by David Moffat, Senior/Lead Tour Guide
One of the best historical sources left to inform us of the House of the Seven Gables’ past is the probate inventory of John Turner II. Prepared shortly after his death in 1742, the document details the valuable possessions he owned, both in the mansion and elsewhere. The document is mentioned on tour to illustrate just how wealthy John Turner II was. At 14 pages long, it’s significantly longer than the average probate inventory at the time. With an estate over £10,752, he was one of the wealthiest men in Essex County. Further analysis of the document illuminates several aspects of John Turner II’s wealth.
Of Turner’s business, it centered on four schooners (the Manchester, the John & Benjamin, the May Flower, and the Tryall) and the brigantine Adventure. Added with a two-masted sail boat and an 18-foot boat, his ships add up to almost a fifth of his wealth. Evidence of other ships, perhaps retired, is present. The rack and boat of the Abigail are listed, as is the hull of the brig Olive Branch. Among Turner’s wharf and warehouse space (3% of his estate), is a wharf at the Burying Ground and a wharf at the end of Turner Street.
The largest portion of his estate was land. Including the mansion house and its 0.92 acre plot, 39% of Turner’s estate consisted of land holdings. He had several lots in Salem as well as land at Castle Hill in Ipswich inherited from his father. Baker’s Island was also owned by John Turner II, at a value of £1,526. Common rights, or the right to the use of undivided public land, make up 4% of his estate. Turner held common rights in Salem (at the Sheep pasture and the cow pasture), Manchester, and New Salem.
The slaves, Lewis, Titus, and Rebeckah, are the focus of widening interpretation at the house. We know unfortunately little of their lives save what a few surviving references can tell us. Their assigned prices give us another clue, suggesting that Lewis, at £130, was worth more to Turner than Rebeckah (£95) or Titus (£85). Titus had at least been in John Turner II’s service for 14 years, since the record of his baptism in 1728.
Of goods in the House of the Seven Gables, Turner had 10 rooms outfitted. The three rooms with the lion’s share of his possessions were the Great Chamber, the Kitchen and Lean-to, and the Best Room. In total, six rooms in the house had beds outfitted with bedframes and bedding. The bed in the Great Chamber was so finely adorned it was worth £42. It included a set of camlet curtains and a set of flowered muslin curtains, which were likely for winter and summer respectively. The bed has long been identified as the most expensive part of the house, but in reality Turner had over £534.71 in silver plate. Of the other wonders in the house, there were 18 cane chairs worth £34, a cabinet worth £25, and 30 knives and forks.
By looking at his warehouses, it becomes clear that he traded in a wide variety of goods. There are textiles, ranging from silk to oznabriggs to kersey, foodstuffs including salt, Virginia pork, and fish (hake, haddock, cod), and alcoholic drinks like cider and wine, as well as a molasses house for distilling rum. Sails (likely made of canvas, linen, or hemp) made up a further 1% of his inventory. Other goods included metals, wood, limestone, and several minute and hour glasses.
There are several caveats to these studies. First, updating the values of the possessions depends on several factors and I am not yet confident with my work in that regard to publish it. Second, there are several mathematical errors in the text, such as values for items in a subcategory not matching the value given. For example, 3 saucers at 3 s. and a pink mug at 2 s. add up to 11 shillings or £0.55, but are marked on the probate as £5. Overall, the total of values presented adds up to £2,000 more than the given total for the estate.
Lastly, there are several words which are illegible or difficult to define. It’s hard not to be both impressed and intimidated with the multitude of John Turner’s II wealth, and hopefully after further examination I’ll be able to better present the totality of the document.