London, England, January 1830. A tall, very slender, and considerably deaf 40-year-old man was badgering the acclaimed English author Mary Russell Mitford, bringing her huge stacks of American magazines, and trying to talk her into a job. “With regard to the American affair,” she wrote to a confidant immediately afterward, “the man (a deaf and most disagreeable scarecrow) has been here. He makes a great point of secrecy.”
She took the job. It became “Stories of American Life; By American Writers,” a three-volume anthology of American short fiction, the first of which was published under Mitford’s name later that year. The “most disagreeable scarecrow,” whose name appears nowhere in the books, was James Athearn Jones of West Tisbury (1791–1854), one of the Vineyard’s most eccentric writers, and perhaps one of its most prolific ones as well, if only we knew exactly what he wrote.
Two years after his visit with Mitford, Jones was picked up by the police, wandering the streets of London “in a melancholy state of mental aberration,” according to news reports of the time. Upon questioning, the police found him “wild and incoherent … laboring under some kind of delusion.” He was paranoid and broke, unable to find work writing in England. “The idea was taken up by him, that there was a conspiracy amongst his countrymen to destroy him.” But that, actually, was no delusion.
The police eventually helped Jones sell the “large quantity of clothing” he had abandoned at an inn, and used the proceeds to help him buy a steerage ticket on the ship Cambria back to New York. Jones described himself as a “farmer” on the passenger manifest. His literary career in ruins, he returned to his childhood home in West Tisbury.
Jones was born in his grandparents’ home on Watcha Neck, on the border of West Tisbury and Edgartown. He had very little formal schooling. He spent his youth aboard packet ship runs to the West Indies, and operated a bumboat in Holmes Hole, selling pies, cakes, fruit, and tobacco to transient sailors anchored in the harbor. He traveled extensively — Jones claimed to have visited every state but one in the Union, and all but two of the territories. He spent time among many Native American tribes, including the Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Shawnees.
He also wrote poetry, and in 1820 he published an anonymous 92-page volume titled “Bonaparte; with The Storm at Sea, Madaline, and other Poems,” almost all of which he had written before the age of 19. His first known novel, published in 1825, was “The Refugee: A Romance,” which he released under the pseudonym, “Captain Matthew Murgatroyd, of the Ninth Continentals in the Revolutionary War.” It has since been noted as “perhaps the first appearance of New York City in American fiction.”
A complete list of Jones’ published works is very difficult to compile. Historian Charles Banks claimed Jones published a book titled “The Hunchback.” His name is attributed to an 1826 work titled “Letter to an English Gentleman on English Libels of America,” as well as to an 1823 digest of Supreme Court cases. Some have attached Jones’ name to an anonymously written series of five satirical novels published in England between 1817 and 1819, including “Reft Rob, or, The Witch of Scot-Muir, Commonly Called Madge the Snoover: A Scottish Tale,” although others have questioned this attribution. His poetry appeared anonymously alongside such notables as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in many national magazines, but often just signed “J.” His work later appeared in popular anthologies of American verse.
In the meantime, Jones moved to New York City, teaching school, dabbling in the law, and publishing poems and letters in the national press. He married his first cousin, Avis Athearn of West Tisbury. They moved to Philadelphia, where he became the editor of the short-lived National Palladium, a daily newspaper primarily dedicated to advocating for the presidential candidacy of Andrew Jackson. After the election, Jones moved to London, where in 1829 he semi-anonymously published his most famous work, “Traditions of the North American Indians, or Tales of the Indian Camp” — a collection of Native American stories he had picked up, in part, from the Wampanoag children and adults who had worked on his childhood farm in West Tisbury, as well as from his extensive travels.
While Jones undoubtedly collected and wrote most of these stories, questions began to arise about the authenticity of his authorship of a few of them. He had evidently copied four Ojibwa narratives from the published work of pioneering ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft. He also shares an extensive biography of a completely fictitious person, “M. Verdier,” in his Introduction.
So when he published his next novel, “Haverhill; or Memoirs of an Officer in the Army of Wolfe” under his own name in 1831, he was swiftly attacked in the press. The New York Evening Post wrote, “This James A. Jones is the person whose gross plagiarism in the previous work of which he styles himself the author, ‘Tales of an Indian Camp,’ we exposed in this paper … In that book, whole stories were copied boldly from American annuals, and other works, and published as his own. Whether he has pursued the same plan of authorship in ‘Haverhill,’ we do not know, but a thief, once taken in the fact, will scarcely ever after acquire much credit for honesty.”
In response, Jones privately claimed that the lack of proper attribution was due to the negligence of his publisher. He soon published a “second and revised edition” of his three-volume work, in which he cited all of his sources and rewrote the introduction to include autobiographical details of his boyhood in West Tisbury. “The recollections of my earliest childhood are of Indians,” he wrote. “My grandfather had an old Indian woman in his house for the greater part of the first 15 years of my life. Our house servants and field labourers were chiefly Indians. It was my grandfather’s custom, and had been that of his ancestors, ever since their settlement, 150 years ago, in the vicinity of the tribe, to take Indian boys at the age of 4 or 5 years, and keep them until they had attained their majority …” he began in his rewritten introduction.
But that wasn’t good enough for his critics. Schoolcraft or his friends wrote a letter to “a literary friend in London upon the subject,” and Jones soon found himself unemployable in England. Completely broke and mentally unstable, Jones returned to his childhood home in Watcha in 1832 to become a farmer like his father.
Jones found he was actually quite successful at farming, and boasted of techniques he learned in England. He acquired a 59-foot two-masted schooner named Freedom. He opened a short-lived general store on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road just outside the town center of West Tisbury. In 1833, an estimated $2,000 or $3,000 worth of silver coins were found in his fields by farm laborers, a mystery that was never satisfactorily explained.
Jones was considered eccentric, even by Island standards. One neighbor reported that Jones had “a full share of self-esteem, and a disposition fitful and variable, so that social intercourse, charming as it was sometimes, was not uniformly delightful.” His deafness became more profound as he aged. One biographer noted he was “more than a little vain.”
He still wrote letters to regional newspapers, usually about farming, like an 1842 column to the New England Farmer extolling the practice among the Vineyard’s south shore farmers of plowing eelgrass into the soil to improve corn crops. He still had the itch to write, but no book publisher would touch him.
Then he met Capt. Elisha Dexter of Holmes Hole, a former Honolulu confectioner and recent shipwreck survivor. Dexter was flat broke, but had a wild tale to tell.
To be continued.
Part two: The confectioner and the scarecrow
A deadly shipwreck leaves a captain with a dramatic story to share.
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.