This Was Then: Charlie Bell

Unraveling the truth about a volatile Main Street barber.


He was known by everyone as “Charlie Bell” (and in his Vineyard property deeds as “Charles A. Bell”), but that, it turns out, was just his alias.

“Charlie was a sight to behold,” recalled the late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven, “strolling the Main Street with a derby hat and cane, light-colored spats, and a carnation in his jacket buttonhole. Always smoking a large cigar. He drove an Auburn.”

“He wasn’t too well-liked; he could be mean,” recalled George Baptiste in a 1999 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “Never was married. He was like crippled. He talked broken English.”

“He owned the building and ran the barber shop where Bert the Barber is today,” recalled Basil Welch in a 1981 interview. “I don’t know what he ever called the barbershop, just ‘the barbershop,’ I guess — ‘Charlie Bell’s,’ it was known as. He had a few rooms, a couple of rooms upstairs and a couple in the back, and he called the place the ‘Hotel Plaza.’ Charlie was a big man, and he talked with a very strong Italian accent, you could hardly understand him. He smoked big cigars. And on Sundays he used to stand out in front of his place all day long, all dressed up, with white flannel pants which [were] cream-colored, spats on, blue coat with a pink carnation in the buttonhole, and he was a real fashion playboy, although he was about 20 years behind the time, he was quite a fashion playboy. God, he used to scare the devil out of the kids and all, the way he’d holler at ’em and wave the scissors around in his hand. He was a nice fella, though; I guess he never bothered anybody.”

“Charlie Bell” mysteriously arrived in Vineyard Haven in the winter of 1928–29, and was a Main Street fixture for the next 15 years. He initially advertised his services as “barber and dancing master” before dropping the dance studio and becoming a hotel proprietor in addition to cutting hair. His two hotel rooms, both located over the barbershop, were numbered 201 and 202.

In 1931, Bell was charged with burning down the home he rented from Eben Bodfish. The long and elaborate list of clothes and fancy foods which he submitted to the insurance company evidently triggered the investigation. He was ultimately acquitted of both arson and defrauding the insurance company.

He crossed the law again in January 1937, when he was charged with assaulting — and attempting to shoot — competing Main Street barber Billy Andrews. The charges were eventually dismissed, but a few months later, Bell charged two boys with disturbing the peace, claiming that “Billy Andrews sent them.” Later that year, Bell was charged with assaulting and beating 21-year-old Lewis King of Vineyard Haven. On this charge, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
An outspoken Democrat in a town that was heavily Republican at the time, Bell was well-remembered for his bold political screeds in the barbershop. But when he was overheard speaking in praise of Mussolini early in the Second World War, the F.B.I. reportedly made an investigation, but found nothing to act upon. (A recent FOIA request to the F.B.I. turned up blank. “We were unable to identify records subject to the FOIPA that are responsive to your request,” responded the F.B.I. to my query.)

Bell was mysteriously vague about his years before arriving on the Island. He claimed to have spent time in Egypt and Florida, and exhibited “ghastly wounds,” which he attributed to his service in the First World War. (Spoiler: They weren’t.) It wasn’t until his death in 1944 that more details became known.

His real name, it turns out, was Giuseppe Del Toro or Deltore. Although he claimed to have been born in “Leghorn” (today known as the city of Livorno on the west coast of Tuscany), records suggest he was actually Sicilian, born in Acireale, outside the Sicilian city of Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna. He emigrated from Palermo to New York City in 1909, then appeared as a “dancing teacher” on Tremont Street in Boston in 1913. He soon found work cutting hair as well, keeping a residence in Boston and working for a barber in Windsor, Vt. He anglicized his first name to “Joseph.”

In June 1917, two months after the U.S. entered the First World War, the 27-year-old barber registered for the draft in Boston. In September his name was selected, and by the beginning of October he was on his way to Camp Devens in Ayer — a training and mobilization center that had opened just one month earlier. Deltore was assigned to G Company in the 301st Infantry.

But Deltore was no easy draftee. He “objected to various sorts of work,” according to a newspaper report, and was transferred to another company, where he threw a mess kit at a sergeant, resulting in assault charges. For insubordination, he was assigned to kitchen duty, and his weekend leaves were revoked. But he never even began his punishment, for on Oct. 13, he deserted altogether, stopping briefly in Brockton to mail his uniform back to his captain via parcel post before departing for parts unknown.

A countrywide search ensued, by both “federal and Secret Service men.” Deltore was described by newspapers up and down the East Coast as “the first real deserter from the ranks of the New England division of the National Army,” and the “first deserter from Camp Devens.” “Desertion from the army during war is punishable with death,” many newspapers noted.

Two years passed with no sightings. The war ended. Then, in October 1919, a suspect was identified, working as a barber in Charleston, S.C., having recently arrived from Augusta, Ga. “It is alleged that he assumed the name of Charley Bell here,” reported the Charleston Evening Post. Charley Bell’s appearance and fingerprints matched deserter Joseph Deltore’s.

“A plea of insanity was offered by the defense when his case was first tried,” continued the Post. “The Army authorities ordered him to Fort McPherson [in Atlanta] for an examination, but while on his way, he escaped by jumping from the train. He was subsequently recaptured.” A court-martial ensued, and he was sentenced to 18 months of confinement at Fort Jay in New York, “his conviction and sentence concluding a case that was of unusual interest.”

His whereabouts between the time of his release and the reappearance of “Charlie Bell” in Vineyard Haven in 1928 have not been learned, although there was a bootlegger by the name of Joseph Torre who operated in Agawam and elsewhere in New England whose identity can’t be ruled out.

“Haircut, 15 cents, I guess, years ago, and they shaved you, too,” recalled Colson Mitchel in a 2000 interview with Lee. “Charlie Bell in Vineyard Haven, remember him? The barber. On Main Street in Vineyard Haven. But he was so slow. You went there, it would be two hours before you got your haircut. He’d say, ‘That look all right? That look all right?’ You was in there hours, but he was a good haircutter.”

“I liked him. He was … Aren’t we all odd sometimes? I guess so,” recalled the late Ralph Look of Vineyard Haven. “Nice dresser. Right up to the minute. There wasn’t any grass growin’ under him.”

“I remember going in there once,” recalled Lair. “I had a wart on the back of my neck. I was getting a haircut. He says, ‘You want me to take that off?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t know what he was gonna do. He was behind me, and I couldn’t see what he was doing. All of a sudden I heard him strike a match, one of these wooden matches. He blew it out, and he took and wiped that wart right off the back of my neck with that hot match. And it worked — it never came back. But today I don’t think any barber or anyone else would dare to do a thing like that. Chance for a suit or something, if something went wrong.”

Bell also handled incoming telegrams to Vineyard Haven when the Western Union office next door was closed. He had an alarm that went off when telegrams arrived.

Upon Bell’s death in 1944 at the age of 54, Bell’s Main Street barbershop was taken over by another young Italian immigrant — Humberto Colaneri, who emigrated from Molise to Fall River in 1922, and would reopen the business as Bert’s Barber Shop.

Per Bell’s wishes, the proceeds of the sale of his estate were donated to charity in his memory. (His executor, Steven C, Luce Jr., chose the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.)

Thanks to Justin Baer for additional research on this story.

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.