This Was Then: Dr. Leach’s Marine Hospital and Poor Farm

The death rate at Happy Hollow was only 8 percent.


In late 1857, a new doctor arrived on the Island. His name was Dr. Leach, and he would set the course of hospital care on the Island for the next 20 years.

Dr. William Leach (1825–1903) was born in Kittery, Maine, just across the river from the economically struggling seaport of Portsmouth, N.H. He was the son and grandson of ship captains. He held two medical degrees, earning his first M.D. in 1850 from the Worcester Medical Institution (a forerunner of Brandeis University), and his second M.D. in 1856 from Harvard.

He opened a general practice in Boston, where he specialized in diseases of the throat and lungs. Early in his career, Dr. Leach embraced the new medical fad of mesmerism — a method of throwing his patients into a hypnotic “sleep” so as to gain “the power of second sight,” he wrote in his ads, and to glean insight into their diagnosis. What then brought him to Martha’s Vineyard is unclear.

Dr. Leach arrived on the Island with his wife and seven children, ranging in ages from 5 to 14, with an eighth child on the way. They rented and later purchased a home on William Street, abutting an alley to Main Street later known as Drummer Lane, named after his horse, Drummer. He initially occupied the office and drug store of Dr. Moses Brown in downtown Holmes Hole (later renamed Vineyard Haven).

About 1860, Dr. Leach reportedly established or took management of a very modest marine hospital in town — quite likely the one believed to be located near Frog Alley, not far from the foot of modern Daggett Avenue in Vineyard Haven — caring for the sick and injured sailors who arrived in our port. Leach reportedly earned a meager 53 cents per day for each sailor’s care, paid by a hospital insurance tax levied on every seaman.

The medical care of sick sailors who arrived in Holmes Hole Harbor had been a tenuous, on-and-off affair since the Island’s first marine hospital in Eastville closed by the early 1820s. The records are exceedingly thin, but the wartime years of 1860–65 are particularly confusing. Dr. Leach was later credited with “maintaining” a “marine hospital” in Holmes Hole since 1860, but the official role of “port physician” — the appointed, stipended doctor responsible for the care of sick and injured mariners — seemed to be a political hot potato during the early 1860s. Historian Charles Banks claimed that the official contract for medical services was held by Dr. John Pierce of Edgartown until 1861, much to the annoyance of locals who would have preferred a resident physician, and then in 1862 by Dr. Daniel Cleveland of West Tisbury. Dr. John Gore Johnson evidently held this position during 1864–65, and records suggest he was a village resident who indeed attended patients at the Frog Alley marine hospital.

In August 1862, John Keen, a 28-year-old mariner from Bridgeton, N.J., succumbed to “billerous remittant fever” (probably malaria). The attending physician was not recorded, but the paper reported that he died “in the U.S. Marine Hospital, at Holmes Hole.” Two years later, Daniel Wildes, an 18-year-old sailor from Kennebunkport, Maine, arrived in town, deathly sick from typhoid fever. He did not survive, either. The town recorded the location of his death as “the U.S. Marine Hospital” in Tisbury, wherever that was — presumably Frog Alley. It’s unclear whether Dr. Leach was involved in either case.

But by January 1866, Dr. Leach was undeniably the official “port physician.” That month, the schooner Christiana, bound for Boston from New York, wrecked on Hawes Shoal, a mile or two off Cape Poge, during a wild tempest that would later be known as the Blizzard of ’66. A single survivor, Charles Tallman, was rescued after five harrowing days, badly frozen, and placed in Leach’s care. The horrific tale was breathlessly covered by the media, and for many months Dr. Leach found himself caring for a celebrity patient, one whose recovery exceeded expectations. Vineyarders raised and presented the badly handicapped Tallman with a gift of $108, and later a prime Oak Bluffs storefront. Dr. Leach undoubtedly welcomed the accompanying attention, and his thoughts soon turned to opening a new hospital.

In May 1866, before Tallman was even discharged from his care, Dr. Leach purchased an old farm located on Edgartown Road, across from what is now Canterbury Lane, to refit as his new hospital. The premises was familiarly known as “Happy Hollow” (not to be confused with Chilmark’s “Happy Hollow,” at the foot of Crooked Hill on Middle Road near Fulling Mill Brook).

