December 12, 2017

Can We Save Salem?


The Essex Institute, c. 1910-1920 (Library of Congress)

Peabody Essex Museum Plans to Remove 400 Years of Salem's History 

            As Salem, Massachusetts approaches the 400th anniversary of its founding, the city is simultaneously being robbed of its 400 years of history.
            On December 6, 2017, Bob Monk, a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) along with a member of the PEM’s architectural firm, Schwartz/Silver, confirmed what many Salemites had been fearing since 2011. The collections of the Phillips Library would not be returning to their home at 132 Essex Street.
            In 1992, The Peabody Essex Museum was created by a merger between Salem’s most prominent institutions, the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. Both institutions were the stewards of four centuries worth of artifacts, documents, furniture, and even buildings, all of which contributed to the historic fabric of the city. Some of these objects were donated by Salem families and businesses, hoping to leave a legacy for the city’s future generations. While others were deposited by institutions that, at the time, didn’t have the funds or space to properly care for them. Items include: papers from Salem's founding, documents and artifacts relating to the Salem Witch Trials, log books from Salem’s “Great Age of Sail,” a signed first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and a deposited copy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. Not to mention volumes of manuscripts and family heirlooms donated over the years.
            In 2011, when the Peabody Essex Museum announced the temporary closure and relocation of the Phillips Library and the Museum’s archival collection. The news was relatively well received by scholars and the public alike. Many had mourned the loss of The Essex Institute and looked forward to a more accessible, well maintained display of Salem’s history. In an interview with The Salem News, the Museum’s public relations officer, April Swieconek, referred to the Phillips Library as “a part of what we are, and a part of what Salem is.”
            Not only is The Phillips Library “a part of what Salem is,” it in fact is the largest depository of Salem’s collective history, giving the Peabody Essex Museum a monopoly over the City’s past. As Salem struggles to define itself and its history to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, it has become increasingly apparent that the collections of the PEM hold the key to the proper interpretation of the city’s historic past. A role that they have failed to uphold. The Peabody Essex Museum has instead spent the past decade, focused on branding itself as a leading art museum, and to that claim, it has been successful. But at what cost?
            The 2013 proposed completion date of the Phillips Library came and went with little-to-no new information announced by the PEM. In December 2016, The Peabody Essex Museum announced the addition of “40,000-square-foot wing” to be completed on the Museum’s main campus by 2019.
            The silence surrounding the fate of the Phillips Library was broken on December 6, 2017 when Bob Monk announced to Salem’s Historical Commission that, as of 2018, the Phillips Library collections would permanently be housed in Rowley, Massachusetts, forty minutes outside of its Salem origin. Monk claimed that the PEM was unable to find a suitable location in Salem for the return of its collections.
             Not only was Salem to lose her 400 years of history to Rowley, but the beautiful brick, Plummer Hall and Daland House buildings, which previously housed the collections were to be desecrated as well, and closed to the public, for the sake of private office space to house the Museum’s staff.
            During the Historical Commission meeting, Schwartz/Silver (initially hired for the 2011 renovation) displayed mock-ups illustrating the destruction of the grand stairs and the connector, which first united the two buildings in 1907, as the home of The Essex Institute. Just as the Peabody Essex Museum is severing Salem from its history, Schwartz/Silver are severing Plummer Hall from the Daland House. The crowning jewel of the PEM’s attack on Salem’s history? A modern glass encasement to replace the 110-year-old connector, to better match the Museum’s 40,000-square-foot new wing across the street.
            This is, however, not the first time the historic city has wrestled with the possibility of losing its history. In 1965, at the pinnacle of Urban Renewal, Salem stood to replace its architectural heritage with highways and parking lots. By this plan, the site of the PEM’s new wing would have become part of a four-lane highway. The New York Times architecture critic and preservationist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a front-page article, credited with saving Salem, calling the proposed plan “alarmingly insensitive,” stating, the city would “bulldoze rather than rehabilitate.” Summing it up with, “the business community is accused of paying lip service to history while planning to demolish it.” Ada’s sentiments echo in the aftermath of the PEM’s latest announcement. Has the PEM been "paying lip service to history" while planning to demolish it all along? Is this Salem’s latest battle against Urban Renewal? And if so, is there an Ada Louise Huxtable that can save the city?
            The recent proposal by the Peabody Essex Museum shows the Museum’s complete disconnect with the Salem community, and the rich history they are the stewards of. The Museum has lost the trust of its patrons, many of which in recent days have resigned their memberships, stood united in protest, contacted their state representatives, and signed a petition aimed at keeping the archives in Salem. The collective disappointment weighs heavily throughout the city and is the primary topic of conversation. If a compromise isn’t found, Salem, a city synonymous with history, will be forced to mourn its loss.

