Tag Archives: Commemoration

The Forces Align

This past weekend was happening; the streets of Salem were full of tourists and the historical events in which I was somewhat involved came off very well: the Salem Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall and the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clever costumes and a joyful spirit imbued the former, while a packed house turned out for the latter—for fish, and a deep dive into this often-overlooked Atlantic trade which brought a lot of wealth to Salem and the North Shore. The Resistance Ball is kind of important to me for several reasons, so I’m very grateful to everyone who made it a success. It benefited Hamilton Hall, a beautiful historic hall with a slight endowment that has to work for a living: the more support the Hall gets from its fundraising activities the more it can support the community (as for example, by providing its ballroom to Salem High School for the Junior Prom free of charge on Friday night) and the fewer weddings it has to host. I live right next to the Hall and I was president of its Board of Trustees for six years. But more than all of that, this particular event represents a relatively unique attempt to showcase the comprehensive and the progressive forces in Salem’s history, rather than one singular dark event that serves (and provides) the basis for constant exploitation. This is a city in which the commercial symbol of that exploitation is situated in its chief city square, so an event that celebrates resistance to: British rule in particular, imperialism in general, segregation, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, inequality, let alone Star Wars, is very welcome. Hester Prynne was in attendance as well as a lightsaber-wielding Rey. There is always some power force which provokes resistance, so how universal is this theme?

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Forces 14Tried to get more juxtapositions of historical and modern dress but what can I say? I was enjoying the party! Above is my beautiful friend and a very talented seamstress, Louise Brown, in her own creation of course. Below is our committee (with a few conspicuous absences) with chair Michael Selbst in the middle, to the right of me! And then we have some swag…..thanks to all our sponsors too!

Resistance Ball Committee

Forces Swag

Saturday night to Sunday afternoon: from festivities to fish! Salem is so fortunate to have a National Park in its midst: the Salem Maritime National Historic Site is always the perfect host, the perfect partner, the sole steward of our maritime history with the retreat of the PEM. The symposium went off beautifully and I was particularly interested to see some maps I had never seen before in the presentation by Karen Alexander of the University of New Hampshire (including a 1774 map from the British Museum which shows a very-populated and strategic Salem). It’s always interesting to hear about how port cities actually work, and I thought that Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country explained the inner (and outer) workings of Bilbao really well. It was kind of odd to be staring at a screen with sources from the Phillips Library while the Salem storage facility for the same was being dismantled just next door, but I doubt very many people in the crowd were aware of that dissonance.

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Forces AlignScenes from the Salt Cod for Silver Symposium, and the demolition of the Stacks next door.


Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


Black History is Salem History

I’m wrapping up February, a month in which educators have focused on African-American history since at least 1970, with a summary of some of the research in which I’ve been engaged and some links to some other initiatives and events in the Salem area. I really learned a lot this month, about Salem’s African-American history, and about Salem’s history: essentially I learned that they are one and the same. I got drawn into the experiences of African-Americans in Salem in the eighteenth century by my efforts to learn digital mapping through a project on enslavement, while the Remonds of Hamilton Hall have always been my point-of-entry for the world of nineteenth-century free blacks in Salem. I’ve been supervising an internship for Hamilton Hall in which the intern has been digging deep into the activities of the extended Remond family, and I have benefitted from directing (and following!) her path. My map is in the very preliminary stages primarily because I haven’t really mastered the process yet, but also because I have yet to establish the full scale of enslavement in colonial Salem. Every discovery leads me down a path in which I struggle to establish context: the Honorable justices William Browne, Benjamin Lynde Sr., and Benjamin Lynde Jr., the Loyalist Captain Poynton of the “Pineapple House”: all slave owners.

Black Past Brown

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Poyton Collage

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Black Past Otis Map Advertisements from the Boston EveningPost; 1731 portrait of Benjamin Lynde Sr. by John Smibert; Diary entry and will excerpt from The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and of Benjamin Lynde, Jr. (1880). I’m using the “Otis Map” or the “Map of Salem about 1780,” based on the Researches of Sidney Perley and the (contemporary) accounts of Col. Benjamin Pickman & Benjamin J.F. Browne with Additional Information Assembled by James Duncan Phillips and Henry Noyes Otis and drawn by Henry Noyes as my old-school working map and adding Xs as I uncover information from newspaper ads, censuses, and diaries–but there are still a lot of family papers to go through.

It’s so odd to think of Benjamin Lynde Sr. (1666-1749) and Benjamin Lynde Jr. (1700-1781), Salem natives, residents, and chief justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, conducting their legal responsibilities while simultaneously managing their private estates, which included the purchase of new slaves, and the recovery of those who had run away. The elder Lynde mentions purchasing sheep and a young boy named Scipio in the same breath. Benjamin Lynde Jr. presided over the trial of the British soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre of 1770, and freed one of his slaves in his will six years later. And then everything changes: just one of many remarkable things I’ve learned about Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873), also a Salem native and son of a free black emigre, is his intense advocacy for the erection of a memorial to Crispus Attucks, the African-American martyr of the Boston Massacre. He would not see that statue erected in his lifetime, but he would be the first African-American to testify before the Massachusetts legislature in 1842: on the timely topic of the the desegregation of the relatively-new railways. Just this past week, an excerpt of the new book Separate: the Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg was published in the Washington Post Magazine as ” The Jim Crow Car”: who knew that that phrase had northern origins? Mr. Luxenberg tweeted me a quote from his book referencing Remond’s testimony on February 10, 1842 when the chamber was filled with curious spectators as “Word had gotten out: a man of color would be testifying.”

Remond Train Collage

Before this month, I had a healthy respect for Charles and his equally famous sister Sarah Parker Remond, both very public abolitionist advocates and speakers, but I was a bit more interested in their parents, John and Nancy, a very entrepreneurial couple who kept the home fires burning while supporting their efforts back in Salem. I remain impressed with the entire Remond family, but I got to know Charles a bit more and I really think he was a man ahead of his time. He was not just advocating for abolition, he was going for complete equality: of race and gender. I read in his letters to his fellow abolitionist Ellen Sands in the Phillips Library in Rowley very carefully, and his earnest identification of his enemies as “his majesty Mr. Slavery and her majesty Mistress Prejudice” rings true in all his advocacy work: for desegregation of travel and education, for women’s suffrage, for the end of the Massachusetts anti-miscegenation laws, for the end of slavery and equal opportunities for African-Americans. All of the Remonds petitioned their local and state authorities on a range of social justice issues in the 1840s and 1850s, calling for the the abolition of capital punishment, the desegregation of the Boston schools (having been successful in Salem), and the refutation of the Fugitive Slave Act.

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Black History Remond Petitition 1A

Black History Remond Petition 1BJust one petition with Remond signatures from Harvard University’s Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse.

Because of the presence of the Remonds (and perhaps other African-American families whom I haven’t learned about yet), Salem served as a refuge of sorts for free blacks from eastern cities in search of educational opportunity, particularly young women: two very prominent educators, Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) and Maritcha Remond Lyons (1848-1929), left Philadelphia and New York for Salem in the 1850s and 1860s, and Forten graduated from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) and became the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools in 1856. Salem was definitely formative in Forten’s intellectual and personal development, and Salem State is justly proud of its graduate: a permanent exhibition space was opened up on campus last year, and a special tribute to her pioneering roles will be held next week.

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Forten Talk 2Charlotte Forten and Maritcha Remond Lyons, who was named after her mother’s best friend, Maritcha Remond. You can register for Race, Gender and Education: a Dialogue Linking Past and Presenta complimentary event, here.

