, born in 1904, became a fisherman like his father. But when he turned 23, Henry became immersed in a new craze that had begun to sweep the country after World War I: boxing. He became a professional prizefighter.
The first fight we have a record of is in November 1927, when Benefit stopped “Charlie the Greek” in half a round at the 4,000-seat Bristol Arena in downtown New Bedford. This was an era when many boxers took on a colorful nom de guerre. Benefit fought or fought on the same ticket as such prizefighters as “Dixie Kid” and “Young Pancho Villa” of New Bedford, “Honey Boy” of Provincetown, “Cyclone Antone” of Harwich, “Jimmy Valentine” of Boston, and many others, and Benefit was no exception. He fought initially under the names “Al Mello,” “Young Al Mello,” and “Al Mello Jr.” — perhaps an homage to Alfons Mello Tavares of Lowell, a Portuguese-American Olympic and professional boxer known professionally as “Al Mello” who had just won the New England welterweight title, and was actually two years younger than Benefit. But by March 1928, the young, 5-foot, 9½-inch, welterweight had dropped that nickname and was referred to simply as “Henry P. Benefit, the Marthas Vineyard fisherman” when he suffered a TKO at Bristol Arena to a Boston fighter.
In April 1928, the Boston Globe published a story, datelined Oak Bluffs and titled “Dukes County Enjoys Its First Boxing Bouts,” reporting that “More than 1,000 were present tonight at the Antlers’ Club smoker, held in Dreamland Rink, where six boxing bouts were run off for the first time in Dukes County.” It went on to add, “The anticipated match between Henry Benefit of Edgartown and Augustus Amaral of Oak Bluffs failed to materialize, as these boys were paired off against other partners because of alleged ill-feeling between them. Both boxers denied it, and went so far as to publicly shake hands in the ring tonight.” (Gus Amaral would soon go on to become Oak Bluffs Police Chief.)
There were at least two professional boxing events in Oak Bluffs the following summer, organized by Al Holmes of the Vineyard Antlers’ Club. Some of the Island’s other professional fighters of this era included Reuben “Rube” Walker and Jack Macey of Oak Bluffs, as well as George Salvadore of Edgartown. Salvadore, “the Portuguese Welterweight,” was a rising star who would eventually become the world’s third-ranking welterweight boxer, a lofty career that ended suddenly with the tragic death of his opponent Andre “the Hammer” Shelaeff in 1938.
It was apparently in an Oak Bluffs match headlined by Salvadore that Benefit first used his new nickname, “Heck,” and which remained with him in and out of the ring for the rest of his days. However, he soon also tried out a second nickname in a New Bedford match: “The Katama Wildcat.”
“Heck” Benefit continued to fight at least through 1931 — at Bristol Arena, the Fall River Casino, Brockton Arena, and perhaps elsewhere. His last fight on record was a six-round loss to “Irish Paddy” Mullins at the Brockton Arena. Later records note that Benefit suffered from a “cauliflower ear” — a permanent disfigurement common to boxers who suffer an untreated blunt trauma to the outer ear.
Benefit returned to a quieter life in Edgartown, leaving both the rink and commercial fishing for a career in house painting. He raised four children with his wife, Louise Alley (sister of Albion Alley, namesake of Alley’s General Store). In the early 1950s, the family relocated to Ohio.
They continued summering in Edgartown, however, where Benefit worked as a summer police officer for the Edgartown Police Department. Here he helped organize the annual parade, and was working for the force the summer Sen. Edward Kennedy had his infamous accident on Chappaquiddick. He also worked as a security guard for the Edgartown Yacht Club. Here, he would bring his grandchildren to see the portrait hanging in the Reading Room — the portrait of his Azorean-born father, the Edgartown hero.
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.