MYSTERY ON THE VINEYARD: Politics, Passion and Scandal on East Chop. The History Press, Charleston S.C. 2008. 160 pages. $19.99 softcover.
There’s a true crime nut buried in each and every one of us, waiting to be exhumed and fully autopsied. A particular unsolved murder on Martha’s Vineyard has intrigued everyone who has ever heard about it. Many Island journalists have revisited the data. Tap into anyone alive at the time and living on Island and you’ll get an analysis of the crime worthy of Hercule Poirot. Now, Vineyard author Thomas Dresser (Dogtown, A Village Lost In Time, Tommy’s Tour of The Island), after investigating the murder for the Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, has committed his heart and soul to the story and penned a book about it. The completed work, Mystery on the Vineyard, has been released by The History Press and is now in Island .
The facts are these: On the night of June 30, 1940, in a prestigious theatre academy known as the Rice Playhouse looming high over the bluffs of East Chop, an intruder insinuated himself inside the women’s dorm known as Sumner Hall. The perpetrator made his way to Room Fifteen on the second floor where an elderly diction student named Clara Smith lay sleeping. She was bludgeoned with a never-retrieved or identified blunt object, strangled, raped, and robbed of a watch and ring. The attacker left behind one dead body, walls and floor spattered with blood, a wastebasket and bedtable knocked over, scattered books, and sheets yanked from the bed. You might think an assault such as this one would wake dreamers clear across Vineyard Haven Harbor. On the contrary, the ladies abed in Sumner Hall heard only a few muffled thumps and low moans mistaken for a nightmare.
The murder itself marked the first of the Gothic elements percolating down through decades of public interest in the crime. The second feature that has long haunted Rice Playhouse afficionados was the speedy arrest of Huntingdon Ralph Rice, brother of the theater’s founder (Phidelah Rice), and respected teacher and voice coach at the school. He was targeted because he had, with a series of facial grimaces worthy of Bela Lugosi as Dr. Jeckyl, alarmed the school’s secretary, Miss Lydia Jane Kipp, who in turn notified the authorities.
In a more scrutable world, all killers would behave like Mr. Rice; nervous, fluttery, hypochondriacal, paranoid. When he learned about the murder, his morbid sensitivities went into over-drive, and he favored Miss Kipp with a look of horror which she for her part interpreted as an admission of deep villainy. In actuality stone cold killers tend to be sociopaths, without conscience, who could bludgeon a Mrs. Smith to death, then turn around and ask a Miss Kipp, “How about a cup of coffee, cutie?”
Never let it be said that Island law enforcement officers are crack crime solvers. From the D.A. who in a few years would be terminated for incompetence, to the police chief who left his fingerprints all over the crime scene, to the Keystone Cops who tracked down all manner of specious evidence, to the judge who repeatedly squelched evidence of skullduggery from another player in the piece, the arrest, incarceration and trial of the hapless theater don would have been laughable if the stakes hadn’t been so high.
Meanwhile a much more sinister figure was emerging: A 37-year-old handyman at the Playhouse, Harold Tracy, a drunkard and a known felon, wanted in several states for a variety of crimes, was arrested on a concealed weapon charge and shipped off to the Barnstable House of Corrections to serve a one-year term. His connection to the murder was tangible: With a possibly unconsummated lust for a beautiful young student named Marjorie Massow, who dwelled in the room directly above Mrs. Smith, he had on more than one occasion expressed hatred for the “Bible biddies” who frowned on his crush. On the night of June 30, eyewitnesses attested to his being egregiously drunk and ranting of his need for a woman. The following morning he confided to a theater staffer that he’d passed out and awoken on the back staircase of Sumner Hall. In the course of the next few months he would even confess, to a couple of interested parties including the playhouse manager and the jail matron, to having committed some unmentionable atrocity.
How this fascinating case could get so bungled, with a palpably innocent man shanghaied all the way to trial, and an obvious blackguard cut loose, is the crux of this true crime which Tom Dresser has explored so ably, in the process tracking down biographical materials that bring the long-ago players, made fuzzy with the passage of time, to life before us. Tom has left no stone unturned, interviewing modern figures in forensics, police work, law, and psychology to train a fresh and scrupulous look on the evidence and personalities of the case.
Chapter Eight is entitled So Who Was Harold Tracy? The question was carried forward by Tom’s visit to the suspect’s hometown of Vanceburg, Kentucky. There the author/sleuth ransacked town records, and interviewed anyone left standing with any tidbit to share about Tracy’s childhood and family. Thanks to Mr. Dresser’s diligence, a picture emerges of the man whose middle name was crime-spree. This same fellow, who probably should have died in a hail of bullets á la Bonnie and Clyde, instead succumbed to emphysema in 1964, so there’ll be no death bed confession to put “paid” to the murder mystery.
An additionally appealing feature of Mr. Dresser’s book is his inclusion of world events woven throughout the distinctly local tableau of murder on our otherwise paradisical Island. In the couple of days following the brutal killing, for instance, German U-boats were attacking merchant ships in the Atlantic. Just as Huntingdon Rice was settling into a jail routine, the Luftwaffe flew over the English Channel and rained down its first bombs on the British populace. The Red Sox had slipped from first to third place but they remained ahead of the Yankees. This running update helps to more perfectly situate the reader in time and place.
The (until now) unsung hero of the investigation was Henry Beetle Hough, legendary editor of the Vineyard Gazette. A normally mild and magnanimous man, he nonetheless rose to a position of heightened indignation over the prosecution of the playhouse teacher. All summer long the newspaper bristled at the D.A.’s handling of the affair. Early on, Mr. Hough recognized the true culprit in the story and, many years following Mr. Rice’s acquittal, continued to push in print for justice to be done viz a viz the obviously guilty but grotesquely lucky Harold Tracy.
The book is studded with photographs unearthed from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Gazette archives, Islanders’ attics and the author’s own can’t-leave-home-without-it camera. Mystery on the Vineyard, well written, well researched and beautifully organized, can take pride of place on anyone’s library of true crime stories.