This Was Then: Tallman’s octagon

Tragedy and charity begat a new Island character.


Henry Beetle Hough, in his 1936 book “Martha’s Vineyard, Summer Resort,” listed the Island’s five most colorful, outward-facing characters of the late 19th century: a “bell ringer at the camp meeting,” “a somewhat mad woman with her hens,” “Blind Nathan Athearn from North Tisbury who went about with a green market basket calling, ‘Bananas — rousers!’” “Henry Collins, the popcorn man, able to repeat reams of scripture and the multiplication tables backward, full of exact information about past dates and personages,” and “a sailor crippled in a shipwreck” — Charles Tallman of Cottage City. These five folks, suggests Hough, were both “exploited” and did “exploit themselves … as picturesque attractions of the resort.”

Tallman, whose two feet and 10 fingers had all been amputated, was a fixture of downtown Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs) in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s. He may have been the character listed under the heading “Peculiarities of Martha’s Vineyard” in an 1881 New York Herald article (following a passage about Nancy Luce and her hens): “There is an aged cripple who rides about in a diminutive cart drawn by a comical little donkey, who goes as he pleases, much to the delight of the boys and girls who fondle and spoil him. The donkey is a character, and displays an amount of sagacity which is astonishing in an animal usually believed to be the most stubborn creature that goes on four legs.”

Every summer, Tallman sold fruit, candy, cigars, souvenirs, and peanuts — some 85 bushels of them in 1877 alone — from his tiny octagonal shop on Oak Bluffs Avenue.

Charles Steward Tallman (1824–99) was a Rhode Island native, but had moved to New Bedford with his widowed mother at the age of 8. When he turned 14, he went to sea. He shipped on the whaler Rodman in 1840, followed by voyages on the Caroline, the Hercules II, the bark Maria, and others. By 1856, he had relocated to Osterville, in Barnstable, and was soon married with children.

On Jan. 7, 1866, Tallman was serving as mate of the schooner Christiana, bound for Boston from New York with a load of cement when it was overcome by what became known as the Blizzard of ’66, a storm later said to have destroyed 20 ships and taken the lives of 100 seamen. The Christiana was wrecked on Hawes Shoal, a mile or two off Cape Poge.

Stranded, Tallman endured five days of intense cold and high winds, without food, drink, or sleep. The captain and crew perished one by one, until only Tallman remained, clinging to the ice-covered rigging, where he would spend three days and three nights. The lightkeeper at Cape Poge had spotted the wreck through his glass during a partial clearing of the storm shortly after the wreck, but due to the life-threatening sea conditions, aid was unable to arrive until nearly five full days after the accident.

Tallman’s harrowing story of survival has been told by many authors, earning whole chapters in Edward Rowe Snow’s 1958 book “Great Sea Rescues and Tales of Survival” (in a chapter titled “Mate Tallman’s Unbelievable Escape”) and Arthur Roth’s 1983 book “Against Incredible Odds” (a chapter titled “Human Icicle”).

Upon his rescue, all of Tallman’s frozen fingers were amputated up to the first knuckles, and he lost both feet as far as his ankles. Treated initially in Edgartown, within the first week his care was transferred to the “port physician,” Dr. William Leach of Holmes Hole. Barely a week after he was rescued, Vineyarders raised and presented Tallman with a gift of $108.

In May, a Fall River newspaper reported, “Mr. Chas. Tallman, of the ill-fated wreck Christiana, has so far recovered as to be enabled to travel about with the aid of two canes. — Under the skillful treatment of the port physician, William Leach, M.D., of Tisbury, he has progressed to a recovery even beyond the most sanguine expectations.” It might be hypothesized that Tallman’s celebrity patient status helped spur the establishment of the U.S. Marine Hospital in September 1866, founded by Dr. Leach barely four months after Tallman’s discharge.

Tallman returned to New Bedford, where, forced to retire from the sea, he opened a variety store. Nevertheless, Tallman remained a Vineyard celebrity. In the summer of 1874, according to Hough, eight years after his accident, the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. presented Tallman with the gift of a small octagonal building at the center of town. At the start of the 1875 season, Cottage City’s short-lived Seaside Gazette newspaper, announced, “Charles S. Tallman, the crippled sailor who occupies the little octagon building near the Sea View, has arrived on the Island, and awaits the trade he so deservedly merits. Patronize him.” And so they did.

Tallman spent his winters in New Bedford, where he still maintained his other store off-season. He lived with his wife Aurelia (who found seasonal work as a Cottage City cook), their three children, and his elderly mother, Hannah. (Hannah, who lived to be almost 102, was described in 1881 as “a very strong, robust woman, being able to lift a full barrel of cider and drink from the bunghole.” She stayed with Tallman’s sister when he went to Cottage City each summer.)

There are many octagonal buildings in Oak Bluffs; some extant, others demolished. Among our surviving eight-sided structures are the Tabernacle, Union Chapel, and a cottage on Dorothy West Avenue. Those lost include the Baptist Temple, the Pagoda, and the old Preacher’s Stand which predated the Tabernacle (and later moved to become a trolley waiting station). There were also a series of small octagonal decorative gazebos erected over the public water pumps in town — in Montgomery Square, Washington Park, and Wesley Park. Joseph Warren kept a small octagonal stand on the boardwalk in Commonwealth Square, where he sold photographs. There are also at least eight cottages across town with octagonal cupolas or attached wings. At the heart of the massive skating rink (later the Casino) on North Bluff was once an octagonal rink surrounded by rows of seats for some 1,000 spectators. Although most of Cottage City was built in an era when octagonal architecture was still something of a New England fad, Oak Bluffs seemed to take octagons to another level.

Tallman became “a character, a part of resort life,” according to Hough. “He was an institution which gave color to the season, and helped to thread one season more closely upon another.” He kept his summer business going as late as 1897, when he was well into his 70s.

The fate of Tallman’s octagon is not clear; its history is often conflated with that of the neighboring Boston Herald news kiosk (later the Old Variety store). Tallman’s eight-sided store appears to have traded locations with the news kiosk by 1892, and may have survived into the early 20th century.

The wreck of the Christiana remains a mystery. Veteran wreck diver Arne Carr of Oak Bluffs writes, “The only wreckage I observed that may relate to the Christiana was the large piece of hull, probably a side of the hull that was about 80 feet long, that was ashore on the east side of Chappaquiddick. This was the piece that a truck ran over and blew three tires. I did two searches for the Christiana. Joe Costa and I flew over the site and saw the wreckage from the air; I had seen it before while flying about that area. I did a search by boat and didn’t locate or dive the wreckage. If I spent more time, I probably would have found it …”

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.