Tag Archives: Essex Institute

What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

Derby Wharf Museum collage

Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


Watered Down

Salem is such a foodie/libations town now; I’m surprised there is so little culinary history served up. With countless restaurants, several bakeries and food shops, one brewery and another on the way, a cidery and distillery—all very busy—you would think there would be an ongoing audience for deep dives into the historical production and distribution of foodstuffs and beverages, but the only serious purveyors of such presentations (with ample samples!) are Salem Food Tours, and their affiliated attraction, the Salem Spirits Trolley, which runs in October. Good for them, but I think there’s room for more food-and-drink history, because Salem is not just a foodie town now; it always has been. The Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a brewing-themed event this week for which several area brewers have produced beverages based on the Museum’s collections: but only those collections that are right here in Salem so that’s not much to go on—the results must be somewhat watered-down if historical inspiration is the objective. A few trips up to the almighty Collection Center in Rowley and its encased Phillips Library would reveal more sources and more inspiration: here are some avenues of exploration that look particularly promising:

Women Brewers & Tavern-Keepers: there seem to have been quite a few in Salem!  One old Salem source that is quoted in all of the books about early American taverns and libations (quite a large genre) is a bill presented to the Parish Committee of the East Church for “Punch, Flip, Sangrey, etc.” by Abigail Brown, Tavern Keeper in 1767, and when Katherine Clarke inherited the Ship’s Tavern, one of Salem’s first, from her husband in 1645 she was licensed to keep it as long as she found a “fit man yt is godlie to manage the business”. Hannah Lemon Beadle also became the keeper of her family’s tavern on Essex Street following her husband’s death a bit later in the seventeenth-century, before it became the site of Witch Trial interrogations in 1692. 10 boxes of inn, tavern & retail licenses will yield lots of more information about just who was selling what.

Salem Spirits

Beadle's Tavern New England Magazine, 1892.

Spruce Beer. Logic tells me that Salem would have been a big producer of Colonial North America’s major contribution to the global world of beer, spruce beer, which compensated for shortages of both barley and hops in the New World and at the same time was recognized as a cure for scurvy. It was increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Dr. Bentley refers to it in his diary, and Jane Austen in her letters. It’s generally referred to as a home or “family” brew, however, so I supposed it was not produced commercially. I think there were alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and it seems to have been particularly popular in the summer. Here is General Jeffrey Amherst’s (of smallpox infamy) recipe:

Salem Spirits Spruce Beer

And here is Amelia Simmons’ recipe, with hops, from American Cookery (1796): it is notable that this is the only beverage recipe in the acclaimed “first” truly American cookbook:

Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissol|ved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bot|tle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.

What’s in the mix? I suspect that a lot of brewing was home-based so it might be in the “black box” which historians cannot open, but the Phillips Library has manuscript and printed recipe collections which might yield some interesting intructions for all sorts of beverages. The most comprehensive of the latter seem to be Joseph Coppinger’s American Practical Brewer and Tanner (1815) and MacKenzie’s five thousand receipts in all the useful and domestic arts: constituting a complete practical library … : a new American, from the latest London edition (1829), but there are “small beer” recipes in many contemporary cookbooks. Beer is seldom advertised before the later nineteenth-century: I looked through the Salem Gazette and found every single beverage BUT beer referenced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, although Mr. Ropes (below) was always in the market for barley!

Salem Spirits American Practical Brewer

Salem Spirits Mackenzie's 5000 Reciepts Phillips

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There are more references to beer when it is mixed with something else: as in flip (which Abigail Brown furnished to the East Church Parish Council), the famous and “terrible” Salem drink Whistle Belly Vengeance, Bogus or Calibogus (spruce beer with rum), and Rattle-Skull ( dark rum and/or brandy and beer). Rum improved everything, of course, including cider (Stone-Wall or Stone-Fence).

Where are all the Tavern signs? I’ve got to admit that I’m as much, or more,  interested in the material culture of taverns as the consumption–especially tavern signs. Salem tavern licenses were granted with the requirement that “there be sett up in some inoffensive sign obvious ways for direction to strangers”, and apparently signs for The Sun and the Bunch of Grapes once existed in the collections of the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, but all I can find are Washington Hotel signs at present: as you can imagine, Washington taverns and hostelries were as common in every American town as Washington streets in the nineteenth century.

Washington collagePeabody Essex Museum and Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach and Tavern Days (1900).


Locked Away

So many materials, locked away in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, undigitized, unheralded, unshared, undervalued and underutilized. Perhaps the digitized catalog will bring scholars to Rowley but they will have to be on the hunt: the Museum clearly does not have the inclination to blaze the trail. This was not always the case: a century and more ago, both of the PEM’s predecessors, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, were determined to share the stories of their collections to as wide an audience as was then possible. This week, like many historically-minded people in Massachusetts, I’m thinking about the insurgent American Revolution: that’s what mid-April is all about here. We have the 382nd Annual Muster on Salem Common this weekend along with a Glover’s Regiment encampment over in Marblehead, and then all the events associated with Patriots Day in Lexington and Concord on Monday. As has become my habit, I looked through the catalog of the Phillips to see what I am missing–what all of us are missing— about the historical significance of this time. The diaries always catch my attention (the Phillips is particularly rich in diaries) and one looked really interesting: that of William Russell of Boston, a Tea Partier and later clerk to the dashing privateer Captain John Manley, commander of the Continental ship Jason, which was captured in 1779. He then became a prisoner of war and recorded conditions as such in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England during the duration of the war. There is a list of his fellow prisoners as well as the ships from whence they came, and additional notes and annotations by his grandson James Kimball, a Salem resident who published the diary and presented his manuscript copy to the Essex Institute, where Ralph Paine mined it for several chapters in his 1908 book The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem; the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement, calling it “by far the most complete and entertaining account of the experience of the Revolutionary privateersmen and naval seamen who suffered capture that has been preserved”. Here we have an example where (I think–I stand ready to be corrected by historians of the Revolution) an antiquarian and annotated copy has been more influential than the original source, which is part of the Boston Public Library’s collection of American Revolutionary War Manuscripts.

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Locked Away Russell Warrant 1779

Locked Away Captain_John_Manley,_wood_block,_Peabody_Essex_MuseumThe opening page of William Russell’s wartime diary & the warrant for his arrest in December of 1779, Boston Public Library; woodcut broadside illustration of the famous Captain Manley of Marblehead, Peabody Essex Museum.

If this is true, it will not be so for much longer: the Boston Public Library is committed to digitization, collective transcription and open access while the PEM clearly is not (yet, we have hopes), so the primary source will eclipse the copy if it has not already. I’m drawn to the PEM Russell diary because it speaks to the activities and inclinations of his grandson, James Kimball, almost as much as it does to William Russell himself, and also to the role played by the Essex Institute in later nineteenth-century Salem. Around the time of the Centennial, James Kimball, a former Salem shoemaker and current county commissioner, clearly devoted himself to the chronicling of the Revolutionary activities of his grandfather, giving public talks at both the Salem Lyceum and the Essex Institute and publishing several papers in the Historical Collections of the latter, and ultimately the annotated prison diary. The Essex Institute gave him a genealogical and historical forum, and created a far more lively public discourse of Salem’s past and the American past than seems possible now.

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History is as much about the remembrance of things past as the past, but I don’t want the former to take precedence over the latter, especially as we approach Patriots Day and should be mindful of the heroism and the sacrifices of our Revolutionary forebears. Russell was clearly heroic, but his sacrifices were overwhelming–maybe that’s what motivated his grandson a century later. He was in captivity at the Old Mill Prison for two and a-half years, when he was exchanged, but only 20 days after his liberation he was imprisoned again, this time in the horrible, hulking British prisoner ship Jersey, anchored off New York. And there he remained until the end of the war, after which he returned to Boston (actually Cambridge) to resume his civilian and family life, but “with health shattered by reason of his years of hardship as a prisoner of war…consumption gripped him and he died in the following year on March 7, 1784 at the age of thirty-five. He had given the best years of his life to his country and he died for its cause with as much indomitable heroism and self-sacrificing devotion as though musket ball or boarding pike had slain him” in the 1908 words of Ralph Paine. And the story doesn’t even end there: Russell’s son and namesake (and Kimball’s uncle) grew up to be a master mariner, and was taken captive by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned in……Old Mill Prison! Russell Jr. suffered a much shorter confinement than his father, but still: think about the sacrifices of two generations of a family, and the devotion of a third.

Locked Away Mill Prison1812 Drawing of Mill Prison, Plymouth.


