Aquinnah charter captain William (Buddy) Vanderhoop Jr. has heard plenty of Vineyard ghost stories. Most he doesn’t believe — but he is not without a belief in the supernatural. “There are spirits less harmful,” he said, “that are not spooky as most people would like.”
He knows just how spoooky Islanders like their ghost stories, because he has lived in what popular lore would call the Island’s most haunted house — the old Vanderhoop homestead which overlooks the Gay Head Cliffs. The house is now the home of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, a positive place in the community.
Family members say it was never haunted. The ghost stories, however, go back to the tragic death there of four-year-old Elizabeth E. Vanderhoop. “My father’s sister died; she fell into the cistern and drowned,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
The Dec. 21, 1928 Vineyard Gazette reported the incident in detail: “The splash of the child in the cistern first attracted attention and Mrs. Vanderhoop dropped a rope into the cistern which was grasped by the child. The child was apparently dazed, having probably struck the side of the cistern in the fall, and could do little to help herself. She rapidly became exhausted and sank.” The report went on to say that Coast Guardsmen made a valiant effort to recover and try to revive the child.
Mr. Vanderhoop said the haunting tale he hears is of a little girl screaming in the night. “I stayed there in the house a couple of years, but I never heard it,” he said.
Jeffrey Madison, whose grandfather was the Wampanoag medicine man Napoleon Madison, said the tale has done a disservice to the place.
“I lived there in 1965 with my parents, Luther and Freda Madison. We spent one winter there. It was the coldest place I have ever lived,” he said, before adding: “There are no spirits and no ghosts there. I was in the second and third grade. I am always concerned when I hear people refer to that house as haunted. I think the idea came from the house not being occupied for a long time.”
But as for Buddy Vanderhoop, he does believe a positive spirit steered him from trouble. It was over 25 years ago, when he was transporting Indian remains back to the Vineyard on his boat.
“I was coming back from New Bedford in my boat. I was the repatriation agent for the tribe, and I was called to pick up the remains of a mother and her two infant children that had been in the Peabody Museum for decades,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
“It was really foggy. As I was leaving the harbor I was going 30 mph. Something came over me, beckoned me to slow down. I had no radar.
“Just as I slowed down, the bow of a ship was 40 feet above me. Had I kept going at that high speed I would have run into that freighter,” Capt. Vanderhoop said.
“There was a spirit on my boat,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. He believes it was the mother and children, looking out for him.
“They wanted to make it back to their homeland, to be put to rest,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
Buddy’s brother David Vanderhoop singles out another spot, in the woods in Aquinnah, a place whose precise location has been passed from one person to another. In the days before cars, it was easily known, as horses or oxen would not continue down the road; they would come to a dead stop, no matter how much persuasion was offered. Though animals don’t like it, David Vanderhoop and others say it offers a positive welcome spirit.
“It is a special place up here,” he said. David said he recently took a small group of teens there at night, to share the positive strength of the place. “It was like a scout mission. We all wanted to be quiet. We didn’t want to be seen by anyone else,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
He told the teens not to talk the whole way there, nor speak when they got there, nor speak as they left. “They sat down and we did a little bit of meditation,” he said. “We did that for a while and they were completely peaceful.”
Sometime later Mr. Vanderhoop asked each of the youths to describe the experience. All of them agreed. “There was a beautiful feeling of peacefulness there,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
Across the Island on North Water street, a house that once belonged in the Pease family has a tale to send a chill down the spine of any home decorator. A ghost was known to walk through an old entry night after night. Years later, renovations turned the entryway into a wall. The ghost, however, continued to retrace its exact steps; he now walks out of a wall.
The Island’s oldest house, the Vincent house, built in 1672 and now owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, is thought to be haunted. The ghost inside is described as a lady, wearing a full-length dress. The house was once located near the Edgartown Great Pond; it was moved downtown, near the Edgartown Whaling Church.
In Vineyard Haven, the Renear house on Church street is said to echo with the sound of slamming doors and windows when rooms are unoccupied, but the owner of the house, Sandy Ray, said he had never heard it.
James H.K. Norton, author of Walking in Vineyard Haven, does not believe in haunted houses. In the summer he and his wife, Sonya, live in the second oldest house in Vineyard Haven, built in the 1720s. They spend their winters in a house that was built in 1741. Rather than ghosts, warmth and history is what old houses hold, he believes.
“We are unique here on the Island, having so many 18th century houses. They all retain a spirit that we need to have amongst us,” Mr. Norton said.
by Mark Alan Lovewell