Monday, October 31, 2022

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones: A brief account of Lord Timothy Dexter

Lord Timothy Dexter with his dog.
From Kapp's biography
Happy Halloween from the State Library! ‘Tis the season to explore the legends, folklore, and odd tales of the Commonwealth. To celebrate, we are highlighting one North Shore tale from the mid-18th century that still to this day entertains many. The tale revolves around the life and times of one Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport. Dexter was a wealthy businessman residing in Newburyport around 1769 until his death in 1806. Dexter made his fortune in unconventional dealings and some would say his fortune was made through happenstance rather than smart business sense.

To start, Timothy Dexter was not a Lord, it was a title he granted himself and this best sums up Dexter’s eccentric nature and grandiose self-image. Dexter was not originally from Newburyport and was from a very modest background. Born in Malden in 1743, Dexter received little formal education and apprenticed in a leather workshop. Always driven by his desire to make money and be part of high society, Dexter first made his fortune by buying Continental currency during the Revolutionary War. At the time, the new paper money held little to no value, but once the war ended, Congress was able to make good on the new money and Dexter amassed quite a fortune. We do not know if Dexter had the foresight to know this transaction would turn in his favor, but in any case this started Dexter’s string of “lucky” business dealings.

Example of a bed-warmer.
Via Digital Commonwealth
One business venture included Dexter’s accrual of bed-warmers that he sent in bulk down to the West Indies. Mocked by his contemporaries for sending a tool used to keep beds warm during cold New England nights to a tropical climate, this business venture proved profitable for Dexter. The bed-warmers sold, not for their intended purpose, but to be used as ladles to scoop the West Indies' popular export, molasses. At the same time, Dexter sent mittens to the West Indies, and again this seemingly illogical idea proved fruitful. It just so happened that a vessel docked nearby destined for the Baltic, an area known for its long, cold winters, bought them up for the voyage (Marquand, p. 98).

With his fortunes, Dexter invested in his own mansion on Newburyport’s High Street. Dexter adorned the outside of his property with wooden statues resembling the nation’s leaders and prominent figures. In his Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, Dexter’s personal biographer, Samuel L. Knapp, writes “ his rage for notoriety, created rows of columns, fifteen feet at least, high, on which to place colossal images carved in wood. Directly in front of the door of the house, on a Roman arch of great beauty and taste, stood General Washington in his military garb. On his left hand was Jefferson; on his right, Adams, uncovered, for he would suffer no one to be on the right of Washington with a hat on” (p. 25).  

View of Dexter's mansion and statues.
Via Library of Congress

In another example of Dexter’s antics, he faked his own death. Complete with a coffin, funeral services, and reception at his mansion. During the reception, Dexter “entered the wake-room with the highest glee; shared in the wine, and threw small change from his window to the gaping crowd of boys who had gathered to witness the last solemn scene” (Knapp, p. 53).

Punctuation page from "A Pickle"
Finally, Dexter sought to add author to his resume and he did just that. First published in 1802, Dexter’s “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones,” is mostly a run-on compilation of Dexter’s thoughts and philosophies with no plot or punctuation. Dexter published a second edition, and addressed his critics in the appendix, adding one full page of punctuation, suggesting readers, “peper and solt it as they plese” 

A lot can be said about Dexter’s eccentricities, but he was a noted benefactor to the town of Newburyport. He commissioned and bought a new bell for the town meeting house. He bequeathed a large donation to the town after his death and also to his native town of Malden. Newburyport accepted the donation with “gratitude and thankfulness” (Coffin, page 274). Dexter was known to partake in municipal matters such as being named a proprietor for the erection of the Essex Merrimack Bridge. See the 1791 Act Chapter 35 naming him as such.

