Category Archives: History

The Making of Witch City, part Whatever

So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.

Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.

Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.

Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.

Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances! 

Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.

Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.

The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.


“Certified Historians” of Salem

Salem has been packed with tourists from late spring and all summer, despite the odd hot/wet weather: I’m very happy for all of our shops and restaurants after the challenges of the pandemic but getting a bit annoyed by what I’m hearing in the streets from the increasingly-unavoidable tour guides in my path and in my neighborhood. I live near downtown Salem so I should expect to be right in the heart of it all, but actually walking tours in our neighborhood are a relatively new phenomenon. I think about three years ago I first noticed them, and I was glad to see them, because I assumed that people were interested in all of the things that brought me to Salem: architecture, a very layered and diverse heritage, some great stories about very interesting people. The tours have really escalated this year, both in terms of frequency and the amount of people, and while several of them do seem to be featuring all of these things, most are definitely not. So while I’m still glad to see them in my neighborhood, I really wish I didn’t have to hear them. Clearly there is a spectrum of walking tours offered in Salem, and I don’t want to share the wealth of detail until I’ve done my due diligence, but every day I am amazed to hear just how many buildings are haunted in Salem, where our tragic history has ensured that ghosts are all around us.

This is a big and important topic. Walking tours must represent a large percentage of Salem’s tourism economy if the people on the streets are any indication. Their popularity is a natural evolution for a city that deems itself “historic” but has no credible historical museum to offer its visitors. I have a lot a questions and a lot to learn: I pitched articles to two periodicals, one academic and one popular, a month ago and both were accepted, so I’m going to be walking and digging around over the next few months. Just to see the lay of the land, I started with the visitor reviews on the tourism sites, and two things popped out for me: the concern with authenticity (of place) and credibility (of interpreter) among the tourists who left reviews. Let me start out by saying that the overwhelming majority of reviews left by Salem tourists are positive: I hope this is the same for our beleaguered restaurants! People seem to want stories, the spookier the better, and the Salem tour guides are giving them what they want. But even in the very positive reviews, there are lots of comments about sites: parking lots, intersections, modern buildings which are the sites of structures associated with the Witch Trials which are no longer there. There’s a marked disappointment among reviewers that they can’t see authentic historic sites, which explains the popularity of the Witch House and the Old Burying Point on Charter Street. It also explains why tour guides are bringing tourists to Hamilton Hall, right next door to where I live, which is a beautiful, authentic historic site with a very rich history. BUT (again, with exceptions), once they bring these tourists to the Hall, they simply tell a generic tale about the Witch Trials in front of it, even though it was not built until more than a century after they occurred. Believe me, I’ve been out in my garden and I can’t avoid these presentations: I hear the “Back to back and breast to breast, they are dancing their souls to hell” speech from the minister of the South Church which once stood across the street and then it is straight into the witch trials. This is a building rich in African-American history due to the long residence and activism of the Remond family: there is presently a (free!) exhibition on slavery and enfranchisement and this past weekend I watched as several tour groups refrained from even entering the building, with its doors wide open. And these tours don’t even walk down Chestnut Street to explore its wonders: they turn around and go back downtown! Slight exaggeration here, but this is akin to taking a few steps down the Champs-Élysées and no further. I’m always tempted to run out there and say “keep going!” but so far I have refrained; however, I did buy this sign at an antique show about a month ago and and hung it on my front fence.