              *Articles and links mentioned above can be found at Save The Phillips Library.

December 4, 2017

Chestnut Street - Salem, Massachusetts



Christmas in Salem, 2017

The residents of Chestnut Street have a long tradition of opening their stately homes to curious guests hoping to immerse themselves in the pageantry of “Old Salem.” The first event, “Early Days on Chestnut Street,” was held in the summer of 1926, in celebration of Salem’s tercentenary. The grand boulevard was re-imagined as its nineteenth-century self and residents were encouraged to recreate the “Great Shipping Era.” Many donned period-appropriate garb and took the opportunity to display their family heirlooms and mariners’ spoils from the Far East. Strolling musicians, old-fashioned dances, and carriage rides were all part of the day’s events, reminiscent of the street’s early-nineteenth-century splendor.

Chestnut Street was constructed between 1796 and 1805 on farmland previously belonging to the Pickering and Neal families. The eighty-foot-wide thoroughfare became a haven for wealthy mariners and their families, seeking peace from the bustling waterfront of Derby Street. During the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, substantial and mansion-class homes were built on Chestnut Street, predominantly in the Federal style. Although the facades of these homes were uniquely American, their interiors reflected the Eastern influence of their cosmopolitan owners. Homes featured luxuries such as hand-painted wallpaper imported from China, exotic spices, porcelain, and fine silks.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Asian Influence began to appear on many of the home’s exteriors. Earlier buildings were often modified by new owners or younger generations looking to keep up with the latest fashions. Overlapping ovals, fan designs, and complex geometric motifs can be seen throughout Chestnut Street, appearing in glasswork, door frames, fences, and balustrades. These additions were directly inspired by Eastern design and create the unique ornamentation that is still visible today.

Chestnut Street’s crowning jewel, Hamilton Hall, is considered one of the finest Federal buildings in America. Completed in 1807 by Salem architect Samuel McIntire, the Hall served as a meeting house and function space for Chestnut Street’s maritime elite. The Hall has welcomed notables such as the Marquis de Lafayette, held lectures on international affairs, and served as the headquarters for well-known entrepreneur and abolitionist, John Remond’s catering business.

As Salem’s maritime industry waned and the city shifted to industrialism, Chestnut Street became forever linked to the memory of “Old Salem.” For over a century, the street has been immortalized in postcards, paintings, and even films, acclaimed as “the most beautiful street in America.”


This article was written and researched by Jen Ratliff for publication by Christmas in Salem, Historic Salem Inc.



November 20, 2017

Almy, Bigelow & Washburn - Salem, Massachusetts



View of Essex Street toward Washington Street
Salem’s beloved department store Almy’s can be traced back to 1858, when James F. Almy opened his first store at 156 Essex Street in the Bowker Block. His original business card read “James F. Almy, wholesale and retail dealer for cash in silks, shawls, dress goods, and housekeeping goods.” After a successful first few years in business, Almy moved to a larger space in the West Block at 188 Essex Street, where the store remained.
Copy of James F. Almy's first business card for his 156 Essex Street location.
In the 1860s, Walter K. Bigelow became Almy’s business partner and the firm changed its name to James F. Almy & Co. The store continued expanding and around 1869, William G. Webber also became a partner. The firm was renamed Almy, Bigelow & Webber, which it remained until Webber’s retirement in 1885.
After Webber’s departure, Calvin R. Annable and E. Augustus Washburn advanced to partnership with Almy. The firm then changed to its final name of Almy, Bigelow & Washburn. The business was incorporated after the death of James F. Almy in April 1899, with Almy’s wife and daughter serving on the board.
In a 1908 booklet, commemorating the store's 50th year, Almy’s boasted about being the first in many advancements in Salem, including: “first in the city to install a passenger elevator,” “first in the city to provide a retiring room and toilet for customers” and the “first to inaugurate the department store idea in Essex County.”

