Knight Falls

A murder at Lake Tashmoo shocks the Vineyard and drives the recent assassination of Huey Long below the fold of major mainland dailies in the late summer of 1935.

The day of the murder was bright and clear, with enough summer in the air to torment the children held captive in classrooms at the start of another school year.

It was late afternoon on September 12, 1935. Mercifully, school had been out for a couple of hours. Two members of Boy Scout Troop 98, Bill Honey and Sam Issokson, were in the woods off Herring Creek Road in Vineyard Haven. The boys, both fifteen, heard gunfire. “We were one mile away, just off the road, looking for sticks to build a raft,” says Honey. “I’m not sure, but it sounded like three shots.” They didn’t pay much attention; the woods around Lake Tashmoo were often used for target practice. “We heard shots, then a lot of cars went down the road,” says Issokson. “They were headed toward the creek.”

The cars were racing to a cottage where the bumpy, dirt road leaves the woods and becomes a sandy track running the length of the barrier beach between Vineyard Sound and Lake Tashmoo. There was a dead man at the wheel of an automobile parked outside the cottage, and his killer, with at least one bullet left in his revolver, was at large.

Lake Tashmoo is the large body of water you see from the overlook as you drive up-Island from Vineyard Haven. The Herring Creek once lay at the opposite end of the lake and connected Tashmoo to Vineyard Sound. (It is a permanent, wide-open channel today.) Then as now, cottages stood on the beach running out to the Herring Creek entrance – though in September 1935 there were far fewer of them than there are today. One of them belonged to Lydia Hyde, the divorced mother and stepmother of four young children. Mrs. Hyde was the daughter of the sculptors Francois Tonetti and Mary Lawrence Tonetti. On the Vineyard she supported herself, in part, by making jellies and jams from beach plums and wild blueberries. She also looked after her children.

Lydia Hyde had a serious heart condition and required a great deal of rest. Her parents had sent a family servant, James Holmes, to cook, help mind the children, keep house, and do other chores. Holmes lived in a garage next to the cottage. Another man also soon drifted into the lives of Mrs. Hyde and her family. He was Harold Clark Look, a caretaker and fisherman who lived alone in a shack farther down the beach, next to the creek.

In 1935, Harold Look was fifty-three. After two years of high school, he’d left the Vineyard and clerked for various railroads in New York, Chicago, Denver, and Winnipeg. He also worked as a timberman and a security guard. When the Depression came, he returned to the Island and moved out to the Herring Creek on Lake Tashmoo. In spring and summer he often had visitors at his home. But winter kept people away. Sometimes Look was iced in and did not see another soul for six weeks. By the time he’d reached middle age, he’d gone through two quick marriages and had no children. He had always been “a little different,” according to a woman who went to school with him.

“I knew Harold Look. A nice old guy,” said Stuart Bangs of Vineyard Haven some time ago. “If you wanted to catch herring and didn’t have a net, he’d let you have one of his, or maybe show you how to catch them. When it came time to open the pond, he’d speed it along with a hoe and shovel. The level of Tashmoo was much higher than the Sound, so all you had to do was get a trickle going through there and whoosh! It’d wash out. So all the kids used to help him out with sticks and stones and whatever they could make the sand fly with.”

Harold Look joined James Holmes in helping around the Hyde camp. Look caulked the seams of the leaky boat and did odd jobs. The Hyde children, ranging from age three to eleven, enjoyed Look’s company. They had no other playmates besides each other, and they liked the old fisherman who thought of himself as being in charge of the Herring Creek.

Look had an especially close relationship with Susie B., the oldest of the Hyde children. He took her fishing and showed her turtles and other examples of pond life; they played cards in his shack and ate exotic foods: canned fruit cut up into little cubes, which Susie had never seen before. Harold dipped snuff, and he gave her his old Copenhagen snuff cans, small round boxes with embossed metal lids, perfect for holding small treasures, such as the shells they picked up at “the crick.” Susie’s father, Bobby Hyde, lived in California, and was not a constant in her life the way “Mr. Look” was.

But Harold Look could be aggressive. When people from other towns came to catch herring at the creek, he chased them away. And Harold Look could feel jealous. He was especially jealous of a man named Knight Owen, who kept coming up to the creek from Vineyard Haven. Knight Owen was a moocher, and often visited Look’s shack to drink. After getting drunk, he would wander over to the Hyde cottage, and Lydia would minister to him and sober him up.

Knight Barry Owen was the son of William Barry Owen, who had come back to his hometown of Vineyard Haven a millionaire, late in the nineteenth century, after introducing the Victor Talking Machine to Britain and overseeing the operations of the company there. The firm eventually became RCA Victor, and the Owens, on their return to the Island, named each of their successive fox terriers Nipper, after the dog that listened to His Master’s Voice on the company’s trademark. (Many Islanders thought that one of the Owens’ dogs was Nipper, but the real Nipper had died in England in 1895.) The public park along Vineyard Haven harbor is named for William Barry Owen, the land donated by his widow in 1919, five years after William’s death.

