I’m in the intense period of writing my book with a March 1 deadline looming, so posts are going to be very spotty over the next few weeks, but today, I needed a break from my ploughmen and practitioners. There’s a lost building in Salem with which I remain fascinated, one of several really. If I ever do write my Salem book, which I have titled “Dead History” in my mind, it will have one whole chapter on structures that were stripped of their amazing interior and exterior architectural detail, but remained standing for decades afterwards, often converted into unrecognizable commercial establishments which bore no resemblance to their glorious past. Then they were put out of their misery at some point in the twentieth century, that great century of destruction. Most, but not all, of these structures were on Essex Street, Salem’s main street from the seventeenth century, including the building I am spotlighting today, the Philip Saunders House, built in the mid-eighteenth century and demolished in 1965. Here’s a photograph of it from the early twentieth century—after it had been altered somewhat, with a lot more to come.
Sorry—I can’t attribute this photograph. I bought it on ebay several months ago, an unusual act for me (not buying on ebay, buying Salem photographs on ebay). Generally old Salem photographs for sale are just reprints of those freely available from their repositories, but the minute I saw this photograph I knew I hadn’t seen it before: this is 260 Essex Street, the Philip Saunders House. The two shops on its ground floor, The Salem Trimming Store and Mary E. Hayes, Hairdresser, were located there up until about 1920, and after that, a succession of shops until it was taken down by the City of Salem in 1965. In between, whoever was sourcing antiques for the Kennedy family purchased its spiral staircase and Georgian paneling, and transferred it to the main house of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port just before the second World War. This happened to Salem houses constantly from about 1890 to 1950. The Saunders House was a unique three-story pre-revolutionary brick building, and there was resistance to its demolition from Historic Salem, Inc. and other organizations and individuals, but not enough, apparently. The preservationists of Salem had been putting our fires for some time in the 1960s, and it was about to get worse with the onslaught of urban renewal. You can almost hear the exhaustion in Elizabeth Reardon’s voice in the newspaper article below, and believe me, she was game.
Both Mrs. Reardon and other preservationists compared the Saunders House in Salem to the Ebenezer Hancock House in Boston, which was also threatened at the time, I think. But it survived: and when you look at it today you can’t help but think of what might have been in Salem.
The Ebenezer Hancock House (1767): in the mid 1970s, from a Boston Landmarks Commission Structures Report, and today.
Obviously statues have been in the news of late, so I thought I would tap into the national (and international) focus by looking at some of our country’s more notable monuments to women, either striving for the franchise or striving in general, for this week’s #salemsuffragesaturday post. It doesn’t matter what your political inclination is, everyone seems to agree that there are not enough statues of women anywhere and everywhere, and corrective measures are being taken, along with initiatives associated with this Suffrage Centennial year. The husband and wife team who constitute StatuesforEquality have established that statues of women represent less than 10% of public monuments in several American cities, and far less in most. In Salem we have only one statue to a woman: Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, situated in our city’s most historic square. She never accomplished anything (because she never actually existed) and her prominent situation and whimsical depiction mocks the real victims of the 1692 trials who were falsely branded “witches”, but nonetheless she is deemed worthy of monumental representation in Witch City. There are so many more women (real women) that deserve to be put a pedestal in Salem—that’s what this year has been all about for me.
Let’s turn to some more serious representations. Ever since it’s installation 15 years or so ago, the BostonWomen’s Memorial has been one of my favorite monuments: not only is it aesthetically pleasing and immediately engaging, but it represents a spectrum of women who shaped Boston’s history (as well as that of Massachusetts and the nation): Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone. These women are not just on pedestals (actually they have come off their pedestals) but depicted by sculptor Meredith Bergmann in the process of thought and activity, with their words accompanying them. Monumental women are in large part, active women, the feminine counterpart of all those masculine equestrian statues.
The Boston Women’s Memorial by Meredith Bergmann; photographs from her website.
Meredith Bergmann was also commissioned to create the most anticipated installation of this Suffrage Centennial Year: the Women’s Rights Pioneers Statue in Central Park in New York City, which will be unveiled on August 26, the date on which the ratification of the 19th Amendment was certified in 1920. This will be the park’s first statue honoring real women, and it also focuses on their activity: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are gathered around a table, intently focused on drafting a document. The statue had a controversial conception in that Truth was originally excluded, but public discussion and debate resulted in a more inclusive—and representative—monument.
