Tag Archives: Houses

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.

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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.


A Very Hawthorne Holiday

This year’s Christmas in Salem house tour, the perennial seasonal fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization Historic Salem Inc., is Hawthorne-themed in recognition of the 350th anniversary of the House of the Seven Gables and features 15 decorated interiors in the greater Derby Street neighborhood along with a full schedule of associated offerings. The tour is on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon, and there are tie-in events (including a food tour, wine-tasting, meet-up of Salem history buffs, lectures on Hawthorne’s Utopian experience and the long history of celebrating Christmas) throughout the weekend. This tour is always a wonderful event for so many reasons: it supports preservation efforts and advocacy, does not exploit the witch trials in any way, and represents true collaboration between Salem’s heritage organizations. It’s a seasonal reminder of just how many beautiful old houses survive in Salem, and a great opportunity for decoration inspiration. I always emerge from the weekend full of empathetic gratitude for those generous homeowners who open their doors to hundreds of people during one of the busiest times of the year: I’ve been there, and done that (twice) and it is always quite the effort!

Hawthorne Poster

I like the theme of this particular tour as it harkens back to a time when Salem’s heritage identity was much more civic and civil, more diffuse, and much less commodified and concentrated on 1692. The neighborhood—and Hawthorne himself—are legacies of all of Salem’s history, dark and bright. Salem’s history and landscape gave Hawthorne his material: he always acknowledged his debt to his native city even as he distanced himself from it with obvious determination. In 1860, the Essex Institute had sustained a significant debt from moving their library (cabinet) into its permanent location (well, until the Peabody Essex Museum relocated it out of Salem) in Plummer Hall on Essex Street, and organized a fair to raise funds to pay off the debt. Hawthorne was asked for a story to contribute to the fair’s newsletter, The WealLeaf, and he acquiesced promptly, offering up an intense topographical memory rather than a story as his narrative inclinations had deserted him for the moment and he did not wish to be “entirely wanting to the occasion”. The relationship between the Essex Institute and Nathaniel Hawthorne was forged through moments like these, along with the deposit of Hawthorne family papers and the acquisition of additional papers and editions of all of Hawthorne’s works by the Institute, including The Spectator, his self-published (as a teenager!) newsletter.

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As Hawthorne evolved into a truly national figure following his death, the Essex Institute enhanced its reputation through its Hawthorne collections, most particularly during the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1904, for which the Institute organized a series of summer events: as this most American of authors was born on the fourth of July. National headlines all summer long focused on the author and Salem, and most particularly on the “ancient” houses associated with Hawthorne, in accordance with the form of heritage tourism that was popular at the time: the literary pilgrimage. Even a century later, the collections of the Essex Institute, now absorbed into the greater Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), were the focus of the bicentennial commemoration of Hawthorne’s birthday: consequently it’s not very difficult to imagine an open Phillips Library in an open Plummer Hall, and an exhibition of Hawthorne texts and papers assembled as a complementary and contextual feature of this weekend’s house tour. But we can only imagine such a scene, as Plummer Hall has been closed since 2011, and the Phillips collections, encompassing nearly all of Salem’s archival history, have been relocated to a vast Collection (not plural–specificity is discouraged) Center in Rowley. Nathaniel Hawthorne is gone.

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Hawthorne at Salem NYPLBoston Herald, May 1904; New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Sorry—–digression into a rant: the anniversary of PEM’s reluctant admission to the permanent relocation (dislocation) of the Phillips collections approaches (December 6) and so this momentous move is on my mind. I fear that each and every historical occasion in Salem will be impacted by the withdrawal of its archives and the historical disengagement of such a large cultural force in the city. I’m trying to focus on what remains, and this tour provides a great opportunity to do that. The Salem houses in which Nathaniel Hawthorne lived, worked, and was inspired by remain, as well as organizations like Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and the House of the Seven Gables, which are devoted to their preservation—and his memory. We also have more than a century of scholarship on Hawthorne in physical context—and his memorial statue of course, a stark contrast to that dreadful marker to Salem’s other claim to “fame” on the other side of town.

Closson Hawthorne

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SAAM-S0001933The emphasis on Hawthorne’s “Homes and Haunts” begins with the Prang publication of William Baxter Palmer Closson’s portfolio in 1886 and continues today! Salem: Place, Myth and Memory was edited by my colleagues at Salem State University and includes a great chapter on Hawthorne by Nancy Lusignan Schultz. I haven’t read Milder’s Hawthorne’s Habitations yet, but it sounds like it is more focused on his time in England and Italy. The Smithsonian photograph above, of the newly-installed statue in front of the newly-built Hawthorne Hotel in 1925, was taken by Salem’s great horticulturist and planner Harlan Kelsey.


The Red and the Black

I prefer the “transitional” seasons of fall and spring when change is apparent nearly every day. Of course all the seasons represent transition but when you think of them in terms of colors winter is white and summer is green whereas fall presents an array of colors and spring can too–though brown mud does prevail here in New England of course. There’s still quite a bit of color here in early November in Salem, though not for long: that late fall “starkness” is starting to set in. The welcome post-Halloween quiet is definitely here too, so I’ve been walking the streets and looking at houses again. For many years, one particular house on lower Essex Street has…….I guess the word would be drawn me. It’s not the most beautiful or well-maintained house, but there’s something about it that is very interesting to me. Stark, like this season. The juxtaposition of the windowless center gable with the rest of the house is curious. Anyway, I was walking by it the other day–a rather gloomy day–and it looked particularly striking, especially as contrasted with the residual bright foliage in other parts of town. It’s an old Crowninshield house, built in the 1750s and turned into a “tenement” in 1849 by a private housing trust named the Salem Charitable Building Association, and I think it’s been a rooming house since that time. I’m assuming that the center entrance gable (???? I’m really not sure what to call it) is an addition and would love to hear some expert opinions on this house!

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And the last of fall (and summer):

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Hawthorne Hub

Considerations of both donor intent and the importance of place were brushed off pretty quickly by the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum during the Q&A part of the public forum on the relocation of the Phillips Library last week, in contradiction to some of the museum’s own language on its website. Everything I have ever read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life and work stresses the importance of Salem in the latter, whether the dark secrets of his Hawthorne and Manning ancestors, the physical relics of the past all around him, or his daily perambulations all around town. His great-grandson Manning Hawthorne, who donated several boxes of family papers (MSS 69) to the Phillips Library in 1975, remarked that five generations of Salem ancestors and Salem itself were in his blood, nor could he ever rid himself of their influence. He was never particularly happy in Salem, but it was of Salem Hawthorne wrote and to Salem he returned in an article about the author’s early years published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1938.

Hawthorne collageHawthorne provides a story for the 1860 fundraising effort on behalf of the indebted Essex Institute; “I should be very glad to write a story, as you request, for the benefit of the Essex Institute, or for any other purpose that might be deemed desirable by my native townspeople”. I wish he was still with us!

The PEM’s own words support the inextricable connection between Hawthorne and Salem: the messaging accompanying the PEM’s bicentennial Hawthorne exhibition in 2004 asserts that: With Salem as the birth and dwelling place of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is understandable that the Phillips Library is a major hub of Hawthorne scholarship. In addition to the more than four feet of Hawthorne manuscripts, the library holdings include papers of the residents of Salem who were contemporaries and commenters on one of the leading 19th century American literary figures. The C. E. Fraser Clark* Collection of Hawthorniana augments the primary materials, and makes it possible to view all of the American editions and literary criticism of this premier writer. I feel the presence of Hawthorne pretty strongly still in Salem, primarily through extant buildings in which he lived and worked: a short walk around town can bring you to his birthplace, his childhood homes, houses belonging to his mother’s and wife’s families, and of course the House of the Seven Gables. It is difficult to see how an industrial warehouse is going to offer up the same ambiance for Hawthorne scholars, and consequently even more difficult to see the Phillips Library in Rowley continuing to serve as a hub of Hawthorne scholarship. And that’s another loss.

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Hawthorne 1

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Hawthorne 3 Hawthorne’s stencil from the Salem Maritime National Historic Site; just three Hawthorne houses in Salem: the Manning cottage (which happens to be my very favorite house in Salem)  and homestead on Dearborn and a short-term rental on Chestnut.

*It is C.E. Frazer Clark, not C.E. Fraser Clark.

P.S. And speaking of ambiance, here are the two Phillips Libraries, past and future, Salem and Rowley (thanks to Paul Jalbert for the latter!)

Phillips Collage


A Grandmother’s Gift

I’m almost done with a long stretch of rather intense work, obligations, and events, and feeling grateful to the friends and family who supported me while I was in the midst of it. I should feel grateful more often I think, and so I was trying to expand my present state this morning as I was considering my various “debts” in my third-floor study: and there, sitting on an old family desk (a gift from my aunt for which I am very grateful), alongside some ribbon embroidered with elephants and a hand-carved elephant head (gifts from a very good friend and a former student, to both of whom I am also grateful) lay the most notable benefit of blogging I have received to date: a hand-written manuscript memoir written by Mary Jane Derby Peabody for her grandchildren in 1880 given to me by a lovely lady from Maine who enjoyed my post on the Salem native and artist. It’s a beautiful book: a precious gift to the grandchildren, and also to me.

Old Times

Old Times for Young Eyes is a charming memoir of a Salem childhood, full of family, houses, furnishings, servants, teachers, teas, flowers, gardens, schoolgirl maps, and the fright we were in when there was alarm at night that the British has landed at Marblehead during the War of 1812! She wants her grandchildren to know all about the Derby family, and includes reproductions of her own painting of her childhood home on Washington Street (formerly on the site of the Masonic Temple) as well as the grand but short-lived Derby Mansion overlooking Salem Harbor. With her teenaged years, the setting moves to Boston, and Mary Jane describes that city in the 1820s in both words and pictures–it looks unrecognizable in the latter. I love everything about this book: the cover, the binding, the writing, the personal perspective and point-of-view, the details and the purpose.

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Old Times Dedication

Old Times Botany

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Old Times Images

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Old Times Text

Old Times Images 2 Cover details and dedication…developing her love of botany…..gathering flowers for pressing on Gallows Hill…..Mary Jane Derby Peabody and the Washington Street House of her childhood….the Derby Mansion, “built by Elias Hasket Derby, your great-great-grandfather, in 1780”, Boston notes and drawings.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve waited so long to post on this book; I’ve certainly been grateful since the moment I received it! I suppose it may be because of a note that Mary Jane included on the memoir’s title page: Privately written for the family only by M.J. Peabody AELXXIV 1881. “Privately” gave me pause, as does only, but the book had already left the family’s possession and was acquired by my benefactress at a yard sale. I intend to pass it on to a Salem archive–not sure which one yet–because both its story and its lessons (this is a grandmother’s memoir after all) should be preserved. I particularly like her assertion that it is important for young people to have beautiful things around them, which her life story illustrates.

Old Times Private Publishing

Old Times precious thingsWise words from Mary Jane Derby Peabody (1807-1892).


Bittersweet November

I don’t really have a theme or subject for today’s post: it is primarily comprised of photos I took here in Salem and up in York Harbor where I spent most of the weekend. But as I was walking along the Harbor cliff walk–a childhood path of mine that was allowed to be taken over by new home owners/builders along the way in past years but now seems to be in the process of being reclaimed by the public–I thought of how appropriate the bittersweet “decoration” that lined the walk was: contrasting and colorful, a last blast of bright before things get darker, so somehow all the more sweet. I’ve always thought November is one of our most beautiful months: the light is so clear, the earth not yet muddy brown or white. Of course since I’ve lived in Salem November has become particularly cherished as it marks Salem’s liberation from its Witch City identity, but I think everywhere that I have lived I have enjoyed November: in Vermont, and Maine, and Maryland, and Britain. I think it must be my second-favorite month, just behind May.

The first week of November in Salem: a blazing tree on Essex Street, the new Little Free Library on the Ropes Mansion Grounds, a house coming back to life, white shows the light, old tracks, a strange seating area at Harmony Grove cemetery (I think it is the pillows that I find somewhat odd), THE WITCH IS DEAD, one last fall photograph of my cat Trinity for a while, I promise!

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In York Harbor, the first weekend of November:  along the Cliff Walk: fortifications (several estates along the walk have castle-esque architectural attributes and CANNONS–who are they guarding against, the New York Yacht Club?), bittersweet, and a secret gate; fall back.

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The First Day of Fall

The First Day of Fall was much like the last day of Summer: warm, sunny, dry. But it was not humid, for which everyone was thankful, I’m sure. It certainly was a long hot summer, and a season of discontent for many. Fall always brings fresher air and perspectives, and in Salem, larger crowds: the city is already busy, and will get busier with every passing day through Halloween. I took a long walk when I got back from school looking for the new and notable, both of which are easy to find these days. There was definitely a calm-before-the-storm feeling in the air: I plan on hiding in my house or getting out of town for most of October (following this event, which looks like fun, and is long overdue) after my full immersion last year, so this felt almost like a last walk on a first day.

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fall-doors-church Lots of color around town, even though the leaves haven’t turned yet….

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fall-window-leaves  Still green…..

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Old and New courthouses; can’t wait for the new “Hotel Salem” on Essex Street with its rooftop bar–finally an aesthetically appealing design!

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Odd Fellows Hall; Emporium show window; the Salem Farmers’ Market in full swing.


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