Early 20th century postcards showing Almy, Bigelow & Washburn's store at 188 Essex Street.
In the first half of the 20th century, small branches of the store were added in nearby towns such as Beverly, Danvers, and Gloucester. In 1951, Almy, Bigelow & Washburn Inc. was sold to the Gorin family, which already operated a small chain of stores. By the 1980s, the Gorins owned 32 stores throughout the northeast, many of which they rebranded as “Almy’s.” After several years of struggling to make a profit, the Gorins sold their company to an investment firm. By 1985, a majority of the Almy’s stores had been sold to Stop & Shop Companies for redevelopment. Today all that remains of Salem’s Almy’s is a clock that bears its name on Essex Street.


*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 

October 25, 2017

Halloween in 1908


At the turn of the 20th century Halloween became more focused on family fun and community events. News outlets encouraged parents and party planners to remove any ties to superstition, witchcraft and frightening lore from their celebrations. The holiday was often observed through seasonal foods, costumes and games.

These postcards depict typical Halloween imagery from 1908. Although sinister symbols such as devils, witches, and black cats can still be seen in the artwork, the main focus of the images shows the more family focused traditions of the time, including bobbing for apples and gathering for a harvest feast.













*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 

October 17, 2017

Haunted Happenings - Salem, Massachusetts



The Salem Chamber of Commerce introduced Haunted Happenings in 1982 as a weekend-long Halloween celebration with events throughout the city. The weekend included a Horribles Parade, with costumes judged by Laurie Cabot, and a witches brew contest at Victoria Station. Coinciding with Haunted Happenings, The Essex Institute hosted an exhibit “Salem Witches, Documents of an Early American Drama”, which focused on the Salem Witch Trials.


The first year was a success and the series continued to gain momentum each year, adding new attractions and partnering with more businesses and organizations across the city. In the 1990s, Haunted Happenings marketing was increased with hope that Salem’s tourism could expand into fall, a usually quiet time in the waterfront community. By the end of the decade, Haunted Happenings had grown from a weekend celebration to one spanning ten days.
In 1992, the tercentenary of the Witch Trials brought an international spotlight to the City with the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. News coverage created a renewed interest in Salem’s history and attractions.
The first Halloween parade was held in 1995, beginning modestly with costumed school children. The parade signified the city’s transition to family-friendly Halloween events and activities.The parade now acts as the official kick-off of October's festivities.
Haunted Happenings now draws approximately 400,000 people annually to Salem. In 2007, the grand fireworks finale was added to mark the end of the month long celebration.



*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

October 10, 2017

The Salem Witch Museum - Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Witch Museum
Postcard showing the Salem Witch Museum

A fire destroyed much of the church’s interior in July of 1902, including its 19th century organ. Damage from the fire was still being repaired when in 1925 a decision was made to lower the height of the exterior towers.

Real photo postcard showing Salem Witch Museum as Second Unitarian Church in 1908
Salem Witch Museum, 1908
Now a major tourist attraction, this Gothic Revival building adjacent to Salem Common was once home to the Second Unitarian Church. The church was built between 1844-1846 and was designed by New York architect Minard Lafever, well known for his Gothic Revival style.
In 1958, following a consolidation of Unitarian churches, the building was listed for sale. The following year The Salem Auto Museum and Americana Shops opened with a collection of art work, vintage cars, and a fabricated idyllic Salem street, complete with fourteen shops. A decade after opening the interior of the museum was destroyed by another fire. Many items were lost including an 1825 hand tub and 1925 Mercedes Benz.
After extensive remodeling, the Salem Witch Museum opened in 1972. The museum advertised the use of “modern day technology” to “authentically re-create the emotions of 1692.” The museum continues its operation, attracting thousands of visitors each year.




*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

October 8, 2017

Housekeeper Wanted, Apply Within: The Self-Service of Women’s Benevolence in Nineteenth Century Salem


Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion

Housekeeper Wanted, Apply Within: The Self-Service of Women’s Benevolence in Nineteenth Century Salem

ABSTRACT:
Often inspired by religious sermons, female benevolence in the nineteenth century is usually dismissed as the result of a passive woman’s “impulses from the heart.” This portrayal fails to capture the dedicated and systematic approach to business that these women upheld. Female-run societies became their own respectable economic entities, collecting and distributing large sums of money. Although benevolent in their mission, these societies, like those of men, were also remarkably self-serving. [3,608 more words]

Read more: Academia.edu

October 2, 2017

Black Cats and Halloween


The association between witches and black cats dates back to the middle ages in Europe. Stray alley cats were often companions of poor and elderly woman, who were easy targets for witch accusations. The nocturnal habits of these cats, along with their preference to warm themselves by the fire, gave them a place in the hysteria as the partner of the witch. Black cats were specifically targeted because their coloring was linked to evil. Although black cats are no longer discriminated against to the extent that they once were, their connection to witches still lives on in present day Halloween imagery.
This artwork shows black cats in Halloween postcards from the early 20th century.