Now the status and issue of “certified historians”. Apparently all public guides are licensed by the City of Salem (along with auctioneers, junk collectors, drainlayers, and “transient photographers” among other contractors). I think this must be fundamentally a safety issue, but it’s not entirely so with guides as they must take and pass an examination on Salem history. So the City is authorizing and credentialling not only practice, but also content. This is clearly apparent to tourists: they seem to praise guides for their storytelling abilities first and foremost but they also point out that they are “certified”. I have several questions about this process, because now we’re in the terrain not just of my neighborhood, but of my discipline, and my profession. Do all public guides take this examination–even those who drop in by bus for an afternoon or work for out-of-town strictly-haunted tours? How does administration and enforcement work? And why, in a city that references diversity and inclusion as often as possible in nearly all of its public communications and stated priorities, is the test for its “history” guides based on texts which are dramatically dated and reflective of “scholarship” limited to the dashing deeds of old white men? One of the texts which guides “study” was first published in 1880! There is no mention in the Visitors’ Guide to Salem or Chronicles of Old Salem to the Remonds, to Charlotte Forten (or any notable women, of any color, with the exception of Caroline Emmerton, of course) to Salem’s active abolitionist and reform movements, to the vast majority of Salem’s artists and authors, and to the succession of immigrants whose efforts and cultures have shaped the city over time. Frances Diane Robotti’s Chronicles of Old Salem (1948), attempts to offer up some global context for Salem’s dynamic commerce with the observation that “under Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal, Portuguese mariners reach the Gulf of Guinea and discover—and import to Portugal—the true Negro, thus initiating the modern African slave trade” but fails to mention the Desire, which left Salem in 1637 carrying Native American captives and returned months later with the first enslaved Africans brought to the northern English colonies. This dated “content” is reflective of the lack of seriousness with which the City approaches the interpretation of Salem history; indeed everyone I ask about this examination seems to think it’s just a big joke. So I ask: why does it exist?

Salem “history” in 1880—and today.

 

Appendix: This is an ongoing project for me so I’ll be posting more, but I wanted to add an appendix to this particular post about licensing and certification. Salem clearly has licensing but not certification—that ridiculous test can’t possibly credential, despite tourists’ perceptions. Two cities which have more evolved systems are Charleston and Savannah, both of which got rid of their mandatory certifications, but instituted (and encourage) voluntary ones. Court cases, referencing the First Amendment, influenced both decisions: Charleston seems reluctant but Savannah is extremely enthusiastic about its voluntary certification process and has produced a stellar manual which you can access here. Charleston has a comprehensive manual too, but you’ve got pay for it. Compare the Savannah manual to the Salem “study materials”! The Savannah system and materials were developed at the initiative of the tour guides themselves: this could certainly happen in Salem too as local, professional guides are clearly concerned about quality control. I just don’t know how you keep the ghost tours out with a voluntary system, or whether you would want to, as they are clearly popular (well I would want to, because I can’t get out of their way).


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


A Vexillogical History of Salem

What am I writing about? Flags for the July 4th weekend of course: I had to look up that word and thus am using it, despite the fact that it is somewhat intimidating and I could easily have chosen something easy and alliterative like flags of our forefathers. But once I discover a new word, I want to use it, so here we are: vexillology is the study of flags, and like many other aspects of life (including food, drink, architecture, industry, and myriad forms of material and intellectual culture) Salem’s flag history is so notable that you can almost tell its history through flags: we have a famous colonial flag defacement, a Revolutionary symbol, many claims of “first flags” in foreign ports, a notable expression of Civil War resistance, and lots of other interesting flags which illustrate particular trends and times. Salem’s vexillogical history is a a variation on the device used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Grandfather’s Chair, which told the tale of the “Endicott Flag” in vivid detail.

A fanciful view of Endicott ordering the defacement of the English Ensign by cutting out its cross of St. George, Ballou’s Pictorial, 1855; Some flag illustrations from So proudly we hail : the history of the United States flag (1981) by William R. Furlong and Bryan McCandless.

