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You’ve Been Chicked

The Extraordinary Story Of One of Our Island’s Loopiest Citizens

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.”

Ouch.

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.

David Whitmon June 12, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Delightfully enjoyable and educational too. And here I was thinking all this time that the Vineyard has always been an Asylum....(-; I know I'm crazy.
Holly Nadler June 12, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Shh, David, don't tell anyone!
Cynthia Mascott June 12, 2012 at 02:02 PM
They reason I have liked working with "crazies" over the years is that they have no ability to self monitor so they are far more truthful than the rest of us. One of my favorite schizophrenics from my current job sincerely blames Ronald Reagan for his smoking addiction. He said that having RR in office drove him to a 2 pack/day habit. BTW in European villages of yore, the villagers took care of their own regardless of their crisp on "reality"
Mo Man June 12, 2012 at 02:30 PM
thanks for this, Holly! great job- get to work on Chick's movie treatment, I expect a biopic by next summer.
Michael West June 12, 2012 at 03:33 PM
My crisp on reality is, I must admit, a little salty with a pinch of turmeric and a dusting of cayenne. Wait a minute! That's my recipe for kale chips. Nevermind, Holly. Mr. Chick is very entertaining, and lest we forget, pay your rent. With a roof over your head, you can be as crazy as Chick, and that's just fine around here.
Holly Nadler June 12, 2012 at 03:50 PM
I'm seeing Sasha Baron Cohen playing Edmund Chick in the movie. Could be bigger than Jaws!
Mathea Morais (Editor) June 12, 2012 at 06:45 PM
I still feel like circular insanity is the perfect description for what I do every day with my kids in my car.
Holly Nadler June 13, 2012 at 12:06 PM
Mathea, the psychiatric community needs to reinstate that diagnosis!
David Whitmon June 13, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Mathea. How many kids do you have? http://www.pbase.com/onastone2/image/94518397 They make them for up to 6 people.......(-;
Mathea Morais (Editor) June 13, 2012 at 01:13 PM
I have three that range from 3 - 13. I wish I could put them on one of those. They'd stop arguing about which horrible song we are going to listen to next...circular insanity!!
David Whitmon June 13, 2012 at 01:24 PM
Mums the word....(-;
Antigone Rosenkranz June 13, 2012 at 02:44 PM
Holly! Wonderful piece! As my friend Jeri D. often reminds me regarding the Vineyard.... "We're here because we're not all there!"
Holly Nadler June 13, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Antigone! Great to hear from you and to bump into you twice in the past coupla days!
Shane P Chick June 14, 2012 at 11:34 AM
I am the great great grandson of the subject of your article and though you painted him kindly I would like to correct one mistake. His name was Edson, not Edmund.
Shane P Chick June 14, 2012 at 11:35 AM
I know this because it is a family name shared by my grandfather and father.
Holly Nadler June 14, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Hi Shane, nice to hear from a descendent! And I'll ask my kindly editor to change your ancestor's first name -- I believe you must know whereof you speak.
Mathea Morais (Editor) June 14, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Shane, the name has been changed! Thanks so much for letting us know.
Michael West June 14, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Only on Patch...
Shane P Chick June 14, 2012 at 08:50 PM
Cheers Holly and Mathea.
Holly Nadler June 15, 2012 at 12:54 PM
I do believe our MV Patch reaches far and wide!
Martha Magee August 22, 2012 at 06:47 PM
"Just one big open air asylum" as one island librarian coined it (much to my amusement..). I say bring back the Scottish Douche. Hydrotherapy rules!

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