*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 

September 26, 2017

Leather Postcards - Salem, Massachusetts

Early 20th century leather postcards.
Early 20th century leather postcards.
Leather postcards first appeared in America in 1903. Made of burned and inked deer hide, these postcards were unique in that they could be sewn together to make decorative wall hangings, pillowcases, and other souvenirs.
Leather postcards were sold in Salem and depicted similar scenes to their paper counterparts, such as historic landmarks and witch imagery.
This fad was short-lived. In 1907, the U.S. Postal Service banned leather postcards due to issues they caused with sorting machines and the public's continuous use of improper postage. Despite being banned, these novelties were still sold until about 1915.





*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections

August 14, 2017

Postcards to Mollie - Salem, Massachusetts


Postcards were the texts and emails of the early 20th century. Messages written on postcards were not private, but postage was only a penny and they quickly caught on.

This collection of postcards, written between a set of cousins, is a snapshot of life in Salem in 1912 and contains some fun (and occasionally sassy) interactions between family members.

Mary “Mollie” Decker was born in October 1849 in Ipswich. Her family later moved to Margin St. in Salem. On April 15, 1885, at the age of 35, Mollie married Thomas H. Williamson Jr., a local shoecutter, and they lived with her family on Margin St. before moving to Beverly.


Until her marriage, Mollie lived with her family in this home at the corner of Margin and Summer Streets.The Gothic Revival structure is still a private residence now known as the William H. Farnham House. 

By 1900, the couple moved to New Hampshire, where Thomas was a farmer. Mollie appears to have kept in constant contact with her younger cousins Abbie, Alice, and Ellen, three sisters who lived on Gardner Street in Salem.

 


On this postcard Mollie’s cousin Abbie writes to update Mollie on the health of the family. Can you spot the X on the postcard image? Abbie placed this X to illustrate to Mollie where her new office was. Most likely, Abbie worked in that building as a clerk or secretary.


The Witch House, often incorrectly referred to as the Roger Williams House, was a common image on postcards in the early 20th century as the Witch Trials history became popular following the 1892 bicentennial. The house is known as the Witch House due to its connection to Judge Jonathan Corwin who lived in the home during the trials.

Alice wrote to Mollie “Dear Cousin Mollie, I read about you, think about you, dream about you and do everything but see you. With love to all lovingly Alice”




Alice wrote to Abbie during her stay with Mollie in New Hampshire. Alice joked about how late their
sister Ellen had stayed out the night before, saying “tell Cousin Frank, Ellen got in at 10:45. What is he going to do about it?” [sic] Alice also suggested "Abbie should stop in at the Dancing Casino at Salem Willows (pictured on the postcard) for a dance when she gets back, stating “it will be handy to you and you will enjoying it.”



“Is it hot enough for you. It don’t take quite so much heat to bake me, I hear you are going to have
company soon gee but I guess your glad. Cousin Frank took me in the auto to Ipswich the 4th saw the
president in [Beverly], and coming back saw a parade in [North Beverly] and it was fine, and then for a treat at number 4. Makes a fellow feel better. Cheer up you will hear the tooting soon. With lots of love Ellen”

Ellen is referring to President William Howard Taft, who split his summers as president between two
estates in Beverly. Like many people, the Taft family sought relief from the city heat by summering on the North Shore coast. President Taft was known for being social during his stays in Beverly, often found on the local golf courses or participating in parades and events.


Although this collection of postcards provide incredible insight in to the life of Mollie Williamson and her family, we are still left with a lot of questions.

What did Mollie look like?

Did she have the same sense of humor as her cousins?

What was her day to day life like in New Hampshire?
These questions might be answered by further research, but for now Mollie remains a mystery. 



*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which all postcard images belong.
Edited by Emily A. Murphy, Ph.D. 

July 31, 2017

Asiatic Building - Salem, Massachusetts

125 Washington Street, Asiatic Block
The Asiatic Building was initially built for the Asiatic Bank in 1855, when it moved from a smaller location in the East India Marine Building (now part of the Peabody Essex Museum). The building was designed by William H. Emmerton and Joseph C. Foster and was built partially on land originally belonging to the First Church and the Higginson Family.


