Featured image: Painting of the Choate homestead by E. Choate Kane, courtesy of Joyce Patton
Choate Island was originally known as Hog Island. In the Records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it is recorded that keeping hogs on islands or in fenced enclosures during the planting season was the law from the 1630’s, and each town was responsible for implementing this – and so there are Hog Islands in Ipswich, in Rowley, and numerous other Hog Islands all along the coast. In fact, Rowley has a Hoggs Island just a mile from Great Neck.
Choate Island is located in the bay, a short distance from the mainland. It is now divided into three farms. Portions of it have at various times been in possession of different persons.
Jacob Bennett, grandson of John Perkins, 1st, owned several acres here, with a house, in which he and his family lived, which his heirs, in 1703-4, sold to Captain Thomas Choate, who had long been a resident of the island. This Bennett was a son of Henry, an ancestor of the late Captain Parker Burnham, whose mother’s maiden name was Hannah Bennett.
February 1, 1637/38 – Ipswich Town Records: Grant of an Island (Cross Island) to John Perkins Jr.
First mention of Hogg Island: “John Perkins Junior is possessed of an Island, having on the south side thereof the great River, commonly called Chebacco River, on the North an arm of the same River, running between the said Island and another Island, commonly called Hogg Island, bounded on the east by the great bay of Chebacco, and on the West, by a meeting of many creeks coming out of the marshes.”
March 26, 1640 – Ipswich Town Records: Hogs South of the River on Castle Neck and Hogg Island
First recorded contract: “Agreed with James Pitney and John Browne, the day and year above said, that they shall keep a herd of Swine, so many as shall be put before them, at Castle Neck and Hogg Island, from the 10th of April, until harvest be fully ended, and they are to carry them and bring them back to their several owners, …… and that they shall put them up in the pen every night, and they are to be there every night, except upon extraordinary occasions, and then but one of them to be absent.”
From the History of Essex County Vol II by Duane Hamilton Hurd, 1888
Captain Thomas Choate, it is generally understood, became finally the exclusive owner of the island, and from this circumstance it is said he was called Governor Choate.
In 1886 a road was constructed from the mainland to Hog Island by Captain Lamont G. Burnham for the proprietors Messrs. Marshall Choate and himself. The road across the marsh, about one half mile long, from Low’s to Dean’s Island was located and built a few years previously for his own use by Rufus Choate, who also built a small ferry boat upon which he could drive a horse and light carriage and by the use of ropes and pulleys could cross at any time of the tide .
A substantial plank road thirteen hundred feet long and about twelve or fifteen feet wide (was) built to take the place of the ferryboat. There are two bridges intersecting the plankroad one of three hundred and eighty feet the other of one hundred feet left open underneath for the current on each side of the great thatch bank. There are also spaces left between the piles which form the foundation of the road for the passage of hay boats and floating ice. All the lumber used about the bridge is hard pine excepting the piles which are of hemlock. The bridge and repairs upon the marsh road which had gone somewhat to decay cost between six and thousand dollars.
Change of Name to Choate Island
The proprietors of the three farms upon the island Rufus Choate, Nehemiah Choate, Marshall and Lamont G Burnham in October, 1887 changed the name to Choate Island and requested the Selectmen of Essex to so record it upon the town books. The former inelegant name will therefore become obsolete.
It is said that no less than eighty-two persons of the name of Choate have been born upon this island. The three present proprietors of the island are kinsmen: Captain LG Burnham being a descendant of George Giddings who was ancestor also of Mary Giddings, Choate wife of Captain William Choate and great-grandmother of Rufus now the resident owner of one of the three farms.”
John Choate was born in Groton, Boxford, Colchester, England and came to America in 1643 at the age of nineteen. By 1667 he and his wife had begun buying property, perhaps including a small farm on Hog Island (now known as Choate Island.)
The Choate house is dated as 1725 – 1740 and is part of the Crane property now owned by the Trustees of Reservations. The house was restored by Richard T. Crane Jr. and preservationist George Francis Dow. This late First Period house has a central chimney and paneled rooms. Choate Island and the house were the setting for the movie The Crucible.
Choate Island is the largest island in the Crane Wildlife Refuge and is the site of the Choate family homestead, the Proctor Barn, the White Cottage, and the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Crane. There are great views from the island summit of the Castle Neck dunes and Plum Island Mount Agamenticus in Maine.
Seven islands in the Essex River Estuary (Choate, Long, Dean, Dilly, Pine, Patterson, and Round island) and part of Castle Neck make up the bulk of the Crane Wildlife Refuge. Choate Island hosts grasslands, fields and a spruce forest, surrounded by the Great Marsh and Castle Neck River.
Although Choate Island is a part of Essex, access is along a gravel road that ends at the entrance to Crane Beach in Ipswich. It is possible to visit during the summer months by canoe or kayak. Gravel roads and mown foot trails lead from the island’s dock to the historic barn and continue past the past the Choate House to the Crane burial site at the top of Choate Island.
Rufus Choate, American lawyer, was born here on Hog Island as it was known then in 1799. He graduated from Dartmouth College and studied law at the Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the bar in September, 1823. Choate was sent to the House of Representatives in 1830. As a U.S. representative and senator, Choate worked for preservation of the Union. but Choate’s success later at the Boston bar made him famous.
The sleepwalking murder defense
In 1846 he convinced a jury that the accused, Albert Tirrell, did not cut the throat of his lover, or, if he did so, he did it while sleepwalking, under the ‘insanity of sleep,’ the first time in American legal history this defense was successful in a murder prosecution.
From the New England Historical Society we read: “Tirrell came from a respectable family in Weymouth, Mass. He was married with two children, but in 1845 he left his family for Maria Bickford, 21, a prostitute in a Boston brothel on Mount Vernon St. They lived together as man and wife, though she never abandoned her profession. Tirrell wasn’t happy about her choice not to retire. On Oct. 27, 1845, she was found murdered in her room, her throat slashed so savagely her head was nearly separated from her body. Tirrell fled to New Orleans. Ten days later he was arrested and brought to Boston for trial. The Boston newspapers sensationalized the trial, concluding Tirrell was guilty. Choate argued no one had witnessed the crime, and all the evidence was circumstantial. Further, he argued Tirrell had no motive to kill Mary Bickford, but if he did, he would have done it while sleepwalking. The jury took two hours to deliver a not guilty verdict on March 30, 1846.”
In 1859, Choate was suffering from Bright’s Disease and on the advice of his physician, he sailed to Europe with his son. His condition worsened during the voyage and, after landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he died on July 13. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston.