Saturday, June 22, 2019

Society in Salem

‘We now have seriously the Cold of Winter. The Therm, at Zero. Politics become more sour as the severity of winter increases.’ This is the Reverend William Bentley, born 260 years ago today, writing in the diary he kept for most of his life. He served as a church minister in Salem, Massachusetts, and was much involved in the local community. His diary is a gossipy, informative read, covering a wide range of news acquired from his own observations/conversations as well as from the newspapers - indeed his diary is considered an ‘invaluable compendium’ of social and political observations.

Bentley was born in Boston on 22 June 1759, son of a ship’s carpenter, though as a child he lived with his well-off grandfather, a miller. He studied at academic schools, learning Greek and Latin, before entering Harvard College aged 14 where he studied oriental languages. He graduated in 1777, and started to teach at Boston while continuing his studies. He also tutored at Harvard itself, and preached at local churches. In 1783, he began to serve as a minister of East Church in Salem, a position he retained for the rest of his life. From 1794, he contributed a weekly news summary for William Carleton’s Salem Gazette, and he continued doing so until 1817. He also contributed regularly to the Essex Register and the Essex Gazette. He learned many languages, was said to be fluent in seven, and amassed a private library of over 4,000 volumes. In 1805, while planning the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson invited Bentley to be its first president, however the offer was declined.

Bentley travelled extensively, maintained active memberships in a fire club, a military unit and a Masonic Lodge. He also helped organise and support a number of music societies and was founder of the East India Marine Society. Indeed, his personal inventory of artefacts and curiosities later became the foundation for the society’s museum collection. Among his many friends, he counted James Winthrop, a fellow Harvard alumnus. Bentley never married but boarded for more than 20 years with Hannah Crowninshield. He tutored her niece as well as others. He received an honorary Doctorate of Sacred Theology from Harvard in 1819, and died later that same year. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Salemweb, Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, and Harvard Library.

Bentley was an avid diarist - indeed he is even listed in some places as a diarist and a minister. He kept his diary from 1785 until his death. SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context) says it ‘is an invaluable compendium of gossip, shipping news, vital statistics, social and political observations, and petty miscellany, in the period of Salem’s prominence as a major commercial center.’ The Diary of William Bentley D.D. was first published - as far as I can tell - between 1905 and 1911 in four volumes (1785-1792, 1793-1802, 1803-1810, 1811-1819) by the Essex Institute (in Salem). All four volumes can be freely accessed at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts from volumes one, three and four.

1 March 1790
‘Drafted a Petition in favor of Capt Ashton, &c. to Selectmen of Salem, remonstrating against the State of the New Road, leading to Essex Bridge.’

2 March 1790
‘The Federal District Court for the first time opened this day in Salem. The Hon: John Lowell, Judge.[. . .] The Judge addressed the Jury in an excellent manner, & Revd Hopkins prayed.’

3 March 1790
‘The Jury sat all last night upon a Seizure & could not agree, & were dismissed this morning. Mr Phippen buried two children in one procession, the first instance within my own knowledge. Both carried in Chaises. Another Jury was collected from the Town who decided upon the short entry, & whether the entries at the State Offices were valid for the Continental Office after the Constitution of the States took place, but before the appointment of officers, & decided both points at once without hesitation. Such are our Juries, & this is the specimen given to us at the first Court, in which Mr. Parsons of Newbury seems to have an unbounded influence.’

4 March 1790
‘A Chimney belonging to Capt J. Gardiner took fire, it being a very windy day, & it burnt with great fury. It has communication with one of your Open Stoves called Philadelphian. This shows the need of these Franklin Stoves, in which by lamina over & under which the smoke passing into the Chimney, the soot is detained in the Stove, & can be cleansed from the lamina upon which it lodges. The Ventilator on the side makes the passage easy for the smoak.’

5 March 1790
‘General Catalogue of Social Library in Salem, as taken from L. Books [appearing in the original is here omitted.]. This Catalogue is taken almost literally from the Catalogue shewn me in the Library by Master Noyes (& tho’ it is very badly arranged), being short, it may be read over in a few minutes. The Library has been collected for some time. There have been no additions to it since the War, deserving of notice. In the War a Library including Phil. Transactions, &c. was taken, going to Canada, which has laid the foundation of a distinct Philosophical Library & this is the object of present attention.’

16 December 1807
‘A man named Benjamin Brown, attempting to pass from a boat on the flat to the shore, fell into one of the mud holes dug for the wharves & perished last evening. He was heard but assistance could not be afforded him seasonably. Mr. Chandler who keeps the school near the Branch for proprietors, was at B. B. this evening. This is the fourth year. The first Master Rogers, then Tappan. Tappan has a school at the other end of the town among his particular friends. A new School is projected. A Master’s School for Misses in the fine arts. This is also to be a School for Subscribers like the three Schools in this town under Knap, Tappan & Chandler. I do not know how far it has progressed.’

