Tag Archives: Chestnut Street

A British & Bucolic Gaze on Salem

I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.

The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.

Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of Country Life.


Salem in (water)color, 1939

Salem set the style standard in the first half of the century when Colonial Revival ruled, ruled, and continued to rule: right up to World War II and then beyond, according to the dictates of shelter magazines. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, you can find photos of Salem houses and house parts in issues of The House Beautiful and House & Garden from nearly every year: after that Salem is not quite as “present” but still around. Much of the attention shed on Salem is a result of two people I’ve written about here time and time again, Mary Harrod Northend and Frank Cousins, and after their deaths in the mid-1920s a Salem publicist-successor did not appear, yet “Old Salem” (rather than the “Witch City”) endured as the quintessential New England seaport. I’ve shared every Salem feature in these two particular periodicals from the teens and twenties in past posts, but not too many from the 1930s. A few weeks ago I came across some Salem images from a 1939 issue of House & Garden which were so striking that I knew I had to track down the original copy rather than rely on a digital version, and when it arrived I was not disappointed. This was an issue devoted to New England in all its glory, and Salem plays a central role. There is an interesting architectural introduction by Frank Chouteau Brown, some charming infographics that indicate that the Federal style had not yet been identified (???) but was rather referred to as the “Late Georgian,” and then some lovely watercolor vignettes of the interiors of several Chestnut Street Houses, the Gardner Pingree House, and the House of the Salem Gables by students at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which is now the Parsons School of Design.

Cover and illustrations from the June 1939 special New England issue of House & Garden. No Federal?

 

The Barstow West and Pickering Dodge Shreve Houses on Chestnut Street.

 

Parlors and Bedrooms of the Gardner-Pingree House of the Peabody Essex Museum.

 

Parlor and Dining Room of the House of the Seven Gables.

 

These rooms look so lively in these images: the interpretations really emphasize color and texture over pristine period perfection. There are some black and white photographs in the issue as well, like the one of the John Ward house below, but I don’t think they can compete with color. The magazine also aims to be a resource, so there’s a listing of all the historic houses in Salem and their hours of operation, which were far more extensive than today. You could go into the Peirce-Nichols House every afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday all year long, and the Gardner-Pingree and Derby houses every day!

The Ward House and notice for the Second Chestnut Street Day, 1939.


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!


The First Crusader

One of the key themes emerging from my #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts is the activism and organization of women: there is a paper trail of organized advocacy for abolition, suffrage, temperance, and all sorts of reform and relief. The beginning of that trail might have begun in the 1820s with protests against the Federal government’s policy towards Native Americans: I don’t see a movement but I do see one fierce crusader in Salem. Elizabeth Elkins Sanders (1762-1851) is yet another woman about whom we never hear anything in Salem: she was born into privilege, lived a privileged life, but was aware of said privilege in an age when most of her contemporaries were not, and consequently became a fierce advocate for Native Americans and an equally fierce critic of American cultural imperialism from the 1820s on—expressing views that become much more current a century later. She was not just an armchair observer; she published Conversations, Principally on the Aborigines of North America (1828), the First Settlers of New England (1829), and the Tract on Missions (1844) as well as several literary essays and reviews. The intense presidential campaign of 1828, pitting notorious Indian fighter Andrew Jackson against Massachusetts’ native son John Quincy Adams, inspired her to pick up a pen in her sixties: the Tract on Missions was published when she was 82!

Women Sanders 2 (2)

Sanders Circular (3)

Sanders contextConversations, Principally on the Aborigines of North America, published by Elizabeth Elkins Sanders during the presidential campaign of 1828; Catherine Beecher’s Circular Addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States (from the Phillips Library, incorrectly attributed to Sanders), a call to action against the pending Indian Removal Act, 1829. Alisse Portnoy’s Their Right to Speak connects the anti-removal movement with the emerging abolitionist movement in the antebellum era.

Elizabeth Sanders (or Saunders) was a Salem representative of a larger movement against Indian removal which included the first national women’s petition campaign, organized by Connecticut educators Catherine Beecher (elder sister of Harriet) and Lydia Sigourney: in response to the Circular addressed to Benevolent Ladies of the United States nearly 1500 petitions were sent to Washington in 1830. I’m assuming Elizabeth sent hers, and wondering what other causes and organizations were the focus of her “expansive benevolence and strong mature intellect”.

Sanders Feb 22 1851

20200717_180254Salem Observer, February 22, 1851; 39 Chestnut Street, the home of Captain Thomas and Elizabeth E. Sanders.

 


Pristine Postcards

There are so many people interested in Salem’s history now that it gives me hope for the future and tempers some of my anxiety about the ongoing erection of dreadful buildings downtown: as our streetscape becomes less distinct at least our distinguished heritage is appreciated! It does seem to me that there’s more interest, and more intense interest, in the past now but I suppose that has always been the case—-Salem’s history is engaging, after all, and there have been a succession of historical “ambassadors”, for lack of a better term, over the decades and even the centuries. Once I decided I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history, after I had developed all of my medieval and early modern courses, learned to teach them a few times, and been granted tenure, I looked around for some guides and found them in published chroniclers and researchers like the Reverend William Bentley and Sidney Perley, but also in friends and neighbors. There were two lovely men in particular, my Chestnut Street neighbors Babe Dube and Russell Weston, who really piqued my interest with their tales of very material Salem history, and some great postcards. I seem to recall Babe (whose real name was the spectacular Borromee) giving me a stack of old Salem postcards after I oohed and aahed over them—but they must have been Russell’s, as he had amassed quite the collection. They are both gone now so I can’t ask, but I still have the postcards: lovely numbered Essex Institute “Albertype” postcards from the teens and twenties I believe, preserving images of Salem houses (and one Marblehead mansion) in pristine condition, whether they still stand or were swept away.

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Salem Prints Downing HOUSE PC Essex Institute

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Etching Salem

This is generally a beautiful time of year to take photographs around Salem but it’s been rather cold and dreary for the past few weeks, with the exception of a few isolated days. I’m sure that when everything dries out we will be living in a lush and green world, but for right now I’m more predisposed to take out a book than go outside. So after I finished my grading (always a celebratory moment), I curled up with some old architecture and photography books and soon realized that one “Salem artist” whom I have never featured is Philip Kappel (1901-1981), an etcher and book illustrator who spent several years working with Philip Little and in his waterfront studio off Derby Street. Kappel was not really a Salem artist: he was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and as he was employed by several steamship lines over his career, he traveled the world six times over, gathering materials for his etchings everywhere he went. But he did publish a lovely book in 1966 titled New England Gallery with several Salem images inside, as well as some interesting commentary on his time here.

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20190514_142244 See what I mean about the weather? But Kappel’s Ropes Mansion and Witch House hint at brighter and warmer days, even with no color!

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Little Studio

20190514_161348The Custom House (which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year) Derby Wharf Lighthouse, The Little Studio (just above the compass star)–where both Philip Little and Philip Kappel worked, in different seasons—and the House of the Seven Gables.

Kappel relates the standard histories of most of the Salem structures presented in New England Gallery but is more effusive about Chestnut Street because that is where his friend and mentor, Philip Little, lived. Little summered on MacMahan Island off Boothbay Harbor every year, and during a visit to the mainland he chanced upon a small exhibition of Kappel’s drawings and sought the young artist out. Kappel was teaching art in Boothbay, but Little thought he should and could do better, and offered him his Salem studio on Daniels Street Court, “hard by Salem Harbor, in the heart of the area which made Salem a great seaport in its heyday.” There, Kappel reveals, “inspired by its moods and reveling in its historic past, I never worked harder or produced more work. Every summer passed too quickly.” Kappel’s depiction of the Little house at 10 Chestnut Street includes the entrance pillars of Hamilton Hall, which gives him an opportunity to pass along a charming little anecdote:  Many years ago Philip Little took me on a tour through Hamilton Hall. As we were descending the long flight of stairs that led to the second floor from the first, I notices a series of large white circles painted on the top step, and a similar treatment accorded the last step. (I have since learned that the circles have been removed.) When I asked the purpose of this unusual feature, Philip Little forthrightly informed me that the circles served as warning signals for those who might have “sipped too long and too much at the punchbowl,” alerting them to the impending dangers of a fall when taking the first step into the space, the circles on the last step indicating that all was well; a successful landing had been effected. There is carpet on those stairs now, but having been to one or two enthusiastic events at Hamilton Hall over the years, I’m wondering if we should put those circles back!

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20190514_161311Chestnut Street


The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

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Snow Castle 2

Snow Castle

It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Snow Castle Jersey Houses

Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

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Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.