Model and Mock-up of the first and final monument to the Women’s Rights Pioneers by Sculptor Meredith Bergmann, to be unveiled in Central Park on August 26, 2020.
As the state which ultimately ratified the 19th Amendment in August of 1920, Tennessee takes its suffragist history very seriously and has produced two notable monuments to the women who worked so hard to make it happen (because it’s really not all about a wavering state senator is it?) There is the Tennessee Woman’s Suffrage Memorial (2006) in Knoxville, depicting Lizzie Crozier French, Anne Dallas Dudley, and Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, and the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Monument (2016) in Nashville’s Centennial Park, featuring Dudley along with Abby Crawford Milton, J. Frankie Pierce, Sue Shelton White and Carrie Chapman Catt. Even more recently, the Commonwealth of Virginia—always the site of so much statue furor—dramatically increased its commemorative depictions of accomplished women with its Virginia Women’s Monument: Voices from the Garden initiative, honoring the “full scope” of women’s achievements with twelve representative statues.
The Knoxville and Nashville Suffrage statues—both by Tennessee sculptor Alan LeQuire—and the unveiling of seven statues of prominent Virginia women last fall: former Virginia First Lady Susan Allen points to a statue of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, and suffragist Adele Clark among the crowds (Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch).
I like the fact that so many of these monuments are collective, featuring women engaged with each other. Sometimes they are working, sometimes they are simply “conversing”—or meeting for the first time like one of the most famous Suffragist monuments, the “When (Susan B.) Anthony met (Elizabeth Cady) Stanton” statue in Seneca Falls, New York, portraying the moment when these two icons were introduced by Amelia Jenks Bloomer in 1851. My very favorite “conversation piece” is the lovely statue of two prominent Rochester, New York suffragists, Anthony and Frederick Douglass, having a cup of tea: I would love to have been a fly on the wall (or the bench) for that conversation!
The Anthony-Stanton-Bloomer statue (1998) by Ted Aub in Seneca Falls; Ira Srole’s “Let’s Have Tea” (2009) in Rochester.
The most official Suffrage statue of all, Adelaide Johnson’s “Portrait” monument to Anthony, Stanton, and Lucretia Mott completed (and dedicated) in 1921, is also a collective representation but the women don’t seem particularly engaged with each other: it’s not my favorite statue but that doesn’t mean I think it should have been hiddenaway for most of the twentieth century! The “unfinished” appearance of the work also engulfs the women in their “pedestal” rather than placing them on it, but rumor has it that Johnson was making room for at least one more prominent woman—perhaps the first female president—to be carved out of that raw marble in the back at some point in time. Clearly not 2020.
This week is filled with events in commemoration of the Sestercentennial (or Semiquincentennial?) of the Boston Massacre on March 5: the usual reenactment, and much more. For a full calendar check out this post on Boston 1775, one of my very favorite history blogs. For my commemoration, I am focusing on a Salem witness for the prosecution in the ensuing trial of Captain Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment of Foot, the commander of the soldiers who fired on the crowd on that dark, cold night, killing five colonists. William Wyatt, a Salem coaster, happened to be on the scene, and was consequently called to provide testimony on several occasions. He is one of two notable Salem people connected to the Massacre and its aftermath: the other, Judge Benjamin Lynde, is arguably more “notable”, but I’d like to experience the event through the eyes of an average bystander, and Lynde was neither average nor a bystander.
A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIXth Regiment, Which, with the XIVth Regiment, were then Quartered There, with some Observations of the State of Things Prior to that Catastrophe. Printed by Order of the Town of Boston: London: Re-printed for E. and C. Dilly, and J. Almon, London, 1770.
Though their separate trials did not take place until seven months later (so that tempers might simmer down), Captain Preston and the eight soldiers under his command were taken into custody and indicted immediately, as the Town of Boston put together a committee to investigate, gather evidence and depositions, and get the narrative (and the Pelham/Revere image) out there. Wyatt’s deposition is included among many in the appendix of A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, perpetuated in the Evening of Fifth Day of March 1770. It is quite detailed, and he is firm in his conviction that Captain Preston, referred to as the said officer below, ordered his men to load and fire: damn your bloods, fire, be the consequence what it will. And then, after the “consequences” were all too apparent, the said officer waved his sword in front of his men and said damn ye, rascals, what did ye fire for? This characterization of Captain Preston’s character, or lack thereof, caused John Adams, the defense attorney for the accused soldier, to challenge Wyatt in court several months later, asserting that his “diabolically malicious” portrayal of the Captain was in contradiction to all of the other testimony presented.
