Salem Public Library - Salem, Massachusetts

Images: Salem State University Archives and Special Collections
Courtesy of Salem Public Library.
The building that now houses the Salem Public Library was once the home of one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, a merchant and ship-owner by the name of Captain John Bertram. The house was built in 1855 for Bertram and his family, which sat on the former estate Caroline Plummer. Bertram and his third wife, Mary Ann Ropes occupied the house along with Bertram’s five children with his previous wives, both of which died in childbirth. His daughter Jenny would become the mother of Caroline Emmerton, founder of The House of the Seven Gables historic site and settlement house.
John Bertram was born in 1796 into a middle class farming family, off of the coast of Normandy. In July of 1807, Bertram, his parents and his five siblings embarked for America in hope of finding a better future. Their ship was destined for Baltimore, Maryland but experienced malfunctions during its voyage, docking in Boston. Upon a recommendation, the Bertram family settled in nearby Salem.

Despite Salem’s industrious maritime history as one of the richest cities in the world, its great fortune was halted due to the Jefferson Embargo of 1807 and the war with Great Britain. With trade being cut off from America, Salem’s economy experienced a depression. John’s father, Jean Bertram, a master carpenter was unable to find work. He in turn opened a grocery store but with customers unable to afford to pay their credit, his business quickly failed. When John was 11, his father built a family home and a carpentry shop on Central Street and took John out of school to assist him. Unhappy with working in the carpentry shop, John enlisted as a cabin boy at age 16 and began his life at sea. His pay helped alleviate his family’s debts back in Salem and steadily earned him a fortune. John became a Master in 1824, earning the title of Captain. At the age of 36 in 1832, Captain John Bertram was able to retire from his work at sea. Bertram was known for his ability to successfully take risks with new ventures and elements of trade. He established his own shipping firm in Salem and successfully invested his money in railroads.

Captain John Bertram, understanding the plight of poverty, helped aid and establish many of Salem’s charities including Salem Hospital, Women’s Friend Society, Plummer Farm for Boys, Bertram Home for Aged Men, and the Old Ladies’ House (present day Brookhouse.) He also served on many area committees such as Salem Common Council and Massachusetts General Court. John Bertram died in 1882, at age 86. Following his death, his widow and remaining children donated the Bertram mansion on Essex Street to the city for use as a public library. The Salem Public Library opened on July 8, 1889.

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

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