The occupants of a house on Bryant Street in North Salem, British emigre Thomas Spencer, his wife and mother, both named Mary, and their houseguests, experienced a very scary night in late October of 1835, and I am not referencing Halloween. For this Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has selected the theme (or charge) of telling the full story, encouraging people across the country to dig deeper as they explore the histories of their built environment. I try to do that all the time here, as there are so many layers to Salem’s history, and this particular house is a perfect case in point: all at the same time it represents triumph over adversity, triumph over inequality, triumph over discrimination, triumph over terror, and candy.
First the house, 17 Bryant Street, then the backstory, then the terrible night: Halloween Eve, 1835.
17 Bryant Street, the Thomas Spencer Homestead, built c. 1800. Here pictured in 1904 (Essex Institute Historical Collections), 1979, 1986 and yesterday. As the Macris inventory indicates, this Federal house has been “altered beyond recognition”.
The backstory: much as been written about the Spencers, yet there is still quite a bit of confusion about the essential facts of their lives, both in Britain and in Salem. I used some genealogical and British records to come up with my summary, but I still have questions. I think I can do better than the standard Salem tale, however, which is basically “poor shipwrecked soul (Mary Sr.) is washed up on the North Shore penniless and gifted a barrel of sugar which she transforms into a miraculous hard candy called Gibralters and sells on the front steps of the First Church and the streets of Salem from her ever-recognizable buggy (make sure to add one or more exclamation marks to the closing phrase:) which is in the collection of the PEM!!! This candy is still being made and sold in Salem, at the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables.
I really don’t have much to add about the candy: that seems covered. But there’s a lot more to say about the Spencers. Mary Smith (Spencer) was born in Nottinghamshire in 1759: I really don’t know how she became a Spencer. Nearly every record I tracked down seemed to confuse the “Thomas Spencer” who was supposedly her husband with the “Thomas Spencer” who actually was her son, who was born in 1792 or 1793 in Coventry. She booked passage on the New York ship Jupiter which left London in March of 1805: it hit an iceberg off Newfoundland and was shipwrecked. There were many reports in the eastern newspapers, including the Salem Register, identifying the 27 passengers who drowned, along with the captain and most of the crew, but the survivors are not named. These “persons preserved” in the Jupiter’s longboat ended up in Marblehead, and later, Salem, Mary Spencer among them. There are also newspaper reports of the charity extended to these survivors, including, the sugar that was reportedly granted to Mary Spencer by the benevolent ladies of Salem, enabling her to become the enterprising confectioner of lore and legend.
Salem Register; the iconic image of Mrs. Spencer, from Early Personal Reminiscences in the old George Peabody mansion in Salem, Massachusetts by Clara Endicott Sears.
I don’t think Thomas was with Mary; I believe he came over in the 1820s and eventually took over his mother’s business. He was married to Mary Robinson in England in 1817: their two sons, Franklin and John Kirby, were both born in Salem. Thomas remained in Salem, very much part of the community, until 1837, when he was bequeathed a considerable amount of property in the villages of Sturton and Bransby in Lincolnshire by the Reverend John Kirby, the namesake of his younger son. There was no “title,” as some of the Salem accounts suggest, but some very nice properties nonetheless. In various letters sent back to some of his friends in Salem, Thomas writes that he is finally doing what he always wanted to do: farming. He left his mark in Salem, however: as an entrepreneur, as part of the Quaker community, as a naturalist (a topic he spoke on regularly at the Salem Lyceum), and above all, as a abolitionist. Both Thomas and Mary R. Spencer were devoted Quakers, and a big part of the expression of their faith was an equally strong commitment to the transatlantic abolitionist cause. Thomas was one of the founders of Salem’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, and he and Mary attended a series of abolitionist conventions over the next few years, but the peak of their commitment to the cause was clearly their shelter and protection of their fellow English abolitionist George Thompson and his family in late October of 1835.
Salem Gazette; George Thompson in the 1830s, National Portrait Gallery.
