The best kept secret of Martha’s Vineyard is that you can be barking mad here, and no one will try to incarcerate you. Oh, you might be gently encouraged to check the ferry schedule for the next passage to the mainland. But as long as you’re not causing bodily harm, you can be totally looney-tunes without fear of being locked up.
This was especially true back in the 19th century, when the country specialized in those asylums with brooding grey stone walls, gothic turrets, and the sound of clanking chains.
If we had one of those here, we’d all be in it! Especially during the winter.
In the summer of 1887, a man named Edson Chick arrived on these shores, a New Englander and Civil War vet, writer, musician and, when his mood was inflated, impresario of staggering proportions.
Picture this guy, short but with a huge hairy head and black beard, handsome, magnetic, with a squat, massive physique that radiated power.
He was also an escape artist from those same fortress-style lock-ups, so popular in their day: The last one, the dark and cavernous State Lunatic Asylum in Morris Plains, NJ, Edson Chick had fled by picking a monster lock with his toothbrush.
Mr. Chick had been diagnosed (often and early) with a disorder called circular insanity (don’t we just love the descriptive quality of those old designations?) He had a wife in Brooklyn and several kids, but the family made it clear they would fare better at some distance from Daddy.
On the downward spiral of a binge of staged shows in New York, with opera divas, endless speeches by famous preachers such as Rev. Talmage (yes, this was considered sparkling entertainment in those days), the Humpty Dumpty Ballet Troupes clown show, brass bands and Australian flutes; essentially whatever Chick could pull together at a moment’s notice, including himself singing with 3,600 orphans, he decided to come for a rest on Martha's Vineyard. (The orphans, by the way, were the designated beneficiaries of Chick’s last big jubilee, but the show-meister was invariably short of cash after any of his big blow-outs.
Ya see, with circular insanity, money flows in, and money flows out. Just like the patient’s moods.
There are some who argue that those of us who live here year-round are made buggy by atmosphere alone. All those high-flying objects of summer -- the fireworks, paper lanterns aglow from fairytale cottages, kites, and hang-gliders – these things keep us aloft – how could they not?
And the downside? Winter? We won’t go there. What for? Read No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre if you must know what I’m talking about. [Note to Islanders: don’t forget to order your full-spectrum lamps by October 15th ]
So Edson Chick arrived in the glory days of summer in Cottage City, with paddle boats and the Foxboro Brass Band tootling from the Bluffs, with fashionable ladies and top-hatted gents, greased pig races, croquet on every lawn, and a highball in every glass.
Chick caught the fever of out-of-control fun, and for the fall of 1887, organized six concerts, bam! bam! bam! – and then bam! bam! bam! again in manic mode, pulling out all stops, engaging opera singers from Boston, pianists, violinists, and anyone, including himself, eager to sing funny, and perhaps even off-color ditties.
While this Barnum & Bailey madness went on, the Vineyard Gazette reported that Mr. Edson Chick had come to the island to regain his health (presumably the editor was unaware that the health in question was mental) and “has fully recovered by drinking in the Vineyard ozone.”
The entrepreneur wrote home to a friend that “people on the Vineyard live to be one hundred.” (Entre nous: why would anyone with so vigorous a case of circular insanity wish for so long a life span?) Mr. Chick cancelled all further concerts after Halloween, moved to Vineyard Haven, and opened up the first newspaper in that wild and wacky town. He named the paper Chick’s Vineyard Haven News.
Some sample news blips:
“In a store here, a man said that some coffee he bought ‘tasted like ground up shoe taps and state religion.’ He knows his name. We forgot it.”
And . . .
“On Saturday Chas. Brown and Benj. Clough Jr. invaded the hunting grounds with Jack Richards and two active hounds. A packed jury of rabbits pricked up ears at so much Boston legal talent invading oak covered plains.”
Clearly Mr. Chick had a proto-tabloidal, snarky tone. But did the Island need a third newspaper? In addition to the Gazette in Edgartown, the Herald ruled Cottage City. The one-cent Chick’s Vineyard Haven News prospered through 25 editions, fueled by the publisher’s ability to sell ads. Then in March of 1888, in yet another out-flush of funds, (well, these things happen with the circularity-challenged among us), Chick fell behind in payments to his printer, Mr. Manter. He was also in arrears for his bed and board at the Mansion House. This latter embarrassment caused Chick to literally fly the coop, leaving his natty black silk suits behind in his room.
Edson Chick fled the island, never to return, but he still had the publishing bug: Almost instantly, he established a new penny-newspaper in New Bedford, which sometimes expressed itself in chalk-sprawled news items on the sidewalks, thus saving on printing costs.
This poor man’s Rupert Murdoch was in and out of psych wards, threatening in his ventures into the real world to start new newspapers. Finally he became nationally known for loitering, homeless, outside the Lakewood NJ mansion of railroad magnate, George Jay Gould.
To “be chicked” had become a verb for stalking.
Edson spent his last years in a private asylum in Queens where treatment ranged from picking quinces in the orchard to hydrotherapy (remember how much Blanche DuBois loved that?) to administrations of something called the Scottish Douche (not so fast!), consisting of powerful jets of hot and cold water aimed at the patient’s spine. He died, as any of us would have, under similar circumstances, in 1915.
Somehow Edson Chick’s connection to the Vineyard followed him around like a vague odor of swamp gas: At one point, the Brooklyn Eagel headlined an article about Chick, “A Terrible Little Man From Cottage City.”
Do we need to ask ourselves why no one on the Island found this man terrible, or even objectionable? Is it possible that on Martha’s Vineyard we have no ready diagnoses for insanity in all its varieties and colors? And isn’t that bloody marvelous?
To learn more about the amazing Edson Chick, read the spring 2012 issue of the Duke’s County Intelligencer, “Incurable But Not Dangerous” by C. Baer, masterfully researched and written. The Intelligencer is not at this very moment plopping into your mailbox? Become a member and call the MV Museum at 508 627-4441.