Flag history is often “patriotic history” which of course is a contradiction in terms, so there is a lot of lore and legend that needs to be cut out, just like St. George’s cross. It’s best to stick to the primary sources. John Winthrop reported that on 5 November 1634, “At the court of assistants complaint was made by some of the country (Richard Brown of Watertown, in the name of the rest) that the ensign at Salem was defaced, viz. One part of the red cross taken out. Upon this, an attachment was awarded against Richard Davenport, ensign-bearer (who was ordered to cut out the cross by John Endicott), to appear at the next court to answer. Much matter was made of this, as fearing it would be taken as an act of rebellion, or of like high nature, in defacing the king’s colors; though the truth were, it was done upon this opinion, that the red cross was given to the King of England by the pope, as an ensign of victory, and so a superstitious thing, and a relique of antichrist.” Certainly Endicott was not alone in these sentiments: popery and the cult of the saints were right at the top of the “traditions” or relics which were the focus of intense Puritan opposition in both old England and New England. The “crossless flag” did not really take root, but symbols like the pine tree began to appear on banners in the next century, both within and without the cross, eventually inspiring the famous “Appeal to Heaven” flag of Washington’s Cruisers. There were so many interesting regimental flags used during the American Revolution, but the only one I would find with ties to Salem is that of Major Israel Forster of Manchester-by-the-Sea: there are several extant examples, one in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum (see above) and the other which sold at auction in 2014. There are no references to the Forster flag in the PEM’s digitized catalog and collections, and I’m also curious about a flag with one star and many stripes which was long displayed in the Essex Institute’s Plummer Hall: I don’t know why it is often so difficult to find objects that were in the old Institute in the new PEM!

The Historic Forster Flag at Doyle’s auctions, 2014; 1915 postcard featuring the “mysterious” flag in the Essex Institute.

The history of the recognition of the American flag seems very intertwined with that of Salem’s maritime history: all the old-school maritime historians assert that the first time the US flag was spotted in many Asian and African ports was on a Salem ship. This would be a great topic for an academic paper, perhaps even a dissertation: you can certainly assess how important flying the flag was in all sorts of contemporary images, like George Ropes’ Launching of the Ship Fame (1802). The flag you see here, with its circle of stars, represents a common configuration in the nineteenth century up to the Centennial, but there was no standard, official design for the (expanding) stars and stripes until 1912 so there were all sorts of interesting arrangements up to that time. The Fame flag is very similar to that in a watercolor painting memorializing the American prisoners of the War of 1812 who died in the massacre at Dartmoor Prison in 1815, among them nine Salem sailors. About a decade later, a young Salem sea captain was gifted a flag by a group of Salem ladies for his first overseas voyage in command: this was William Driver, who made his Salem fortune and then retired early to Nashville, where his brothers operated a shop. He brought his flag with him, displayed it proudly until the onset of the Civil War, and then hid it in the attic until Union troops captured the city. His “Old Glory” became the symbol of resistance and triumph, both during and especially after the Civil War. What comes after is a bit more complicated, because there are actually two Old Glory flags: a large banner in the collection of the Smithsonian which is generally accepted as “official” and a smaller one in that of the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum. It is quite clear, however, that a Salem-made flag was at the center of both storms at sea and on land.

George Ropes, The Launching of the Ship Fame, 1802, Peabody Essex Museum; Memorial to the victims of the Dartmoor Massacre, Dowst Family, Skinner Auctions; “Old Glory” at the National Museum of American History.

A few sought-after 13-star flags with Salem provenances have surfaced over the past few decades, including one which belonged to shipmaster Parker Brown and the so-called “Hancock & English” flag from the Mastai Collection, a period flag which was modified by the addition of the 1880 presidential candidates which once graced the cover of Time magazine (July 7, 1980: second from right in top row, below). There was a considerable expansion in the commercial use of the flag over the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was a favorite banner for Salem’s entrepreneurial merchant/photographer/author Frank Cousins, who featured flags and political souvenirs in his shop, and advertised his wares with flag posters and trade cards. From the Centennial on, it’s all about parades as well, which called for a variety of festive flags. Salem excelled at one particular form of July Fourth celebration in the twentieth century—bigger and bigger bonfires—and flags were always on top of these impressive constructions: this has always struck me as a bit problematic as presumably they would burn. A blaze of glory, perhaps.

13-star Salem flag, Heritage Auctions; Frank Cousins Bee-Hive flag, Bonsell Americana; 1896 parade flag, Cowan’s Auctions; July Fourth Bonfire, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


A Juneteenth Tour

I learned about Juneteenth ridiculously late, from a student! It was about five or six years ago (only!) and I was talking about Salem’s Black Picnic, an old tradition recently revived, with a brilliant African-American student and she said “that sounds like Juneteenth” and that was that. I don’t remember whether I feigned acknowledgement out of embarrassment or not but inwardly I was mortified by my ignorance. Yes, I was trained in European history, but I’m an American too! Since that time, I’ve used my focus on local history here to learn more about African-American history in Salem: I’m still lacking the big picture but fortunately I have wonderful colleagues at Salem State who help me with context and filling in the blanks. I started putting together my own African-American history tour of Salem about three years ago, and it began (and ended) with Hamilton Hall, where the Remond family lived and worked for decades. This was more familiar territory for me, and the Hall remains my main window/entry/initiation and orientation point for Salem’s African-American history; its centrality is particularly marked this year because of a special exhibition on view all summer long: Unmasking & Evolution of Negro Election Day and the Black Vote. The creation of Salem United, Inc., the organization that revived the Black Picnic at Salem Willows in 2014, the exhibition draws connections between the colonial traditions of Negro Election Day, nineteenth-century African-American parades and picnics, and the Civil Rights struggles of the twentieth century. Salem, United Inc. President Doreen Wade’s enthusiasm for this history is so infectious that her history is transformed into ours.

Scenes from the exhibition: our host and guide Doreen Wade, reproduction dress for Negro Election Day royalty & the jelly bean test for voting from the 1960s, the Brick Hearth Room, very much the center of the Remonds’ activity in the Hall.

For me, this exhibition was about the power of place: I was really moved by the exhibits in the Brick Hearth Room (last photo above), where the Remonds, who struggled for personal, professional, racial, and citizenship recognition for so long, worked, adjacent to where they first lived. The connection between past and present also felt appropriate to me: the distinguished historian of slavery Ira Berlin asserted that Negro Election Day “established a framework for the development of black politics” and who am I to argue with that? It was a special day at the end of May, recognized in twenty or more cities throughout the northeast from the mid-eighteenth century, on which resident African-Americans celebrated, made merry and wore dress clothes (sometimes belonging to their masters), elected notable “kings” or “governors” from among their own, and enjoyed a brief interlude of freedom and agency. To me, it looks like the medieval and early modern festivals of Europe, where everything was turned upside down for a day and peasants elected a “Lord of Misrule,” but it had African roots: I guess the drive for those on the bottom to live like those on the top for just a brief spell is universal. Negro Election Day is well-documented in Salem by most of its famous diarists. In 1741 Judge Benjamin Lynde identified May 27 as a day of “fair weather” and “Election: Negro’s hallowday here at Salem; gave Scip 5s. and Wm 2s. 6d.” indicating both recognition and a form of engagement, and William Pynchon seems to have had a similar attitude in 1788 when he went “to election at Primus’s flag,” indulged in the ale and pies offered at the festivities, and watched the dances. In 1817, the Reverend William Bentley noted “the still bewitching influence of what they call election” in his diary, but by the nineteenth century Election Day seems on the wane, replaced by more formal organizations like the Sons of the African Society in Salem with its dignified meetings and parades, and eventually by the Black Picnic at Salem Willows from 1880. While eighteenth-century white observers seem to be bemused by Negro Election Day, the nineteenth-century perspective seems more mocking, as you can see in the political commentary below: like a negro election King to-day but back again to-morrow. Besides the juxtaposition of objects in the Remond space, the most poignant exhibit in the Unmasking & Evolution exhibit for me was a photograph of a minstrel show at Salem Willows: apparently while the Black Picnic was happening, white Salem residents actually organized a performance with children in blackface to mock them. It’s quite an image on its own, but I think we need a bit more information about it. I can’t unsee it, and it reproduces badly here, so you should see it for yourself.

A minstrel show at Salem Willows—the exhibit caption says 1885 but it looks quite a bit later than that?

Obviously there is some rich history—American and African-American, both, together— encased in Hamilton Hall, in general and in particular this summer, so it’s the perfect place to start a Juneteenth tour. Some other suggestions: 8 High Street, where Clarissa Lawrence, fierce educator and abolitionist, lived among a small community of African-Americans, Aborn Street, where Salem’s first African-American teacher, Charlotte Forten, taught, at the former Epes School at number 21R, Oak Street, where Charlotte lived with Caroline Remond Putnam, daughter of John and Nancy Remond and an extremely active entrepreneur, abolitionist, and later suffragist, Higginson/Derby Squares, where the Remonds and other African-Americans had a succession of profitable businesses, and finally Harmony Grove Cemetery, where you can see the very striking and solitary grave of John Remond. And then to the Willows, of course.

Mrs. Nancy Remond was known for her Election Day cakes, which she offered not only during election week (last week of May) but all year long, Salem Gazette; John Remond’s grave stone in Harmony Grove Cemetery; more information about Salem United and the Black Picnic in Salem Willows is here.


Villages out of Time and Place

So this is going to be one of those posts in which I ask a lot of questions and have no answers (I think; maybe I will get to some). I’m trying to work out my own thoughts about a particular place and what it means: writing is one way to do that, as is solicitating the views of others, so blogging is a means to get to meaning. The place in question is Pioneer Village: Salem in 1630, a cluster of structures situated in Forest River Park which was built under the auspices of “architect-antiquarian” George Francis Dow as a representation of first-settlement Salem for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630. The very engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the village, and then another recreation, of the ship Arbella of the Winthrop fleet, set sail for Boston. Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. Over the next few decades, a succession of outdoor history museums opened up across the country, including Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem in North Carolina (1932 & 1950, respectively) and three additional institutions in Massachusetts alone:  Old Sturbridge Village (1947), Historic Deerfield (1952) and Plimoth Plantation (1957; now Plimoth Patuxet Museums).

Pioneer Village today and in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth photographs.

So if you have visited any of these museums as well as Pioneer Village you will immediately notice a dramatic difference in terms of size, scale, and apparent resources and mission. The former are all administered as foundations or corporations with large staffs and budgets; Pioneer Village has for the most part been a municipal initiative run by the City of Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission with the exception of recent brief periods when it was administered by several collaborations of local history and preservation professionals, the House of the Seven Gables, and a local college (not Salem State University, which is located nearby, but rather Gordon College in Wenham). Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing. The Arbella (which returned to its home “port” after the Boston celebrations) was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1954 and the only period structure, the Ruck House, was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. In 1985, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the Village, but the first of a series of restoration and reactivation efforts reopened the site in 1988. From that point on, it has been a case of good intentions but insufficient resources, and now the City has proposed a rather radical plan to “save” Pioneer Village by exchanging its site with that of the turn-of-the-century tuberculosis Camp Naumkeag at Salem Willows. The rationale behind this proposed move is sound on paper—the Salem Willows is on the trolley route and the ballpark and other recreational spaces at Forest River are definitely expansive—but I am wondering if a Salem Willows Pioneer Village will still be Pioneer Village. And I am also wondering what Pioneer Village is. As I said at the outset, I’ve got a lot of questions, but these are the big three:

  1. What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
  2. Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
  3. If Pioneer Village, such as it is, is moved to another site, will it still be Pioneer Village, whatever that is?

Significance: To tell you the truth, I’ve never given Pioneer Village much thought. I teach seventeenth-century history, and this site has been in walking distance from my classrooms over my entire career: have or would I ever use it as a teaching resource? No. It was seldom consistently accessible and never in very good shape, and now I have all of the digital teaching tools that I need. I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride. Before Salem became Witch City, its leadership and residents were much more focused on productivity than infamy, and I think the Village still represents the former for those who wish the “Salem story” was a bit less focused on the Witch Trials. I like the terms “architectural museum” and “restoration village” used by the architectural historian Edward N. Kaufman, who traces the origins and inspiration for Pioneer Village and its successors to the big nationalist expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, commencing with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris International Exposition of 1867: the latter had several recreated villages, like the “Austrian” and “Russian Peasant”  Villages  below. Like Pioneer Village, these were exhibits built for a specific event. Unlike Pioneer Village, they were dismantled after that event. Americans, including residents of Salem and its region, wanted their “history” stay around for longer.

