Monthly Archives: May 2011

An Execution at Winter Island

Today, Salem’s Winter Island (which at present is not really an island but more of a neck) is a recreational park, the site of camping, sunbathing, biking, and kayaking. But 190 years ago TODAY, it was the site of an infamous execution at its highest point, “Execution Hill”.   The convict executed on May 10, 1821, reportedly before a crowd of thousands, was Stephen Merrill Clark, who was only 16 years old.  Clark had been convicted of arson, a crime that was on a par with murder in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Library of Congress

The execution of a juvenile for a crime involving mere property damage can only be (partially) explained by the fact that Clark set fires up in Newburyport, which had experienced a devastating fire which destroyed over 250 buildings only a decade before.  Yet along with their guilty verdict, the jury recommended that Clark’s sentence be commuted, perhaps taking to heart the defense counsel’s argument that his client was “scarcely beyond the period of childhood, coming to the bar friendless and alone, and cast upon the mercy of the Court and upon the kindness of strangers.” (A Report of the Evidence, Arguments of Counsel, Charge, and Sentence, at the Trial of Stephen Merrill Clark for Arson, before the Supreme Judicial Court, T.C. Cushing, Salem, 1821)

The Governor’s Council of Massachusetts ignored the jury’s recommendation (citing public safety concerns) and so the execution proceeded.  As Clark had been convicted in Salem and languished in Salem Jail (recently restored and converted to apartments, which I wrote about in an earlier post), he was taken to Winter Island, the site of a succession of executions dating back to at least the mid-eighteenth century.  Why Winter Island became Salem’s execution locale I do not know; perhaps because of its remoteness and disciplinary function.  The island was home to miliary installations dating back to the seventeenth century, including Fort Pickering, which had been operational during the War of 1812 and would be pressed into service again during the Civil War.

"Execution Hill" today

The circumstances of Clark’s trial and execution, including his age and the facts that no one was injured by his crime, a rather disreputable woman named Hannah Downes was the primary witness for the prosecution, and the jury’s recommendation of leniency, caused a great deal of debate in Massachusetts legal and political circles after 1821.  Consequentially arson was eliminated from the list of capital crimes in Massachusetts by 1852, and Stephen Merrill Clark was the last person executed at Winter Island.
Comparative Context:  Below is another crime broadside(an extremely popular genre in the nineteenth century, and well before) from the Harvard Law School Library’s digital database Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders:  Crime Broadsides.  Clearly arson was an equally serious crime on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the nineteenth century, as here we have a British boy even younger than Clark executed for it.  Proceed with caution when venturing into these texts:  lots of graphic images!

Greenaway Mothers

The British children’s book illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) created a distinct silhouette for her depictions of children, but “Greenaway Mothers” are immediately recognizable as well:  nostalgically attired in the same Regency cottons as their children, perfectly coiffed curls swept up in a seemingly effortless updo (always adorned with the appropriate hat),  participating in the scene rather than just looking on.  And husbandless–there are no “Greenaway fathers” to be found.

Greenaway grew up in the East End of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution, but she was able to spend precious time outside the city staying with relatives in the countryside, the setting for the perfect worlds she created in illustrations for over 60 books and countless serial publications, including The Girl’s Own Annual, for which the 1887 lithograph above was made.  Along with Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott, Greenaway was one of the so-called “Nursery Triumvirate” who worked with color printer Edmund Evans to revolutionize the children’s picture book industry in the later nineteenth century.  Greenaway’s works included multiple editions of Mother Goose and ABC books, as well as “new” story books, and within a decade of the beginning of her career she was the author as well as the illustrator.  Among the most popular of her publications was the annual Almanack she published between 1883 and 1895.

The middle image above is the only one I could find of working Greenaway mothers, placed in a somewhat industrial setting, but they still wear the idealized costumes of at least a half-century earlier.  More characteristic in its bucolic background and floral motifs is Marigold Garden.  Pictures and Rhymes by Kate Greenaway, first published in 1885.

Kate Greenaway created not only lasting images, but also a lasting brand.  Her clothing was manufactured and sold to upper-middle-class mothers who wanted just that certain “handcrafted” look for their children while Greenaway-inspired prints graced textiles, tiles, and wallpapers.  An 1893 example of the latter from the Victoria & Albert Museum is below, along with a modern version of a “Greenaway dress” by British paper artist Jennifer Collier.

Preservation: Gains and Losses

Historic preservation has been an ongoing effort in Salem since at least the second World War, when the seventeenth-century Jonathan Corwin house (later, unfortunately, labelled the “Witch House”, was threatened by a street-widening project and Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI) was formed by a group of citizens determined to save the house.  They were successful, and HSI (along with other individual passionate preservationists) has gone on to fight urban renewal, save a succession of historic structures, and advocate for both individual restoration and adaptive reuse projects as well as a more general planning policy encompassing historic preservation.  There have been losses and gains over the past half century or so, both of which have had a dramatic effect on Salem’s streetscape.