Following the passage of the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833, which granted enslaved persons in many (but not all) of the colonies of the British Empire their freedom after a five-year period of “transition” and compensation to the slave-owners rather than those who were enslaved, British abolitionists focused on the immediate abolition of slavery in the empire—and the world. One of their most effective missionaries, George Thompson, was commissioned to undertake a series of lectures in the United States in 1834-1835 in collaboration with the American Anti-Slavery Society. It’s very clear that Thompson’s tour, or Thompson himself, was a lightening rod: while he was instrumental in inspiring the formation of more than 300 local abolitionist societies, he faced constant criticism (even in Northern newspapers) as well as threats of mob violence in all the major cities he visited, including Boston and Salem. The general criticism was along the lines of “who is this infamous foreign scoundrel who deigns to lecture the citizens of the United States on their domestic duties?” It was nativist, xenophobic, and nationalistic, with slight variations in each locale. When Thompson came to Salem on the last leg of his tour, he quite naturally stayed at the large Federal home of his countryman and fellow abolitionist Thomas Spencer, a bit removed from the city center. On the morning of October 30, this is the handbill that circulated around town: The Citizens of Salem, the friends of order, who are desirous to preserve the quiet of families, and the peace of town by driving from our society the foreign pest, who is endeavoring to agitate the country with his doctrines and to destroy the Union of State by his fanaticism, are earnestly requested to meet at the Town Hall, this afternoon, at 3 o’clock to adopt measures to effect this object. Salem, October 30, 1835. The main “measure” implemented was essentially the formation of a large mob, which surrounded Spencer’s North Salem house that very night, even though Thompson had fled. The Boston papers reported on “symptoms of violence” the next day, but Spencer was more forthcoming in a letter he wrote to one of Thompson’s sponsors, the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society.
Boston Morning Post; Thomas Spencer reports to the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society, 1835, in Three Years’ Female Anti-Slavery Effort, in Britain and America: Being a Report of the Proceedings of the Glasgow Ladies’ Auxiliary Emancipation Society.
Well obviously there’s a lot here: a mob of 400 men! The xenophobia (“one Englishman is as good as another” ) and the anti-Quaker expressions as well: shades of seventeenth-century Salem. Because of some notable abolitionist individuals and institutions like the Remonds and the Female Anti-Slavery Society, we are accustomed to thinking about Salem as a center of progressive abolitionism, but my Americanist colleagues remind me that only a small percentage (1-3%) of urban dwellers in antebellum cities identified as Abolitionists. Spencer writes about “Southerners from Boston” (which is a funny expression–do you think he means actual Southerners or did Salem people look upon Bostonians as “Southerners”?) as well as pro-Slavery men of Salem. His mother, the famous Mary Spencer, is obviously still alive, but I think she died that very year. His wife, the other Mary Spencer, has a “new-born babe” in her arms, but I can’t find any record of that child. Is it any wonder that Thomas Spencer sold everything in Salem and departed for England two years later after coming into his inheritance from the Reverend Kirby? And shouldn’t we be talking about a bit more than candy when we consider Mary and Thomas Spencer and the Salem in which they lived?
Home in England: a special photograph of Thomas and Mary Spencer in front of their home in Bransby, Lincolnshire, in 1867 from the Sturton & Stow History Society. They both died in 1876.
May 21st, 2021 at 3:07 pm
A tour de force of historical blogging, Donna, I never knew the full “backstory” to Ye Olde Pepper Company. Of course the additional irony in all this is that the abolitionist Spencers’ business was based on SUGAR!
May 21st, 2021 at 3:15 pm
I know! Like everything else related to Salem’s history, You can’t make it up!
May 21st, 2021 at 5:09 pm
What an odd lot this house has.
A small sliver extends across the street, and a long “chimney” of land extends to the back.
May 21st, 2021 at 7:43 pm
I agree. That’s why I love the early photo—it clearly was situated on a large, rural, elevated lot, and then the field was sold off. It’s kind of a miracle that it survived!
May 21st, 2021 at 8:42 pm
One of your best pieces, Donna. Thank you.
May 22nd, 2021 at 9:26 am
Thank you so much!
May 22nd, 2021 at 8:14 am
Wow! Great story / backstory!
I enjoyed this thoroughly, Donna. Thanks for keeping us curious, riveted, and loving this blog and your depth of knowledge!
May 22nd, 2021 at 8:33 am
May 22nd, 2021 at 9:27 am
Thank you for this very interesting post about some very brave Salem people. The terrible thing is that mentalities around the world haven’t changed much after all those years.
May 22nd, 2021 at 9:35 am
Scary mobs still out there, for sure.
May 26th, 2021 at 11:44 am
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Curious, did the Spencer family live at the Buffum Street house? It’s plaque states it was moved there for Thomas Spencer in 1832.
May 26th, 2021 at 11:31 am
I don’t know–I was just “talking” about this with the owner of that house on fb. My guess is that he purchased that house for his mother, and he clearly invested in that area. Thomas needs more research!
May 29th, 2021 at 11:35 am
Thanks for a fascinating blog article. History has so many more nuances than we generally acknowledge, and history does keep repeating itself. We still have mobs demonstrating and polarized view points on how to handle current situations – to protest or not, to support or not our government and its laws.