Knight Owen, despite a promising start, was in 1935 a troubled and troublesome man. He had returned home to live with his mother four years before, after a failed marriage and the loss of his job as a stockbroker at Paine Webber in Boston. A graduate of Massachusetts Tech – now MIT – he had distinguished himself as a Navy aviator in the Great War, surviving five days without food or water after his plane was disabled over the North Sea. But those brilliant days were behind him. Owen, forty-two, earned a little money writing the Vineyard Haven column for the Vineyard Gazette, listing the comings and goings of the townspeople. A poem he had written, praising Harold Look’s resourcefulness at his Herring Creek outpost, was tacked up on the wall of Look’s shack.

Unlike many people from the upper class who called the Vineyard home for all or part of each year, Knight Owen did not mix well with working folk. He “lorded it over his lessers,” as one observer said, and was universally disliked for it. At one house party in Oak Bluffs, his overtures to a pretty newlywed inspired her husband to hit Owen so hard he flew backward through a window onto the lawn. “I was not in the same social strata as Knight Owen,” said Stuart Bangs. “He was a fairly good-looking guy, as I recall. He never seemed to have much to do, but was very handy with a bottle.”

On the morning of September 12, 1935, Knight Owen was supposed to leave the Vineyard to spend a few weeks in Boston, since his drinking “had gotten him in bad at home,” as he put it to a friend. Instead, Owen stayed on the Island. Just before noon that Thursday, he turned in his copy at the Gazette office in Edgartown, collected his pay, and bid editors Henry and Betty Hough a pleasant hello and goodbye. He then got drunk. He decided to head out to the Herring Creek to visit friends.

Though Look had no romantic ideas where Lydia Hyde was concerned, he could not abide her friendship with Knight Owen. Lydia was a nurturing woman, and welcomed Owen when he was in his cups, provided him with coffee and a sympathetic ear, and sent him home sober. Lydia Hyde and Knight Owen both came from educated, upper-class backgrounds. They discussed books and ideas in her home. But the ideas and the language were likely a lot more crude when Owen visited Look. From Look’s perspective, Owen was an inebriated bogeyman, unfit to visit the Hyde family, especially the children. In the weeks leading up to the afternoon of September 12, Look had warned Owen to stay away from the crick, and especially the Hyde family. During a recent drinking party at his shack, Look toasted Owen, saying ominously, “You will never drink another here.”

Richard and Ruth Salmon of New York rented the cottage where Knight Owen stopped first. The Salmons were neighbors of Lydia Hyde and her children, and they were on the beach when Owen drove up, drunk, before four o’clock in a Plymouth Coupe he’d taken without permission from Olive (Goodie) Prior, a neighbor of Knight and his mother on William Street in Vineyard Haven. Wilson S. Crosby, a friend from Edgartown, was also visiting the Salmons when Owen arrived. Salmon and Crosby were shooting at cans on Vineyard Sound with a .22 rifle when Owen joined them on the beach.

Owen fired a few rounds and attempted to entertain the others with a story about a man being shot, but no one seemed amused. The group went into the cottage, hoping to discourage Owen from staying, but he tagged along. At 4:00, James Holmes – Lydia Hyde’s cook and “man of all work” – stopped by to invite the Salmons to dinner at the Hyde cottage. “Mr. Salmon said he had a problem to solve, and I knew it was Owen in the house, drunk,” Holmes said later.  

Crosby and the Salmons sat in the living room and did not offer Owen anything to drink. They changed out of their bathing suits. Salmon asked Owen what time it was. Too drunk to read his watch, Owen held his wrist up for Salmon to see. It was 4:30. Owen rose. He said he was going on to the Herring Creek. Salmon said, “I walked toward the Sound to look at the water. When I came back, I could see Knight’s car.” Owen sat in the driver’s seat. Harold Look was standing on the passenger side. Salmon knew and liked Look. They had enjoyed fishing together. “Look was standing not two feet from the car, not saying anything,” Salmon said. “Look fired the first shot, which struck the steel door and was imbedded in it, squashing out. I saw that happen. I yelled, ‘Look! Look! Don’t do that!’”

Look turned and faced Salmon. He was holding a revolver.

Salmon said, “I don’t know why he didn’t shoot me. With the utmost calm, cool and deliberate, Look then fired three shots through the glass of the door. He yelled something as he did so.” Owen was too drunk to realize the danger he faced. He was turning away from Look when he was struck by all three shots. He slumped over the steering wheel, dead. It was 4:35.

“Look walked right away, tossing a cartridge box into the bushes,” Salmon recalled. Look held on to the gun, and Salmon and Crosby did not believe they could take custody of Look safely. There was no telephone in the cottage. They went to town, looking for “a cop and a doctor.” They returned with Acting Police Chief Simeon C. Pinkham and Dr. Thomas C. Cosgrove, the town physician.

