Tag Archives: Local History

Mid-Century Maritime

The Peabody Essex Museum’s new building, or at least its exterior, is now completed, creating a sweep of contrasting structures along Essex Street, with the East India Marine Hall centered between two more modern monolithic structures. During the long construction process, and after we learned that the PEM would be removing Salem’s archival heritage to a new Collection Center in Rowley, it was revealed (not in a press release, of course) that the large anchor which was placed in front of the Marine Hall over a century ago would also not return. I believe it’s up in Rowley too. I don’t know the rationale for this decision with absolute certainty, but I did hear a rumor that the leadership of the museum believed that the anchor reeked of “maritime kitsch”, which is obviously incompatible with its new profile and identity. If that is indeed the case, it’s amusing to see several “Ladies of Salem” figureheads hanging prominently in front of the PEM’s sleek facades.

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Salem is awash in witch kitsch; I think a little maritime kitsch would balance things out. But the anchor is hardly kitschy when you compare it with some nautical designs from half a century ago, when Salem was embracing its maritime identity a bit more than its witch-trial one: before Bewitched white-washed the latter and paved the way for full-scale exploitation. The sleek nautical images of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to more idealistic and pictorial depictions in the 1940s and 1950s, and I don’t think you could find any better representative of this mid-century aesthetic than the marketing materials of the Hawthorne Hotel. I have a menu and a flyer which present a very colorful past, enabling the hotel to offer “the charm of Old Salem in a modern manner.”

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I don’t really see how the Hawthorne’s 1950s lobby “captured the spirit of Old Salem”, but its Main Brace cocktail lounge was indeed very “salty”. It featured murals by the Rockport maritime artist Larry O’Toole, who also produced a famous pictorial map, “A Salty Map of Cape Ann”, in 1947-48, as well as maritime murals and paintings commissioned by institutional and individual patrons. The netting, the captain’s chairs, the mural: not a nautical detail was overlooked in the Main Brace.

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Mid Century Maritime HH Main Brace 1942

Mid-Century MapThe Hawthorne Hotel’s lobby and Main Brace cocktail lounge; Jonathan Butler, Harriet Shreve & John Pickering X in the Main Brace c. 1942 from Kenneth Turino’s and Stephen Schier’s Salem, Volume 2 (Arcadia Publishing, 1996); Larry O’Toole’s Salty Map of Cape Ann from Geographicus.

The idealized maritime aesthetic was not just a presentation or projection: it was also a perspective, as illustrated in the many “great men in their great ships” books which were published in the 1950s and 1960s portraying American history as the history of expansion by land and sea—-and Salem playing an absolutely central role in the latter. Consequently when tourists came to Salem they wanted to see the remnants of this glorious past. Arthur Griffin’s photographs of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s (at the Digital Commonwealth) depict well-dressed tourists looking at all manner of maritime relics in the old Peabody Museum of Salem: how far we’ve come from that innocent age.

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The War on Paper

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries all year long (well perhaps not in the depths of winter) but in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day that time intensifies: late May is characterized by that heady mix of beautiful blooms and remembrance. Salem’s two larger cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, are nineteenth-century “garden cemeteries” which are beautiful places to wander and to remember, as they contain graves of soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars One and Two, Korea and Vietnam. The two Salem men who were killed in Afghanistan, James Ayube and Benjamin Mejia, are buried in these cemeteries as well: the former at Harmony Grove and the latter at Greenlawn. In the center of town, Salem’s older cemeteries, at Charter, Broad and Howard Streets, contain the graves of Revolutionary War veterans, as well as those who fought in earlier colonial conflicts, and the Civil War. This is one of the more important aspects of living in an old settlement: you can feel the weight of history.

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Harmony Grove is the cemetery where you feel the weight of the Civil War the most, or the “War to Preserve the Union” as its northern combatants called it (because that is what it was). Greenlawn has a G.A.R monument and many graves of Civil War soldiers, but there is something about Harmony Grove that feels more connected to that era. There is a central circle commemorating the young Salem men that died during the war, and survivors’ graves are interspersed throughout the cemetery: the grave of Luis Emilio, the Captain of the Mass. 54th is there. He survived the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 and lived to tell the tale, but the grave of William P. Fabens, who died there the following year, is also at Harmony Grove.

