By Jerome Curley
With Halloween almost upon us, it is a fitting time to recall one of Salem’s most enduring ghosts.
On April 15, 1623, Lady Arbella Fiennes-Clinton, married Isaac Johnson. Both were 22 years old and from Sempingham, England. Lady Arbella was a daughter of Thomas the 3rd Earl of Lincoln with the Peerage title of the 11th Baron Clinton.
Upon their marriage, Isaac’s grandfather, Robert Johnson, Archdeacon, bestowed on him Clipsham Manor in Rutland. As such he was a wealthy man with property in three English counties.
When the Massachusetts Company was seeking influential backers to fund a large migration to Salem under a new charter, he was approached. Having strong Puritan sympathies, he readily assented and was instrumental in getting the Royal Charter. In 1629, he, along with eleven others, signed the Cambridge Agreement that had emigrating shareholders buy out the non emigrating owners. He was an emigrating shareholder and was deemed an Assistant / Magistrate in the enterprise where he was the largest shareholder.
Isaac and Arbella agreed to go to the wilderness of New England knowing their lives would be very different from their manor-bred comforts. They saw it as an opportunity to be a part of a new beginning inspired by their shared faith. They wished to be part of what Governor Winthrop called “the shining city of God” in the new world.
When the fleet of eleven ships was assembled, the flagship, Eagle, was renamed Arbella in honor of Lady Arbella who was characterized as lovely in both character and person.
The voyage began on March 29, 1630 and was a difficult one that saw the fleet separated by a number of storms that took a toll on the passengers and livestock. The scattered fleet limped into several of Massachusetts’ ports after over 2 months at sea. On June 12, the Arbella dropped anchor inside Baker’s Island, close to the Beverly side of the harbor. Endicott and others from the Salem Plantation came on board and met Winthrop. They then went ashore, along with a number of passengers. Many of the other passengers, including Lady Arbella, went to the Beverly side and gathered strawberries.
When Winthrop and his party went to the settlement, they saw privation and death. Some 70 people from a population of 300 had died that year from fever and sickness. The settlers looked to the new immigrants for help with food, clothing and medicines. Upon reviewing the settlement, Winthrop and his assistants concluded that the Salem plantation was too limited for their group. Leaving behind many people, including Lady Arbella, Winthrop took a group in search of an appropriate place to found a new settlement. The Arbella sailed up the Mystic River and landed at what would be called Charlestown.
While her husband Isaac went with Winthrop, Arbella stayed at Salem. Already weakened from the voyage, within 2 months she sickened and died. It is believed that she was buried in Potter’s field, an area that bordered Planter’s Marsh on Bridge Street near where the ferry to Beverly would be. This was probably the earliest burial site in Salem. It was described as a sandy ridge that extended into Planter’s marsh and would correspond to today’s Planters Street. Dr Holyoke, (1728-1829) who was very knowledgeable about the history of Salem, always said that there was a brick monument over her grave and that it may have been at the foot of what would later be Arbella Street, which wasn’t laid out until later in the 19th century. Currently her grave is unknown. If there was a monument, at some point it was removed. There is no record of her grave being moved. It may have fallen into disrepair and succumbed to the development of the area by the gas works or street layout.
After her death, her husband continued to exercise a leadership role in finding a new site for the immigrants. He was instrumental in beginning the settlement at Shawmut, or Boston as it became known. While working, he was also devastated by the loss of his wife. He sickened and died a month later on September 30, 1630. He was reportedly buried on the site he had chosen for their home. The site is now the Old Burial Ground on Tremont Street in Boston.
Governor Winthrop wrote of Lady Arbella and Isaac’s deaths in his diary. Cotton Mather, the noted minister, in writing of Isaac’s death, adapted lines from the poet Wolcott and wrote:
“ She first deceased, he for a little tried, to live without her, liked it not, and died.”
This sad story was recounted by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his book, Grandfather’s Chair. The chair that connects Hawthorne’s tales was that of Lady Arbella, brought from England. Hawthorne recounts that there was a chapel built over her grave but there is no evidence of that ever being the case.
In the almost 400 years since her death, Salemites have often spoke of a young woman dressed in a cape being seen walking along the shores of Collins Cove on foggy nights. They say she looks for her lost husband who was buried apart from her or she pines to find a way home to her English countryside.
I recall my 104 year old aunt who lived her entire life near Collins Cove recounting the tale of the Ghost of Collins Cove who wanders the nights in search of her lost grave. Whatever the reason for her restlessness, she may well be Salem’s oldest English ghost.