Author Archives: daseger

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.

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Crosby Normal School 1865 SSU

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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.

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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.

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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!


The Sculptor’s Mother

I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.

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20191031_153222Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).

This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)!  The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.

Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessmanshortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here?  But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).

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Sarah Rogers NYHS

Sarah Rogers Checkers

Checkers photograph Essex Institute

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Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.


Built by a Master Mason

On a sunny afternoon last week, I had to the opportunity to go inside Two Oliver Street on Salem Common, a grand brick Federal house built in 1811 and currently for sale (so you can go in too, if you want). I hadn’t been in the house for a while, maybe a decade or so, and while there have been some alterations made to the more utilitarian spaces, the historic “public” rooms remain perfectly preserved, including the Zuber & Cie wallpaper in the dining room. There is a beautiful double parlor, very large center halls on all three stories, a sweeping serpentine staircase, and countless bedrooms—I really lost count, though three third-floor rooms have been combined to make a large poolroom, rec room, man cave, whatever you want to call it (it’s not very cave-like). There is also a wine cellar, a lovely deck overlooking an enclosed garden, and a carriage house with a second-floor apartment! All of these features are wonderful, but for me, the key attraction of the house was its combination of modernized facilities and systems combined with historical “texture”: I don’t like it when age-old plaster looks too smooth. Well see for yourself: here are my photographs of the exterior and first, second, and third floors.

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20191106_161151Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.

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20191106_155921Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.

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I love old basements—-if they are clean, which this one definitely was (unlike mine). On our way back upstairs from the wine cellar (just below), we popped in to see the “unfinished” part of the basement, which is really quite impressive. Combined with all of the exterior aspects of the building, it really reinforces the sense of masonry craftsmanship. Yes, the woodwork is beautiful too (as you can see above) but I walked away thinking about brick.

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Generally I write about the occupants of historic houses, but as I walked away from Two Oliver with all that brick on my mind I wanted to research the builder: I knew it was Joshua Upham, who also built Old Town Hall and part of Derby Square, but that was about all I knew about this “talented” (I found this adjective in several places) mason. Fortunately his son published a biography: even though it’s a bit more focused on Upham’s faith and activism (he was a Deacon of his church and a very passionate abolitionist) we also get to read a bit about his long career, which began in Boston as a mason’s apprentice. After a fallout with his fellow apprentices, he went down to the docks to catch a ship for Newburyport (as there had just been a fire) but wound up in Salem instead. This was in 1803, just before Salem’s Federal building boom, and in the words of his son, “in the reckless runaway, with his one shirt, one pair of duck trousers and a spencer, it would have needed a prophetic eye to see the most successful master mason in town, under whom the larger part of its ancient brick dwellings and stores were erected.”  Two Oliver Street was built for merchant Joseph White Jr., who lived in the house for only five years, until his death in 1816. There followed a long occupancy by Benjamin H. Silsbee and family in the middle of the nineteenth century, after which the house became the parsonage of the Tabernacle Church on Washington Street and the long-time residence of several generations of the Clark family. Joshua Upham’s spectacular building career was followed by an equally spectacular second career as an inventor of fire “annihilators” designed to protect buildings under the auspices of the Salem Laboratory on Lynde Street, and when he died in 1858 he was still in the possession of several patents.

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Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.


Restoration and Renewal

I was going to show you a beautiful Federal house today, with sweeping views and lavish details (and Zuber & Cie wallpaper!), but that will have to wait for the weekend, as I want to acknowledge, and celebrate, the recognition that the #newpem is indeed the new Peabody Essex Museum, an institution which now seems as much grounded in its local heritage as it is focused on its global perspectives. I thought #newpem was just a marketing campaign designed to focus all of our attention on the opening of the new wing, but I was wrong: the “new” in the hashtag is more directly, and substantively, a reference to the venerable museum’s new regime, which began in July when Dr. Brian Kennedy began his tenure as Director and CEO. As all of you know, I’ve been obsessed with the previous director’s decision to remove all of the PEM’s textual collections held in the Phillips Library to a clinical Collection Center in Rowley,  a decision that was not even formally announced to Salem residents, but rather issued in the form of an admission in December of 2017, well after this course of action had been implemented. For me, this was nothing short of the removal of Salem’s primary historical archive. When Dr. Kennedy arrived this summer, I began hoping for some kind of course correction; I perceived his references to Salem’s heritage and the Museum’s founders as hopeful hints and began to hold my breath. Then the Anchor returned to the front of the original Peabody Museum building, East India Hall, and I let it out a little bit. This morning, when I awoke to a summary of his speech before the North Shore Chamber of Commerce in the Salem News I let it out completely, right after I read this particular quote:

“I just have to come out and say that to you,” he said. “It was not done well. It was not done transparently. I don’t know why we thought we couldn’t share it much, much earlier that the buildings we had couldn’t contain this level of material. But they can contain material, and they will. So I pledge that to you, but I just ask you, you have to give me time.”

Yes, the old Plummer and Daland buildings, constituting the former Essex Institute and Phillips Library can contain material, and they will! That’s it: that’s all we need, that’s all Salem needs. What a striking contrast to previous Director Dan Monroe’s assertion, repeated time and time again, that it was IMPOSSIBLE for these buildings to contain anything other than bound volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections, which are readily available at the other end of Essex Street in the Salem Public Library. I believe Dr. Kennedy (and will hold him to his pledge, albeit with great liberality).

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20191031_142607N.C. Wyeth’s Peace, Prosperity, and Progress (1923) in one of the atriums of the new Peabody Essex Museum; the anchor returned in September, and in yesterday’s speech Dr. Kennedy also pledged to engage in some Halloween programming—-“Here’s people, Go get them, they are right there”. Now that should be interesting!


Two Amazing “Accessories”

All summer long I was obsessed with sheds—I wanted one, an old one of course, for my garden but never found the perfect one or the owner of the perfect one, except for the case of a southeastern New Hampshire shed whose owner would not sell to me (and frankly, if she had said yes, I’m not sure how I would have dislodged and transported it to Salem as my husband does not share my shed obsession). Sheds, carriage houses, even mundane garages, are all just accessory units to their main structures according to architectural classification, and I’ve got two AMAZING accessory units today: a permanent structure in Salem and a temporary “folly” in Marblehead. Here they are:

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Yes, one man has constructed a Samuel McIntire tea or summer house as a permanent accessory to his Salem Federal house near the public library, while another has built a fantasy ghost ship into/ out of his Marblehead garage—for the Halloween season only! Two disciplined and talented visionaries in adjoining towns! Marblehead architect Tom Saltsman, who you can read about here, is responsible for the ghost ship Oceanna, while my friend John Hermanski has been building the McIntire tea house over the past few years: I’ve been waiting, waiting, and waiting to feature it here, and finally last month it looked perfect, except for the McIntire urns he wants to add along the roofline. His inspiration is readily apparent in extant drawings of the McIntire outbuildings flanking the fabulous—and fleeting—-Derby mansion which once stood on Essex Street where Derby Square now is, as well as a couple of surviving McIntire pavilions: the Derby or McIntire Tea House at Glen Magna in Danvers (1793-94), and the Derby-Beebe Summer House (1799), which was originally located in Wakefield, Massachusetts and removed to the Essex Institute in Salem in the twentieth century.

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Accessory MansionThe new McIntire-Hermanksi Tea House on Monroe Street, the old McIntire Tea House on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum, and Charles Bulfinch’s sketch of the Derby Mansion by McIntire, with its flanking outbuildings, c. 1795, Phillips Library, PEM.

I’m not sure what Mr. Saltsman’s inspiration was: Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps? It’s an ephemeral creation that will likely be gone by the time you read this (he says that he “loves that it goes away”), but fair warning for next Halloween as he has a 15-year track record of diverse constructions.

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We in Salem are fortunate to be able to gaze at John Hermanski’s mini-McIntire House in all seasons, either from across the driveway of the beautiful Federal house which adjoins it or from Essex Street, as the house sits right in back of the Salem Public Library’s side lawn: in fact, my favorite photograph of the house, an Arthur Griffin black-and-white from circa 1950, has this vantage point. But that view doesn’t show the ultimate accessory which stands there now.