Stereoeview of  Asiatic Building
The Asiatic Building housed multiple banks and financial institutions and was nicknamed “The Bank Block.” Residents included: Naumkeag National Bank, Merchants Bank, Salem Marine Insurance Company, and most notably The Salem Savings Bank. The Odd Fellows Hall was also located on the top floor, and their name adorned the facade of the building.
Around 1855, Washington Street was renumbered; 125 Washington Street until this time was 28 Washington Street. In the 1851 Salem Atlas, a structure appears where 125 Washington Street now stands and in the 1853 Salem Directory it is listed as being the home of Joseph Gardner, Jr. a carpenter.
125 Washington Street was remodeled in the early 20th century by architect Arthur E. French in the Colonial Revival style. The remodel included the removal of the top floor and the construction of a new fa├žade.

Interior of Salem Savings Bank, Asiatic Building

Interior of Salem Savings Bank, Asiatic Building

Asiatic Building from Town House Square

Asiatic Building and Washington Street


*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections

June 26, 2017

Restaurant Row - Salem, Massachusetts


Real photo postcard showing Restaurant Row. c. 1920s
In 1858, 35 acres of waterfront on Salem’s Neck was designated a public park. The park was named Salem Willows due to the white willow trees that had been planted in that area in 1801. The trees originally offered shade to smallpox patients as they were treated by a hospital for contagious disease, which stood nearby. When the hospital closed, the trees and waterfront created a great escape from the city’s summer heat, for locals and tourists alike. The park steadily grew as a destination with the Naumkeag Street Railway offering frequent horse-drawn trolley rides from Salem’s downtown. With this success, an amusement park was built on an adjacent lot, which opened in June 1880. Attractions included a skating rink, restaurants, and a theater.
Visitors arrive at Salem Willows by trolley. c. 1920s
Starting In the 1870s, a group of restaurants opened along the Willow’s north shore. This stretch would become known as Restaurant Row and gained notoriety for “shore dinners” which were featured. Restaurant Row was anchored by Chase House, Swenbeck’s, and Ebsen’s, all of which specialized in seafood and ocean views. After nearly eighty years in operation these restaurants began closing their doors in the 1940s. On July 15, 1952, a fire consumed Chase House, the first in a series of fires and storms that ultimately destroyed Restaurant Row.

Dining room of Swenbeck's Park Cafe. c. 1920s


Chase House on Restaurant Row menu. 

Chase House on Restaurant Row. c. 1920s




*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 


June 12, 2017

Hello Day - Salem, Massachusetts



In 1971, Mayor of Salem Samuel E. Zoll proclaimed Saturday, May 1st to be “Hello Day.” The event was one in a series of month-long initiatives to celebrate the inauguration of new Salem State College president, Frank Keegan. The event was conceived by artist Donald Burgy of Bradford Junior College with the intention to revive kindness in Salem and help acquaint citizens with their fellow neighbors. Zoll and Burgy saw a wane in neighborliness with the rise of mass media and automobile travel and hoped “Hello Day” would better unite the community and possibly spawn future events. The two also requested that photographers capture the occasion and submit their images for multiple displays around town. 
At noon on May 1st, fire stations rang their bells and residents gathered in the streets. On Salem Common a rock band performed while a plane circled to take photos. High school student Marian Sonier reported to the Salem News that the event was one of the “best times [she] had in months.”



"Hello Day" celebrations on Salem Common.


Keegan and Zoll, seated, being interviewed by news outlets on Salem Common.

"Hello Day" celebrators gather on Salem Common for an interview with Channel 5 news.
Keegan and Zoll can be seen, seated.

A group of kids gathered on Salem Common for "Hello Day."
Pedestrians wave hello to each other in celebration of "Hello Day" on Essex Street.


*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

April 19, 2017

The War of 1812 - Salem, Massachusetts

Correspondence from Boston to Salem Selectmen
When the War of 1812 broke out in June of that year, Salem's once bustling seaport and maritime industry had been waning for close to a decade. Following acts such as Jefferson's Embargo of 1807, Salem's once vibrant waterfront was forced into a decline. With more restrictions placed on foreign trade, and the growing war between Britain and France threatening all maritime travel, many once prominent mariners were now without an income.

Contrary to popular belief, the War of 1812, lasted almost three years. In April 1814, the U.S.S. Constitution was being pursued by two British vessels, HM frigates Tenedos and Junon. After being chased out of Boston Harbor, the Constitution sought refuge in Marblehead Harbor. The Tenedos and Junon continued their pursuit and anchored just outside the harbor, trapping the Constitution. Unsure of Marblehead's Fort Sewall's strength against the two well armed British frigates, the Constitution's only choice was to escape Marblehead Harbor and flee to Salem. Which it narrowly did. After about a week, the frigates abandoned their pursuit and the Constitution was able to return safely to Boston.