Austrian and Russian Villages, International Exposition of 1867, Paris.

When you look at Pioneer Village as something that was built (and rebuilt) as an expression of civic pride it takes on the cast of a monument rather than a historical resource, at least for me. Another perspective relates to the history of preservation (or preservation technology in particular), one in which I had never explored before in relation to Pioneer Village. Apparently it was very consequential in demolishing the “Log Cabin Myth” which held that every seventeenth-century European arrival lived in a log cabin à la Lincoln. In his classic book of the same name, Howard Shurtleff observed that the myth was “an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious” and credited Dow for refuting it: Mr. Dow included in his reconstructed Salem a number of small framed cottages, each provided with a brick or “catted” chimney, and roofed with thatch. Some were walled with weatherboarding, sheathed with material boards, and the intervening space filled with “nogging”—clay, chopped straw and refuse bricks; others were walled with wattle and daub. This “Salem Pioneer Village” still stands (in 1939, when Shurtleff was writing and 20 years later, when his landmark book was reissued) and has proved far more effective than books in refuting the Log Cabin Myth. All of the contemporary commenters on Pioneer Village really emphasized its traditional, “authentic” construction, and this became another point of civic pride as Salem businesses made comparisons between their own productivity and that of their colonial predecessors in annual programs such as “Early American industries portrayed at the Pioneer’s Village, Salem, Mass.” In 1936, the Hygrade-Sylvania company presented an exhibit on early illumination, while the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company sponsored a demonstration of flax weaving and culture and local druggist John E. Heffernan highlighted seventeenth-century herbal medicines. The theme was very much see how far we have come in the midst of the Depression. The national Chronicle of Early American Industries, founded in 1933 and still in print, referenced Pioneer Village in nearly every issue.

Ok, now I’ve hit academic cruise control and could go on for quite some time: but this isn’t a journal article, it’s a blog post. So I’m going to start wrapping up in relation to my questions.

Significance conclusions: clearly Pioneer Village was significant in its time (1930) and for at least two decades thereafter. I think it’s still significant as an example of how a city uses its history, but I do not think it is an educational resource (bear in mind, I teach college students; early childhood educators might have a different opinion). I really think it’s a monument, like the Bewitched statue downtown, but much, much better in the sense that it seeks to highlight achievement and industry rather than exploit tragedy. I don’t have enough information to comment on its current state of repair and whether the original 1930 buildings could even make the move: because the City of Salem has “preserved” the Village it is now an historic artifact and will be subject to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. If the move is undertaken, I hope an expert in preservation technology and/or an architectural historian is consulted.

Should it be saved: yes, but with a clear understanding of what it is and what is it supposed to do. I only see logistical rationales for the move in the public discourse.

Will it still be Pioneer Village in Salem Willows? No. It will be something else entirely: a new Pioneer Village. It could be a hybrid Salem: 1630 and Salem: 2026 if the construction integrity of the original structures is preserved through the move, and new structures built utilizing the evidence and knowledge we have gained over the intervening century. The new Village could be a testament to both the Tercentenary spirit of 1930 and the Salem Quadricentenary spirit of 2026. If that was the aim, it would be nice to have Salem craftsmen, architects, and landscape architects involved in creating (rather than recreating) the new Pioneer Village: successors to George Francis Dow and Harlan Kelsey.

What Salem really needs: not a new Pioneer Village, but a new Salem Museum, which would integrate, interpret, and document ALL of Salem’s history: first settlement, Witch Trials, American and Industrial Revolutions, the experience of the Civil and World Wars,  native American, African-American, Irish American, Polish American, French Canadian and American, and everything and everyone between. Enough of this “siloed history!” This of course would be the ultimate Quadricentennial achievement and expression.


