Tuesday, March 5 marks a moment in black history; on that day 243 years ago Crispus Attucks, part black, part Wampanoag, became the first person killed in the American Revolution. Seventeen years later, in 1787, the former slave John Saunders, with his half-white wife Priscilla, brought Methodism to Oak Bluffs, 48 years before its was established by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. Mr. Saunders is memorialized on a plaque on a rock on the trail at Pecoy Point Preserve at the end of Pulpit Rock Road. This spot on the African American Heritage Trail marks his historic preaching at Pulpit Rock to the “coloured” and original people in the Farm Neck neighborhood. He and his wife lived in Eastville until 1792, when they moved to Chappaquiddick where she died. Mr. Saunders also wound up being famous for a less positive reason. He was remarried to Jane Diamond, a member of the Wampanoag tribe — whose members objected and killed him, making John Saunders one of the first Oak Buffs people to be murdered.
In 1874 sewing machine salesman Samuel K. Elliott of 89 Tuckernuck avenue hired Mrs. P.R. Dexter as his housekeeper. She moved into the house along with her married sister Mrs. Lizzie C. Dickson whose husband, Allen F. Dickson, was a sailor aboard a coastal schooner. The deputy sheriff of Dukes County, John N. Vinson, also lived in the house.
When Mr. Dickson returned from sea in midsummer, he demanded his wife accompany him home. She refused, wanting to stay with her sister until her child was born. Outraged, he gathered at the house that night with four friends, one of whom was Caleb Smith, the brother of the two ladies, with the intention of tarring and feathering Mr. Elliott. One of the armed vigilantes attempted to get Mr. Elliott out of the house. Mr. Elliott got his gun and wound up shooting Caleb Smith. After the fury of getting Mr. Elliott into a carriage to take him to the tarring and feathering spot, the group realized Mr. Smith had fallen out. They returned to rush him to the doctor but it was too late.
In the confusion, Mr. Elliott escaped and turned himself in for protection. Deputy Sheriff Vinson, fearing for his life, left the Island, never to return. Massive press coverage followed the murder trial in the Vineyard Gazette and Boston and New York newspapers. The trial concluded with a verdict of self-defense. That September the four remaining vigilantes were arraigned for aggravated assault and riotous conduct, but the grand jury was unable to indict and the men were set free.
The Gazette published a letter by Mr. Elliott who proclaimed his innocence. “As regards any illegal proceedings at my house, there have been none . . . I hold myself in readiness to answer to the law at all times. What I have done, I am truly sorry for . . . it was wholly self-defense. If a party wishes to dictate who I shall have for a housekeeper, or who shall have board with me, I wish to know where they get their authority.” It is not known what happened to the deputy sheriff or two women involved. Mr. Elliott left the Island immediately.
Not having been there I wouldn’t want to characterize this in any way. However, it is one of my favorite stories. There have been several more Oak Bluffs people murdered — or whose sudden loss of life was caused by others. The seriousness of the subject aside, one can’t help but chuckle at the incongruity that there are more authors of murders on Martha’s Vineyard than there have been murders on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Fest announced on its Facebook page that the festival scheduled for this August is postponed until 2014.
Warm congratulations to the newly-elected Martha’s Vineyard NAACP president, Oak Bluffs police chief Eric Blake.
On Circuit avenue, following the accident that broke its show window, the popular boutique B Tru has moved to the store that was formerly Trader Fred’s, opposite The Lazy Frog. That leads me to posit that, if you’re a Lazy Frog and want to wear some of those delicious things for sale at B Tru, you better go spend some time at B Strong.
Keep your foot on a rock.