Cocktail Talk: A Trivial Pursuit

Some interesting facts about Salem that you might not have heard about.

When I was in college I had a history professor who liked to pause in the middle of a lecture and announce what he termed a cocktail talk alert. With obvious pleasure, he would impart some obscure piece of trivia about some historic place or thing.

He had explained in one of his first lectures that these tidbits were perfect ice breakers if you could work them into a conversation during a cocktail party. Of course, if you didn’t do it right, you’d come across as an idiot or worse. Whatever the case, it was obvious that he enjoyed sharing such obscurities as what George Washington’s horses’ names were (Nelson and Blueskin) or some anecdote about a medieval Pope.

I recall at the end of the semester my notes being full of this trivia. I used to look forward to those tidbits and dutifully write them down, finding them often more interesting than the main topic. Anyhow, that was the beginning for me in writing down margin notes when I came across something not always relevant but interesting.

In researching and writing this column, I found myself reverting to my undergraduate years and, once again, compiling notes that I found interesting but weren’t enough for a column on any one topic. In a bit of a
change of pace, I’d like to share some of those notes in the hope that you too might find them interesting and who knows, perhaps use one or two at a cocktail party when there’s just nothing to say.

                          Town Crier: A Touch of Old England

In the middle of what is now Washington Street stood a watch house in the 1600s. This watch house was important to watch for Indian incursions into
the settlement. The watch house had clear views of the North and South Rivers as well as the creek running into the South River.

The Watch House in those days was high enough to see a signal fire from Castle Hill warning of Indians in the vicinity. If an alarm was given, the watchman could call the settlers to arms and the defense of the garrison. This watch house had a carved statue of an armed soldier on the roof done by Leamen Beadle.

On November 10, 1676, the town made a contract with Arthur Hughes to be the bellman and watchman for Salem. It was his duty to walk the streets from 10 o’clock to daybreak calling out to citizens that all was well, adding the time of day and the weather. He was required to ring the bell at 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. as an "admonition to improve the light of day and keep good hours at night." This custom continued in Salem until 1817, long after any Indian threats had abated.  

                                The First Ballots in America

In 1629, Gov. Endicott set aside July 20 as a solemn day of humiliation, (prayer and fasting) in preparation for making the choices of a pastor and a teacher for Salem. This was considered a momentous decision that required the prayerful consideration of the men of Salem. After the prayerful consideration, each one wrote the name of his choice for each position on a slip of paper which was dutifully counted. This, according to Felt in his book The Annals of Salem, was the first use of a ballot in America. For those of you wondering who won — Skelton was chosen pastor and Higginson teacher that day.

                                "Select" men and Getting out the Vote

As the town progressed and gained some autonomy in running local affairs, seven men were chosen to form a governing body to conduct the town’s business. This group was originally referred to as the seven men, but gradually they came to be called the select-men giving rise to the term still
in use in many towns in our area. In running the towns’ affairs they oversaw public meetings where all men were expected to attend either in person or by proxy.

In 1654, presumably in response to low voter turnout, they passed an order that fined any townsman who had been duly warned and still declined to take part in the public meeting 18d, (denarius)1/6 of a shilling. 18d in those days would have been three days wages for a laborer and more than one day for a master mason or carpenter. A rather steep fine which worked well to motivate the residents to take part in government, it definitely got out the vote.

                                 No Smoking Anywhere

Our final entry in this little exercise in trivia seemed to have a contemporary flair.

In 1811, there was a terrible fire in Newburyport that destroyed some 250 buildings and displaced 75 families, doing a million dollars worth of damage. The fire was so intense it could literally be seen glowing in the sky in Salem. Salem responded with generous donations and assistance.

The Salem Selectmen saw this as a result of careless smoking and passed a by-law under the pretext of ‘imminent danger,’ imposing a ban on smoking with a fine of three dollars, (about $50. today), for any person who "shall smoke any pipe or segar in any street, highway, lane or public building within said town, by day or by night."

The Selectmen appointed enforcers in every ward to be "Inspectors of the Police for the express purpose of enforcing the above By-Law." It was later learned that the fire was a result of arson and the by-law was rescinded after much protest by ‘segar’ smokers.

Let me know if you like this change of pace column, share a comment.

Erin Cyr November 02, 2011 at 10:16 PM
Your column is always so great and reminds me of the best class I ever took. At Peabody High "The History of Essex County" was taught by the wonderful Mr. Metropolis, it filled my notebook with trivia in the same way your class did, and many times I have used factoids to start up conversations.
Karen Festa November 03, 2011 at 12:59 PM
Often it's a teacher's side comments that a student remembers most. These tidbits are the spice of life. I hope that over the years some students have remembered some of my tidbits. I really enjoyed the ones you shared.


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