The city of Salem is fortunate that institutions such as Salem State, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Hamilton Hall are engaging in the interpretation of African-American history, but I think this topic—along with many others—deserves the coordination and amplification that a historical society/museum/center could bring to its presentation. A few tweets from the city’s tourism organization about the existence of an audio guide to African-American sites in Salem does not suffice. Despite the residency and advocacy of the Remonds, of Charlotte Forten, of Robert Morris and Jacob Stroyer, and the fact that the Salem Ship Desire delivered the first documented cargo of enslaved Africans to Massachusetts in 1638, Salem has only two sites on the map of the comprehensive African-American Trail project at Tufts University: Stroyer’s grave and Remond Park. While it’s lovely that Salem has paid tribute to the Remond family with a seaside park, this gesture should not suffice either–especially when the information conveyed in its signage is wrong: a large population of nineteenth-century African-Americans did not live on Bridge Street Neck, remote from the center of the city. And their presence and stories—like those of their predecessors and successors—should not be confined to the margins of Salem’s history.

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Remond Park CollagePart of the AfricanAmerican Trail Project at Tufts including an evening last fall in which projections of the University’s first African-American students were photographed: here is Claude Randolph Taylor from 1924. Photograph by Erik Jacobs, Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University. I’m sure that the Remond Park sign will be corrected soon, but why was this sweeping and incorrect assertion included in the first place?


Receptive Reenactments

I do not think that most professional historians care for reenactments of past events, primarily because of their belief that people in the present can never truly “reenact” the past and so any attempt to do so will lead inevitably to trivialization. There is also a general disdain for battle reenactments, which seem to dominate such endeavors. I share those views, but I also see a lot of positive aspects of communities coming together to explore various aspects of their past. I think activity is important, especially for the generation I’m teaching now, whose engagement in the past seems confined to video games. I was fortunate to grow up around reenactments of the more “festival” type, so I don’t associate period dress-up with formations necessarily, and here in Salem I’m an enthusiastic supporter of any attention to any event that does not revolve around profiteering from the tragic events of 1692. Looking at reenactment trends, it appears that we’re moving away from big battles and towards progressive social movements: suffragists, labor actions, protests. There are attempts to capture the spirit of the past in more engaging “pop-ups”, rather than by slavish devotion to every little stitch: just contrast this New York Times article about the diminished ranks at Gettysburg with this blog post on events celebrating Chicago’s more colorful past. Even though I am having real difficulties with the writing of PBS’s Victoria this year, I did like Lucy Worsley’s recreation and reenactment of Victoria and Albert’s 1840 wedding, which was all about the details: dress, venue, menu, CAKE. BUT Worsley was able to take all those details and weave them into something that had lasting significance: the reinvention of the British monarchy in the nineteenth century through big majestic events. Obviously we are still affected by royal weddings today.

Reenactment Cake

Leslie’s Retreat (which happened on this date in 1775), is a perfect event for reenactment as it involves both a military maneuver and social protest against that maneuver, is a local event that can be tied into a much larger context, and must be played out with both words and actions. Despite the weather, the third annual enactment went off very well on Sunday: instead of taking it outside and down to the riverside, everything happened in the confines of the First Church. Even though his role is mythical, Major Pedrick warned the congregation of the imminent arrival of the British, they marched, the compromise was reached, and the reception began.

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Reenactment 1I am not showing you Major Pedrick because he should not have been there!

Reenactments can trap you in their details if you are not careful. Even though it was largely irrelevant to the day’s discourse, I became fixated on the logistics of the British soldiers’ landing and march. So off to Marblehead I went, to see the two referenced landing locations, very near to one another, and then their possible routes to Salem. There I also saw the Marblehead plaque marking the occasion, which (like the account of Samuel Roads in my last post) seemed to imply that the story was all about Marblehead!  Well there you have it: there are at least two sides to every story, so you might has well just aim for the spirit of the occasion.

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Thanks to Tom P. for leading me to what I think are Homan’s Cove and Lovis’s Cove, the landing places referenced in the sources. From there I presume that the British marched through the town of Marblehead (on what streets I do not know) and then to Salem along the above road on the 1776 Des Barres map (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).


