Anniversary of Murder

On a cold day in early April 1830, an elderly man was murdered as he slept in his own bed on Essex Street in Salem. Captain White was no ordinary man, but a representative of the merchant class that had built Salem’s economy. White’s bed sat ensconced in one of the most beautiful federal-style mansions on the street, a mansion designed by famed architect and wood carver Samuel McIntire. To say his murder was a shock to the city is an understatement, not because White had no enemies but because polite society at the time believed that no person of wealth or status had any business being murdered. Murder was a crime for the lower classes, for sailors and foreigners.

The house where Captain Joseph White was murdered in 1830, now part of the Peabody Essex Museum, and named the Gardner-Pingree House. Picture of a red brick federal style mansion, with dark green window shutters and a white-columned entrance. Trees in front of the house throw shade across the front entrance and windows on a sunny day.
The 1804 Gardner-Pingree House where Captain White was murdered. Now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

In the tremendous national and international popular interest that followed, it became apparent that White’s murder revealed an underbelly of economic deterioration, underemployment, and interfamilial tension that the elite of Salem would rather not have exposed to the light. The town’s reputation as a world-class seaport was in decline, and while prominent merchant families like White’s still lived off the wealth gained from trade across the seven seas, other Salemites were hurting for employment and economic security. No new economic identity had yet established itself in Salem to replace the tremendous amount of wealth, ingenuity and enterprise that shipping had provided for so many generations.

As Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne later described in 1850’s The Scarlet Letter, the town seemed to have an “outward guise of purity” (80). That outward guise was stripped away overnight in the popular press after the Captain’s murder. As Robert Booth writes in Death of an Empire, the murder unveiled “the Salem no one had wanted to see” (258).

Murder is a sensational event. No one in any time period likes to think of an eighty-two-year-old man being killed in his own bed. But is the response of shock, fear, and morbid interest enough reason to mark the anniversary of a man’s death 193 years later? I personally don’t think so. With so many events and people to draw our limited attention, there’s no cause to dig up and sensationalize an old murder.

My reason for writing about Captain White’s murder as we approach its anniversary this year is to examine how one event that resonates with people can invite them into further conversation about the event’s historical and cultural moment. For example, the witch hysteria of 1692 is often taught to school children in the United States and has been for hundreds of years. That one event draws people’s attention because it was a tragedy and it can be related to at the level of the individuals involved. The witch hysteria can also be used as an entry point to discuss how one’s theological worldview can impact one’s actions, how utopian ideas have historically started and what has happened to them, or it can be a jumping off point to explore what the word “witch” meant in the seventeenth century and how that meaning has changed over time. The 1692 witch hysteria is a great example of how the story of one event can become a door that opens to a larger conversation.

When I’m giving a walking tour, just as when I once stood in the classroom, one of my goals is to give this invitation to a larger conversation to my guests. Yes, I’m there to share stories with them from Salem’s past, but I’m also there to invite them into further conversation, further thought about Salem. Ultimately we all have plenty of stories and images and responsibilities to compete for our attention. My hope is that when people visit Salem they find something in one of the stories that resonates with them and that they take back to their own home. The connection that resonance requires often comes from an understanding of a particular story’s context – something that helps people relate the actions of the past to the present.

As a Salem resident, reader of murder mysteries, and tour guide, that sense of connection between past and present is what has drawn me toward the story of the White murder. The story is sad, and in retrospect several of the people involved could be viewed through the lens of the literary tragic hero. The murder’s story itself can be told from the documents and evidence that remain, but the more in depth conversation about what led up to the murder and the impact it had on the public imagination about Salem is a larger learning opportunity. The way the Captain’s murder was portrayed in popular media, the unique moment in Salem’s economic history and identity it reveals, and the fame of lawyer Daniel Webster – who prosecuted two of the resultant trials – potentially help us understand and connect to that moment in Salem’s history a bit more deeply.