Simon Bradstreet’s Body

Lately I’ve become a bit fixated on Simon Bradstreet, the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily because of the spectacular Salem house in which he lived—and died. So much so that when I realized the anniversary of his death date (in 1697) was yesterday, I ran over to look at his grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point. But when I got there, I realized that it wasn’t there: there’s a cenotaph, but no grave and no body. Where is it? No one really seems to know!

Bradstreet Negative DC

There are clues to the whereabouts of Simon Bradstreet’s body in the Phillips Library, and also, of course, in the graveyard. The most serious inquiry was initiated by Robert Rantoul, a Mayor of Salem, President of the Essex Institute, and someone who addressed many issues of his time and before, and published in an 1892 article in the Salem Press and Genealogical RecordThere is a strong tone of righteousness in this piece, which begins with the statement that Bradstreet’s tomb is now, be the title good or bad, in possession of parties alien to the Bradstreet line, and has been so held for a century, and the representatives of these claimants not unnaturally object to all interference with their long-established rights of possession. I have to admit I did not know that cemetery plots, including those that had been “occupied”, were actually sold like any other piece of property, but that is what seems to have happened: Rantoul lays out all of the historical facts which testify to Bradstreet’s burial on Charter Street, and then presents the surprising revelation that in 1798 the tomb seems to have changed hands according to a bill of sale endorsed by Colonel Benjamin Bickman which states that Major John Hathorne and Captain Samuel Ingersoll bou’t of Benjamin Pickman….a tomb in the burying point (so called)….formerly the Property of Governor Bradstreet. Jump forward a century, to Rantoul’s time and a major investigation carried out by a special committee comprised of members of the Salem City Council and Essex Institute along with “health officers, accomplished antiquarians, and local historians”, which did not seem to be able to locate the remains of Governor Bradstreet. Rantoul leaves us with the mystery, but also some intriguing details: members of the Hathorne family had protested the disturbance of their tomb, and one contemporary observer commented that an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne having taken possession, with no further scruple cleaned out the tomb, throwing the remains of the old Governor and his family into a hole not far away”. And there we are–but where is Bradstreet?

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Bradstreet Tomb3The Bradstreet Tomb today and in its original location in the 1890s (photograph by Frank Cousins @ Digital Commonwealth). Cotton Mather’s epitaph for Bradstreet seems particularly apt: “Here lies New England’s Father! Woe the day! How mingles mightiest dust with meaner clay!”


Salem Tokens, and my appreciation

Periodically, but continually, I get tokens from readers of my blog—scanned pictures or stories from old magazines, little pamphlets, scraps of Salem history—which I place in a file for safekeeping with the intent that I will devote one post to each item at some point. This file has grown pretty full, so I wanted to expose some of these items to the light of day. I’ve reserved some pieces for their own special posts, but I’m not sure I can contextualize all of these treasures so better just to get them out there as maybe someone else can! I’m so appreciative of all these gifts, and will be donating them to a public repository in due time, but for now I’m holding on to them, because I never know when inspiration will strike, or some other little piece of paper will come along to amplify something I already have. So here we go, perhaps the first of what may become a series of “tales from the files” posts, beginning with a lovely fundraising pamphlet issued by the Essex Institute in 1929, when its directors were seeking to raise the grand amount of $400,000. The focus is on preservation, accessibility, and “remembrance of things past” throughout the pamphlet, which features silhouettes of famous Salemites in the margins and highlights of the collections on every other page. I sense some emerging sentimentality around the old Essex Institute these days, with the prolonged absence of the Phillips Library: I’ve received several items in just the past few months.

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I have quite a collection of little books, souvenirs I suppose, including several of Fred Gannon’s compilations from the 1940s published by Salem Books Co., guidebooks such as the Streets & Homes in Old Salem, published from 1930 to 1953, and leather industry newsletters: I love the photograph of the old tanneries (on Goodhue Street???) which is in the Leather in Salem and Peabody newsletter below, sourced (of course) from the Essex Institute.

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Token Tannery

My own postcard collection has been supplemented by gifts from readers, encompassing cards from all eras, undivided and divided backs, dignified black-and-white and cheerful chromes, depicting mostly Salem buildings—people don’t send me witches, except for very close friends! Last but far from least, I have been privileged to receive quite a few family photographs–scans of course–including one of my very favorites below: some lovely ladies and the bride at a Ropes Family wedding in 1898.

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Salem Tokens Lucia Ropes Wedding Day 1890s


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