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Stones can only tell you so much: if you want to want to know more, you need paper: the sources of the Civil War are plentiful and accessible in general but for Salem in particular, sparse, because of the removal of the Phillips Library.  With its present pledge to digitize more of its collections, this situation might change, but for now we are dependent on other repositories for glimpses of Salem’s Civil War history. Given Salem’s role as a regional center in northeastern Massachusetts, I was able to piece together a paper trail through two state digital databases, the New York Heritage and Digital Commonwealth, and a few other sources: this trail does lead us to the battlefield (or camp nearby) but is more evocative of the war at home. Salem emerges as a busy place of mobilization and recruitment, where young men from all over Essex County were mustered into service and dispatched to the major regional training camp in Lynnfield. At the beginning of the war, this is a process of enthusiastic volunteerism, but as it wears on it’s all about bounties and quotas. Massachusetts Adjutant-General William Schouler cited his own correspondence in his two-volume History of Massachusetts in the Civil War (1868) including this representative instruction to an official in Newburyport: Recruit every man you can; take him to the mustering officer in Salem and take a receipt for him. After he is mustered into United States service, you shall receive two dollars for each man. The officer will furnish transportation to Lynnfield. Work, work: for we want men badly. The correspondence between Daniel Johnson, the mustering officer and Provost Marshal in Salem who was responsible for recruiting men from Essex County in the last 18 months of the war and officials in the small town of Essex illustrates the intensifying local effort to meet quotas established by the state and federal governments.

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Civil War logistics DCRecruiting posters from 1861-1863, New York Historical Society via New York Heritage; Town of Essex Civil War records, 1864 via Digital Commonwealth.

Official records are illuminating yet necessarily focused on logistics; more intimate perspectives, bringing us closer to the camp or battlefield, can be found in diaries and journals. Two Salem soldiers recorded and projected their personal perspectives during and after the war: John Perkins Reynolds and Herbert Valentine. Reynolds (a grandson of Elijah Sanderson who was briefly detained by the British on the even of the battles of Lexington and Concord!) kept a diary of his service in the opening months of the war with the Salem Zouaves (at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and available here in print),  and also documented  his reminiscences of his time with the Massachusetts 19th (at the Massachusetts Historical Society). Valentine’s journals, scrapbooks, and visual impressions of the war are also in several repositories, including the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, the Phillips Library, and the National Archives, which has digitized his watercolors of wartime scenes.

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Civil War Valentine 2Valentine’s Virginia vignettes, 1863-64, National Archives.

These are not impressions that would have been available to contemporaries, but I think people who lived during the war would have have been exposed to its images and texts every day: posters, newspapers, the daily mail. A sea of Civil War envelopes survives, emblazoned with all sorts of colorful messages: surely this must be a fraction of what was produced and disseminated. According to its finding aid (which is online), the Phillips Library has 17 boxes of Civil War envelopes! Wow—-those will make quite a splash when they come online. My very favorite example (about which I wrote a whole blog post) depicting President Lincoln as the “Union Alchemist” was printed by Salem printers G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith: I hope that there are more examples of their clever imagery in that Rowley vault.

Civil War Envelope - C-O-53 Library Co of Philadelphia Union Alchemist

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Civil War Envelope 3Library Company of Philadelphia and Richard Frajola.