Old Town Hall, Derby Square, Salem, where the Committee of Vigilance was formed after the murder

In an effort to literally and figuratively use this story as a contextual “lens” to help visitors connect with this moment in Salem’s history, I’ve partnered with Witch City Walking Tours and local photographer Chris Padgett to offer two limited-capacity walking tours on April 6 and 7 this year. While I relate the story and its context for our guests, we’ll visit several downtown sites key to what happened, and Chris will give expert advice on capturing images: literally viewing Salem through a new lens.

I have to give Chris the credit for the origin of this tour because he initially approached me with the idea that we could team up and design a walking tour of Salem that paired some of his photography teaching methods with stories from Salem’s past to help people make a deeper connection to what they were walking past. I’m always looking for ways to help Salem visitors connect with our stories on a deeper level, and I hope that inviting them to listen, ask questions, and capture beautiful local sites like The Gardner-Pingree House and East India Marine Hall in images will facilitate that connection.

The story of those involved in the murder, the popularity of the their stories in the press, and the tremendous shift that was taking place as Salem slowly and painfully lost its identity as a major seaport makes for a great discussion, and I’m really excited to get it started. If you want to learn more about that moment in Salem history, I recommend Robert Booth’s Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City, and Edward J. Renehan Jr.’s Deliberate Evil: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, and the 1830 Murder of a Salem Slave Trader. If you can join us the first week in April this year for the tour, I look forward to sharing with you the aspects of the story that have captivated so many – including myself – over the years.

Tickets are available online on TripAdvisor for April 6 and 7 at 4:30pm.

“A Nation of Immigrants”

My adorable grandparents flanked by two of my grandmother’s brothers, 1950s.

Are you familiar with this phrase? It’s the title of John F. Kennedy’s 1964 book on the idea that the United States of America is a nation that was established by, and continues to be built by, immigrants. I first read this book late in my educational career, as a PhD student in the 2010s. In a class on race and ethnicity, my peers and I had been studying the history of US immigration laws, some of which limited immigration by number, and/or by country of origin. We read this book to get a feel for the cultural context of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which changed immigration law to remove the limitation on the number of immigrants who could arrive from specific countries. Among other things, the book is an American president reminding himself and his fellow Americans of the immigrant origins that most of them (save Native Americans) share.

1668 Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, built by John Turner, son of an English indentured servant

Regardless of one’s political leanings or memories of the 1960s, whether one views the English Puritans as colonizers or immigrants, immigration has undeniably impacted the American story. And as I’ve been walking on the wharf this past couple of weeks, this phrase keeps popping up in my head.

I’ve been researching a new walking tour, one that examines the history of immigration in Salem. A client requested a private tour on this topic and it’s my chance to get back into studying immigrant history. For my PhD research I examined the public health policies and programs for immigrants in the tenement districts of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I’m committed to my love affair with Salem, it feels great to get back into an area of research that I love, in a place that I love. My own mother is a naturalized citizen who emigrated at the young age of one, and I grew up hearing her account of studying US history as a teenager to take the citizenship test. As a side note, she still has a more comprehensive knowledge of that history than I do, even given my research interests. 🙂

Like so many other US cities, Salem has welcomed (or not) multiple waves of immigrants during its history thus far, beginning with English Puritans and including, Poles, Irish, Italians, Russians, Greek, Ukrainians, and many more. (I’m being a little cheeky here because one common thread through all major waves of immigration to the US is that sometimes the immigrants were truly welcomed and other times not. That’s a conversation for a future post.)

