This Was Then: Laura Johnson

‘The real, real selectman.’


She dressed in men’s clothing. She was openly gay. And she ran this town during the 1930s and ’40s.

“Laura Johnson [was] the real, real selectman behind the scenes, out of the express office, with her mannish sweater and her tie, and her hair pulled back, and her swivel chair and all the papers. She was running this town,” recalled Dorothy Brickman in a 2000 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “I used to love to go down there.”

Laura Martina Johnson (1884–1948) was a Vineyard Haven native born to Danish immigrants Niels Martinus and Christiana Johnson. Her father Niels (who sometimes went by “Martin”) was a cobbler, emigrating from Nørresundby, Denmark, to Vineyard Haven in 1872. He became a custom bootmaker for Main Street shoeman Sherman Meara, then a harnessmaker for the Crocker Harness Co. (located where the stone bank building stands today).

The Johnsons were evidently quite close with the other Danish family in town — the Swain family. Johan Andreas Skjön had been an Island mariner since 1830 when he arrived in Holmes Hole and adopted the name “John Swain.” The Swain and Johnson families eventually shared common real estate interests around town, and Laura’s younger brother John bore the middle name “Swain.”

Laura left the Island at the turn of the century to attend business school, and after returning to Vineyard Haven worked as a grocery store bookkeeper. She also handled collections for the Vineyard Haven Gas Co., an acetylene gas supplier located off Norton Avenue. By 1907, she was working for the Public Telephone Co., a private, Island-wide telephone service run by Dr. Charles Lane, which attempted to directly compete with Ma Bell. (It was located in Lane’s Block, today the site of Leslie’s Pharmacy.) Laura also briefly worked as a railroad telegrapher in Fairhaven. But by 1920, her brother John found work as an agent at the Adams Express office in Vineyard Haven, and very soon afterward, Laura did, too. She would remain Vineyard Haven’s best-known express agent for the next 26 years.

The express office was located on Main Street, across from the Mansion House, where Moonstone Jewelers was located until 2017. An express office had been located here for decades, even before the great fire of 1883 reduced our downtown district to ashes. Known as Peakes Express before the fire, it afterward became a branch of New Bedford’s Hatch & Co. Express, which worked in conjunction with the Old Colony Rail Road to deliver packages and steamer trunks across New England, much in the way UPS or Cape Cod Express operates today. By about 1906, it changed hands again to become a branch of the nationwide Adams Express company.

Everett Allen, an author and journalist for the New Bedford Standard-Times who grew up in Vineyard Haven, wrote about Johnson in a 1982 syndicated column: “She would open her office cheerfully at virtually any hour of day or night to satisfy a need. She handled shipments of everything from baggage and meats to live baby chicks and a couple of burros.”

“Laura Johnson knew everything in town,” recalled Brickman; “she knew everything in town. She knew all the town affairs and everything that was going on. The whole town used to rotate around her desk in there, I think. She knew everything, and she was a very powerful lady in town.”

One detail that everyone from that era clearly recalled was this: Laura wore men’s clothing. “Laura was very masculine in her dress and everything,” recalled Betty Honey, in another interview with Lee. “She always wore a skirt, but she always wore a man’s shirt and a necktie and a jacket,” recalled Basil Welch in a 1981 recording.

Allen continues in his column, “A woman of slight build and great candor, Laura exuded forcefulness, even in silence. She wore skirts with pockets, into which she hooked her thumbs; she strode through life with feeling but without fear, chin first. Her humor was laconic and memorable; she told this anecdote of herself: When young, she was an adroit ‘brass pounder,’ fast and accurate with the telegraph key that sent company business messages in Morse code. One day, back in the horse era, she walked past a couple of men standing next to a hitching bar, made of pipe. One of them tapped on the pipe with an iron ring, in Morse: ‘Peculiar looking woman.’ Laura walked to the next hitching bar, tapped back: ‘You’re right,’ and proceeded on her way, without even looking back.”

About 1930, the business changed hands yet again, and became a branch of American Railway Express (later shortened to “Railway Express”). Laura and her brother moved the office to Union Street, to an old building owned by John Swain’s son, former Tisbury selectman George Swain. (It was later a poolroom operated by Clarence Ward, and in more recent memory, a bike shop. Today it is occupied by Mad Martha’s.)

“She was a real unusual person in town,” continued Brickman. “She was kind of the office manager for the express company where Mad Martha’s ice cream is, going down to the boat. That’s where they were, the express office was. And she used to hold court. She knew she ran the town from that office. Her hair was up. She’s a very strict lady; I loved her though. I’d go down there Saturday mornings and just sit around there.”

Laura made her home in a small house that she shared with her mother Christiana. One of the oldest houses in town, it is located at the bottom of the little lane connecting William Street to South Main Street. “We always called it Laura Johnson’s Lane,” recalled Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven; “it’s actually Camp Street.”

After Christiana’s death in 1928, Laura shared her home with her partner, Edith James, (1876–1965), known about town as “Miss James.” James came to the Vineyard from Pennsylvania in the 1920s, and worked as a clerk at the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank. “We never speculated,” recalled Betty Honey in an interview with Lee, referring to the open secret of Johnson’s sexual orientation and her “live-in friend.” “It was not a thing you talked about.” Johnson and James would ultimately be buried together in the Johnson family plot in Vineyard Haven. “She was a force of nature, according to family lore. She was an out lesbian at a time when that was not easy to be,” remarks the Rev. Greta MacRae of Plymouth, related to the family by marriage.

When the Second World War broke out, Johnson was instrumental in forming an Island branch of the USO, of which she became the chairman. Located in the northern end of Cronig’s block, which Colinsky’s department store had recently occupied, the USO put on dances and screened films for servicemen. In the summer of 1942, Johnson was able to recruit her good friend Katharine Cornell and renowned Hollywood star Gregory Peck to perform a benefit show for the USO at the Tisbury School titled “Kit Cornell’s Jamboree,” a performance which was warmly remembered for years afterward.

Johnson retired from the express business in 1946, working briefly afterward as an office manager for Carter’s Appliance Center (later Shirley’s Hardware).

By the fall of 1947, 63-year-old Johnson was in and out of the hospital, slowly succumbing to terminal stomach cancer. Meanwhile, Cornell had opened her Tony awardwinning play “Antony and Cleopatra” on Broadway. Cornell chartered a plane to fly Johnson to New York to see a performance from a specially prepared box seat. “The play was the most marvelous thing I ever saw,” she reportedly said afterward, flying home two days later. They were her first and last plane flights; Johnson died the following spring. Her obituary described her as “perhaps the best-known woman in Dukes County.”

Allen describes Johnson as a “hero” in his 1982 column. “Laura, whose peanut brittle I have eaten, would not thank me for suggesting that she was of heroic proportions, but she was, essentially because of overwhelming spirit that knew no insurmountable barriers … I ask for the betterment of America and the world not more William Tells but more Laura Johnsons. And more Katharine Cornells, for that matter.”

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.



  1. Great woman! Great story, Chris! I have fond memories of Kit Cornell, Nancy Hamilton, and Mary Martin in our old shop on Water Street! The Vineyard has quite a history of strong women!

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