Reports of Leslie’s Retreat

This weekend brings the third annual commemorative reenactment of “Leslie’s Retreat” to Salem, an enthusiastic event that I think everyone enjoys because of its non-commercial, non-1692 focus: at least I do! The reenactment marks an event which might have sparked the American Revolution weeks before Lexington and Concord, if shots had been fired; it was nonetheless a notable occurrence of an armed (and potentially very dangerous) resistance. In late February of 1775 General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, got wind of a store of cannon in Salem and dispatched Lieut. Col. Alexander Leslie and 240 soldiers of the 64th Regiment by ship from Boston to Marblehead on the 26th (a Sunday!), with instructions to march to Salem and seize them. There’s a lot of whispering and distrust in this story as the “Tory” and “Patriot” sides do not seem firm, but several Marblehead patriots rode ahead in Revere-like fashion and warned the people of Salem, and thus “the Sabbath was disturbed”. By the time the soldiers arrived in Salem a crowd had assembled in the vicinity of the (old) North Bridge, as across the North River was the blacksmith’s shop where the cannons were being affixed to field carriages. A prolonged standoff ensued with the drawbridge raised, during which the cannons were moved west, several ending up in Concord, I believe. The bridge was lowered so that Colonel Leslie could fulfill his orders, but it was too late, and so he and his troops turned around and marched back to Marblehead, their ship, and Boston. I’ve written about this event several times (here and here), there’s a nice narrative of events here, and the most insightful accounts are on J.L. Bell’s brilliant blog Boston 1775 (I especially like this post but check this one out too, and this one), so there is no need to go into any more detail, but there are three issues I’d like to raise, two “open” and one relatively new (I think, maybe not, not my period!), all from newspaper accounts written in the weeks after Colonel Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

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Leslies Retreat Newport Mercury

Leslies Retreat March 15 Masthead

There is some back-and-forth, especially in the first few weeks after the Retreat, but for the most part the papers are essentially publishing the standard story first published by the Essex Gazette. There are so many details to this story, however, that it’s notable what is put in and what is left out. So here are my “outstanding” issues, in the form of a question and two comments.

How many damn cannon(s) were there in Salem?  I can’t lock down the number (and I know “cannon” is plural but I think I have to use cannons here). Apparently General Gage had received reports that old ships’ cannons were being converted in Salem and eight additional cannons had been imported from abroad, while the Essex Register’s report on the Retreat included the assertion that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town, in order to be out of the way of the robbers. I’ve read (and quoted) seventeen cannons, nineteen cannons, and twenty cannons. I think we’ve go to go with the eyewitness account cited by J.L. Bell, in which Samuel Gray, who was nine years old at the time, went into the smithy on the day after and asked how many cannons had been there the day before and was told twelve; understood they were French pieces, and came from Nova Scotia after the late French war; were guns taken from the French; does not know to whom they belonged previous to being fitted up on this occasion. TWELVE. Gray’s remembrances were in response to interviews that Charles Moses Endicott conducted to produce his Leslie’s Retreat; or the Resistance to British Arms, at the North Bridge in Salem, on Sunday, the 26th of February of 1775, which was first published as a separate Proceeding of the Essex Institute in 1856.

 (The remembrance and reconstruction of what became known as “Leslie’s Retreat” enable us to see how Salem’s history was collected, preserved and interpreted by the Essex Institute, one of the founding institutions of today’s Peabody Essex Museum. Contrary to the claims of the PEM leadership: yes, the Essex Institute DID function as a historical society, and that’s why its historical collections, including its publications and historical manuscripts and texts assembled in the Phillips Library, constitute an important archive of Salem’s history, and no, no institution is fulfilling that role for Salem now, so the decisions to end the Institute’s interpretation and collection missions and remove its archival collections from Salem will have far-reaching consequences. These decisions were made by Mr. Dan Monroe, and since he has announced his retirement it is time to consider his legacy—and this is a truly momentous one.) Sorry–the spirit of RESISTANCE overwhelmed me!

Back to the question of the cannon(s): for some reason Endicott goes with 17 in his account, which has become classic, but he includes Gray’s number in his footnotes, clearly giving some credence to his claim. I don’t know why we can’t believe the boy: certainly his would have been a crystalline memory.