All of Dexter’s odd endeavors have cemented him as a notable figure in the annals of North Shore history books. For more reading on the one and only Lord Dexter, see below: 

April Pascucci
Reference Librarian

Monday, October 24, 2022

October Mountain State Forest: A Scenic Destination Any Month of the Year

Massachusetts state parks and forests are popular destinations during leaf-peeping season, when the fall foliage is on display in vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple. The Commonwealth is home to over 150 state parks and forests, but there's one state forest in particular that might come to mind this month due to its timely name: October Mountain State Forest. Located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, in the towns of Washington, Lee, Lenox, and Becket, October Mountain is the largest state forest in Massachusetts at nearly 16,500 acres.

Detail from Massachusetts Outdoor Recreation Map,  
showing the location of October Mountain State Forest

The name “October Mountain” is said to have been coined by the author Herman Melville, who owned a home in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Perhaps best known for his novel Moby-Dick, Melville also penned short stories, and it was in one of these stories, titled Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!, where he wrote, “…a densely wooded mountain on one side (which I call October Mountain, on account of its bannered aspect in that month)….” 

In the 1890s, before it became a state forest, the October Mountain region was part of the estate of William C. Whitney, who was the 31st United States Secretary of the Navy, under Grover Cleveland. During this period the estate was home to wildlife such as elk and bison, and moose from Canada were released on the estate in the early 1900s.

Bull moose on the Whitney Estate, 1915, from 
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife: 1866-2012,
by James E. Cardoza, published 2015

Eventually, in 1922, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acquired the Whitney Estate and renamed it October Mountain State Forest. This purchase was authorized in 1921 by An Act to Provide for the Taking of October Mountain in the County of Berkshire as a State Forest, which stated, “The commissioner of conservation is hereby authorized to acquire by purchase, gift or otherwise, on behalf of the commonwealth, land known as the Whitney estate, situated on or about October Mountain, in the county of Berkshire.” The newly acquired forest was put under the management of the Massachusetts State Forester. 

Panoramic view of October Mountain State Forest,
published by the Massachusetts Division of Forestry, 1935

The forest conservation efforts of a century ago continue to benefit the Commonwealth’s citizens today, as October Mountain State Forest is open for recreation year-round. The state forest is traversed by a number of trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail, and natural features in the state forest include the Schermerhorn Gorge, Felton Pond, and Buckley-Dunton Lake, among others. Visitors can enjoy hiking, fishing, mountain biking, canoeing and kayaking, as well as seasonal snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and camping. To learn more about recreational activities at the state forest, be sure to visit the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s website.

Autumn colors at October Mountain State Forest,
courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation's website

References and further reading: 

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Monday, October 17, 2022

Legends and Lore of Massachusetts

Did you know that you can view the State Library's past exhibits through our Flickr page? One that might be of interest to those who celebrate Halloween is our Fall 2014 exhibit, Legends and Lore of Massachusetts. This exhibit features selected stories based in the Commonwealth, from the ghosts at Edith Wharton’s home—The Mount—in Lenox to the famous Sea Serpent in Gloucester Harbor. Check it out and let us know what other legends were born in Massachusetts. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Audubon’s Raven lands in the Library!

October is settling in, and spooky season is underway . . . even in the library! Visit us now through November 8 to see the Raven (plate 101) on display in the Audubon case in our main reading room. The male raven is depicted perched amongst the leaves of the shellbark hickory tree.

Of the raven, Audubon wrote, "There, through the clear and rarefied atmosphere, the Raven spreads his glossy wings and tail, and, as he onward sails, rises higher and higher each bold sweep that he makes, as if conscious that the nearer he approaches the sun, the more splendent will become the tints of his plumage." If you look closely at this image, you can see that the various tints are visible in this image. Read Audubon’s full account here.

Monday, October 10, 2022

A Woman of the Witch Trials: The Story of Elizabeth Howe

Howe during her trial,
courtesy of Historic Ipswich
With October comes thoughts of falling leaves, cool weather, cozy sweaters and for many people, Halloween. Tourism peaks in Salem, Mass. around this time of year due to “spooky season” events and of course the town’s history with the Salem witch trials. The State Library has done other posts on Halloween and the witch trials (see here and here), but I want to focus this post on one woman in particular who was impacted during this time in history. Today I want to tell the story of Elizabeth Howe.

