This Was Then: Frog Alley Hospital

Maritime health care Down the Neck.


On July 19, 1855, Ferdinand Weinreicke, a 19-year-old Newburyport resident and Prussian native, was working as a crewman aboard the schooner Chas. H. Rogers. The vessel was headed to Newburyport from Philadelphia with a cargo of coal. About six miles ESE of Block Island, Weinreicke slipped and fell from the main masthead to the deck.

The captain put in at a port they frequented regularly: Holmes Hole, or more precisely the deep-water wharf a little to the north, in a little hamlet known informally as Frog Alley or Down the Neck. But the good doctors of the port could not save him; the sailor’s body was interred in a woodland burial lot near the modern intersection of Daggett Avenue and North William Street. Weinreicke is not the only sailor buried there, it’s believed, although only his gravestone remains visible today.

There was not one, but rather two competing villages on the Western shores of our harbor before the turn of the 20th century — Holmes Hole (later known as Vineyard Haven) and little Frog Alley. Until Union Wharf was built in 1835, the wharf on “the Neck” was the principal entry to the Vineyard. The Neck had its own store (run for many years by John Holmes and Abner West), a school (the North District School, at the bottom of what’s now Hatch Road), a graveyard, a church (of sorts), a tavern (reportedly), and a short-lived industry: the Daggett Saltworks. And up until 1866, there was even a marine hospital — albeit a very rudimentary one — at Frog Alley.

There were at least two earlier hospitals on the Island. Dr. Samuel Gelston opened the first one in 1763 — an experimental smallpox inoculation hospital somewhere in Tisbury, which he eventually moved to Gravelly Island, a now-vanished islet off Nantucket that was once part of Edgartown.

The island’s second hospital was funded in 1798 and opened in 1800 — it was actually only the second U. S. Marine Hospital built anywhere — at the bottom of what’s now Shirley Avenue in Oak Bluffs, about where the Lobster Hatchery is today. It was designed, as the original petition put it, “for the Reception of Such Sick Seafaring men as frequently arrive at the harbour of Holms hole with the Small Pox and other Contagious Distempers who Cannot always git received on Shore by reason of the great Difficulty in gitting houses theefor.” Unfortunately, the facility was discontinued by the early 1820s, and was afterward occupied by presumed former nurse and seine-knitter George (“Daddy”) Richardson, remembered mostly for how he could recite the Bible from memory at great length until somebody would “drop an extinguisher on him in the shape of a lustily sung hymn or other diversion,” recalled Charles Hine.

Upon its closing, the port’s medical services reverted to an old system in which patients were boarded out by a local physician for a stipend. And by 1822, townsfolk were again petitioning Congress “to erect a Hospital in this Town for the reception of Distressed Seamen or … Seamen that may be landed here destitute of the means of Support.” (In 1826, the town also voted for the Overseers of the Poor to “Hire a House to put all the Poor in.”)

About 1828, Dr. Richard Sweet (1801–41) of Edgartown was appointed “Physician of the Marine Hospital at Holmes’s Hole, in Tisbury” — although whether that was an actual hospital, or simply a title and responsibility, is unclear. He reportedly held that position until 1831. In 1835, Tisbury selectman John P. Norton was paid $559 in “hospital money” from the federal Marine Hospital Fund, of which he spent just $101 to care for sick and injured sailors. In 1836, there was a fresh petition to establish a formal Marine Hospital at Holmes Hole. “We understand that several sick and destitute seamen have recently been landed at Holmes’ Hole, and are now living on the charity of the worthy citizens of that place,” wrote the New Bedford Mercury in an editorial skewering the opponents of the movement to establish a new Marine Hospital on the Island.

The position of “Port physician” seemed to be an ever-changing appointment, usually an office held by doctors located in distant Edgartown or West Tisbury (to the anger of those in Holmes Hole and Frog Alley), and presumably swayed by politics near and far. Much of the actual responsibility of medical care in the harbor was likely left to professionals closer to the port.

And Holmes Hole was home to many doctors during the mid-1800s. Dr. Leroy Yale served the village throughout the 1830s and ’40s, caring for locals as well as visitors — patients like sailor Henry Cooper of Pittston, Maine, “who landed sick with fever” in 1836, we learn from his journal, as well as James Evans, seaman of the brig Sea Island, “sick with a low Bilious fever” the same year; Capt. Towne of the ship Corvo of Calcutta, who had “broken his leg eight days previous to his arrival” in 1834; and an unnamed sailor aboard the brig Tecumseh of Boston, “who fell from aloft on the 14th + broke his thigh + dislocated his shoulder” in 1841.

But Dr. Yale died at the age of 47 from “ship fever” (typhus) in 1849, reportedly from a ship loaded with Irish immigrants bound for Boston that stopped at Holmes Hole seeking urgent medical aid. Upon his death, his widow, Maria Allen (Luce) Yale, evidently took up his practice, as she is listed in the 1855 Tisbury census as a “female physician.” But Doctress Yale moved with her children to Brooklyn a few years later.

