There is a real jail in the town of Gosnold in the basement of the town hall on Cuttyhunk.
Its only use these days is to hold for protection the green plastic solid waste bags which are as valuable as a six-pack in March since we started barging all our solid waste to the mainland. The jail has only been used once as a jail and that was in the early part of the last century to hold a murder suspect for one night. The suspect’s name was John Black, a shipwreck survivor who chose to stay and make his home on the island. He was a black man and I don’t know if that was his real name or if he was just called that by the islanders because he maybe didn’t speak English and was a person of color. If it sounds vague, that’s because there is no mention of him in town records. John Black lives only in lore but the proof is in the fact that he is buried in the northwest corner of the cemetery and has a headstone that just says John Black and nothing else, no year of birth, no date of death.
When I got to the island all those years ago John Black was in that corner of the cemetery all by himself. Then sometime in the 1990s it became cool to be buried near John Black.
It started in 1985 with Ginney Bilton who moved to the island year round when she was about 55 and proceeded to drink herself to death over the next couple of years. In her will she said she wanted to be buried next to John Black, and that opened the floodgates. So these days all the world thinks that he was probably the most popular guy in the town. Most people know nothing about him at all. During the 12 years that I was selectman I spent many hours in the attic of the town hall going through records looking for a sign of John Black, but never found anything. The story says he took an island wife and had children, but I found no records of marriage or births nor have I ever found anything about the murder at Cuff Rock for which he spent a night in jail and then was released for lack of evidence. The crime is unsolved to this day as far as I know.
For lack of another explanation, I can only conclude that because he was black his life did not count in the white Yankee world of these little islands off the Massachusetts coast. Especially interesting in light of what was going on culturally in the black community on Martha’s Vineyard, but he may as well have been a million miles away. There is no legal proof of his marriage or the birth of his children in the town or county records. The story also says he was not liked by the islanders, but that, too, is unexplained, and for all I know he was charged with the murder solely on grounds of race. Somebody loved him enough to put a stone at the head of his grave, though.
I had mixed emotions when people started to move into his neighborhood at the cemetery. Maybe it was to keep him company. Maybe it was to show just how far we’ve come with race relations in this country. Maybe. If I were to guess I’d say that his wife is buried somewhere else in the cemetery under her maiden name and that their children moved off as soon as was possible or were forced to move when their parents could no longer protect them.
My search for more information is ongoing. What was just a story for years has become a real part of me now that I have the luxury of time and perspective.
The reason being I guess that most of my life was not much different. I began my life as an illegitimate child of an already married man and teenage girl hidden in a rural shack without running water with four siblings, followed by an orphanless orphanage filled with the unwanted, abused and angry children from the dying mill towns of eastern Massachusetts. I allow myself separation from that time of the grotesque because I was not abused or angry and probably not unwanted, just a victim of circumstance and not preprogrammed with the tools that would allow me to give up on life. My son said to me the other day, “Dad you’re ageless but I’m sure you know that you’re crazy, don’t you?”
“Sure I do,” I replied. I’ve suspected as much and it’s true. Parts of me are stuck at different times in my life, triggered by memories or traumas that stopped growth at a place in a life built on misconception and headed me in another direction like a bumper car at an amusement park or a blind man in an unfamiliar room. There was hope that I would find the right path when in reality they were all the only paths.
Between my ears I am still the seven-year-old boy walking up those January cold granite steps, the oldest, leading my sisters and brothers like the Judas goat with my paper bag of clothes and the words of my mother ringing in my ears: “This is your new home.” And I’m walking toward an old woman dressed like nothing I had ever seen before who is about to take control of my reality.
In all the years spent with those women the only advice or guidance ever given me was: “Walk with Jesus and He will guide you.”
While in my hermetically-sealed world I did walk with Jesus for a time, but no matter how much I tried I could never get Him to talk to me. So I walked away from Jesus and stepped very much alone into an odyssey that will only end with my death and burial, still alone, in the northwest corner of my past, having been loved enough to at least be a memory.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.