Salem Uproar over Dilapidated Tombs, Part II

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry continues her story about a controversy in Salem, Massachusetts, over the treatment of some Quaker tombs in 1835. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

Author’s Note: Today I continue with the Salem, Massachusetts, burial grounds scandal. To recap: In April of 1835, the Board of Health in Salem published an announcement in the newspaper on the dilapidated state of the tombs in the public burial grounds. The Board asked owners to come forward to mark the appropriate names and fix up the tombs. The Board also proposed to sell those tombs left unclaimed or undefined. This very grave matter infuriated the community and the families whose ancestors had been laid to rest.

The tombs of the Lindall, Browne, Kitchen, and Turner families were among the most controversial, as they were leading citizens in the community.

In Part I of this story, I covered the genealogy of the Lindall and Kitchen tombs (see: Salem Uproar over Dilapidated Tombs). Today’s story is about the tombs of the Turner and Browne families.

The Turner tomb was erected in 1680 by John Turner, son of Robert Turner and Elizabeth Freestone.

Photo: House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, after restoration of 1908-1910, photo taken c. 1915
Photo: House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, after restoration of 1908-1910, photo taken c. 1915. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Turner, a wealthy merchant and ship owner, built the home made famous in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables. Three generations of Turner heirs lived in the house of gables until it was sold to Captain Samuel Ingersoll in 1782.

The Turners acquired a great deal of property and prestige. John Turner I married Elizabeth Roberts, and their son John II married the beautiful belle Mary Kitchen, daughter of Robert Kitchen and Mary Boardman.

I found a death notice in the Boston Post-Boy for John II.

An obituary for John Turner, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 8 March 1742
Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 March 1742, page 3

It reported:

“This Day died suddenly here, the Hon. John Turner, Esq. who was one of His Majesty’s Council for twenty years past, successively. He was also early improv’d in Military Affairs, in which he honour’d his several Commissions, particularly in the Indian Wars, where he distinguished himself by his prudent Conduct and gallant Behavior, and was afterwards Colonel of the first Regiment in Essex for several Years. He was a Gentleman generous to his Friends, hospitable to Strangers and charitable to the Poor. Such good Qualities make his death much lamented. We hear the Funeral will be on Wednesday next.”

John II’s daughter Eunice married Benjamin Browne, a merchant and member of the House of Representatives.

Illustration: Eunice Turner Browne, daughter of John II and Mary Kitchen Turner, wife of Benjamin Browne
Illustration: Eunice Turner Browne, daughter of John II and Mary Kitchen Turner, wife of Benjamin Browne. Credit: John Smibert (artist), courtesy of Frick Digital Collection Photograph, E.J. Moore 9006 Frick Art Reference Library, New York. According to the accession report, a modern copy of this portrait was owned in 1938 by H. Bradley Fenno, Boston, and, by 1949, the late Edward N. Fenno. A second copy is in the House of Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts.

Eunice is listed as executrix of Benjamin’s last will and testament in the Boston Evening-Post.

An article about Eunice Turner Browne, Boston Evening-Post newspaper article 25 June 1750
Boston Evening-Post (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 June 1750, page 2

It reported:

“All Persons indebted unto, or have any Demands upon the Estate of Colonel Benjamin Browne, late of Salem, deceased, are desired speedily to come and settle their Accounts with Eunice Browne, Executrix of the last Will and Testament of the said deceased.”

Ezekiel Hersey Derby, son of merchant prince Elias Hasket “King” Derby and Elizabeth Crowninshield, represented the ancestor tombs of his wife Hannah Browne Fitch, daughter of Timothy Fitch and Eunice Browne (daughter of Benjamin Browne and Eunice Turner).

Illustration: Eunice Browne Fitch, daughter of Benjamin and Eunice Turner Browne
Illustration: Eunice Browne Fitch, daughter of Benjamin and Eunice Turner Browne, wife of Timothy Fitch and mother of Hannah Browne Fitch (wife of E. Hersey Derby). Credit: Joseph Blackburn (artist), courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. See link

When Derby visited the Browne tomb in Salem, he was shocked to find it was vandalized. The sensational news spread and several newspapers picked up the story. The Maine Democrat reported on what Derby discovered at the burial site.

An article about tombs in Salem, Massachusetts, Maine Democrat newspaper article 23 September 1835
Maine Democrat (Saco, Maine), 23 September 1835, page 2

It reported:

“In consequence of this notice [about the tombs, from the Salem Board of Health], Mr. E. Hersey Derby, as he states in a publication in a Salem paper, visited the grounds to examine the state of the Browne tomb – and was shocked to find ‘the coffins broken up and removed, and the remains of the bodies apparently laying on the ground exposed to the dogs of the field and the winds of heaven, with only a slight covering of earth. So far have these violations been carried, that not only coffins of sound and solid wood have been broken up, but the silver plates on which was inscribed the names of the deceased, stolen. We are astonished and mortified to hear of the perpetration of such acts in a Christian community.”

Derby was fit to be tied and asserted that the Board was negligent in maintaining the burial grounds and policing the tombs from vandals.

In his letter to the editor of the Salem Gazette, Derby had vented his anger.

An article about tombs in Salem, Massachusetts, Salem Gazette newspaper article 11 September 1835
Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), 11 September 1835, page 3

He wrote:

“I ask of the public, as a fellow citizen, if this outrage is to be permitted? I ask, as a lately bereaved father, if the sanctity of the tomb is no longer inviolate? I ask, if those already deeply afflicted, and whose crushed affections are turning to that church yard as the last resting place of what was loveliest and dearest to them on earth, to whom tenderness and pious friendship are whispering that ‘there the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest,’ are to have their breaking hearts lacerated anew by learning that the remains of those whose memory they have been taught to venerate from childhood, have been thus rudely turned from the tomb, and have to tremble for the security of the treasure they have just placed in what they deemed their ‘long home.’ I ask as a husband and father, if the mother of my wife and the grandmother of my children is to be thus cast out to common earth? I ask, as the last relative of the ancient Browne family, if they are no longer to find a resting place in the town their charities have enriched?”

The Salem Board of Health felt it was not the town’s duty to pay the upkeep on the burial sites, and defended their position on the issue in a meeting with Derby and other descendants on September 16. The Board’s secretary, John Winn Jr., addressed issues raised in the Salem Gazette article – but this grave matter was far from over… stay tuned for more.

Note: Just as an online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, helped tell the stories of the Turner and Browne families, they can tell you stories about your ancestors that can’t be found anywhere else. Come look today and see what you can discover!

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