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Strong Women of The Gables: Susanna Ingersoll

by Robin Woodman, Trustee

Since Salem’s founding the city has produced a remarkable variety of women who have made history; famous and infamous. Over the past few years I have been very privileged to speak about the strong women who called The House of the Seven Gables home. There is an old Hollywood quip that is often touted when describing the difficulty of women’s roles, which is, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Except for the obvious differences, the same could be said about the Turner and Ingersoll women.

Susanna Ingersoll inherited the estate, including the House of the Seven Gables, in 1811 at age 26. This portrait shows Susanna at a young age. Date unknown.

Three hundred and fifty years ago in 1668, when twenty-four year old John Turner built this house, he had standing beside him his young wife Elizabeth Roberts Turner. When seven years later John left home to go fight Wampanoag Indians in the conflict known as King Phillips War, he left Elizabeth behind to protect the hearth and home as best she could. Under duress and constant fear of attacks and stress of losing her husband, Elizabeth safe-guarded the home, maintained the gardens and livestock, kept up with the chores, supervised the servants, and carefully watched over her four year old and two year old; all while she was four months pregnant. In 1704, when John Turner II was away from home with a group that had set out to capture a notorious pirate, his wife Mary Kitchen Turner, who along with all of the concerns and stresses Elizabeth had, was giving birth to their daughter. She and John had lost their first child less than a year before. No doubt that the Turner women were strong and courageous.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the property belonged to the very astute, business-minded, and successful Susanna Ingersoll (1785-1858,) the only woman to have been born and die in the mansion. Susanna lived through an extraordinary period of history. She was a witness to the birth of democracy, the women’s suffragette movement, the anti-slavery movement, as well as the polarization of the country as heated debates between free and slave-holding states hurled the nation toward the devastation of the American Civil War.

In 1804, Susanna’s mother inherited the property when her husband, Samuel, and son, Ebenezer, both died of yellow fever during a return voyage from the West Indies. Three other siblings had already perished when the mother, Susanna Hathorne Ingersoll, died in 1811.

Although vigorously contested by her uncle, John Hathorne, the courts awarded the property to Susanna who remarked to Rev. William Bentley after that harrowing ordeal that split the family that she was now “sick in her prison.”

Susanna was a formidable business woman who became incredibly wealthy during the early part of the nineteenth century. She was also a creative force for her second cousin Nathaniel Hawthorne who would visit her in the house from time to time.

Prison, or not, when war was declared in 1812, Susanna, 26 years old, was certainly alone in the sea-side mansion. This was an intense and very dangerous time and for the first time in her life Susanna would have to face these events on her own. Thankfully, Susanna’s mother had been a good steward of the inheritance money and shortly before her death had begun to purchase real estate. Alone and wealthy, and most likely able to see the British Naval ships that patrolled and blockaded the New England coast from her second story bedroom window, she had at her disposal the means to escape Salem. Many families who were able did flee inland away from the navy’s shelling of the coastal areas. Susanna did not. She chose to stay in her home. Although we can never really be sure why she did not leave, she actually began assisting others who did decide to leave. Susanna began buying many of the properties of families who fled the coast to safer inland towns. She also offered mortgages to help others who did not wish to sell but needed money to escape.

Was Susanna a shrewd business woman or a bleeding heart? The records indicate that during the war years Susanna purchased an unprecedented seventeen properties. From 1812 until the year before her death she bought and sold more than 62 properties making her the wealthiest land rich woman in New England in an era when women rarely entered the male dominated business world.

Whether she was shrewd or compassionate, and I tend to believe that she was both, Susanna Ingersoll clearly belongs in the annals of strong women of history.

Date: February 28, 2018

Author: sperling

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