Salem’s Scholar-Activist

The second president of the university where I teach was Alpheus Crosby (1810-1874), although his title was Principal of what was then known as Salem Normal School, a pioneering institution in both the education of teachers and women. While “scholar-activism” is an integral part of professional life for many in higher education today, it was a somewhat different pursuit in the nineteenth century, and Crosby’s life exemplifies that of a scholar-activist in that time, while also representing the differences between his time and ours. Crosby was an eminent scholar of classical Greek who became a passionate advocate of public education: for women and freed slaves in particular, for everyone in principle. He managed to pursue these two callings simultaneously even though they did not always intersect—-to connect them, he also became an expert on educational instruction, publishing papers and delivering lecturing on “emulation” and grammatical “analysis” (which seems to refer to dissecting sentences—a practice I wish was still current) and serving as editor of The Massachusetts Teacher. These professional activities were just part of his life, which also included a decades-long devotion to the abolitionist and suffrage movements and major roles in Salem’s key cultural institutions: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Institute. He was a very “public man” by vocation and predilection.

Crosby pic

Crosby Normal School 1865 SSU


Crosby Ad The Massachusetts Teacher 13Alpheus Crosby and several (not all!) of his equally successful siblings, the sons of Dr. Asa Crosby of Sandwich, New Hampshire. The Normal School at Salem on Broad and Summer Streets during Crosby’s tenure, c. 1857-1865, Salem State University Archives; just a few of the Salem institutions to which Alpheus Crosby volunteered considerable time: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum (then at Plummer Hall) and the Essex Institute, Cousins collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth; Professor Crosby’s bestselling series of Greek textbooks, 1860.

Because Crosby was so active, he was memorialized everywhere upon his death in 1874. I read a lot of obituaries and none were pro forma: all were very personal and absolutely reverent. Some personal details: his first wife, Abigail Cutler of Newburyport, was an invalid whom he took on a tour of Europe after their marriage, during which she died in 1837. He returned to his professorship at Dartmouth, where he had commenced teaching at age 23, but resigned and moved to Newburyport to care for his mother-in-law, who was also an invalid, upon the death of her husband. During this period—over a decade—he continued his Greek scholarship but also served as Newburyport’s Superintendent of Schools. Upon Mrs. Cutler’s death, he went south to Salem and began his post at the Normal School. in 1857. There followed an expanded curriculum, a larger library, and enthusiastic (by all accounts) teaching by the Principal, who was clearly much more than an administrator: many student testimonies speak to his “remarkable spirit of earnestness” and enthusiasm, and then there is this glowing account in the Salem Observer, from December of 1861.

Crosby CollageCrosby Oberserver 3

In that same year, Crosby married Martha Kingman of Bridgewater, who was an instructor at the Normal School. As the Civil War progressed, he became increasingly focused on the emerging agenda of political, social and educational reform in the south, publishing several works on the topic, becoming the first chairman of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, and taking on editorial duties for The Right Way, a new journal dedicated to advocating for progressive reconstruction. The urgency of this work prompted his resignation from the Normal School in 1866, citing “the critical condition of the country at the present time and the danger that the rights of colored people will not be duly regarded in the coming reconstruction.” That work—-and his classical scholarship—consumed him until his death in 1874. Several of the obituaries marking his death, including those in the New York Times and Boston Globe, make note of the two “colored girls” which Professor and Mrs. Crosby adopted, “an act which provoked much comment.” I have to admit I couldn’t find any comment and not much about these two girls, whom I suspect were fostered rather than adopted by the Crosbys. They are referred to (and provided for) in Crosby’s 1874 will as “Amy Lydia Dennis and Lucy B. Dennis, living with me.” I’d really like to know more about these two women.

Crosby Suffrage Collage

Crosby donation

Crosby Donation 3

20191117_151200 Post-“retirement”: advocacy for radical reconstruction and “impartial” suffrage, 1865-66, Library of Congress; just one donation to the Normal School at Salem. 111 Federal Street in Salem, the residence of Professor and Mrs. Crosby, along with Amy Lydia and Lucy B. Dennis, during the 1860s.

Obviously there is a lot more to learn about Professsor Alpheus Crosby: his life, his work, his world. He is book-worthy! I was inspired to post about him now because of a rather odd confluence of factors. I was reading up on Xenophon for the book I’m working on, as he was a very popular author of husbandry and household tracts in the Tudor era despite being dead for centuries, and I encountered Professor Crosby’s name everywhere I clicked. And the materialist side of me is a constant real- “estalker” and his Federal Street house has recently been on the market. Once I had Alpheus Crosby on my mind, he was suddenly everywhere: just last Friday I was walking back to my office after finishing my last class and I saw one of my students in the hall, waiting to begin her classical Greek tutorial with our Department’s ancient historian, Erik Jensen, and I thought: Professor Crosby would be so pleased!

10 responses to “Salem’s Scholar-Activist

  • Sarah Staats

    Interesting subject! Is there a way to learn the addresses of the buildings illustrated in “Salem’s Scholar- Activist”??

    • daseger

      Oh I’m sorry, I’ve posted on these buildings before so I neglected to add their addresses: Plummer Hall (which was then the Salem Athenaeum) and the Daland House (which was then the Essex Institute) are in the 130 block of Essex Street; the former Lyceum was on the site of the present Lyceum on Church Street in Salem, and the former Salem Normal School was on the corner of Summer and Broad Streets–it was expanded later and is now condominiums.

  • Norm Corbin

    As Salem is my home town, I’m always interested in learning more about its history. Thanks for this article. Growing up on Wheatland Street we could see what was then Salem State from our street. Norm

  • gallowshillsite

    Common solecism: “Principal … refers to someone in a position of authority or high prominence. Principle …refers to a natural, moral, legal rule or standard.” You reversed them 🙁

  • Norm Corbin

    I’m sorry for changing the topic, but considering Plymouth is celebrating their 400th anniversary in 2020, would anyone know if Salem has started thinking about their 400th in 2026?

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Very intriguing story about “scholar-activist” Alpheus Crosby. His life and work reflect well on the city of Salem and SSU.

    Just think that at age 23, after the death of his young wife, he returned to Newburyport to oversee the care of his aging mother-in-law. Now that’s devotion.

    I would also like to learn more about his two young ladies fostered by Crosby and his second wife. I bet they had every advantage and probably learned Greek.

    • daseger

      Well his second wife returned to her native Bridgewater, and was very active there in education, eventually serving as Superintendent of schools. We think we’ve found the girls in South Carolina…..stay tuned!

  • Nancy

    Fascinating! I think my next turn of interest will be to dive into Abolitionism. I will be seeing “Harriet” tomorrow, and am quilting a block called “Bear Paw,” purported to mean “take the Appalachian Trail.” I know that there is no concrete evidence to support the role of quilt designs in the Underground Railroad…but so many of those legends/myths have their roots in oral history, those enslaved often unable to read or write. So who’s to say! In the movie trailer, there is a shot of a quilt piece called “Log Cabin,” supposedly indicating it is safe to talk there. I don’t know if that is a mere coincidence in the movie…or if it was included as an historical possibility. But it’s fascinating to think!

    Thank you again for an enlightening and inspiring article.

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