July 1814, Fort Sullivan in Maine (then part of Massachusetts) was conquered by British ships. Forts across New England began intense fortification, including the construction of a new fort in Boston, with a certainty that an attack on the city was imminent. Multiple cities along the eastern coast were attacked by British forces, including Orleans on Cape Cod. However, British cannonballs fell short of land and the town remained undamaged.

The signing of the Treaty of Ghent marked the end of the war as an impasse on December 24, 1814. However, news of the treaty took close to a month to reach all naval forces. Additional warfare ensued until February 1815 with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by President James Madison and the U.S. Senate.


*Written and researched by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem Historical Society.

January 20, 2017

The Smiling Widow - Salem, Massachusetts



Crowd outside a Salem courthouse during the trial of Jessie Costello, 1933.

In February 1933, Nellie Ayers, a door-to-door saleswoman, peddling fudge was welcomed into the Peabody home of Jessie Costello, her husband William, and their children. After a few minutes of speaking with Nellie, Jessie agreed to buy a pound of fudge and excused herself to retrieve her purse. Moments later Jessie returned to where Nellie was waiting, hysterically screaming that her husband was dead on the bathroom floor. Jessie sent Nellie away without payment, stating that she was unable to think of sweets at such a difficult time. 
An autopsy performed on William after his embalmment revealed the presence of cyanide in his system. On March 17, 1933, Jessie Costello was arrested for the murder of her husband. Thus beginning one of the most captivating trials the pre-television world would ever see.  
  An all-male jury was selected and the trial of Jessie Costello began in Salem with little recognition. Reporters lined up to cover the latest court cases and quickly became enamored with Jessie, who was dubbed “the smiling widow.” Many newspapers referred to her good looks and charm, describing her as a “glamorous siren” and “buxom prima donna.” 
Inside the courtroom, Jessie dismissed accusations of guilt with a nonchalance uncommon to trials of murder. A pharmacist claimed to have sold Jessie cyanide, the day of her husband’s death, stating that he warned her about the deadly poison. She replied “you call that poison?” going on to state that she used the substance to clean her stove. Jessie cited her husband’s ailing health and constant indigestion for causing him to commit suicide. The prosecution came back with evidence that Jessie had also purchased empty capsules, similar to what was found in her husband’s stomach. 
Following newspaper reports, the court house became surrounded by onlookers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newest celebrity. Jessie received over 500 love letters daily as well as a dozen roses from the trials bailiff. The all-male jury pooled their money to buy “the smiling widow” a box of chocolates.
  However, Jessie already had an admirer. A married, police officer, named Ed McMahon. McMahon described an affair he had with Jessie Costello prior to William’s death. He implied Jesse was an outgoing, flapper, trapped as a housewife in a dull marriage and told of their affair in detail. Newspapers refused to print McMahon’s testimony as they thought it too crude but printed it in little red booklets which immediately sold out. Ed McMahon became dubbed “the kiss and tell cop” and became the villain of the trial. Jessie admittedly denied the affair, saying that any relationship she did have with McMahon was purely spiritual. 
  Despite mounting evidence against her, Jessie Costello was acquitted of the murder. Edmund Pearson, a journalist at the time, was quoted as saying “[the jury was] as helpless as twelve rabbits under the influence of those glittering ophidian eyes.”

Jessie Costello leaving for New York. 1934

  Jessie’s celebrity however, did not end with the court proceedings. She quickly was offered contracts on Broadway, and began receiving requests to tell her life story. She hired a theatrical agent and was asked to perform screen tests for Hollywood studios. During this time, she turned down a $20,000 contract to appear in a 10-week burlesque show, believing it was beneath her. She purchased new clothes and vacationed as a celebrity. Her short-lived fame would end however when Hollywood censors opposed her benefiting off of the death of her husband. Studios begrudgingly followed suit and withdrew all offers to work with Jessie. In a last attempt to maintain status, she approached the burlesque houses that she had previously turned down but found that they were no longer interested. 
  Unable to find work, Jessie became a hostess at a Boston tavern and later moved with her children to New Hampshire. She remained certain she would find fame again. Jessie Costello died on March 15, 1971. Her funeral was attended by nearly 200 mourners.


*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.
Images above are from their collections.