This Was Then: A slain Island hero

Peter Johnson was one of the volunteers who risked their lives rescuing the survivors of the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus on Devil’s Bridge.


Joseph Hamel was quahogging in the Acushnet River with his friend George about 9 o’clock in the morning on June 9, 1891, when he spotted a slender young Irish-American man in light-striped pantaloons standing on a boulder, waving for their attention from Egg Island, a rocky islet in New Bedford’s outer harbor. As the fishermen approached, the young man asked for a ride to the shore, offering them $1.50 for their trouble. They hesitantly agreed, but upon delivering him to a nearby Fairhaven beach, the man admitted he had no money, adding, “Now, you go back and look after my boat!” So they did.

Returning to the island, the two men discovered a mutilated body lying face down next to a catboat. It was “terribly hacked about the head” with a rusty lathing hatchet. “Blood besmeared the boat from end to end,” reported the Fall River newspapers. “The cockpit of the sloop was bathed in blood.”

In the victim’s pocket, officials soon found pension papers bearing the name of “Peter E. Johnson, Company I, 54th Volunteers Mass.” A week later, the body of Johnson’s companion, George Fletcher, was discovered floating in the harbor in a similar state.

Peter Johnson (1838–91) was a Wampanoag lobsterman, a Chilmark native, and a bona fide hero. George Fletcher, of both Wampanoag and Black heritage, was his friend.

Johnson’s father, Prince Johnson, was a one-legged Chilmark mariner. His wooden leg, the buoyancy of which once reportedly saved his life when his boat capsized off New Bedford, brought about a local saying, “Hear Prince coming and you’d know who’s coming.” His mother, Eliza Hazard, grew up on South Road.

Johnson had at least two run-ins with island law enforcement as a young man. In 1858, he and James Diamond of Gay Head were arrested for breaking into Willam Manter’s grocery store at Roaring Brook and stealing 50 pounds of flour, together with tobacco, shoes, pies, ale, cigars, soap, and other items. Johnson soon turned state’s witness against Diamond, and was sentenced to six months in the Dukes County Jail. (Convicted, Diamond later escaped, and was not recaptured for four years.) A year later, Johnson was jailed again, for destroying a boat.

He married Rachel Turner, who was a member of the Parting Ways New Guinea Settlement in Plymouth. They had one daughter, Lucretia, who died before she was 6 months old. Immediately afterward, as the Civil War raged, Johnson joined the U.S. Army.

Johnson enlisted, and served in the 54th Massachusetts, the second Black regiment organized in the Northern states during the Civil War, memorialized in modern times by the Oscar-winning 1989 movie “Glory.” He returned to the Vineyard following the war’s end, but his wife left him eight months later. He sued her for divorce on grounds of adultery — she would have several children without him over the next few years — but the divorce was not granted.

His whereabouts over the next 15 or so years are unclear — there was a Native American man from New Bedford of the right age and description named “Peter Johnson” who served on the bark Navy, destroyed in the ice in the infamous Whaling Disaster of 1871, off Alaska. Others claim he went to work on a farm outside Philadelphia by 1870. Yet other records suggest he remained in Gay Head.

But there’s no question that Peter Johnson of Gay Head was one of the dozen or more Wampanoag volunteers who risked their lives on the morning of Jan. 18, 1884, to rescue the survivors of the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus on Devil’s Bridge. It was one of the worst ocean disasters of the century; more than 100 people died in the icy, storm-wracked waters off Gay Head. Johnson and four other men spent 3½ hours on the dangerous seas in their small, open boat, rescuing 13 survivors and transferring them to the U.S. revenue cutter Dexter.

A week later, a resolution was read on the floor of the House of Representatives in recognition of these brave men, specifically naming Peter Johnson and 11 other Gay Head Wampanoag men in their pronouncement of thanks. The newspapers, breathlessly reporting every detail of the wreck and the heroic rescue, made special note of the fact that Johnson was also a survivor of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. In early February, the Massachusetts Humane Society voted to award 11 men, including Johnson, their silver medal, together with $25, “for gallant and successful efforts in saving 20 of the passengers and crew.”

But Johnson was not given his medal and prize on some grand stage, or at his ancestral home in Gay Head. Instead, he was presented his award at Austin & Stone’s Dime Museum in Scollay Square, Boston — a notorious freak show. His presentation speech was given by Professor Hutchings, “the Lightning Calculator,” a math prodigy groomed by P.T. Barnum, in front of a paying audience.