17 December 1807
‘Mr. B. Brown was interred this evening. As soon as the body was found it was conveyed to the Charity House as the body of a stranger. But his Brethren of the sea refused the Charity & with their usual generosity insisted upon his regular interment at their own expense. They went to the full extent of the funeral charges & no refusal, tho’ repeated, would allow me to dispense with my silk gloves under any pretences. I accepted & gave them to the family of the Sexton. The Seamen were present in remarkable good order & 153 of them accompanied the procession & afterwards returned with it to the house in which their deceased friend lived. I never saw a more happily conducted act of friendship & sympathy.’

5 January 1808
‘We now have seriously the Cold of Winter. The Therm, at Zero. Politics become more sour as the severity of winter increases. Why the Embargo? say all. Some reply, because of France. Some of England. Some hope it will make the administration unpopular. Others wish to complain but they dare not give the opposition so much pleasure. Where interest prevails & patriotism is little known, we can hope nothing from the latter without some present hopes of the former. Prosperity has been at the helm & has corrupted us. Integrity cannot command, without hazard, that obedience will be refused. Failures are expected & the Nat[ional] Int[elligencer] tells us that the daring speculations of individuals deserve to be exposed & prevented. The embargo is general. The attempt to exempt the Fisheries, tho’ supported by all the members from Massachusetts, was unavailing.’

11 February 1808
‘Another melancholy occurrence in English street. A Mrs. Buchanan, alias Getchel, alias Lane, was in the afternoon setting before the fire with a child in her arms, in a fit of intoxication. The child fell from her arms into the fire & before aid was obtained the child was past recovery. The woman has always been thought below the ordinary character of her sex & her habits were known from the difficulty of rousing her. It is an aggravated evil as her numerous & deserving relatives feel more than the insensible fool who has brought disgrace & shame. As this is the second burning to death this season & the first season in which any such thing has happened it is more interesting to notice it. In the former case no suspicion attached itself to the event.’

7 September 1810
‘The Census of Salem is now before the world & the increase has been rapid indeed. So that their own blood which has flowed in our veins has not been unfavourable to increase, activity, powerful attraction. The Negroes have not increased, the worst part of our population, as Men without trades, tyes, & tribute must be. I impute the decrease to the number of sober citizens, & not without property, who finish the life of a seamen in the little offices of labourers & who have character, property, & ability enough to deserve attention.’

22 May 1815
‘A sad alarm at the Post Office. Long suspicions have ended in discovery that the late Robbery of the Mail was done in the Office. One of the Lads has been detected. Everything is done to conceal the matter & the boy is admitted to bonds. Had circumstances been different we should have found the treatment different. The public mind will soon require a change in this office. Lookers out may be found. Some of our Prisoners have returned from England & report between 5 & 6 thousand. Above two thousand of these are to be found among the Impressed men, when the wretches who talk much of integrity have reported to the State a less number than has been found in Salem, only one town upon a coast of several hundred miles. The vilest policy could not venture upon greater insults to the understanding of men.’

29 May 1816
‘I went this morning to see the Elephant now on a visit to this town. I went in the morning when I might examine him without any of the tricks he has been taught to play. I saw nothing pleasing in the form or wonderful in his endowments. His surprising volume will be contemplated with astonishment. His place in Creation is yet to be assigned. Mr. Dane told me he had seen an Ox of 3 th. pounds who was a much nobler animal to survey but that enormous volume did not give but half the weight of this Animal tho it gave 3/4. of its height & not much short of its length. The Elephant is 13 feet round the body. What must our mammoth be?’

12 June 1816
‘Saw on the neck for the first time Rock Splitting at the great Rocks near the Causeway, neck side. First, an entrance was made by a long handled pick much like that used upon mill stones, squared to a point. Then the holes were made by a flat chisel tapering to a point. Then the wedges, four inches long, were put in between pieces of iron hoop & drove home bv a large iron maul. At both splittings the wedges were driven only twice & caused a fracture of more than two feet square in the hard black rock of the neck. The person at work said the Danvers rocks were not so hard, & did not make that ringing under the chisel which he called like pot metal. In few seasons have we heard more hitter complaints against cold weather than since June has come in, tho the winter & the whole season, if I may judge from the woodpile, has been as moderate as 1 have ever known. We shall soon hear complaints of heat.’

13 June 1816
‘Our fishermen have had good fares upon the Banks but think as something is always wanting, that they should have done better had they been permitted to fish nearer the shores. Five fishing vessels with 40 hands including men & boys returned to Province town, point of Cape Cod, with 1000 quintals each. Marblehead begins to revive & having a staple will out step us in Salem if we do not move quicker, says the people of Salem.’

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