It was an old farmhouse — likely dating back to the 18th century — for decades owned and occupied by farmer Lemuel Luce and his wife Mehitable (“Hetty”), and later by their daughter Charlotte Norton and her husband. Less than three months before her death in 1857, Charlotte sold the six-acre farm to Henry Richardson. Richardson, a whaler from Maine who had arrived on the island in the 1840s, rebuilt the house, added a barn, and installed a new 75-barrel cistern. The lot included a “good orchard,” an acre or more of wood, and deeded access to the Lagoon, but soon Richardson, heavily mortgaged, needed to sell it. The property languished for a few years until Leach finally bought it at public auction in 1866, with a high bid of $210.

For the next 13 years, about 100 mariners a year were treated here by Dr. Leach. It was presumably a private marine hospital, and not under the direction of the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, although it was still often referred to as the “U.S. Marine Hospital.” Leach charged 90¢ per day “to furnish board, nursing, medical attendance, and medicines,” and $10 for a burial in his cemetery at the bottom of Happy Hollow. He boasted a “death rate” of only 8 percent. At least 40 sailors died here under Leach’s care, almost all of them suffering from contagious fevers (like typhoid, “swamp fever,” and “bilious fever”) and buried at the bottom of Happy Hollow (not to be confused with the Sailors’ Burying Ground on the other side of the street, now on Land Bank property, whose oldest interments date to the 1880s).

In 1873, Leach completely renovated his facility again, building a brand-new three-story hospital with a mansard roof. The first floor contained an office, reception room, a carpeted “captain’s ward,” dining room, kitchen, and bathroom; the second floor held the surgical and convalescent wards, and quarters for the steward and nurse. In all, there were beds for 10 patients. The third floor was a spacious and airy “fever ward,” occupying the whole floor. From the top, one could see the entire east side of the Island.

But in 1879, Dr. Leach lost his contract. The Marine Hospital Service acquired an abandoned lighthouse at the head of the harbor (one formerly known as Holmes Hole Light), and converted it into a new, official hospital — a facility that eventually became the home of the M.V. Museum. It would be the Island’s last marine hospital.

In 1881, Dr. Leach, in search of a new use for his building, won the $2,500 town contract to care for Tisbury’s poor. During the 19th century, decades before Social Security and other services were provided to the needy by the commonwealth and the federal government, towns cared for their own poor — often the largest expenditure in the annual town budget. So that spring, Leach converted his hospital into Tisbury’s official poorhouse.

Dr. Leach’s poor farm, managed by Capt. Richard Crocker and John Allen, initially housed six or eight “inmates,” including 73-year-old Hannah Tilton (described as “insane”), 47-year-old Charles Norton (“epileptic and insane”), an unnamed 96-year-old (Samuel Mingo? Or Nancy Luce?), and husband and wife John and Mary (Bradford) West, aged 77 and 64. Their living expenses were all fully paid for by the town of Tisbury. (Others, not housed by Leach, received partial support. Still others were sent to the Taunton Lunatic Asylum, or the Worcester Lunatic Hospital.)

Over the next eight or nine years, Dr. Leach would serve many more indigent Islanders at his poor farm — like George DeGrass, a Wampanoag mariner suffering from heart disease; Cassandra Norton, described as “idiotic”; and Julia Tilton, an aging widow suffering from “senile decay.” Gratia Harrington of Vineyard Haven, in her book “The Captain’s Daughters,” recalled, “There weren’t many what you’d call poor people in Vineyard Haven. Anyone who didn’t have enough money to support himself was ‘on the town,’ as we called it. We had a poorhouse up on the Edgartown Road, but I never knew anyone who went there …”

Leach continued his medical practice, serving as the Dukes County medical examiner, and maintained a drug store on Circuit Avenue in Cottage City. Gratia Harrington would later recall, “It was suspected that [Leach’s] practice was largely giving out whiskey to his patients.” In 1887, Leach was charged with “liquor nuisances.” Dr. Leach pleaded guilty to selling liquor, and was fined $50. (He claimed that it was his clerk’s mistake.)

The poorhouse closed about 1889. Dr. Leach died in 1903. Although there had been talk of moving the hospital building to “a conspicuous site on Main Street” in 1889, it never happened. Instead, Leach’s estate auctioned the property to William Bodfish, who rented it as a private home to Cape Verdean immigrants Frank and Mary Pina.

In May 1906, a three-day forest fire tore through the region, one of many massive fires to plague the Island at the beginning of the 20th century. Fanned by a southwest gale, it burned thousands of acres of dry woodland. It incinerated the famous Innisfail hotel, a half-mile away on the banks of the Lagoon, and then consumed Leach’s hospital building, before the flames were finally stopped. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

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.