COLOSSAL VICTORIAN DIVORCE

AMERICA’S FIRST FAMILY IN DISARRAY…

West Vs. West Divorce Salem MA

Many of us living on the North Shore of Boston know of the mall called…The North Shore Mall. Some of us know the stories of the various graves that dot the property in the hedges before you walk into JC Penny’s and other locations or the stories of the church that resides in the basement; very few know of the mansion that resided on this location and the nasty divorce that got the home pulled apart and reassembled in various places.

So lets back up a bit; who were the couple who built the mansion known as Oak Hill. Well, Elizabeth Derby West was the daughter of Elias Hasket Derby who was America’s first millionaire and on some lists is described as the 10th wealthiest man in American history. Imagine that a millionaire who had more wealth than today’s billionaires? Inflation… Elizabeth married Nathaniel West, a man her father declared a scullion. Well in time Captain West won over his father-in-law and was confided in business decisions more often than not that his own children. So much so that the father willed to his son-in-law Derby Wharf which was the largest and most profitable in town. This little act led to a no holds bar fist fight between Elias Hasket Derby Jr. and Elizabeth against her husband. later she would probably have such a fight with her brother after he inherited the family mansion on Derby Square which he soon squandered away.

In 1803 the scandal opened in court. Here are a few words from Rev. Bentley (diarist and friend of John Hancock):

Never could Johnson’s words better [be] applied, when a man marries a fortune it is not all he marries. The woman became all that is execrable in women from vanity, caprice, folly, & malignity…

He was an enterprising seaman with no uncommon advantages of education or nature, but his ambition led him to address the eldest daughter of the late E.H. Derby…The mother of Elizabeth was a Crowninshield and well known for vanity which she exposed to constant & deserved ridicule. E. possessed the rigid temper of her father, with all the weakness of her mother.”

and

“…after every quarrel with all her relatives she waged open war against her husband & this day, aided by the unfeeling perseverance of her malignant Br[other] Gen. E.H. D[erby] who has a private quarrel to avenge, she displayed in open court, to prove the incontinence of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann.

The mansion. It remained in Elizabeth’s hands during her life, but she was to die 10 years later. Then one of her daughters gave it to her father, against the wishes in the mother’s will… It was torn apart; a parlor is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, some rooms were on display at the Peabody Essex Museum a few years ago, a summer house is on the Glen Magna estate, and a portion is added to the Phillips House on Federal Street in Salem.  So Oak Hill remains no more, in its entirety, but you can visit the ghost of Captain West at the Salem Inn. Most of the time his spirit can be felt by his bottle of port which you are welcomed to share a glass with him. Plus if you are in the Christmas spirit…you can shop for many gifts at the North Shore Mall on the location of this once famous mansion.

To read more about how Salem shaped American history read Sub Rosa by Chris Dowgin published by Salem House Press.

www.salemhousepress.com

What Lies Below in Salem

Tales from Salem’s Underground
(Reprint from the Salem Gazette)

Salem Secret Underground Front Page of Salem Gazette

“These homes were built by respected architects – names like McIntire and Bulfinch. They were the homes and businesses of senators and Supreme Court justices,” said Dowgin. “And in the basements and under the fireplaces, many of them had smuggling tunnels.”

Dowgin, a local historian, has been primarily known for his illustrated children’s books “A Walk Through Salem” and “A Walk Under Salem,” which introduce readers to Salem history in a whimsical way. But his latest book is something different. “Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City” shows a new side to the famous merchants and captains of industry, one tinged with tax evasion, thievery and even murder.

“The practice of building smuggling tunnels probably dated back to the earliest days of Salem being used as a port,” said Dowgin. “But it really became a common occurrence in the early days of the United States.”

During the Revolutionary War, many shipping magnates in port cities all up and down the East Coast turned to privateering, amassing huge fortunes in wealth captured from British vessels. After the war, the fledgling republic tried to recapture some of that wealth, in the form of steep import duties and other taxes.

“We’d just had an expensive war, we were trying to get our country started, and everyone wanted the party they were opposed to shoulder the brunt of the tax burden,” Dowgin said. “In many ports, people were losing money, but Salem just kept getting richer and richer.”

Part of the reason was that many of the goods that entered Salem were immediately spirited into a complex tunnel network that kept them away from the prying eyes of customs agents. These tunnels extended far into the city, but began practically at Salem wharf itself. As an example, look at the 1762 Derby House, part of the Salem Maritime Historic Site.

 

Derby_House

“When Richard Derby built the Derby House for his son, Elias Hasket Derby and his new wife, Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby, it was the subject of much speculation in town,” Dowgin said. “In the late 18th century, houses weren’t commonly made of brick, because there was a superstition that brick houses were unhealthy. Then there was the question of why so many bricks were needed; about three times as many as you’d need for a house of that size.”

In reality, Dowgin said, the bricks were being used to construct a tunnel in the basement. Today, the entrance to the tunnel is slightly above grade, and visitors can see the bricked-in arch.

“After the Derby House, the tunnel builders got smarter,” Dowgin said. “They realized that, if they built two brick houses at a time at a fixed distance apart, no one could guess how many bricks were supposed to be there.”

To find out more about the tunnels of Salem watch Chris Dowgin on Kitchen Expeditions on the Travel Channel premiere episode. Chris will be giving a tour to Robert Irvine of the tunnels that used to smuggle duty free cinnamon. Check out the show and then buy your own copy of Salem Secret Underground:The HIstory of the Tunnels in the City.

Come back every Tuesday at 3PM for new stories about Salem and images from the Salem Trilogy.