Newspaper accounts constituted a daily drumbeat and are thus too plenteous to consider here, but I did want to chart the beginnings of remembrance for this Memorial Day, so I looked at newspapers from the later 1860s and early 1870s—or so was my goal; I dug in and went quite a bit later. For the most part, the Salem story follows the national (or at least northeastern) pattern: in 1868 the first Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30 to be Memorial Day and the Salem G.A.R obeyed his orders to the letter. I saw very few references to “Decoration Day”; Memorial Day seems to be have been the preferred designation right from the start. While local officials were invited to participate in the proceedings, the entire commemoration was a G.A.R affair until the early decades of the twentieth century. The only concerns expressed about the increasingly-ingrained “holiday” came right at its beginning and much later: an anonymous daughter of Civil War casualty expressed her concerns in 1870 that the proceedings were too commercialized, and certain members of the G.A.R leadership were profiting from supplying (see the C.H. Weber advertisement below), and much later the G.A.R itself expressed its concerns that a city-licensed circus was being allowed to operate on Memorial Day (see? protesting city-sanctioned circuses is a time-honored Salem tradition).

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Memorial Day 30 May 1944 BGThe evolution of Memorial Day: C.H. Webber outfits participants for the occasion, Salem Register, May 19, 1870; Boston Globe May 1873, 1923, and 1944: the last GAR members in Massachusetts, including Thomas A. Corson of Salem, who died later that year at age 103.


Cracking Open the Treasure Chest

There are two notable developments regarding the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the major archival source of Salem’s history, so (fair warning) I am returning to that troublesome topic. I don’t think I’ve written about the Library and its collections since the very beginning of the semester, when I made my first trip up to Rowley: out of sight, out of mind has been one of my major concerns about the relocation of this venerable collection to this rather detached location, and that’s pretty much been the case for me. The Library has regular open hours up there, the staff is very helpful, there are many discoveries to be made, but while I’m sure it is an invaluable repository for the curators of the Museum and specialized researchers, it’s hard to see how it could develop into any sort of a community resource, despite the nature of many of its collections. The PEM (or I should say its leadership to date) has never acknowledged the historical-society-origins of its amalgamated Library, so I’m sure that’s fine with them, but they have taken several strident steps towards open access in recent weeks with the hiring of a new Head Librarian and the announcement of a digitization initiative which will roll out in several stages. Following up on their partnership with the Congregational Library, which has made some important manuscript collections accessible, there are now some very interesting printed materials available in the Internet Archive, with lots more to come, apparently.

PEM atlasmaritime1700mort_0060There is a facsimile edition, but how amazing to see the original 1693 maritime atlas of Pierre Mortier, the “most expensive sea-atlas ever published in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century” according to the eminent Dutch cartographical historian Cornelis Koeman. Stunning plates of beautiful European ships: here is a “Tartane de Pesche”.

This is wonderful: certainly the PEM should be commended for cracking open the treasure chest that is the Phillips Library but I do want to emphasize that this “opening” has been a long time coming and is as much due to outside pressures as inside initiatives. Thanks to all the people who are keeping track of these things in Salem (and to digitization), I have in my (FAT) Phillips Library file a collection of published articles in which a succession of PEM representatives made confusing claims about the museum’s progress towards making its holdings more accessible. In response to a major push-back by scholars and librarians in 2004 after Library hours and staff were reduced dramatically, the PEM indicated that increased internet offerings would compensate for the restricted access. Then-acting “Library Administrator” John R. Grimes made the egalitarian argument that “many of the people interested—or potentially interested—in historical documents are not professional researchers, but students and laypeople with regular jobs, for whom the new digitization technology and the Internet proved access to knowledge they would otherwise never see” (Northeast Regional Library Newsletter, June 2004). A decade later, Phillips Library Librarian Emeritus Sidney Berger published an update on the progress of digitization in the Winter 2014 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazinestating that in an effort to bring the PEM’s material to a worldwide audience, during the last two years, PEM’s Phillips Library, with the assistance of a team of cataloguers, has gone from having 9 percent of its holdings to more than 90 percent digitally accessible; financial gifts from donors have made this possible. The team has undertaken a retrospective conversion of 175,000 old cataloging records into the preferred Library of Congress system and catalogued another 75,000 previously unprocessed materials. The retrospective conversion connects PEM’s vast library holdings to researchers near and far. One of the particularly gratifying aspects of this project has been to make 50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents that only exist in PEM’s Phillips Library Collection available online. We could all see the online catalog, a momentous achievement certainly, but where were the “50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents”? No one could find them, and there was also confusion among the general public about the distinction between “records” and “holdings”: both can refer to catalog entries as well as the documents themselves. I think the long-term claims and confusion left PEM in a bit of a vulnerable position when they finally announced that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, because it was apparent that there was no compensatory commitment to digitization. When pressed at the dramatic public forum on January 11, 2018, CEO Dan Monroe would only say that digitization was “expensive”.

