Locked Away

So many materials, locked away in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, undigitized, unheralded, unshared, undervalued and underutilized. Perhaps the digitized catalog will bring scholars to Rowley but they will have to be on the hunt: the Museum clearly does not have the inclination to blaze the trail. This was not always the case: a century and more ago, both of the PEM’s predecessors, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, were determined to share the stories of their collections to as wide an audience as was then possible. This week, like many historically-minded people in Massachusetts, I’m thinking about the insurgent American Revolution: that’s what mid-April is all about here. We have the 382nd Annual Muster on Salem Common this weekend along with a Glover’s Regiment encampment over in Marblehead, and then all the events associated with Patriots Day in Lexington and Concord on Monday. As has become my habit, I looked through the catalog of the Phillips to see what I am missing–what all of us are missing— about the historical significance of this time. The diaries always catch my attention (the Phillips is particularly rich in diaries) and one looked really interesting: that of William Russell of Boston, a Tea Partier and later clerk to the dashing privateer Captain John Manley, commander of the Continental ship Jason, which was captured in 1779. He then became a prisoner of war and recorded conditions as such in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England during the duration of the war. There is a list of his fellow prisoners as well as the ships from whence they came, and additional notes and annotations by his grandson James Kimball, a Salem resident who published the diary and presented his manuscript copy to the Essex Institute, where Ralph Paine mined it for several chapters in his 1908 book The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem; the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement, calling it “by far the most complete and entertaining account of the experience of the Revolutionary privateersmen and naval seamen who suffered capture that has been preserved”. Here we have an example where (I think–I stand ready to be corrected by historians of the Revolution) an antiquarian and annotated copy has been more influential than the original source, which is part of the Boston Public Library’s collection of American Revolutionary War Manuscripts.

Locked Away Journal

Locked Away Russell Warrant 1779

Locked Away Captain_John_Manley,_wood_block,_Peabody_Essex_MuseumThe opening page of William Russell’s wartime diary & the warrant for his arrest in December of 1779, Boston Public Library; woodcut broadside illustration of the famous Captain Manley of Marblehead, Peabody Essex Museum.

If this is true, it will not be so for much longer: the Boston Public Library is committed to digitization, collective transcription and open access while the PEM clearly is not (yet, we have hopes), so the primary source will eclipse the copy if it has not already. I’m drawn to the PEM Russell diary because it speaks to the activities and inclinations of his grandson, James Kimball, almost as much as it does to William Russell himself, and also to the role played by the Essex Institute in later nineteenth-century Salem. Around the time of the Centennial, James Kimball, a former Salem shoemaker and current county commissioner, clearly devoted himself to the chronicling of the Revolutionary activities of his grandfather, giving public talks at both the Salem Lyceum and the Essex Institute and publishing several papers in the Historical Collections of the latter, and ultimately the annotated prison diary. The Essex Institute gave him a genealogical and historical forum, and created a far more lively public discourse of Salem’s past and the American past than seems possible now.

Locked Away EI Text

History is as much about the remembrance of things past as the past, but I don’t want the former to take precedence over the latter, especially as we approach Patriots Day and should be mindful of the heroism and the sacrifices of our Revolutionary forebears. Russell was clearly heroic, but his sacrifices were overwhelming–maybe that’s what motivated his grandson a century later. He was in captivity at the Old Mill Prison for two and a-half years, when he was exchanged, but only 20 days after his liberation he was imprisoned again, this time in the horrible, hulking British prisoner ship Jersey, anchored off New York. And there he remained until the end of the war, after which he returned to Boston (actually Cambridge) to resume his civilian and family life, but “with health shattered by reason of his years of hardship as a prisoner of war…consumption gripped him and he died in the following year on March 7, 1784 at the age of thirty-five. He had given the best years of his life to his country and he died for its cause with as much indomitable heroism and self-sacrificing devotion as though musket ball or boarding pike had slain him” in the 1908 words of Ralph Paine. And the story doesn’t even end there: Russell’s son and namesake (and Kimball’s uncle) grew up to be a master mariner, and was taken captive by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned in……Old Mill Prison! Russell Jr. suffered a much shorter confinement than his father, but still: think about the sacrifices of two generations of a family, and the devotion of a third.

