It is no coincidence that in the 1830s and 1840s Massachusetts was both a leading producer of rum and an early center of the Temperance movement. A third-generation Salem distiller named John Stone built our house in 1827, and 8 years later he found himself at the center of a storm whipped up by a pro-Temperance pastor named George Barrell Cheever, a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s at Bowdoin College who had recently taken up the pulpit at the Howard Street Congregationalist Church. Cheever was a passionate Northern reformer, equally zealous about banning alcohol and slavery. For both theological and moral reasons, he was also quite opposed to the Unitarian Church, which was very well established in Salem. So John Stone was a perfect target: not only was he Salem’s largest and wealthiest distiller, but he was Deacon John Stone of the Unitarian First Church in Salem. An attack on him would be like killing two birds with one stone!
In 1835 Cheever published an article in the religious newspaper The Salem Landmark entitled “Inquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” about an allegorical dream featuring a deacon/distiller, “a man who loved money, and was never troubled with tenderness of conscience”, whose employees were devils who manufactured not only rum (or “liquid damnation”) but also diseases, murder, insanity and all the evils of the world. All hell broke out with the publication of this article: Deacon Stone immediately recognized himself as Deacon Giles (Cheever had inserted many obvious clues in his “dream” story), his foreman attacked Cheever in the street, and a mob descended on the offices of the Salem Landmark. Cheever was sued for libel, found guilty, and ordered to spend a month in jail (where Nathaniel Hawthorne apparently visited him) and pay a $1000 fine. There was no sympathy in Salem for Cheever, who was referred to as the “Lord’s Annoited” by The Salem Gazette, but he moved on to bigger and better things: a new post in New York City and a national stage for his pro-temperance, anti-slavery advocacy. His little story fled Salem as well, and was reprinted as a broadside and pamphlet in New York and elsewhere under variant titles of Deacon Giles’ Distillery.
Scenes from “Deacon Giles”: demons in the distillery & dispensing damnation, from Building the Nation: Events in the History of the United States from the Revolution to the Beginning of the War between the States, by Charles Carleton Coffin (1882)
And what role does our house play in this story? Not much of one, except for the fact that we have lots and lots of storage compartments in the basement, including a “secret” one that actually extends under part of the street (or at least the sidewalk; I’ve never ventured into it–too scary). All of this storage space could have been used for supplies and stores, as Deacon John Stone operated our house as a rooming house while he lived across the street, or just maybe it housed all that rum.