Look walked to the cottage where Lydia Hyde lived with the children and Holmes. Mrs. Hyde was napping, James Holmes told Look, but Look walked past him to the door of the room where she was sleeping.

 “He came into my cottage and said that he had done what he planned,” said Mrs. Hyde. “I didn’t know what he meant. When I found out that he had killed Owen, I felt cold all over. It was a terrible shock, for I liked Knight.” She said that Look had often threatened Knight Owen, but Owen didn’t believe
he meant it. “You know, this man talked of killing not only Knight, but others,” said Mrs. Hyde.
Susan Hyde Macy was the eleven-year-old stepdaughter of Lydia Hyde. An educational psychologist, she is eighty-two now and still lives on the shores of Lake Tashmoo. She remembers Harold Look fondly, and recalls his appearance at the cottage after he shot Knight Owen. “The only part that sticks in my mind is when Mr. Look told Mama what he had done – how upset she was. I have a recollection of him sort of standing in the door frame. I have the impression that it was raining on that day, that it was dark; it seemed like it was dark. I know from the work I do that you can confabulate, you can mix two memories” – it was raining the next day when the police brought Look back to the scene to retrace his steps during the shooting – “so I had the sense of Mr. Look with the rain pouring down and his just standing in the doorway and not coming in, and I just don’t have the sense of anything happening after that.”

Look also told James Holmes that he had shot Knight Owen. Holmes said Look was wild-eyed and still had the revolver in his hand when he left the cottage. Look walked to his shack and changed into a well-worn, dark-blue serge suit. He left the shack and approached Dr. Felix R. Brunot, the surgeon in charge at the Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven, who was fishing nearby. Look told Dr. Brunot that he had shot a man and wished to surrender to a federal officer. He no longer had the gun. He may have thrown it into the Herring Creek just before speaking with the doctor.

Look and Dr. Brunot began walking down Herring Creek Road. In front of the Hyde cottage, Look kicked off his rubbers and gave them to Holmes. “Jimmy, I won’t need these where I’m going,” he said.

Look and Dr. Brunot met Simeon Pinkham, the acting police chief, who drove up and greeted Look. “Going up to town, Harold? Give you a lift?” asked Pinkham. Look said yes and got into the car. In this casual fashion, the killer was taken into police custody. Pinkham drove his prisoner to the state police barracks in Oak Bluffs for booking and interrogation. On the way, Look asked the officer to avoid his parents’ house on Center Street. “Don’t go by the old folks’ house,” he said. “They’ve had enough trouble.” Pinkham drove a block out of the way. Look told police that he tossed his gun into the bushes along
the road, but only the cartridges were found there.    

Knight Owen had been shot through the back into the heart, once in the lower spine, and once in the right buttock. Medical examiner Dr. Orland S. Mayhew had to tell the families of both the killer and the victim what had happened. Dr. Mayhew’s daughter, Barbara Donald of Vineyard Haven, remembers that when Mrs. Owen was told of her son’s death, she said, “Well, I know where he is tonight.”

The body was taken to the Hinckley Renear morgue on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, where Brickman’s is today. Dr. William Rosen of New Bedford performed an autopsy the following day. The death certificate, signed by Dr. Mayhew, lists “Homicide. Shot through heart” as the cause of death.

Owen’s casket was delivered to the Owen family home that afternoon. The funeral was held the following afternoon, two days after the murder. Mrs. Owen kept calm throughout the service. Knight Owen was buried with military honors at the Oak Grove Cemetery. Leading the service was Colonel George R. Goethals, son of General George W. Goethals, who was in charge of the building of the Panama Canal.

This was only the fourth murder on Martha’s Vineyard going back to the time of English settlement in 1642, and news of a shooting on the Vineyard drove the recent assassination of Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana, below the fold of major mainland newspapers. The papers decided that Knight Owen and Harold Look had competed for Lydia Hyde. Knight Owen was depicted as “Martha’s Vineyard’s best-known playboy.” Lydia Hyde was a “beautiful widow” or an “attractive divorcĂ©e” in love with the handsome former aviator, spurning the overtures of Harold Look, who was a “grouch” and “queer.” The killing happened late on a Thursday afternoon; the Gazette did not have time to pull Knight Owen’s last society column from its Friday edition.

Knight Owen was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in the family plot, next to his father, only ninety paces away from the graves of Harold Look’s family.
Harold Look was found incompetent to stand trial, a “victim of alcoholism, sexual psychopathy and delusions,” according to state psychologists. On January 2, 1936, he was committed to the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1955 the medical director of Bridgewater declared that Look had recovered from alcoholic psychosis and was competent to stand trial. In November of that year, a jury quickly found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He was re-committed to Bridgewater for life. He died of pneumonia at Boston State Hospital in Dorchester in the spring of 1964 at the age of eighty-one and is buried in Bridgewater. His shack was swept away by the Hurricane of 1938, and with it went the old Herring Creek – the last artifact on the landscape to remind anyone that Harold Look had ever lived there.