The World & Nantucket


Crime on the island is comparatively scarce, for the simple reason that it’s so hard to get away, and the local police department has over the years adopted a fraternal attitude toward its fellow citizens. The state police, however, are off-islanders sent down from Boston, and they are afflicted by no such community feeling. This combination of the benign and the strict in law enforcement serves to keep any would-be criminals off balance, if nothing else. During Prohibition there was another problem, because the bootleggers found Nantucket’s unattended beaches ideal for landing cargoes from their offshore boats. In this case the Coast Guard and federal agents entered the picture. It was impossible for them to police the entire shore line, and there are some Nantucketers today who can afford to go to Florida in the winter because of the accessibility of the Nantucket beaches forty years ago. One area in particular, known variously as Smuggler’s Cove or Gin Gulch, took a great deal of traffic, the only drawback being that it was on the property of a woman who lived in a shack nearby, who was slightly eccentric and also an excellent shot with a rifle. One night she looked out and saw a group of men landing cases from a boat, and she took her rifle from the wall and rushed out at them. “Get offa my property!” she shouted. “Get your dirty smuggling hands offa my property, and don’t you ever come back or I’ll shoot!” To emphasize her point, she sent a bullet zipping into the sand.

“O.K., lady, O.K.,” came a voice from the darkness. “Take it easy. We’re going.”

She returned to her shack, and next morning found a case of liquor beside the door. She found cases of liquor at periodic intervals thereafter,’ but for some reason she never seemed to see the smugglers again. It was one of the unexpected blessings that off-islanders had brought to the island. Whether they like it or not, and no matter whether for good or for ill, the islanders are inextricably mixed up with the doings of the outside world.

But when the winter closes in, and the summer off-islanders are gone, the Nantucketers who remain settle back and look at one another. They are not always happy with what they see, and factions develop and fights start that in some cases leave lasting scars. The questing tentacles of the John Birch Society touched the edges of a recent school controversy, and accusations and counteraccusations flew back and forth like grapeshot. The local newspaper, which took a determined stand in the affair, was owned and edited by off-islanders, so some people backed the other side as a matter of principle, and this did nothing to lessen the heat of the debate. Nor did it do anything to clarify the issues.

In the long run, however, the Nantucketers accept their dependence on the outside world with reasonable grace and, in some cases, good humor. One woman, now in her mid-eighties, was asked by an off-islander just what it was she did in the winter, and she smiled and replied, “Mostly, we talk about you people. And what we don’t know, we make up.”