1922 Lydia Pinkham Memorial Clinic, established by Pinkham’s daughter Aroline Grove and Seven Gables’ founder Caroline Emmerton

My own favorite period of interest in Salem (and nationally) is the Progressive Era, the period that spanned roughly the 1890s – 1920s. During that era there was a lot going on. I know we have a lot going on now in 2022, for sure, but I mean a LOT was going on. World War I, the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, germ theory, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management movement, President Wilson creates the National Parks Service, our love affair with automobiles truly begins, the force of nature that was Teddy Roosevelt is in the White House, the Pendelton Act, President McKinley is assassinated, the professionalization of medicine, the Armenian Genocide, the Red Scare, the Alien Land Law, muckrakers revolutionize journalism, Industrial Workers of the World is organized, the Spanish-American War, etc. This was a time when countless aspects of American culture underwent dramatic change, thousands of immigrants came, cities got super crowded, and science and technology revolutionized the way Americans lived, worked, and communicated. I wasn’t alive then, but I can say without hesitation that it was intense.

One of the gorgeous murals in the Punto Urban Art Museum, The Point Neighborhood, Salem, MA

During the Progressive Era in Salem, as I’m discovering, there was a particularly large influx of Irish, Polish, and French Canadian immigrants. As was the custom, many of these immigrants settled in neighborhoods where other immigrants had settled. The historic Derby Street neighborhood had “Polish Main Street,” the old Blubber Hollow neighborhood near the present-day Salem-Peabody line was a haven for the Irish, and French Canadians lived in The Point (El Punto) neighborhood, or as it was then called, “La Pointe.” Salem’s maritime economy had shifted to manufacturing in the 1840s, which meant primarily leather tanneries and textile mills. I’m generalizing here, but the Irish tended to work in the leather tanneries close to Blubber Hollow, the Polish and French Canadians in the tanneries near the Derby Street neighborhood and the Point, as well as Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company’s Pequot Mills. Women tended to work in the textile mills, men in the leather tanneries.

My reflections on the beginning of my research into Salem immigrant history thus far? Being an immigrant during the Progressive Era, when so many aspects of American culture and politics are in flux, really impacted an immigrant’s identity. Think about it: when you’re in your own country, it’s less likely that you’d need to be constantly aware of your national identity. There are exceptions to that of course, like when your country is at war or experiencing its own cultural and political upheaval. But you move to Salem during the Progressive Era, where some families have been established since the 1600s, and think of themselves as completely “Native” Americans. Suddenly your own language, way of speaking, religious traditions, rituals and holidays, ideals and values may become precious to you in a new way.

You don’t speak English, or you do, but Salemites can tell you have an accent, or don’t dress the same. Maybe you’re Catholic, or you narrowly escaped your home country in the midst of a conflict and have nothing but your own clothes and a small suitcase. I still have the suitcase my great-grandmother carried with her when she came to the US in the 1950s. The point is that once you arrive, I imagine you are likely so relieved to see familiar signs of home in your new immigrant neighborhood. Your old identity is still being made manifest, even in a new place, even alongside your new one as you grow attached to your new home. I know my grandparents were happy to be sponsored by a Minnesota church of their own faith, and once they moved to the Great Lakes region, to live in a neighborhood where they heard their native language.

As I walk the streets of our historically immigrant neighborhoods I think about the Polish and Irish flags I still see, the Spanish and French, and Polish language that still appears on historic house markers, street signs, and the waysides at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The irony is that sometimes as a culture we fixate on only one wave of immigration as a key part in “our” history, when the more recent waves go unacknowledged. Perhaps it’s natural; we assume that those who have been here the longest are the most “American,” or have impacted our culture the most.

In 1938 when the National Park Service dedicated the Salem Maritime waterfront as the nation’s first National Historic Site, it was making a statement about the value of remembering the significance of our ~150 years of maritime culture to the identity of Salem. That story was old enough for us to consider it worthy to be called “historic.” But in the process of creating the historic site, buildings that still housed Polish descendants and their small businesses were removed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, established 1938

I’m not criticizing the National Park Service here. What I’m doing is inviting myself and you to reflect on what we consider worthy of the name “historic” and why. To reflect on what counts as part of “our history” and how that is determined. As current scholars are happy to remind us, we all have complex and changing identities, as individuals, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations. I’m still figuring out mine, as a Midwestern former-academic transplant whose family is both recently immigrant and descended from 17th century colonists/colonizers. Preparing this new tour is giving me the opportunity to dig into the idea of identity and how the histories we tell both reinforce and change it. I am totally biased, granted, but I think Salem is a great place to do this kind of digging. From the founders of Naumkeag to the Puritans to the merchants of the Great Age of Sail to the Progressive Era factory workers, Salem has always been a place in the process of recreating its identity. For that reason and more that I discover every day, I’m really glad to be here.

