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History Time: Salem's oddest election (part 2 of 4)

Posted by Susannah Blair  March 14, 2012 10:03 AM

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Illustration by Jay Hambidge, in "McClure's Magazine," 1912, accompanying Howard's serialized account of his career in Boston and Salem (later published as a book).

"Look here, Mr. Howard," he exclaimed. "You will make a ten-strike in this town, but, remember, if you hit one you hit all. You cannot trust any one. Everybody here is mixed up with some crowd, and if you do as you intimate, this city will turn turtle. Personally I believe the people want it, and after all, you will only have to tell the truth. Fact is, no one has ever showed them up. But," he hesitated, "it requires nerve. Have you got it?" 

When Arthur Howard alighted from the train that afternoon in 1908 with the idea of starting a newspaper in his ancestral town of Salem, he walked into a metaphorical hurricane.

He learned that Robin Damon, the newspaper's owner, had purchased the printing machinery and franchise of the newly-closed Salem Gazette. This left Salem, formerly a lively newspaper town where the vanished Gazette had been "familiar and welcome as an old friend in the homes of succeeding generations of Essex County people" for more than a hundred years, with only one daily newspaper.

This situation was privately mourned by many, but Howard soon found that the chances for obtaining the printing press formerly used by the Gazette was not an put it mildly. He was rebuffed by Damon brusquely. Being Arthur, he took it in stride.

As he sauntered down the street afterwards, he discovered he was being followed by someone from Damon's News offices. Opposition only clinched his determination.

Inquiries around town were discouraging, but he took heart that people admired his "nerve" in proposing a rival newspaper to the News. Finally, a banker in town gave Howard a positive route to pursue:

"As a matter of fact the merchants of this place have been anxious for a new paper for a number of years, for they are now at the mercy of this one paper. But Damon controls everything in the newspaper line, and I guess it can't be done." 

"How can he stop me?" I asked. 

"Don't know that he can," said the banker, "but he'll make a good try." 

The idea amused them heartily. They told me that fourteen separate men had appeared with fourteen different newspapers and all had gone down before Damon. Nevertheless they referred me to a man who might know about a reporter — George Day, a local tailor."

Arthur walked down to the tailor shop, where Day welcomed him as "at least" being somebody new to talk to.

"Am I the only stranger that has come into the city recently?" I inquired, seating myself. Day filled his pipe and his eyes twinkled. After lighting it carefully, he said: "You confess you are a stranger. They are rare in Salem. They often pass through, but one look is enough — they instantly take the first car or train back to where they came from. The fact is Salem is in wrong; too much 'witch' business; it seems to scare the newcomer. As a business proposition, the city is dead."

That's too bad," I replied, "because I came here to go into business." "Got a license?" said Mr. Day. "A license for what?" I asked. "To sell booze," replied Day. "Certainly not," I laughed. "Do I look like a liquor dealer?" "No, you do not; but the booze business is the only chance of making any money here."

The Salem of 1908, though it retained much of its "old, Colonial flavor," had seen thirty years of great change. It was a center of business and banking for adjoining towns, connected by a web of railway and trolley lines. Derby Street was "peopled by humble dwellers of the tenement house," immigrants and others drawn to the city to work in its leather and shoemaking businesses and at the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, a factory dominating the Stage Point area of the city. 

Game manufacturer Parker Brothers bustled along on Bridge Street; one of its latest games featured Sherlock Holmes. The wharves hosted coal barges and lumber haulers. Music and art were thriving; libraries, the Essex Institute, and the museum in the East India Marine Building fed the city's intellectual life; modern and "quaint" shops proliferated.
Yet, the attractive face Salem presented to the world belied the fact that it was also politically incestuous, and no stranger to corruption. 


At right, turn of the century downtown Salem. Postcard, author's private collection

…."Salem," he continued, "is a hotbed of political misdeeds. It is run by four cliques. First 
and foremost is Colonel Peterson, a contractor, who has dominated county politics for years. He does all the dirty political work in this section for the big men in the state. He was twice mayor and would be still, only a minister, who has since left here, told him that if he ever dared run for office again he would come back and tell the truth about him. Some men are afraid of the truth here. Then there are the McSweeney brothers, three of them—William, Morgan, and Parker. William is an alderman and a republican; his partner, Morgan, is a democrat; Parker is an independent; so that no matter what party you line up with, one of the brothers is with you."

"How about the prohibition party?" I asked. 

"They are all members of a temperance club and do not drink," he said. 

"How about the liquor interests?

"McSweeney brothers are lawyers and attorneys for most of the liquor people," he replied. 

"Cinch," I said. 

"Open and shut," he replied; and continued: "The third party is headed by the present mayor, John F. Hurley. Hurley always has two thousand votes in his vest pocket; consequently, any time that three candidates are put up, John F. wins out."

"He has run before?" I asked. 

"Eleven times, and will run until 'Hell freezes over.'" 

"Why should the fact of 'Hell's freezing over' interfere with Salem?" I asked.

"I spoke politically," he replied, " and politically Salem is Hell. The fourth party is made up of the old aristocrats and the business men. They flit from Peterson to McSweeney and to Hurley as it appears expedient." 

"Why doesn't the News tell all this?" I inquired. Day laughed. 

"The News is all parties; it is hopelessly involved. Colonel Peterson is a friend of Mr. Damon; the McSweeneys are friends of the News reporters; and for respectability's sake the policy of the News is to be in with the aristocrats and business men."

Arthur was not discouraged; after all, he had hit bottom, how much further down could he fall?

"How would it be if I told all about the Colonel, the McSweeneys, John F. Hurley and the News? Would the people like it?" I asked.

"Like it! They'd eat it up. But have you got money enough?"

"How much would it take?" 

"Sixty thousand dollars, the News says."

"I haven't got any," I said. 

"How can you do it then?

"I don't know, but I'm going to try," I replied quietly, handing him another cigar and lighting one myself."

…."When do you start?


….He held out his hand. "You're the boy, Howard," he exclaimed. "But, gee! I can see your troubles coming faster than hailstones."       

"'Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,'" I quoted as I arose, took a paper along with me and left the room." 

We'll leave Arthur walking out of Day's shop, making his plans, and turn our attention for a moment to those ancestors of his. 

Hmm. Did "nerve" run in the Howard family? 

To be continued.

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society. Author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010), she is working on her second book of Salem history for 2012. She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are also co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new recordings of 19th-century music. Reach her at For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to

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