PEM DMMr. Monroe at the 1/11/18 public forum at PEM.

So that is why the recent announcements are so welcome. Digitization goals are clearly stated. Mr. Monroe is departing, to be succeeded by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Art Museum, an institution that seems to have all of its collections online. The newly-hired head librarian, Dan Lipcan, has a great track record of digitization at the Watson Library at the Met (and, if this blog post about the devastating losses at Brazil’s Museu Nacional is any indication, a higher degree of sensitivity about the importance of material heritage to a locale than I have discerned from most representatives of the PEM). The chief of collections, John Childs, has been a pretty steady advocate for more digitization throughout, so I’m assuming that he is behind the initiatives that have already been put into place. The materials “deposited” in the Internet Archive seem very well-curated and seemingly representative of the Phillips Library’s diverse collection: local history, maritime history, natural history, fashion (not a strength of past collecting, but definitely a present and future emphasis), all about China, and more.

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Essex Institute Annual Report 1988

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It’s very interesting to see the expansion vision that never happened on the front and back covers of the Essex Institute’s Annual Report from 1988, and I really want to dive into the Historic Structure Report for Derby Wharf from 1973, but I’ve also got to admit that I love George Barbier’s beautiful illustrations in Le bon ton d’aprèsguerre (the lady in the Poiret dress avec arrow above) and who can resist a book titled The Romance of Men’s Hats? But what I’m really looking forward to, along with many people, is the promised digitization of photographer Frank Cousins’ large body of work, encompassing images of Salem from c. 1890-1920. Apparently these are coming soon, and after that could we please see some scans from all those papers of Salem families? Almy, Butler & Robson, Crowinshield, Fabens, Lee, Loring, Peabody, Peirce-Nichols, Saltonstall, Waters……..my colleagues and I made a list if anyone’s interested.


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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March Map 1776 2 Des Barres

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 “Presidential Polka” in Salem

For Presidents’ Day, I’m focusing on one of the shortest presidential visits in Salem history: President Polk’s breezy visit on July 5, 1847 which seems to have clocked in at (well) under in an hour. There are much more notable (and longer) stopovers by Presidents Washington, Monroe, and Jackson, and both Presidents Taft and Coolidge visited Salem often while they summered nearby, but I thought Polk’s pitstop might shed some light on the popularity of abolitionism here in Salem in the antebellum era. There was an interesting reaction to my post last week on my slavery mapping project: it was shared on a few facebook pages and rather than commenting on the specific issue of slaveholding in pre-revolutionary Salem, there were references to the city’s active abolitionist community nearly a century later, as if that somehow compensated for the sins of the past. I”ve heard this sentiment from students too, but my colleagues seem a bit more reserved about the popular appeal of the anti-slavery movement. I actually don’t seek to judge the past by ahistorical standards; I’m more interested in uncovering as much of the truth as possible. So what does the response of Salem’s citizens to the arrival of President Polk on the day after the Fourth of July in the summer of 1847 tell us?

Polk 1844

blog_LansdowneSo interesting that this 1844 Polk Print (Library of Congress) mirrors the “Landsdowne” Portrait of George Washington from 1796: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The historical assessment of Polk’s presidency has traditionally focused on his successful policies of westward expansion, including the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, increasing the territory of the United States dramatically and extending its boundaries to the Pacific. He was a man who lived up to his promises, but expansion at this time cannot be viewed apart from the increasingly-intense debate over the expansion of slavery, and Polk was a slave owner not only by inheritance, but also by “investment”. The story of Elias Polk, the “faithful slave” who served the President in the White House, seems to have been utilized to portray Polk as a paternalistic slave owner, but a recent study characterizes him as far more “acquisitive” and entrepreneurial, holding “the constricted views of a Tennessee slavemaster.”  This is certainly how the most fervent of northern abolitionists saw Polk, but I’m not sure if they speak for the majority of the population.

