The Unique Residents of 1800s Block Island
Every town has particular people that just stand out. Whether a civil leader or that person who’s always at Dunkin Donuts, everyone in the community has had some kind of interactions with these folks. The same can be said about Block Island. From beloved figures such as Fred Benson to Bill and his Boogie Wonderland van, New Shoreham has its own cast of characters.
Usually, the stories of these folks are passed down by word. It might interest you to learn, however, that back in 1877 an author by the name of S.T. Livermore included a sketch of some of the island’s more peculiar people in his book ‘A history of Block Island from its discovery, in 1514, to the present time, 1876’ (https://www.loc.gov/item/rc01002999/)
A product of its time, ‘A history of Block Island’ takes a less than tactful view of these residents, often without the knowledge we have today about physical and mental aliments. However, when you dig below the surface you discover some truly unique individuals who have figured out how to play the hand they were dealt.
At the age of 20, a young woman named Katy had a catastrophic fall which would leave her in pain and incapacitated for the rest of her life. Permanently bedridden in the cottage she grew up in, Katy somehow managed to build a life for herself in her little room. At the head and foot of her bed were placed shelves that held all the supplies she needed. Using sticks with hooks and forks attached to them, she managed to take care of herself by reaching up and grabbing what she needed. Using the fireplace in that room, which she kept alight herself, she managed not only to keep warm in the colder months but also cook and feed herself. Katy passed away in 1877, somewhere in her 50s.
The man named Varney was kind of a strange dude. For one thing, he lived in a dirt and stone “ice-house” near the harbor. Imagine a hobbit hole from Lord of the Rings then make it really bland and you’ll get an idea of what an ice-house looked like. He shared this house with a dog and his pet pig, Rig-Dug. Varney was a hot-tempered guy, for good reason. The boys on the island used to climb up onto his “roof” and drop sticks down the chimney as well as toss small rocks at his front door. Varney would run out in a rage, scattering the boys, while Rig-Dug and his dog trotted happily behind him, oinking and barking with delight.
Fracus was the only son of Varney. What he lacked in his father’s rage he made up for in his eccentricities. Fracus had a collection of “rude” paintings that he used to interpret prophecies. Most of his interpretations involved former (both in position and in life) General George Washington. He would also perform unsolicited outdoor lectures to the people of the island. Single all his life, he liked to combat his loneliness by constantly invited people to his home, an act that would have driven his father insane.
The Blind Brothers: Nelson, Varnum, and Henry
Born deaf, mute, and blind, these three brothers were born on Block Island and lived there until well into their 60s. Each man was unique in his own way.
Nelson was very religious. Though he couldn’t speak, hear, or see, he was a staunch member of the church community who would always be present at worship. Members of the church always felt that he was filled with the holy spirit.
Varnum, on the other hand, was a bit of a cad. Even in the late 1800s, there were laws in place regarding the legal size of lobsters for fishing. Varnum discovered a way to skirt these laws by making the lobsters the aggressors. He would securely bundle his feet in thick fabrics and feel his way out into the water to the rocky shoals. There he would poke his feet in the sand and rock crevasses until a lobster pinched his toes. He would then walk back in with the lobster still attached to his foot. In his mind, it’s not fishing if the lobster attacked him!
The last brother, Henry, was the more industrious of the three. In the summers, he would walk the two miles from his house to the harbor to meet the island visitors, navigated all by memory and instinct. Meeting the passengers coming off the boat, he would panhandle while he performed bits of pantomime. One act he liked to do was the entire process of hunting, from the kill all the way to the eating of the meal. He was no pushover, though. When he bought goods from the merchants in town, he’d make sure to feel their faces beforehand. By feeling their cheeks, he was able to suss out which ones were the men he considered most trustworthy.
It’s always a gift when we have a chance to look back in time and see how people lived. While biographies of famous people are great, it’s wonderful when we get to peak into the lives of the regular folk, especially the odd ducks. It opens a new world of understanding for us that lets us know that maybe things haven’t changed as much as we think they have! So go out today and say hello to a stranger. You never know what interesting stories they may share.