Article by Helen Breen
Before the advent of the modern transportation, affluent city dwellers often built their summer residences within a few miles of home. Such was the case when shipping magnate Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), “the richest man in Salem,” chose Glen Magna in Danvers as his county seat during the War of 1812. Over time he and his progeny enlarged the property to some 330 acres with architectural enhancements and fabulous gardens which the family enjoyed for 144 years.
JOSEPH PEABODY, the PATRIARCH
The background of Joseph Peabody was inauspicious. He was born on a farm in Middleton, Massachusetts in 1757, the great-great grandson of Francis Peabody (1614-1697) who arrived from England on the ship “Planter” in 1635. Francis had fourteen children, including five sons each of whom had large families. By the fourth generation Joseph, himself the ninth of twelve children, was one of scores with that surname. His third cousin George Peabody (1795-1869) was the international banker and philanthropist for whom the city of Peabody is named. However, these men never knew each other, so scattered had the Peabody relatives become.
The life of young Joseph was difficult. At the age of eight, he was sent to the farm of his sister in Boxford. In winter he worked as an itinerant cobbler. When he was twenty, young Peabody went to sea on the privateer “Bunker Hill” owned by Elias Haskett Derby of Salem. Later he sailed with the Cabots of Beverly. The ambitious Peabody soon realized that his lack of education was limiting his success. Consequently, he spent a year with Reverend Elias Smith (Harvard, 1753) of Middleton who tutored him in reading, writing, and the art of polite conversation.
The minister and his charge must have also discussed loftier matters. Among the many maxims that the introspective Joseph recorded at the time were:
“Never offer advice, but where there is some possibility of it being followed.”
“Make your company a rarity, and people will value it. Men despise what they can easily have.”
Joseph’s connection with the Smith family of Middleton was soon solidified. In 1791 he married Katherine Smith, the minister’s eldest daughter. This happy union was brief because the bride succumbed after two years to consumption. In what became a Brahmin tradition, the widower married her sister Elizabeth Smith a few years later. A vigorous type, the second Mrs. Peabody, who was the mother of seven children, lived to be eighty-six.
Joseph Peabody returned to Salem with a plan for the future. After many successful privateering ventures, he became part owner with the Gardner brothers of the 132 brigantine “Three Friends” in 1790. His many adventures during these years, including landing on a prison ship and a serious bout with smallpox, were later recorded by his son George to become part of the family narrative. Through the years, Peabody’s involvement in Salem shipping continued to grow as did his fortune.
By 1793 Peabody began to conduct his labyrinthine maritime interests from shore. Records show that he was deeply involved in the Sumatra pepper trade which flourished in Salem in the early 19th century. Joseph Peabody and his sons built beautiful homes on Essex and Chestnut Streets in Salem where they lived in quiet luxury. Meanwhile, the family retreated to nearby Glen Magna in Danvers for the summer months.
The ubiquitous diarist Dr. Bentley observed during President James Munroe’s visit to the city in 1817 : “This day the President waited upon Joseph Peabody, Esq., merchant of Salem, and the wealthiest man now living in it.” Clearly, the Peabodys had arrived.
Joseph Peabody died in 1844 at the age of eighty-seven. Several fond memoirs were composed by his offspring. Years later, however, while running for Congress, Augustus Peabody Gardner (1865-1918) was greeted by the oldest inhabitant of Essex County:
“Be you Augustus Peabody Gardner?”
“Be you the grandson of Joseph Peabody of Salem?”
“No, sir. I am his great-grandson.”
“Be you as mean as he was?”
Intermarriage between kin, including first cousins, was common in the Peabody clan. Often two brothers would marry two sisters, as the two sons of Joseph Peabody married two Endicott sisters. Curiously, the minister who performed these nuptials, the Reverend John Brazer, also accompanied the newlyweds on their honeymoon, along with an assortment of other relatives.
The alliances created through these marriages of the Peabody heirs were formidable. Several Peabodys married into the Loring family of Plymouth whose social position on the South Shore was akin to that of the Peabodys in Essex County. Affiliation with Harvard College was the most common bond in the lives of male Peabody descendants. Of 56 men in four generations who could have attended, 44 actually held Harvard degrees. Careers in law, investments, education, and the clergy (many through the Lawrence alignment) followed.
For example, Endicott Peabody founded the elite Groton School in 1884, modeled after the British “public” school. The acreage for the institution was donated by his Lawrence in-laws. Another heir, Clara Endicott Sears, created Fruitlands Museums in Harvard, Massachusetts. Perhaps the most ostentatious display of wealth was provided by Peabody’s grandson John Lowell Gardner whose flamboyant wife often shocked polite Boston society. Nevertheless, he underwrote her creation of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum on the Fenway in Boston which continues to be enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.
GLEN MAGNA FARM
Joseph Peabody had initially purchased the 20 acre property in nearby Danvers as a refuge for his family against possible invasion of the coast by the British during the War of 1812. Described as “in every respect well calculated for a gentleman’s seat,” the estate was enlarged and improved by future generations of Peabodys, along with their heirs and assigns.
William Crowninshield Endicott (1826-1900), who served as Secretary of War during the Grover Cleveland administration, married Ellen Peabody, granddaughter of Joseph Peabody in 1859. After William’s retirement from professional life, the couple removed from Salem to an elegant townhouse at 163 Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. Meanwhile, they continue to summer at Glen Magna. The firm of Little, Brown, and Moore was engaged in the 1890s to renovate the mansion to its original “classic colonial revival form.”
A series of “new gardens and landscape features were installed” under the direction of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) who had married William’s daughter Mary Crowninshield Endicott. Chamberlain (father to Neville Chamberlain by a previous marriage) owned Highbury, his ancestral domain in the British Midlands known for its rockery, shrubbery garden, and famous orchid collection.
Ellen Endicott, who survived her husband by many years, continued to invest in improvements to the estate . Just before her death in 1926, Mrs. Endicott was awarded for Hunnewell Gold Medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for her “skill and good judgment as applied to the embellishment of a country residence.”
William and Ellen’s son, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., inherited Glen Magna and continued to improve the property until his death in 1936. The latter and his wife “Lulu” (nee Thoron), being childless, gradually became the recipients of family treasures and were charged with maintaining the extensive Peabody genealogy. This task proved overwhelming for William whose friend, the historian Walter Muir Whitehill (his wife was also a Peabody descendant), finally completed the task in 1962 with Captain Joseph Peabody, East India Merchant of Salem (1757-1844). The work contains over 602 entries to which the indefatigable Whitehill said “Amen!”
In 1963, the Danvers Historical Society purchased the house and eleven acres of surrounding gardens which they painstakingly restored to their early 20th century condition. This venue is now particularly popular for weddings and corporate events. The property is adjacent to the 165 acre Endicott Park, formerly the Glen Magna Farm. Now a delightful recreational area, the land was purchased by the town of Danvers for $330,000 in 1961.
Thanks to the foresight of good people of Danvers, the public can enjoy a glimpse of the bygone family lifestyle of Joseph Peabody – “the richest man in Salem.”