Abolitionist MapsTwo abolitionist “Moral Maps” which illustrate fears of the spread of slavery in the United States and North America, 1847-1854, Cornell and Yale University Libraries.

The nation was at war when the President visited Salem in the summer of 1847, and the reports of his visit illustrate the divisions that were becoming ever-apparent: in side-by-side columns in the Salem Observer for July 10, 1847 we can read a stinging indictment by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an account of the President’s reception in Salem, which was “kind and hospitable” by his own estimation. It’s quite a contrast! The Anti-Slavery Society’s condemnation takes the form of a letter addressed to the president in which he is called out (You are a slaveholder. Men, women, and children are by you held in slavery—recorded in your ledger as chattels personal—worked like brutes, without wages or stipulation, under the lash of a driver, and fraudulently and tyrannically deprived of all their just earnings), compared unfavorably to the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” and called upon to emancipate his slaves immediately. In the next column, the President is welcomed to Salem with full “civic and military honors” and a “cavalcade” (before motorcades there were cavalcades) through its “ancient” crowd-lined streets. There are conflicting assessments of Polk’s visit to Salem, but all the papers agree it was a hastily-put-together affair, as the city authorities got word of the President’s arrival only the night before.

Polk Reception Salem Register.jpgSalem Register, July 5, 1847

Here you can see the city scrambling: Boston, Lowell, Concord, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine were presidential stops announced ahead of time, but the President seems to have added stops in Portsmouth, Newburyport, Salem and Lynn at the very last minute as he made his way back to Washington. The program announced above was pretty much how it came off, but additional details emerge in the reporting: the President’s train arrived at the Beverly Depot at 2:55 and according to the Salem Gazette, “Mr. Polk refused to leave the cars in Beverly unless he could be assured that he should not be detained more than 15 minutes in Salem,” and consequently a “gallopade” ensued through the city which was characterized as both “ludicrous” and farcical” by both the Salem and Boston papers. The Salem Register calls Polk’s visit to Salem “a Grand Presidential Polka……affording a vast fount of amusement to the lovers of the ludicrous.” There was a big crush to see “the man who made the war, but “the Comet-like flight of the Head of the Nation through the City of Peace beggars description.” [Yes, Salem was indeed referred to as the City of Peace before it became Witch City: better, no?] He came and went “like a Flash………with the President” (in an elegant barouche driven by six black horses) “bobbing his uncovered head, now this way, and now that, as a handkerchief flustered from some window, or a cheer came up from a band of his adherents, posted on some corner.” I’m not sure if this depiction has a larger message of criticism aimed at the President beyond that of the short shrift he gave Salem, and none of the reports of this “Presidential Polka” enable us to “read” the crowd: besides the brevity of this presidential visit, everyone also seems to agree that the “most pleasing part” of the whole affair was the sight of the schoolchildren of Salem aligned along Chestnut Street. As the Salem schools had been desegregated three years before, I’m assuming (and hoping) that there were African-American students in the ranks.

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The People’s Choice? A Polk campaign ribbon from 1844, Smithsonian Institution.


My First Visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley

Well, I knew the day had to come: my first visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley. Even as many were protesting the move of the Peabody Essex Museum’s research library, which includes the historic records of hundreds of Salem families, institutions, and organizations, to a town 40 minutes to the north, the Museum opened up its Collection Center in Rowley this summer with a new Phillips Library within the great expanse of a former toy factory. Shuttles delivered scores of curious Salemites to Rowley for an open house in July, but that’s the last we have seen of this service. If you want to go to Rowley, you must drive there, but it is indeed worth the trip for any Salem history lover (or any history lover, because Salem’s history is so rich and multi-faceted), because that’s where Salem’s history is: it is not convenient, it is not right, but there it is. 