Notes from the Wharf

Welcome to my blog! I named it “Notes from the Wharf” because I love walking out to the end of Central or Derby Wharf and getting some perspective (literally and figuratively) on Salem.

View of the shore from Central Wharf

From the perspective of the wharf, I can glimpse the interwoven nature of the city’s past, present, and future. The 1819 Custom House represents the last hurrah of the vast shipping industry that existed here, as well as the moody malaise that overtook Nathaniel Hawthorne around 1846-1849 when he worked there alongside aged, salty sea captains who’d lived through the Great Age of Sail.

1819 Custom House

Wonder boy “King” Derby’s 1768 first mansion sits close by on the right, while further toward the right sits St. Joseph Hall, one of the largest monuments to the vibrant Polish immigrant neighborhood that Derby Street once boasted in the early days of the 20th century. Still further down the street named for Salem’s maritime king stands The House of the Seven Gables, a solid first-period colonial reminder that the seventeenth century and its Puritan colonizers are yet part of the city’s identity. In fact (as part of a long and winding story) the Puritans remain the origin point of our “Witch City” reputation.

1668 House of the Seven Gables

Looking to the left of the Customs House now, my gaze lingers on the friendly-looking 1810 federal-style brick Brookhouse Home for Women, founded in 1861. The house itself originally belonged to Benjamin Crowninshield, whose name triggers all kinds of interesting stories of a truly interesting Salem merchant family. Like so many beautiful buildings in Salem, this one bears the visual evidence of famed architect Samuel McIntire.

When my eye really travels left, past the National Park Service store Waite and Pierce, things get even more interesting. Sea Level Oyster Bar comes into view, then shops and apartments lining Pickering Wharf, and then, turning my body left to follow my gaze, Shetland Park. It was here that the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company once stood, rebuilding Salem’s economy after its shipping days had ended, attracting the Polish immigrants who came to settle in the historic Derby Street neighborhood just down the street.

Keep in mind, I am biased, but where else can you gaze at a beautiful National Historic Site through the window of an Oyster Bar? It’s the juxtaposition of Salem’s hundreds of years of stories that fascinate me. It is that juxtaposition between past and present that drew me to become a resident here, and fuels my curiosity as a tour guide and researcher. Salem’s natural geography predicts its historical and social geography, with the edge between land and water, water and sky, past and present constantly moving and shifting.

Salem’s natural geography predicts its historical and social geography, with the edge between land and water, water and sky, past and present constantly moving and shifting.

As days pass and my own Salem story lengthens and deepens, I walk to the end of the wharf and the colors of the water and sky change, the wind direction (and force!) changes, the tide changes, the length of day changes. Sometimes my head is tucked down because it’s cold or really bright; sometimes my head is lifted up toward the sky and I’m breathing the beautiful East wind coming off the harbor. The very next day the experience will change, and that too, is why I love Salem.

The tours I like to give in Salem are conversational, a chance to gather with others and learn about the landscape we’re walking through and the people who have walked here before. Like many others, I experience history as a series of stories that we tell ourselves individually and as a community over time. We’re constantly in conversation with those stories consciously and unconsciously, and they shape what we do in the present. Likewise the way that we tell those stories and internalize them now shapes our perception of the past and the way we continue to tell and relate to those stories.

Boundary between shore and sea, Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The boundary between past and present is thin, is what I’m saying… and it moves. And our own relationship to that boundary likewise moves it. Hence, my fondness for the perspective from the wharf. And, not surprisingly, for the word “dynamic.” 🙂