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The Ingersoll Horror

Bu David Moffat

On May 1, 1775, less than two weeks after the colonial world was irrevocably changed at Lexington and Concord, two young people married in Salem. The bride, Mary Hodges, was 19, and the groom, Jonathan Ingersoll was 23. Both were the later children of Salem merchants — Nathaniel Ingersoll and Gamaliel Hodges — who predeceased their children’s marriage. Jonathan was a first cousin of Samuel Ingersoll, who owned The House of the Seven Gables after 1782.

Early into his marriage, Jonathan left to serve in the Revolution. In 1777, he was promoted to the second lieutenant of a company commanded by Daniel Hathorne that oversaw the fort at Salem, recruited soldiers, and handled prisoner exchanges.

During the later years of the Revolution, Jonathan provided bonds for privateers such as the Disdain, the Fox, and the Speedwell. In 1784, the merchant prince Elias Hasket Derby selected Jonathan to captain the famed ship, Grand Turk, on the first American calling at the Cape of Good Hope in what is today South Africa.

In 1778, Jonathan and Mary had their first child, Nathaniel. According to the 1790 census, the couple had six children, three sons, and three daughters. In that year, the family commissioned the famed Salem woodcarver Samuel McIntire to design an elegant Federal-style house at 188 Derby Street.

On January 24, 1791, Mary Ingersoll died at the age of 35. The Reverend William Bentley noted in his diary that she was “much respected.” Jonathan, grief-stricken, could not complete the house he had planned. On February 2, Bentley noted that Simon Forrester purchased “the elegant but unfinished house of Capt. Jonathan Ingersoll, fronting Derby Street” for about £700. Forrester, an immigrant from Ireland, was another wealthy privateer-turned-merchant and an uncle of Nathaniel Hawthorne by marriage.

Within a few months of Mary’s death, Jonathan Ingersoll undertook a voyage to the West Indies. He returned in June and was possessed with an irrepressible desire to see his deceased wife.

On June 2, 1791, Bentley recorded something shocking in his diary: “An awkward effect of superstition. A Capt. J. Ingersoll, bred in the superstition of the New Lights, upon his return from sea, desired to see his wife, who had been buried in a grave some time.” Throughout his diary, Rev. Bentley criticizes the “New Lights” — followers of what is often called the “New Divinity,” an offshoot of Congregationalism, which was gaining traction in some parts of New England in the late 1700s. Bentley identifies the followers of the New Divinity as superstitious several times in his writings.

Bentley’s account of Jonathan Ingersoll’s actions on that June night continued. “He went with his men to assist him in the night, & opened the grave & found the body already disfigured. The neighbors were alarmed by observing a light, & men digging, & finding in the morning the grave disturbed, entered a complaint in consequence of which legal search was made to discover whether any attempts had been made by practitioners in surgery, &c, & whether they had taken a subject from the burying ground.”

It appears that there was no legal ramification for Jonathan’s actions. He continued going to sea, owning and commanding ships such as Polly and Nancy.

In 1793, Ingersoll married Polly Pool. Around that time, he moved to Danvers, Massachusetts. In 1808, Ingersoll married for a third time to Sarah Blythe. Sometime before 1823, he moved to Windsor, Vermont, the largest town in the state and a growing center for trade and manufacturing.

Ingersoll died in 1840 and was buried in the Old South Cemetery in Windsor. In 1926, the genealogist Lillian Drake Avery wrote, “Capt. Ingersoll is remembered with great respect in Windsor. He was that rarity in men who have followed the sea as a man who neither used liquor or profanity. His house was a veritable treasure house of curiosities from the Indies.”

There is no mention in Avery’s short biographical sketch of that gruesome incident in the night in June 1791, when the bereaved captain would not let his love be hindered by the oblivion of an earthly grave.

Date: September 29, 2019

Author: Sarah Garriepy

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