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This sign on Route One says everything: “Collection Center” rather than “CollectionS Center”. The entire rationale for the move was the conflation of object collections with the texts of the library, but libraries are very different things than storage facilities. Libraries are about community, and it’s difficult to understand how this transplanted Phillips Library is going to develop a community in this rather remote and odd place. The small and utilitarian reading room—very different from all of the research libraries I’ve worked in with texture and age and wood–is on the immediate right of the building above. Just walk in through glass-box door, register with the very nice guard at the entrance, put your coat and accessories in a locker, and go into the reading room, where you will be directed to register as a researcher. I paged the documents I wanted to see beforehand (at research@pem.org) and they were right there waiting for me when I got there, but I also asked for additional materials while I was there. The librarians were very friendly, helpful, and professional.

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That’s as close to a document that I can show you—it might even be too close: I was just trying to photograph the room. The Library’s photography policy specifies study/research purposes only. I was doing some research for Hamilton Hall on the Remond family who lived and worked there, and so I was looking at amazing stuff—menus, bills and orders for all sorts of commodities, trade cards, letters—I took pictures for myself but can’t show them to you. If you find things that you want to reproduce, you must go through the PEM’s rights and reproductions process, which I did, though this too seems more oriented towards objects than texts. This is pretty standard procedure, although many research libraries now allow photography for social media purposes and you will see lots of researchers sharing their discoveries in the Houghton Library, the Folger, the American Antiquarian Society, the Beinecke Library, and more, on Twitter and Instagram: hashtags are a great way to showcase collections and build communities. This type of scholarly sharing is not the policy of the Phillips Library at present, although the Library’s old Instagram account (@pemlibrary) has been revived so you can see some of its treasures there.

PEM 6Nostalgic call slips featuring the old Salem locations in Daland and Plummer Halls.

But that’s about the extent of efforts to engage for now. Will there be exhibits, lectures, or workshops? It’s hard to envision the general public clamoring to convene in this rather remote location (especially at night!), so I’m thinking the only form of community which might form around this new Phillips Library is a virtual one of dedicated researchers. Digital crowdsourcing initiatives would be great, because so much of its collections remains undigitized. But for now, it is imperative that people go: we need to extract Salem’s stories from this place! Even if the PEM had lived up to its promises of digitization made years ago, the real Phillips Library is going to yield surprises and discoveries for decades, wherever it is. Libraries are not only essentially about community, they are also about discovery, and there is a lot to discover among the rich collections of the Phillips. I’ll give you an example from this first visit. Included in one of my Remond folders was a letter about the African-American caterer who succeeded John Remond in Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell, dated July 25, 1910, addressed to someone named “John” and written by N.D. Silsbee of Cohasset, Massachusetts (I think this must be Nathaniel Devereux Silsbee). John had obviously asked Silsbee for his recollections of Cassell, who was lauded in a celebratory article in the Boston Globe at just about the same time. In this letter, Silsbee delivers, and I learned all sorts of things about Cassell which I did not know: I transcribed the whole thing and will report later! Unfortunately, to establish some sort of intimacy between himself and John, or some strange type of context, Silsbee also includes one of the most racist lines I’ve ever read (TRIGGER WARNING): “There, John, is a reminder of the good old slavery days,’ befo de wah’, when good servants were cheap and plenty!” (MSS 271 BI F6, “Letter of N.D. Silsbee, page 2). Discoveries, of both the pleasant and unpleasant kind, always happen in libraries with collections as large as that of the Phillips: catalogs and finding aids inevitably miss things. That’s the thrill of the hunt, and the reason that opening up a folder of manuscript materials is always going to be more exciting than clicking on a link.

Cassell Photograph HNE The always dignified Mr. Edward Cassell (who catered events at far more places than Hamilton Hall!) standing before the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, 1907. Courtesy of Historic New England.


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