I am always fascinated to find instances of regular people going about their business and then bumping into HISTORY: this seems to be the case with Wyatt. He was not a dashing Salem sea captain or wealthy merchant, but rather a “coaster”, plying his trade along the coast between Salem and Boston in his sloop Boston Packet. He seems to have supported himself and his family doing this quite well: he had a house on lower Essex Street as well as some land in Northfields that he sold a year after the Massacre. But there’s not much more to tell than that.
A coaster’s approach to Boston Harbor and its wharves: John Hills, Boston Harbor and Surroundings, c. 1770-79 & A plan of the town of Boston with the intrenchments &ca. of His Majesty’s forces in 1775 : from the observations of Lieut. Page of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers, and from those of other gentlemen, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center;Essex Gazette, 1771-1774; Salem Gazette, 1796
Given the importance of the Massacre and the remembrance which was almost immediately assigned to it, this must have been a huge event in William Wyatt’s life. I wonder if he was disappointed—or angry—that Captain Preston was acquitted. I wonder if he felt that he bore some responsibility for this acquittal, given the fact that Adams made such a point about his contradictory characterization of Preston as well as his display of some confusion about the color of the Captain’s “surtout” in his trial testimony:
I heard the Bell, coming up Cornhill, saw People running several ways. The largest part went down to the North of the Townhouse. I went the South side, saw an officer leading out 8 or 10 Men. Somebody met the officer and said, Capt. Preston for Gods sake mind what you are about and take care of your Men. He went down to the Centinel, drew up his Men, bid them face about, Prime and load. I saw about 100 People in the Street huzzaing, crying fire, damn you fire. In about 10 minutes I heard the Officer say fire. The Soldiers took no notice. His back was to me. I heard the same voice say fire. The Soldiers did not fire. The Officer then stamped and said Damn your bloods fire be the consequences what it will. Immediately the first Gun was fired. I have no doubt the Officer was the same person the Man spoke to when coming down with the Guard. His back was to me when the last order was given. I was then about 5 or 6 yards off and within 2 yards at the first. He stood in the rear when the Guns were fired. Just before I heard a Stick, which I took to be upon a Gun. I did not see it. The Officer had to the best of my knowledge a cloth coloured Surtout on. After the firing the Captain stepd forward before the Men and struck up their Guns. One was loading again and he damn’d ’em for firing and severely reprimanded ’em. I did not mean the Capt. had the Surtout but the Man who spoke to him when coming with the Guard.
This is confusing and apparently Adams made the most of it, as Preston’s blazing crimson overcoat was universally acknowledged. But Wyatt corrected his statement—as you can see above— and was in good company in his descriptions of the unruly crowd and the general confusion over competing cries of fire. Perhaps he did see the Captain in back of his men at one point, while others saw him in front at another, indicating that he would not have given such an order in the interest of self-preservation. At the very least, I hope that William Wyatt felt heard and the records of the Boston Massacre and its aftermath indicate that he was.
For more views and sources, check out the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online exhibition Perspectivesonthe BostonMassacre.
For the past couple of years, our family has split our Christmas holiday between Boston and Salem: we all want to be home for the holidays but also at the Copley Plaza! My husband and I started a Christmas Eve tradition at the Oak Room tradition a few years ago and now it has expanded to include spending the night at the hotel and attending the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Copley Square. I’m not sure we’ll do this forever—it is a bit indulgent, but it’s been perfect over the last couple of years. I’m still struggling with the sciatica after-effects of my hamstring strain from nearly a month ago, so there was no twilight long walk across the Common and over Beacon Hill for me, but I still managed to eat, drink, and be merry within the gilded confines of the hotel, and then on Christmas morning we returned to Salem for presents and dinner.
Christmas Eve in Copley Square:
Christmas in Salem: including my beautiful presents—-a pair of elephant planters with a lovely turquoise glaze from my husband, and an antique feather painting from my parents. Apparently the latter has been hanging around our family house forever, but I never noticed it, and it has been restored to reveal some really stunning artistry. I’m obsessed so prepare for more feathers! As you can see, bears are this year’s animal theme: I have absolutely no subtlety in my Christmas decorating (or any decorating really) so these are just a few on display. I’m hoping everyone had a wonderful Christmas, and am really looking forward to the New Year.