Johnson spent several weeks headlining at Austin & Stone’s “museum” in a grotesque and blatantly racist human exhibition. He was billed as “the Hero of the Day,” alongside such exploitive spectacles as the “Cardiff Giant,” “Ferreyra, the Man Flute,” and “Costello, the Human Ostrich.” Paid $9 a week, he went on to draw crowds at shows in Providence, Buffalo, and Cleveland, Ohio, where he was exhibited as “the ‘Gayhead’ Indian, Hero of the wreck of the ‘City of Columbus’” at Drew’s Dime Museum in Cleveland. By June, Johnson was back at a boarding house in New Bedford, where he was robbed of his $125 in savings while he slept.

When he befriended George Fletcher is not known.

George Anthony Fletcher (c. 1857–91) was born in Bournedale, a community in modern Bourne now mostly submerged by the Cape Cod Canal. His father, Moses Anthony, was a Black bootmaker and factory engineer as well as a Civil War veteran. His mother, whose last name he eventually took, was Sarah Ann Fletcher of the Herring Pond Wampanoag community, centered just north of Bournedale in Plymouth.

The Herring Pond Wampanoag community and the Vineyard’s Wampanoag community have deep ties. Fletcher’s aunt, Julia Webquish, lived in Cottage City for decades, and Fletcher’s wife, Gracie Lane, was an Edgartown native, a young Black woman who grew up in the employ of the household of Dr. Clement Shiverick on Pease’s Point Way in Edgartown, together with her great-aunt. George Fletcher himself was evidently a regular visitor to the Island.

On the afternoon of June 8, 1891, Johnson and Fletcher were playing cards and drinking whiskey at Matthews’ saloon in New Bedford when they were befriended by a young white man, later identified as Charles Tighe of Boston. They shared some drinks, and then the trio left together about 5 o’clock on Johnson’s catboat to go lobstering. But only Tighe returned, rescued from the rocks the next morning.

Tighe was quickly found, captured, and arrested, following a tip from a local pawnshop owner where he tried to trade his bloody clothing. After an autopsy, Johnson’s remains were interred in the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford.

Tighe, whose brother was a Boston policeman and whose father had been a Lawrence city councilman, had powerful friends. He hired an ambitious young Boston lawyer named T.W. Coakley as his counsel. Tighe had initially given his name as “Charles Marsden,” but he had a host of other aliases, and a lengthy rap sheet. The Fall River Daily Evening News described him as “a sneak thief, a cheat, an ex-convict, the victim of the alcoholic habit, and the deserter of his wife and two children”.

Tighe had long been involved with a married woman, Clarabel Gifford, and had been in town to visit her. Mrs. Gifford was said to be a “clairvoyant,” and for several years the two of them had managed a “clairvoyant and blackmailing business in Boston” under the pseudonyms Clara and Charles Houghton. Tighe also worked as a bartender and waiter, working at the Adams House in Boston, where he once stole a $100 diamond pin off a diner’s shirt. The Fall River papers noted that he had been arrested several times for “fornication and sneak thieving,” and that he served at least one term at Deer Island Prison.

The 10-day murder trial electrified New Bedford, which had not had a murder case in six years. Nearly 100 witnesses took the stand. Tighe’s lawyer tried to shift suspicion onto George Fletcher, suggesting that Fletcher had killed Johnson before himself drowning. A reporter from the Fall River Daily Globe visited widow Gracie Fletcher, who responded angrily, “It’s all an attempt to make my husband out a murderer to save a white man,” charging — probably quite accurately in this case — that New Bedford officials would “sacrifice” a Black man “any day to clear a white man.” No one was ever charged in Fletcher’s death.

In his closing statement, which was five hours in length and reportedly “moved many to tears,” Tighe’s counsel, Coakley, suddenly produced Johnson’s skull, which he “placed on the table with the sockets turned toward the jury” as he spoke. Tighe was ultimately found guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years and a day in the state prison at Charlestown.

New Bedford newspaper editor George A. Hough (father of Henry Beetle Hough of Vineyard fame) happened to be the roommate, at the time, of District Attorney Hosea Knowlton, who prosecuted the Tighe case. Hough had noticed a “huge tin pail” at home one night, which he only later realized must have contained Johnson’s decapitated head. But it was his reporting in the local paper that ignited outrage at the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic — the Civil War Union veterans organization. The group promptly insisted that Johnson’s head be restored to his grave, from which it had been quietly disinterred. If not for local reporting, Hough realized, Johnson’s skull “might at this day have adorned a medical museum.”

Nine months after the trial ended, a second hatchet murder took place in nearby Fall River. The trial of Lizzie Borden would fully eclipse the Tighe case in sensational public interest, but it involved many of the same people, like D.A. Knowlton and Dr. Edward Wood, blood evidence specialist.

Due to good behavior, Charles Tighe was released in October 1897 after less than six years in prison. His whereabouts afterward are unknown.

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.

Justin Baer is a federal government retiree living in Maryland, and a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.