Locked Away Mill Prison1812 Drawing of Mill Prison, Plymouth.


17 responses to “Locked Away

  • Robin M

    Donna, this post gave me shivers—of the creepy kind! Imagine being locked away in the same place as your father had been and wondering if your fate would be the same? Wow. Thanks for sharing the story. I didn’t realize how deep the Phillips Library collections were for diaries. Cannot wait until it’s opened again.

    —Robin Mason

    Witches of Massachusetts Bay Genealogy Ink | NJUnionGenWeb

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  • Dan Duncan

    I have been asking for many years “what is in their hidden boxes at the Phillips Library. Much frustration was had whenever I would visit their library and found little help, yet their willingness to take my fee to use their library. I have an ancestor who was a young sailor on a privateer ship in Salem during the Revolution. I, also, love diaries and journals, and just wonder if the boat “The Rhodes” and his captain Nehemiah Botwitch is talked about, or even the gold nugget of his name being mentioned anywhere. If, someday, I do find him or my information, I will be livid for the years wasted waiting for them to catch up to the times.

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  • Peg Harrington

    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/04/09/the-strange-magic-of-libraries/#.Ws2St2mXmro.twitter Donna, Perhaps the overlords of the PEM should consider the Paris Review!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Almquist Nanny

    The Director and Trustees of the PEM just don’t seem to get that they are the stewards of a public institution that was created to hold Salem’s historic primary documents such as journals, letters, and ledgers, and that by limiting access to these they have denied the accurate telling of history. Pretty scary. It is the kind of thing we accuse dictatorial governments of doing.

    Moving the contents of the Phillips Library to a Rowley climate controlled warehouse with “public access” does not really do the trick. Rowley is 6 towns and 38 miles away, and with their track record of the last 10-15 years I doubt the facility will be open 40 hours a week, including some hours on the weekend.

    What are the chances that citizens of Salem will donate their journals, letters, ledgers, etc. to this institution?

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  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for sharing the sad story of William Russell imprisonment in England during the Revolutionary War and his subsequent untimely death as recorded by his grandson James Kimball. Your observation that “The Essex Institute gave him a genealogical and historical forum, and created a far more lively public discourse of Salem’s past and the American past than seems possible now” is truly sad. Another example of what is lost in the present state of affairs at the Essex Institute.

    I also enjoyed Peg’s link above to “The Strange Magic of Libraries” that appeared recently in the Paris Review. Today I stopped into the Wakefield Public Library and strolled through the reference room where I sat a while in a deep leather chair and perused some old copies of the ESSEX INSTITUTE HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS. The library is a magnificent building designed by famed architect Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), funded a century ago by the Wakefield industrialist Lucius Beebe. Gorgeous place and I would suggest that history lovers drop by and enjoy the ambience of the reference room loaded with old periodicals, genealogies, and local histories – truly a “magical” place.

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  • az1407t

    Rowley is 17-18 miles from Salem, not 38 as stated in a previous comment.

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  • Dan Duncan

    What is the distance from the train stop to the facility, Guy, might be the “spin” you’re looking for. The train becomes irrelevant if you have no transportation to the facility other than a taxi/uber.

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  • marlinspikeblog

    You make some great points. I was delighted to have this forwarded to me by a neighbor here in Salem, as I wasn’t aware of the blog.

    I spent many happy hours in the Phillips 10 and 15 years ago working on two books about Salem privateers in the War of 1812. In that conflict, too, the prisons were an abomination, and many Salem men died far from home in places like Melville Island (Halifax) and Dartmoor (England).

    Record-keeping was a little better in 1812 than in 1776, but not much. Every diary, in fact every scrap of paper, is valuable, and I know there are items in the Phillips that are still waiting for me — unseen, perhaps, since they were first donated and cataloged. I hope the new facility is friendlier to researchers than the old one. Of course, it will not as beautiful!

    I did get a lot of great help from the staff back in 2002 and 2003. Britta (Karlberg?), especially, was a wonderful resource. Thank you, Britta!

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  • Rick Dodge

    the Rowley train ‘stop’ is one the edge of a salt marsh 1/2 mile to the east of Rowley center. Then it is slog along roads with no sidewalks a couple of more miles to the new library.

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