Two projects of the last decade represent the dynamic of gain and loss in the continuum of preservation advocacy very well.  Most recently the very shabby Elks Lodge was transformed into the stately One Eaton Place Condominiums, a rehabilitation that is even more impressive given the building’s prominent place along one of Salem’s entrance corridors, North Street.  When HSI, which had a vested interest because its headquarters are immediately adjacent to this building as well as a more general preservation concern, informed the developers that their newly-purchased building had somehow lost its third story at some point in the twentieth century, they were more than eager to put it back and gain additional units at the same time.  This was a win-win for everyone, and (in a tough real estate market) the condominiums sold out within months of completion of the project.

In the loss column goes one of the most hard-fought preservation efforts in Salem’s history:  the effort to secure the redevelopment of the 1908 Salem Armory after its partial destruction by fire in 1982.  The imposing (many architectural adjectives come to mind:  fortress-like, castle-esque, Romanesque/Gothic/medieval revival) structure, long home to the Second Corps of Cadets of the Massachusetts National Guard, dominated several blocks of central Essex Street right up to its demolition in 2000, even after the 1982 fire, as these before and after images illustrate.


A Frank Cousins photograph of the Armory Billiards Room, c. 1910. Duke University Library Special Collections


HABS, Library of Congress

Ten years after the fire, 1992

At about the time of this last photograph, the newly-formed and adjacent Peabody Essex Museum (a merger of the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute) entered into a memorandum of agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission and other parties to incorporate the street-fronting “head house” into its expansion plans while the National Park Service proceeded to transform the rear “drill shed” into a Visitor’s Center.  Throughout the 1990s, the Museum delayed and eventually reneged on its agreement, transferring its expansion focus to the present Moshe Safdie-designed atrium addition across the street.  HSI initiated a legal action to save the head house but to no avail:  it came down in 2000.  In its place, the Museum left only the Tudor arch entryway standing (presumably to maintain some semblance of streetscape) and promised a “world-class” Armory Park to honor the Second Corps of Cadets.

I’ve always found the stand-alone entry a bit ghostly; it’s an architectural memento mori.  Amory Park is not really a place, but simply a pass-through path to the Salem Visitor’s Center beyond, which is a great resource for both Salem’s residents and visitors.  May is Preservation Month, a time to look around and remember both what has been saved and what has been lost.

Old Orange Houses

I went for a walk around Salem yesterday and suddenly noticed lots of orange houses.  I hadn’t realized there were so many; this is obviously another (old) design trend that has passed me by.  The orange houses of Salem are all on side streets and relatively small in scale, which is probably a good thing, as it’s a pretty powerful color.  No orange houses on stately Chestnut Street where Federal houses predominate and yellow is an exotic color, or on the main street of Salem, Essex Street, or on Washington Square, the street which surrounds the Common.  But if you look down any side street running off these broad boulevards, you’ll most likely see a pop of orange on a colonial or Victorian house.  Here is a sampling:  two orange houses right around the corner from our house, a mid-nineteenth century Gothic Revival cottage and a Georgian double house near the Common, a melon-colored house with Derby Wharf and The Friendship almost in its backyard, a wall of orange on a Derby Street triple-decker, and another gambrel-roofed later eighteenth-century house off Federal Street.

Surprising but true:  I could not find an orange house on Orange Street!

Timeworn Typewriters

Vintage typewriters are having a moment.  I think they’ve been having a moment for some time but suddenly their images are all around me, everywhere I turn in both real and digital life.  Perhaps it is the ongoing impact of Steampunk (AllSaints Spitalfields stores feature many vintage machines in their displays, generally sewing machines and typewriters), or maybe it’s a sentimental  attachment that has grown stronger with their gradual disappearance from our lives.  Just last week I heard that the last typewriter had rolled off the production line of the last factory (in India) that still produced them.

I was thinking about typewriters even before I happened upon a charming old movie on television last week:  The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.  This 1947 musical (with music by the Gershwin brothers) stars Betty Grable as a young suffragette taking on Boston Brahmin society at the turn of the century armed only with her typewriter. After receiving her certificate from a business college in New York, she comes up to work in traditional Boston as the first female typist or typewriter (the turn “typewriter” is used exclusively for the person who is operating the machine rather than the machine itself).  Everyone is shocked!  She then becomes part of the very active suffrage movement (allowing us to listen to suffragette songs) and of course falls in love with her Brahmin boss, thus changing Boston society forever.  

The typewriter-as-liberation theme was also played out in the recent PBS series Downton Abbey, in which a young parlor maid in Edwardian England surreptitiously acquires typewriting skills in order to escape from domestic service. There was a commercial school here in Salem at around the same time, providing young women with the skills necessary to get them out of the factory.  From The Virtual Typewriter Museum, I have also learned that the first portable typewriter was produced right here in Salem in 1881 by the Hall Type-Writer Company.  Who knew?

Most of the nostalgia for typewriters is focused on dark and bulky models from the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but colorful mid-century models have their fans as well:  the Olivetti portable typewriter seems to be particularly in demand.  But for me, if you’re going to go back, you might as well go way back.  This print (click on the image to get the link to Etsy) should suffice.

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