In the “About the Author” section of Tom Dresser’s latest book, Ghosts of Martha’s Vineyard, the author gives a brief account of his love for Martha’s Vineyard. A lifelong historian, he has written 12 books since retiring on the island, all of which deal with the history of the vineyards.
Every book is about facts, but for his latest book, Mr. Dresser has turned to a subject where facts are in the eyes and ears of the beholder. From spectral images drinking beer by the fireplace to young children who drowned centuries ago and continue to stroll the grounds of windswept courtyards, the stories are not anchored in precise evidence. But the sheer amount of bumps at night and the floating apparitions begs the question of who exactly was standing in the doorway watching me while I slept last night.
Mr Dresser recognizes Holly Nadler, whom he describes as the ghost lady of Martha’s vineyard, on his own journey with the spirited residents of Martha’s vineyard. But he quickly carves out his own niche between the tombstones and creates a book that is part hair remover, part comfortable journey through the island’s past. The book graciously travels from city to city and anchors most of the ghost stories in historical reality. Take the case of Old Joe, who is currently prosecuting Dukes County Jail in Edgartown.
“The prison records show that an inmate named Joe hanged himself on the construction site in 1950,” writes Dresser.
Not much more is known about Old Joe’s life, but in death he’s still quite active, making havoc with the lights, turning on the radio and typing late into the night.
In the old days every city was required by colonial laws to have a tavern so that travelers could have a place to eat. These old inns became fertile soil for ghosts because of the sheer number of people who passed through the area, writes Mr Dresser. Some of them are still there today, like Helen in room 307 of Kelley House, waiting for her husband to return from the sea.
For this story, Mr. Dresser interviewed a number of staff at the Kelley House, including Robyn Joubert.
“Helen is a presence,” Ms. Joubert told him. “We know it’s there, but we’re not afraid. . . I never feel uncomfortable. For the past 10 years I have felt Helen’s presence. I saw her once by the fireplace. Her dress was bluish. Once we placed brass candlesticks over the fireplace. I know Helen would not agree. I said, “She won’t like this.” Just like that, all the candlesticks fell from the mantelpiece to the floor. “
It is a familiar refrain throughout the book that the spirits are part of the fabric of island society, be it in a tavern, home, or in a nearby cemetery. And although they show their disapproval in a small way, they are nothing to fear. But they are restless.
From Edgartown to Aquinnah to Oak Bluffs Camp Ground and the old Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven (now the home of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum), ghosts attend to their needs, most of which stem from the unfinished business of traumatic deaths. In the past, before cemeteries became popular resting places for relatives, people were buried in the backyard, writes Mr Dresser. So it can’t be skunks or deer nibbling flowers right behind the edge of the well-tended lawn. It could just be great, great, Aunt Clara is returning to do a little laundry.
Jim Powell, a resident of West Tisbury, is often asked to investigate unwanted visitors.
“Jim said he is almost acting as a minister,” writes Mr Dresser.
“I encourage the company to keep going,” Powell says in the book. “I am talking to you. It’s like an exorcism. I come in and pray. They seem to have a visitor in their home, but they don’t want them. “
But of course, many visitors will not leave, like the ghostly typist who feverishly pounds the keys of the Luce homestead in Chilmark. But Mr. Dresser emphasizes that ghosts are not here to seek revenge. Instead, they mostly watch, wait, and wander around to complete their story, to escape the limbo between life and death. Mr. Dresser encourages readers to seek out them, take their own ghost tours, and be kind representatives of the living. Who knows what to expect in the hereafter?
“Ghosts are not dangerous; They are struggling to complete their lives and free themselves from the trauma that killed them, ”writes the author. “Ghosts need our help, not our fears.”
Mr. Dresser will have a busy Halloween, having personal book conversations at 1pm and 4pm at the Christopher in Edgartown and at 3pm at the Carnegie in Edgartown. At 6 p.m. he will have a Zoom Book Talk on the Chilmark Library. Ghosts of Martha’s Vineyard is available at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Phillips Hardware, and Edgartown Books. Or contact the author at thomasdresser.com.