Snowbomb

A brief intermission from #saveSalemshistory for some snow pictures, because it was a pretty big storm, or “bomb cyclone”! Back to the Phillips in a few days: remember the big PEM forum is on January 11th @ 6 pm in the museum’s Morse Auditorium. 

So we survived the year’s first big snowstorm, officially designated Grayson and categorized as a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists because of the coincidence of a steep, explosive drop in atmospheric pressure. It snowed all day and gusty winds gave the streets of Salem a blizzard-like appearance at times, but that was not as scary as the flooding that occurred on the coast and in several low-lying areas reclaimed from rivers and ponds. The Willows looked positively apocalyptic at high tide midway during the storm, and the storm surge covered Derby Wharf for a while. The sea captains who built my street 200 years ago clearly chose high ground for a reason (well, multiple reasons really), so it was a much less dramatic scene out my window for most of they day, and in the late afternoon I emerged for a quick walk and a much longer stint of shoveling.

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Snowcylone 8Chestnut and Essex Streets above; below, a panorama of Derby Wharf at high tide which was passed around by a bunch of architects yesterday, but I think can be attributed to ©Kirt Rieder. Beautiful but scary!

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The Last Collector of the Custom House

The life of David Mason Little (1860-1923) began in Swampscott and ended in Boston, but most of it was led in Salem, and in the fullest way possible: he was an MIT-trained naval architect, an inventor, a photographer, a silversmith, a military officer, a historian, a bank director, a mayor, and the last Collector of the Salem Custom House. Born into the wealthy and accomplished Little family of Little’s Point, Swampscott fame, he had many, many advantages, but certainly made the most of them. He was a descendant of Revolutionary soldier and scientist Colonel David Mason, his siblings included the famous maritime artist Philip Little, who lived a few buildings down and across the way from his Chestnut Street mansion, the architect Arthur Little, and the biographer Grace Little Oliver, his wife was the granddaughter of Salem’s great philanthropist John Bertram, and his youngest son Bertram became an influential collector and the director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), the forerunner of Historic New England. These bare biographical facts do not do justice to this man, who seems to have been that rare combination of civil servant and polymath.

Little Collage The Honorable David Mason Little, and a Boston Globe article dated July 17, 1904, shortly after his appointment as Salem’s last Collector of the Custom House.

Little’s service–as quartermaster of the Second Corps of Cadets and state ordinance officer during the Spanish-American War, as city councillor, school board member, and Mayor of Salem–is commendable of course, but his inventiveness and artistry are compelling, primarily because of his range of interests. Like his brothers, he traveled around Europe following his graduation and returned armed with a fascination for “instantaneous” photography (capturing movement) and new rapid dry-plate equipment designed to facilitate the technique. He tinkered with this for a bit, and designed a new camera shutter (patent # US 284645 A)) as well as a steam yacht “specially fitted for photographic work” which he took out into Salem and Marblehead harbors during regattas. The result was his pioneering portfolio of yacht photography, Instantaneous Marine Studies, published in 1883–with a cover designed by his brother Philip. Years later, after his term as Mayor of Salem was completed, Little turned to another craft: metalwork. Learning the art of silversmithing from Arts and Crafts smith George Gebelin (to whom he also became a patron), Little crafted housewares for the family home on Chestnut Street, as well as this beautiful teapot for his daughter Marguerite, two years before his death in 1923.

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Little ResidenceCover and plates from Little’s Instantaneous Marine Studies (1883), a Little silver teapot in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Little residence at 27 Chestnut Street Salem.


One Man’s War

Shifting to a more somber Caribbean story in commemoration of the beginning of the Spanish-American War, on this day in 1898. I thought I had the perfect source to draw upon for a puffy piece on Salem’s experience of this ten-week war: Harry Webber’s Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War (1901). After all, the author was a journalist for the Salem Evening News who traveled with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry to Cuba. But Webber was only interested in presenting the barest of outlines from a patriotic perspective: he did not dig deep and he also got a lot of thing wrong, including the name of Salem’s first and most celebrated casualty of the war, William Huntingdon Sanders. When I saw Sanders’ photograph captioned with the name Wellman H. Sanders, I promptly put Webber away and looked for some real primary sources.