I came across Elizabeth Howe’s name while browsing our stacks for some “interesting items” to show to a tour group. A book titled A short history of the Salem village witchcraft trials: illustrated by a verbatim report of the trial of Mrs. Elizabeth Howe, a memorial of her stood out to me on the shelf and it quickly became one of my favorite items in our collection.

The book sparked my interest and I wanted to learn more about Howe. I found out that she was born near Yorkshire, England around 1635 and moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony when she was three years old. She married James Howe and the couple had six children, living in an area known as Ipswich Farms near Rowley, Mass. James lost his sight around age 50 and Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the farm and children, taking on more than was typical or accepted for a Puritan housewife. 

Elizabeth and her neighbors, the Perely family, did not get along and there had been animosity between them for quite some time. Samuel and Ruth Perley’s daughter, Hannah, experienced episodes and said that she felt like she was being pricked by pins and put the blame on Elizabeth. Mr. and Mrs. Perely took Hannah to see several doctors, one of whom said she was under the influence of evil. The Perely daughter grew ill and eventually passed away, but the strife between Elizabeth and the Perelys did not end there. The rivalry continued with the Perelys even preventing Elizabeth from joining the Ipswich Church.

The backdrop of the Salem witch trials is best thought of by looking at the Puritans who had recently settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As many are familiar, they were a deeply religious group of people who thought it was each person’s individual responsibility to fight against the devil. The first accusation of a witch came in February 1692 and soon after the Salem witch trials began. The Perely family, with their deep-seated anger towards her, were the chief accusers of Elizabeth Howe. A warrant was put out for Howe’s arrest and on May 29, 1692, she was taken into custody by the constable of Topsfield.

Elizabeth, among other women accused, sat in jail enduring difficult, inhumane conditions. Elizabeth was lucky in that her family would visit regularly, bringing some items from home to her. On May 31, 1692, however, her trial began. The Perely family testified the next day, along with several others who attacked Elizabeth, blaming her for things that happened with their families’ health, livestock, and property. Howe’s own brother-in-law even testified against her. Despite Elizabeth’s friends and family coming to her defense, saying that she had been a wonderful person who never brought harm to another, she was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged on July 19, 1692.

Elizabeth Howe memorial stone,
courtesy of Historic Ipswich

Less than 10 years later, public opinion of the witch trials changed. People admitted the trials were a mistake that happened out of paranoia. The courts issued a written apology as a result of the shifting public opinion and families of the victims were compensated. There is no record, however, that Samuel or Ruth Perely ever apologized about the accusations against Elizabeth Howe.

The book that we own serves as a memorial to Elizabeth. It was written in 1911 by Martin Van Buren Perley. What is most interesting to me about this book is that the author was a member of the same Perley family who were the chief accusers of Howe. Martin Van Buren Perely wrote it as a memorial to Howe for everything that she endured during the Salem witch trials. The book contains a transcript of Howe’s trial, as well as a picture of her arrest warrant and background information on the Howe family. More than two hundred years after Howe was put to death in part due to the Perely family, one of their relatives published a book to memorialize her. There are almost countless books on the Salem witch trials, but this one stands out to me for that reason. While it doesn’t change the outcome of what happened, it brought closure to an innocent woman and her family. You can view this book in person at the State Library or on the Internet Archive.

Centuries later, the aftermath of the Salem witch trials is still being felt. 329 years after being convicted, the last person accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials was pardoned. Thanks to an 8th grade class at North Andover Middle School, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who died in 1747, was officially exonerated on July 28, 2022. Fortunately the Governor of Salem at the time threw out her punishment to be hanged as the truth about the injustices of the Salem witch trials began to surface. Her name was never cleared though, until this year. Take a look at this New York Times article to find out more about the work that this class and their teacher did to make this happen.