Major Pedrick was a Tory! None of the contemporary reports of the events of February 26, 1775 mention Major John Pedrick as the “alarming” figure who rode ahead of Leslie’s troops to warn the citizens of Salem of their imminent arrival, nor does Endicott. That’s because his role was made up after Endicott’s account. Pedrick was in fact a wealthy Tory who would not have been motivated to play such a conspicuous role at this time; he came around a bit later but anonymous Marbleheaders warned Salem on that Sabbath day. Again, I am relying on J.L. Bell’s succinct analysis of the “myth” of Major Pedrick, which has been perpetuated in the most recent scholarship as well as our reenactment. I was also inspired by Bell’s post to look around and see what else was made up about our event, particularly in the “creative” Marblehead accounts of the later nineteenth century. Samuel Roads Jr.’s History and Traditions of Marblehead (1880) turns Leslie’s Retreat into an all-Marblehead affair: Pedrick is prominent, of course, along with an entire Marblehead Regiment that came to Salem to take up with Leslie’s troops. Not a single Salem name is mentioned in Roads’ account, but we do hear of one Robert Wormsted, one of the young men from Marblehead,—who afterwards distinguished himself by his daring and bravery,—[and ] engaged in  an encounter with some of the soldiers. He was a skillful fencer, and, with his cane for a weapon, succeeded in disarming six of the regulars. Wow. No mention in Endicott of this cane-wielding Wormsted—or Pedrick—but Marblehead folk artist J.O.J Frost seems to have cemented the latter’s place in history in his early twentieth-century painting Major Pedrick. To the Town of Salem, to Give the Alarm.

Leslies Retreat Frost Courtesy Skinner Auctions; note the anachronistic photo inserted on the right.

“Anniversary History” was alive and well in 1775: Even in the standard reports of Leslie’s Retreat published in the week after, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of what had just happened in Salem and the imminent fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Side by side we can read of Leslie’s “ridiculous” expedition and “an Oration, in commemoration of the Massacre, perpetuated in King-Street, on the 5th of March, 1770, by Joseph Warren, Esq.” and several reports made the connection between the two, which occurred on successive sabbaths. Dr. Warren actually spoke on March 6, 1775, and I wish he had referenced Salem, but he did not. Nevertheless, you can really feel the drumbeat of rebellion when you read the New England papers published in March of 1775: there are lessons to be learned and anecdotes to be memorialized. The editors of the Newport Mercury were also thinking historically when they opined that as our brave ancestors used to carry their implements of war with them to their places of worship during the Indian wars, perhaps our brethren of the Massachusetts Bay have good reason to make use of the same precaution at this day. I also can’t resist adding another eyewitness testimony here, from a “True Son of Old Ireland” who was on the spot, as well as my very favorite photograph of the First Reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat, two years ago: these guys played their roles really well.

Leslies Retreat Lessons Learned Newport Mercury March 6

Essex Gazette March 7 1775 Leslies Retreat

Leslies Retreat best photoThe Newport Mercury of March 6, 1775 and the Essex Gazette of March 7, 1775; Lt. Colonel Leslie (Charlie Newhall!!!) exasperated and outflanked two years ago.

Commemorating Leslie’s Retreat on February 24:  Reenactment at 11:15-11:30 for Redcoats (meet at Hamilton Hall) and Patriots (meet at the First Church). Reception afterwards at First Church.

A Staged Reading of Endicott’s Leslie’s Retreat at the Pickering House by Keith Trickett, 3pm: https://pickeringhouse.org/events/special-leslies-retreat-performance/.

Toast the Retreat and Salem’s Resistance at O’Neill’s Pub on Washington Street from 4-7pm.

And coming in April: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall: https://www.hamiltonhall.org/full-event-calendar/2019/2/1/resistance-ball


A River of Molasses

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.

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molasses page 2Headlines 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.

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molasses june 12 1886 boston heraldMolasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886. 

 

The Great Molasses Flood & Fluid Dynamics: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/science/boston-molasses-flood-science.html.

The Great Molasses Flood &  “Misunderstood History”: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2762


Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

slavery collage

Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

hunt-house-cousins-and-riley

hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


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