The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.
The names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.
When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.
Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “WeDoTestefy: TheFeltonFamily&SalemWitchTrials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “SkeletonsintheCloset:TheMemorializationofGeorgeJacobsSr. andRebeccaNurseafterthe1692WitchTrials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.
I can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.
Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!
I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.
Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).
Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager! This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.
Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.
Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.
Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.
Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.
And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.
I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.
Historic New England
Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.
14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.
Today marks a big disaster anniversary in our region: the centennial anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, which killed 21 people, injured 150, and laid waste to several blocks of the North End of Boston. I don’t really have much to add to the narrative of events of that day, but I feel like weighing in anyway, primarily because this tragedy is the perfect example of unmoored history, lacking context and consequently inhibiting understanding for many. There’s a great book about this event (Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: the Great Molasses Flood of 1919) but whenever you bring it up in general company, people generally smile or laugh because molasses is trivial in our society; it’s akin to people being drowned—-or smothered?—in jello. But molasses was a major industrial product in 1919, recognized simultaneously as both beneficial and potentially dangerous but above all, vital. And when you look at what happened on January 15, 1919 with a historical perspective, it’s possible to see both major precedents and consequences.
Headlines and pictures from the day after in the Boston Daily Globe and the Boston Herald: “Red Cross Ambulance and Nurses making their way through the River of Molasses”, Boston Public Library.
Molasses was not only much more integrated into our cuisine a hundred years ago, but its importance in alcohol production had intensified with the increasing demand for industrial alcohol, which entered a golden age of production following the passage of the 1906 Denatured Alcohol Act, permitting the production and sale of tax-free alcohol for industrial purposes. The author of The Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, including the processes of malting : mashing and macerating : fermenting and distilling alcohol from grain, beets, potatoes, molasses, etc., with chapters of alcoholometry and the denaturing of alcohol…., issued the year before the Great Molasses Flood, cannot contain it his enthusiasm for this development, which “opened the door of a new market for the farmer and the manufacturer”, as Alcohol leaped at once into fame—not merely as the humble servant of the pocket lamp, nor as the Demon Rum, but as a substitute for all the cheap hydrocarbon fuels, and as a new farm product, a new means for turning the farmer’s grain, fruit, potatoes, etc…into that greatest of all Powers, Money. Molasses had long been lauded as feed for cattle, horses, and poultry, but now its uses seemed limitless, in everything from road construction to the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and munitions. The 1907 act provoked a wave of hastily-built distilleries, such as the Boston tank owned and “maintained” by the Purity Distilling Company, which began leaking almost immediately after its construction in 1915 and finally burst open four years later. But the North End flood was not the first molasses disaster: it wasn’t difficult to find stories of exploding tanks and bursting hogsheads in the first few decades of the twentieth century—and just in the Boston papers. There are far more stories about the “adulteration” of molasses, however (generally with tin): and thus it is easy to understand how regulation, of industrial construction, production, and labor, would emerge as a major consequence of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
Molasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886.
We were a small party for Easter this year so we went to the St. Botolph Club in Boston for a buffet of oysters, salmon, eggs benedict, coq au vin, and lamb (no ham). This is the artsy old Boston club, and I always enjoy going there because the walls are lined with the work of its members past and present. In the crimson library, there is a portrait of an artist who I became acquainted with through his connections to several Salem artists at the end of the nineteenth century: John Leslie Breck. I’ve come to admire his work over the past few years, and I always “check in” with him whenever I go to St. Botolph’s. Though known as one of the young artists who brought Impressionism to the United States (in successive exhibitions at St. Botolph’s), Breck’s portrait is one of earnest realism: he looks handsome and troubled, or maybe I am just imposing that state on him as I know he ended his own life at the age of 39 in 1899.
I don’t mean to be so maudlin, but that portrait always makes an impression on me. But it was a lovely Easter afternoon with great food and company and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue searching for signs of spring. We found some, mostly man- made, but there were a few flowering buds—we are on the brink! Walking back to the car from the Public Garden, I looked for my favorite version of the three Lutheran solas: I was just lecturing on them in my Reformation class last week, and I took a photograph for some extra validation for/from my students.