There was Dr. Moses Brown (1818–99), who opened his practice here about 1849. He maintained a drugstore in downtown Holmes Hole, where he advertised a wide variety of so-called medicines like “Ironized Wine,” “Pure Sherry,” “Medicated Ale,” “Good Sweet Malt,” and “XX Ale,” in addition to mysterious concoctions like “Mrs. Allen’s Independent Clairvoyant Life Preserver.” He also sold newspapers and magazines, and eventually even published his own short-lived monthly health magazine titled “How to Live and Breathe.” In 1854, Dr. Brown tried, evidently unsuccessfully, to obtain the medical services contract for this port from the U.S. Marine Hospital Service.

There was Dr. Ralph K. Jones (1823–88), who came to Holmes Hole around the same time as Dr. Brown. He practiced medicine here for eight years, although he thought of himself as more of a specialist in “uterine diseases” than as a general practitioner. He published two papers during his time in Holmes Hole: “Case of Stone in the Bladder of a Child” and “Foreign Bodies retained for 16 years in the neighborhood of the Vagina” (1856), which involved the aftermath of a painful accident “Mrs. I.W.” of Holmes Hole suffered in 1839 upon falling atop a wooden clothes frame. Dr. Jones and his new wife, Octavia Norris, lived in the Norris family home, about where Mardell’s Gift Shop is today, which they obtained after her mother was struck dead by lightning while sitting with friends in her parlor in 1851.

There was Dr. John Gore Johnson (1825–96), who practiced in Holmes Hole from late 1864 or so until about 1869. He had been working in Millbury when he was called by the U.S. Army to serve as an assistant surgeon in the Civil War. The Army stationed him in New Berne, N.C., where he provided key testimony in a court-martial involving the shooting of an unarmed Black man by drunken white soldiers. Dr. Johnson resigned after 10 months of service due to his poor health, and was drawn to the healthy air of Holmes Hole, where he was remembered as serving as the “Port physician,” and keeping a drug store on Main Street. He later moved his practice to Taunton, where he was listed as an “Eclectic Physician.”

There were other Holmes Hole doctors during this period, too — like Dr. George Hough, who practiced here on and off throughout the 1860s before finally moving to New Bedford. And Dr. Daniel A. Cleveland, who first practiced as an “allopathic” physician in Holmes Hole from 1857 to ’59 before settling in West Tisbury.

But the original problem remained — when a sick seafarer landed with smallpox or some other “Contagious Distemper,” there was a shortage of homes in which to house them, even for a generous stipend. Nobody wanted a stranger with smallpox in their home. A hospital was still needed.

And so by about the 1850s, there was evidently “a private hospital for sick mariners” established somewhere on Main Street, Down the Neck, near modern Owen Little Way, less than 1,000 feet from where Weinreicke is buried on Daggett Ave. It was not an official U.S. Marine Hospital, but it fulfilled the same purpose. Its exact location is unclear, but it’s possible it was housed in an old Daggett Saltworks building, which was located on the north side of Owen Little Way (Frog Alley), and had ceased operating by 1838.

Charles Hine recalled that this Frog Alley hospital was run by a woman named Sarah Bark, of whom no other records have been unearthed. Hine wrote that the principal caregiver in the hospital was a woman named “Becky,” who cared for her teenage son “Ben” here, in addition to her maritime patients. In a darkly humorous anecdote, Hine describes a scene in which “undertaker Johnson” (undoubtedly 1860s port physician Dr. John Johnson) misheard the number of the room of a dying sailor for the one occupied by Becky’s soundly sleeping son. Mistaking the sleeping young man for the dead sailor, he proceeded to tie the boy’s toes together with twine and prop his sagging chin up with a brick before Ben awoke and fell out of bed in a panic just as his horrified mother walked in.

Although the town had a few Becky/Ben combos, their most likely identity was Rebecca Merry (1813–93) and her son Benjamin Merry Jr. (1846–66). Shortly after Hine’s mistaken-identity tale took place, 20-year-old Ben fell from a boat while fishing in Cape Poge Pond and drowned.

About 1858, a new doctor arrived in town who would soon shake up medical care in the port. His name was Dr. William Leach (1825–1903), a Boston mesmerist who believed that by “throwing” his patients into a hypnotic sleep, they would gain “the power of second sight” and through it, glean direct insight into their diagnosis. Gratia Harrington of Vineyard Haven would later recall, however, that “it was suspected that his practice was largely giving out whiskey to his patients.” Nevertheless, Dr. Leach would soon go on to build a brand-new, three-story marine hospital on the other end of town — on a scenic hilltop on Edgartown Road, overlooking Happy Hollow.

(Dr. Leach’s Marine Hospital: To be continued!)

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.