Salem Murder Mystery

For some time I’ve been curious about the death of a patent-holding, pioneering Salem photographer named George K. Proctor in 1882:  I’m not sure whether he died by his own hand, or that of his wife, so while his death might not have been murder, it remains a mystery to me (and I could not resist the dramatic title).

First a little about his life. Proctor operated what looks like a successful photography business here in Salem from the early 1860s until his death. Part of his success was no doubt due to his marketing techniques, and part due to the process for which he received a patent (no. 83,545) in 1868 for an artificially-lighted, oval-shaped photographic room which allowed photographs to be taken with a 15-second exposure, day or night. His studio on Essex Street produced tintypes and stereoviews upon commission and for sale, including this charming portrait of an anonymous woman, captured early in Proctor’s career (and at the very beginning of the Civil War).

Proctor 1861

Proctor 1861 back

G.K. Proctor, Anonymous Woman, 1861, Salem, Massachusetts.  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The instant I saw this image I wanted to know more about this woman, and the man who captured her on film. Sadly, I haven’t been able to turn up anything on her, and just a bit more on Proctor. He was a prolific photographer (or photographist, as he is sometimes called) so many of his images survive, but most of the literary and documentary evidence of his life is primarily concerned with his death. Before I get into that, a few more of his images, which do seem to fall into two categories:  the tintype portraits like that of the woman with the Mona Lisa smile above, and stereoviews of scenes that he captured while traveling around the region in his special photographic van and marketed in collections entitled “Views of Salem and Vicinity” and  “American Views”.  The Chestnut Street header at the top of my blog is a Proctor view, as are those below, all from the Dennis collection of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Proctor Essex Street

Proctor Students

Proctor Funeral Car NYPD

Essex Street, Salem, unidentified students (and their teacher?) on the steps of their unidentified school, and the interior of a Peabody funeral car, 1870s stereoviews by G.K. Proctor, NYPL Digital Gallery.

With this last (strange) image providing some sort of segue, I’ll turn to the circumstances of his death in 1882. Mr. Proctor was found unconscious in the basement of his home (I’m not sure of the address:  according to the Salem Registers, he and his family seem to have moved between Endicott, Essex and Bridge Streets every two years or so but in 1882 they appear to have been living on Dodge Street) by his wife Sarah on the morning of July 27, 1882. She summoned the authorities, who confirmed that he was dead. From that point on, I followed the story in the New York Times, which was much more forthcoming than the local papers. The original judgment of natural causes quickly turned to suspicions of suicide and/or murder. And Mrs. Proctor quickly became the prime suspect.

Proctor NY TIMES 1882

And what did the District Attorney decide to do?  According to The New York Times, Sarah Proctor was arrested for the murder of her husband some two and a half years later. In a short article headlined Charged with her Husband published on February 2, 1885, the Times reported:

Proctor New York Times February 3 1885

So I expected to find a trial, but instead all I have found is a brief note in the 1886 Annual Report of the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons indicating that the case of Mrs. Proctor, indicted on charges of murdering her husband, was discharged by the state Attorney General. No details, no explanations as to why, no news of a longlost suicide note finally brought to light!  That same year, there was another legal action involving Sarah Proctor: a suit brought against her by her daughter Lilla (Proctor v. Proctor, 141 Mass. 160) referencing money rather than murder. Lilla, who was a minor, had nevertheless removed herself from her mother’s house (now in Beverly), moved in with her aunt in nearby Malden, and become engaged. There was an accusation that Sarah “was not maintaining an establishment or family home”, and several references to the “difficulties” that existed between mother and daughter, but basically what Lilla wanted was her promised inheritance, or one-third of Proctor’s estate, which was still under the control of Sarah and her fellow trustees. The judge ruled in Lilla’s favor, and there is no further mention of either of them in the legal records. I am left wondering why, and how, the charges against Sarah Proctor were dismissed, and what, or who, caused George K. Proctor’s death.

Appendix: see another charming Proctor tintype portrait here.

4 responses to “Salem Murder Mystery

  • Sinclair 3168

    All very intriguing, I love these kind of grisly stories from the past.

  • daseger

    Sometimes I think nineteenth-century reporting makes stories grisly whether they are or not!

  • Susan Milstein

    Hi. I just found your blog post about G. K. Proctor via a Google search on his name. I work at the Beverly Historical Society and I’m revising information on some of the stereoscopic prints in our collection. Do you have any additional biographical information about Proctor? I already subscribe to your blog and I find it very interesting.
    Susan Milstein
    Beverly Historical Society

    • daseger

      Hi Susan—your colleague Darren is a former student of mine! I really don’t have much more on Proctor; I am compiling a loose history of sorts on 19th century Salem photographers but I haven’t really got to Proctor yet–I keep getting stuck on Frank Cousins! I will let you know if I find out anything else.

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