The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!


Salem Soldiers at Andersonville

It is during the weeks around Memorial and Veterans Day that I feel the absence of an active Salem historical society or museum most keenly. Don’t get me wrong: there are dedicated interpreters of the past in our city. Salem has a wonderful veterans’ agent (a SSU history grad) who does an amazing job marking these days and creating initiatives which reference the past while also attending to his present duties. And there is a Salem Historical Society consisting of avid historians who provide important resource and reference roles and highlight moments when they can, but it has no collections and no official commemorative role. Everything is in Rowley, of course, and the “official” purveyor of all things historical seems to be Salem’s tourism office, Destination Salem, though if you go to its website and consult the timeline of “Salem’s History” you would not know that Salem had experienced any war after the War of 1812: no Civil War, no Spanish American War, no World War I or II, no Korean War, no Vietnam War, no wars in Irag and Afghanistan.

Of course, Salem men (and women) participated in all of these wars: these wars are part of “Salem’s History”. I have tended to focus on the Civil War in my Memorial Day posts in the past, perhaps because its aftermath and collective mourning are the origins of the “holiday”. I also use these posts to come to some understanding of this war and its impact personally: I’m not an American historian and I don’t have grounding in the historiography of this conflict, but I can see and feel, as we all can, that it is still with us. This year I want to highlight a source that has given me new insights into the experience of Salem men during the Civil War: Patriots of Salem. Roll of Honor of the Officers and Enlisted Men during the Late Civil War, from Salem, Mass. compiled by Thomas J. Hutchinson and Ralph Childs (1877).

This is such a great source, and if you cross-reference it with other sources (like the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database maintained by the National Park Service and local and genealogical sources—I have some key references here) you can glean both broad and specific perspectives of Salem’s contribution to the Union effort, which was great: over 3000 men served in the war and there were myriad support efforts at home. The compilers of Patriots of Salem endeavored to produce a register, “in neat and compact form” to be utilized “for future reference” and kept in every home, as a memorial reminder of sacrifices made. They succeeded: the volume is a great expression of both commemoration and local history. As its subtitle indicates, it includes rank, age, date of mustering in, date of discharge and the cause thereof for every Salem soldier, as well as a list of prisoners of war, the wounded and killed in action, and those who died in service. Because the book has been digitized by the Internet Archive, you can also search its contents and make up your own list of who was at Antietam, who was at Wilderness, who was at Gettysburg: noting that William L. Purbeck of Church Street and the 5th Massachusetts Battery died at the latter battle at age 18, I searched through all the sources to find his dying words: “Who shall care for Mother now?”

Monument to the 5th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg, c. 1880. Huntington Library.

The majority of Salem soldiers were discharged due to “expiration of service,” thank goodness, but records of desertion, suffering and death are embedded in the text: apparently a detachment to Louisiana was a veritable death sentence, due to disease rather than combat. I was thoroughly unprepared for the number of Salem men who ended up at Camp Sumter at Andersonville, the most notorious of the Confederate prisoner of war camps: 31, of whom 20 died there. I know I have cited a much smaller number in previous posts but my blog is so unwieldly now I can’t find them. Twenty Salem men died at Andersonville, from June 22 to September 15, 1864. This time frame is significant: most of the Salem men were among the nearly 10,000 prisoners of war transferred to Andersonville from other southern POW camps beginning in June, and by the end of that month a reported 30,000 Union soldiers were being held in a camp which had been built for 10,000. Patriots of Salem does not list the precise causes of death of the 20 Salem men who died at Andersonville, but the most common conditions were typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, gangrene, and above all, “chronic diarrhea”. On the very day that the photographs below were taken, July 17, 1864, Privates Charles W. Coney and George W. Cross, both Salem shoemakers from the 14th Massachusetts, died: two losses among nearly 13,000 at Andersonville.

Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia, July 17, 1864, Library of Congress.

 


Slavery Siege in Salem

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 Englanda 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.