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William H. Sanders grew up on Chestnut Street, at #43. He loved sports and science, and attended both MIT and Harvard, from which he graduated in 1897. I’m not quite sure what he was up to in the year between his graduation and the outbreak of war, but he enlisted a few days after the declaration along with several like-minded friends, forsaking the Massachusetts 8th for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which attracted a curious mix of southwestern cowboys and Ivy Leaguers like Sanders. Off they went to Texas for training, and then to Cuba, where Sanders saw action with Troop B, and served as Roosevelt’s orderly during the battle of San Juan Hill.  He is referenced by Roosevelt in his various regimental memoirs for his service, but also for his death, which came six weeks after San Juan on a hospital boat in Santiago Harbor.

Spanish American War Map

Spanish American War Stereo

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The Boston Sunday Herald’s special section on the war on April 28, 1898 included this “Map of the Seat of War”, Boston Public Library; the Rough Riders departing for Cuba on the Yucatan and Roosevelt’s serialized war memoirs in Scribner’s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Roosevelt, along with all the short notices, reports that Sanders died of a “fever” but I wanted to know more, and it took some work to uncover the precise circumstances of his death. This is why I’m so angry with Webber, the “reporter”: he neglects to report one of the key aspects of the Spanish-American War and all of the wars before it: the fact that more casualties came from disease than from combat. Military historians, at least those that focus on the totality of war rather than just the reconstruction of battles, always stress the roles of environment and infection, generally dividing modern warfare into Eras of Disease (18th century–1918), during which infectious diseases were the major killer of armed forces, and Trauma (1941 to the present), in which combat-related fatalities prevailed. Sanders and his fellow soldiers were sent into combat armed for war, but defenseless against disease. The American casualties in both the Caribbean and Pacific theaters of the Spanish-American War numbered 3,289, of which nearly 3000 died from disease, including malaria, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever. This was realized at the time: Major-General William Shafter famously referred to his “army of convalescents”, and the newspaper articles published daily in July and August of 1898 reported on both the high incidence of fever among the troops–as well as its mismanagement– with great conviction and regularity. My favorite headline, from the Boston Daily Globe, August 12, 1898: Neglect of Brave. Busiest Officer in Santiago is General Incompetence. That very same day, which happens to be the same day that William Sanders died, Harper’s Weekly published an equally scathing visual indictment on its cover.

Spanish-American War Headline

Spanish-American War Harpers

While the general story was well-reported, I could only get at Sanders’ personal story through Harvard, or the Harvard Crimson in particular, which told the stories of all the Harvard men who fought and died in the war in a slim volume issued in 1899. Each Harvard volunteer’s story is derived from first-hand accounts, and Sanders’ is particularly poignant (and infuriating!):  Sanders was in all the battles of his regiment. He had many narrow escapes but was never wounded. He was always exposed, especially in the assault of San Juan Hill, when he was Colonel Roosevelt’s orderly. On July 6, Sanders had a slight attack of malaria, and a second more severe one on July 23. He was ordered to the General Hospital at Santiago on July 30. But no ambulance was sent for him, and accordingly his tent-mate Dean mounted him on a horse and took him to Santiago. But they could not find the hospital. Dean therefore left Sanders in charge of the steward at the Marine Hospital with the latter’s promise to have him taken to a hospital boat in the Bay before sundown. But the promise was not kept. Sanders lay on the piazza of the Marine Hospital for two days, feeble, without remedies or care. He was then removed to the ship Los Angeles. But it was too late. He died August 12, and was buried in Salem with full military honors. Indeed he was, on September 15.

Sanders Collage

The story doesn’t end there, however, as William’s father, Mr. Charles Sanders, would not let it end: he obviously asked questions: what happened at the marine hospital? what happened on the hospital ship? I know this, because he received at least one answer, from an anonymous nurse on the Los Angeles, which was published in all the Boston- area newspapers under the title Rough Rider’s Life Sacrificed on October 29, 1898. In said nurse’s opinion, I feel sure that his death was due to the lack of proper stimulants to bring him over the chasm between the time of his fever’s leaving and the return of his natural vitality. I am not a trained nurse, and did not know at the time what he should have had, and because of the inefficiency or drunkenness (or both) of the attending physician, proper restoratives were not administered in time. Inefficiency or drunkenness, or both! Since I’ve tried to be a bit journalistic in this post, I searched for an official rejoinder, but came up short. There’s no way William Sander’s service and death can represent the totality of the American experience in the Spanish-American War, but they do open up one window, and provide a necessary corrective to contemporary reports like Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War.


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