For more information on Elizabeth Howe and the Salem witch trials, please see:

If you’re interested in other books that we own on the Salem witch trials, take a look at this list. Feel free to view these, and more, in the Library’s Reading Room. We’re open Monday-Friday, 9-5pm. You can also request them via interlibrary loan through your local public library.

Jessica Shrey
Reference Librarian

*Please note that images 2-4 & 6 come from Martin Van Buren Perley’s book

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

State Library Newsletter – October Issue

Happy October from the State Library!  Pictured here is a preview, but the full issue can be accessed by clicking here. And you can also sign up for our mailing list to receive the newsletter straight to your inbox.

Monday, October 3, 2022

On Display in the State Library

This month, we’re displaying a broadside of a proclamation that was issued on August 29, 1780 and called for a special session of the Great and General Court or Assembly of the state of Massachusetts-Bay to convene on September 8, 1780. The General Court had been prorogued (or deferred) from July until September 13 but were called back to an earlier session because, as stated in the proclamation, “such intelligence has been received, and of such an important nature, as renders necessary that the said Court should be called together sooner than the time to which it stands prorogued.” 

There was a lot going on in Massachusetts in the fall of 1780. While the Revolutionary War continued on, Massachusetts was in the final stages of establishing its constitution. In 1779, town delegates participated in a constitutional convention, which resulted in a draft written by John Adams. The Massachusetts Constitution was ratified in June of 1780 and became effective on October 25. When this proclamation was issued on August 29, the state was less than two months away from having its constitution in place. Once the constitution was effective, John Hancock was elected the first Governor of Massachusetts, and the legislative branch was formally established with a House of Representatives and Senate – 242 years ago this month!

A quick way to identify this proclamation as dating to prior to the establishment of the state constitution is that it addresses the “Great and General Court,” terminology that was changed to the Massachusetts General Court after October 25, 1780. The General Court was and is the name given to Massachusetts state legislature – with the Senate as the upper house and the House of Representatives as the lower body. But the colonial legislature in place prior to the establishment of the constitution can be a little confusing, so an abridged version follows. The Province of Massachusetts Bay had a royal governor until 1775, the last of which was Thomas Gage, who was recalled amid the rising tensions of the Revolutionary War. From that point until 1780, Massachusetts was run by a Provincial Congress, without a governor or lieutenant governor in office. This proclamation falls at the very end of that political period. It refers to the Great and General court, or Assembly, which would be the equivalent of the lower house. But it is also important to note that the proclamation was issued on order of the Council, which was a group of individuals who were elected from the General Court and served as executives in the absence of a governor. If you look closely at the proclamation, you can see that it was issued in the Council Chamber of what is now known of as the Old State House, but in 1780 it was the seat of state government, housing the Council Chamber, the Supreme Judicial Court, and the space where the Assembly met. 

And now a note on the condition of this item, since it needed a bit of preservation attention before it was ready for display. We could tell by looking at it that there were lost fibers in the bottom portion, making it thinner and a bit fragile. As such, it had previously been stabilized by housing it between two pieces of archivally sound plastic sheets that were held together with double-sided tape. Though it was securely in place, we remove this type of enclosure because if the item shifts at all, it runs the risk of coming in contact with the tape. Before going on display, it was removed from the old enclosure and once it is off of display, we will make a new enclosure for it using Mylar sheets and our encapsulator, which makes a seal using heat rather than adhesive. Once it was out of its plastic enclosure, we were able to determine that there was a fair amount of dirt on the bottom portion. Since it was weak in that spot, we very gently cleaned it without causing any tears. In the image to the left, the “before” is on the top and the “after” is on the bottom.

With a little bit of care, this 242-year-old document was ready for display! Visit us throughout the month of October to see it on display in our main reading room.

Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian