It’s Labor Day, 1929, at the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket Steamboat company wharf in Oak Bluffs. The last steamer has departed for the night. The terminal staff has gone home after a busy three-day weekend; 4,000 passengers passed through that day alone. A shadowy figure — or is it two? — climbs unseen over the locked gates, enters the freight shed at the end of the wharf, and smashes a door panel to gain entry to the office within. With a heavy hammer and chisel, the burglar(s) batter the safe until they manage to pry its thick door open enough to insert an explosive. The resulting blast sprays cement filling all over the office. The thieves escaped with $7,150 cash in a bold robbery that was not discovered until 7:30 the next morning.
It certainly wasn’t the first time explosives had been used on the Vineyard.
It was gunpowder that three young Holmes Hole women used to fill their boreholes in the town “liberty pole” to ignite and demolish it, in order to keep it out of the hands of the British soldiers aboard the Unicorn in 1778, if you accept that brave tale.
And it was with gunpowder that Mayhew Norton of Holmes Hole lost three fingers, and his brother Thomas badly fractured his leg, while attempting to blast a rock in 1833.
It was with gunpowder that Island whalers launched harpoons in Arctic waters during the second half of the 19th century. The first such “bomb lances,” as they were termed, were designed to be thrown in the traditional style, and then detonate upon impact. But soon, bomb lances were launched with heavy, brass shoulder guns, or from swiveling launchers mounted on the deck. When chandlers John Holmes and Abner West of Holmes Hole Neck submitted their blueprints in 1846 for a novel, flexible harpoon head with a second set of rotating barbs, becoming Martha’s Vineyard’s first patented inventors, it was the bomb lance, patented barely two months earlier, for which they designed it.
And it was gunpowder that the crew of the steamer Island Home used in 1857 when their ship became stuck in the ice at Nantucket Harbor. The men filled bottles with the powder, placed them in holes they chopped into the ice, and then dropped red-hot nails inside using lanyards.
After Alfred Nobel’s invention became available in the U.S. in the late 1860s, dynamite became a new tool with which to blow up wrecks endangering shipping — like the sunken three-masted schooner Dora M. French off Cuttyhunk, destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1894 using dynamite. Or the infamous rumrunner John Dwight, scene of the gruesome unsolved mass murder of eight men in 1923, whose cargo of unsalvaged liquor became an attractive nuisance to local “rum pirates” until it was blasted to smithereens by the authorities using four 57-pound TNT mines. Or the 1930 detonation of the tragic wreck of the steamer Kershaw, which had become a navigational menace where it sank in the shipping channel, two miles off Oak Bluffs. The first attempt to destroy the Kershaw was scuttled by anxious boat owners after two vessels with 35 tons of dynamite tied up in Oak Bluffs in November 1929. (“Fire Chief Alley ordered the boats away from the wharf when he found they had no permits to transport the explosive,” reported the Boston Herald.) But the following spring, the War Department used 18 tons of dynamite to finally eliminate the wreck. (“A cone of foaming water shot 500 feet into the air, and the sea was churned within a radius of a quarter of a mile,” reported the New Britain Herald.)
And it was dynamite that put Edgartown in the news during the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, when William Wood Jr. — perhaps the Vineyard’s richest and most powerful native — was charged with planting three caches of dynamite in Lawrence.
But the Labor Day 1929 safe heist at the Oak Bluffs steamer wharf may have been the first time explosives were used locally for criminal ends. Steamship agent Albert Clements discovered the robbery at 7:30 Tuesday morning, and soon the wharf was under police guard. Fingerprint experts were called in. No witnesses came forward. The investigation stalled.
But four weeks later, Arthur Carpenter of Vineyard Haven passed a $5 bill to a steamship employee who — by a very lucky coincidence — recognized it. The ticket clerk, Henry Rowe, had marked the bill on a sentimental whim the day of the robbery when he received it from a young woman he had become acquainted with. Carpenter, a known bootlegger, was placed into custody. Under pressure, he fingered Edward Tracey and Joseph Fisher of Providence as the men who gave him the marked bill, after Carpenter had driven them to the boat that morning.
Tracey, a 31-year-old crook originally from Brooklyn, had many aliases and a lengthy rap sheet, including a three-year stint at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta for the attempted robbery of a Post Office in Millville in 1926. (Tracey and two accomplices were caught breaking in to dynamite the safe.) Found guilty of the Oak Bluffs safe heist, Tracey was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in prison. Fisher was acquitted, but within a few years was named “Rhode Island’s Public Enemy No. 1” for his role in a brazen mail holdup gang, and soon wound up in Alcatraz for other crimes.
So when 200 pounds of dynamite went missing one night from the storehouse of Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury in the spring of 1931, local authorities took it very seriously, calling in the State Police. A lead sent officers to Woodsedge Farm in Oak Bluffs, located about where Farm Neck Golf Club is today. When they arrived, they found 26-year-old Thomas DeCosta Jr. busy blasting stumps with dynamite.
Woodsedge (or “Wood Edge”) farm was a 20-cow dairy operation owned by Frank and Susan Chase, and by 1931 managed by farmer Antone Sanchos. It was at Woodsedge that five unidentified bodies had been unearthed in 1916; judged to be post-contact Wampanoag burials, the remains were given to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology by Mrs. Chase. (Harvard University repatriated the remains to the tribe for reburial in 2003.) And it was from Woodsedge that two young men — 16-year-old Richard Webb and 22-year-old John Lewis, Sanchos’ nephew — went missing in 1929. They turned up dead in five feet of water two days later in Sengekontacket, presumed capsized in their little fishing skiff. It was perhaps due to this tragedy that DeCosta was hired as a farm hand, having previously lived and worked with his father at Seven Gates.
It soon became clear that DeCosta had been hired to clear land at Woodsedge for Sanchos, but had simply found the digging too slow. But he was met with little leniency by Judge Walsh; charged with breaking and entering, larceny, and unlawful transportation of dynamite without a permit, DeCosta was sentenced to six months in the Dukes County House of Corrections.
1931 was a year for a number of other curiously explosive incidents. It was that fall that mysterious Russian-born inventor Vladimir Messer, bound with dynamite and dry cell batteries, died in a gory explosion in a remote gully of Roaring Brook in an act that wasn’t discovered until the following spring, when three boys found his foot. It was also the year that thousands of mackerel, flounder, squid, and cod were found dead off Middle Rip. While poaching fish with dynamite was not unheard-of — Norman Benson once wrote about using a stick of dynamite to catch over a hundred pounds of menhaden in James Pond during World War II — alarmed fishermen suspected mass poaching with explosives, and demanded that the federal government investigate before the whole industry was ruined. The cause was never fully determined, but the head of the U.S. Fisheries station in Woods Hole tentatively concluded that “the slaughter was the result of unscrupulous use of dynamite by some fisherman,” according to the Boston Globe.
And that September, a second nighttime safe break was reported in Oak Bluffs, this one at the Eastville Inn, on the corner of Temahigan and Eastville Avenues, where the hospital stands today.
An ancient Eastville landmark, the inn was originally a tavern catering to visiting mariners (among them, most famously, was Capt. James Lawrence, who would later utter his oft-quoted phrase, “Don’t give up the ship!” as he lay dying in the War of 1812.) But by the 20th century, the inn was frequented mainly by summer visitors from Brooklyn, and offered miniature golf, croquet, a private beach, and masquerade balls. (One 1918 dance here was described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as featuring “strangely feminine men, and obviously masculine bathing girls,” dancing gaily together.) For many years the inn was run by hatmaker Frank Newcomb, former assistant postmaster of Brooklyn, and later by his widow Abbie and daughter Florence, all Brooklyn residents. Gale Huntington would later describe it as “the oldest hostelry on the Island.”
But by 1931, the 24-room inn was being managed (and later would be purchased by) restaurateur Charles Foster, a Brooklyn native who ran a tearoom in the off-season in Nutley, N.J. When the staff couldn’t open the safe on a Tuesday before Labor Day, Foster called in local plumber Jack Hughes to cut the door open. They found the safe empty, the combination changed, and the mechanism literally gummed up with chewing gum. That day Foster was mailed a package postmarked in Providence, containing $700 in uncashable stolen checks and money orders. The thieves kept $531 in cash, and were evidently never caught.
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.