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Monroe StreetThe John Hermanski-Barbara Taylor House on Monroe Street in Salem, 2019 (+accessory) and c. 1950, Digital Commonwealth.


Can I have it both ways?

Today is Halloween; today is Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther posted—or otherwise “published”— his Ninety-five Theses, a scathing and immediately-accessible critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church which launched a Reformation that would divide and alter western Christendom in myriad ways, changes which are still ongoing today. I live in Reformation Land all year long as most of the courses I teach are centered on this era: it’s either in the foreground or the background, a trigger, a factor, a cause or a culmination. But I also live in Salem, which is increasingly Halloween Land all year long. Usually I dwell in the former and shut out the latter as much as possible until the big night, but on October 31 I think I should be able to “celebrate” both, and when a former student sent me an image of Ninety-five Reeses the other day I realized I could!

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95 Luther Woodcut LOC

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screenshot_20191031-064823_facebookFrederick Kemmelmeyer’s portrait of Luther, National Gallery of Art+the carved pumpkins on my neighbor’s front stoop; Frederick the Wise’s Dream and the beginning of the Reformation, October 31, 1517, Library of Congress; Cranach’s  Schlosskirche in Wittenberg; the viral meme that inspired me: 95 Reeses!

Well obviously there have been a succession of trick-or-treating/ Wittenberg memes in social media circulation over the last decade or so, but I found this one particularly inspirating, so much so, I even made my own: of individual Reese’s cups. History and candy: the perfect combination.

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Seeking Refuge in the Valley

We finally broke free of Salem for the last weekend of Haunted Happenings—-in the nick of time! It’s just been such a busy month, but on Saturday we abandoned all of our responsibilities and drove west to the Connecticut River Valley to visit my husband’s cousins, who live in the delightful town of Montague. I have been driving through or by Montague for many years, but never really stopped to explore it—or so I thought: it turns out that Turners Falls, a semi- regular pit stop for when when driving west or back east, is actually a village of Montague, along with Montague Center, Montague “City”, Millers Falls, and Lake Pleasant. We spent most of our time in Montague Center, and never found the elusive Lake Pleasant. On a long walk through the countryside surrounding the Center, we came across a beautiful first-period house for sale, which once belong to a mutual acquaintance of all of us: while staring at its characteristic over-the-top (by Salem standards) Connecticut-River-Valley doorway, I briefly imagined life “out west”, away from the Witch City and its exploitative “attractions” and Halloween hordes but also (unfortunately) far from work, family, and the ocean—which my husband could not live without. Oh well.

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20191026_122423A dreamy house—and former tavern—in Montague Center: listing here.

As you can see, Saturday was a beautiful day and we saw other wonderful houses (and many barns) as well, before lunching outdoors at a former mill and returning back to our cousins’ charming house—a former school and pocketbook factory— within which live FOUR cats (and a dog), and wonderful family heirlooms from Vienna arranged just so according to the wishes of their former owner. After indulging in cardamon-laced pastries on fine china (yes, we refugees were treated like royalty), we were off to Turners Falls, the largest of the Montague villages.

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pixlr_20191027150117299All around Montague Center: house & barns, the Book Mill, Valley cats, Viennese heirlooms, the Homestead.

I have stopped by Turners Falls over the years because it is unusual among Massachusetts towns (or villages, I should say), most of which have evolved organically. Turners Falls is a planned industrial settlement, the initiative of Fitchburg industrialist and railroad entrepreneur Alvah Crocker in the 1860s. Laid out on a grid, with harnessed hydropower, factory buildings and housing and very conspicuous tall-spired churches, Turners Falls has the look of an “ideal” industrial community, even as its factories are now vacant. It has a big broad Main Street, and most of its shops and restaurants seemed very much alive, but all I was interested in on this particular visit was the workers’ housing—mostly brick rowhouses in varied states of repair. They were all striking in their efficient design, but it was their conditions which were so curious, like those below with the boarded-up windows and their recently-painted red stoops!

Turners Falls

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20191026_163138Turners Falls, 1877, Digital Commonwealth ( I don’t think all of those streets were filled out!); the fast-flowing river after the Falls; workers’ housing. On the way home, the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River.

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