History of the building
The Salem Public Library was originally built as a home for Captain John Bertram and his family. In 1855, the Bertram family moved from their smaller house at 24 Winter Street and took up residence in their new High Style Italianate brick and brownstone mansion at 370 Essex Street. The household consisted of Captain Bertram; his third wife, Mary Ann Ropes, 44; Joseph, 20 an adopted son of his second wife; three daughters (by his first and second wives) Jenny, 18 (later to become the mother of Caroline O. Emmerton, founder of the House of Seven Gables); Clara, 16; Annie, 10 and an adopted daughter, Grace, 7. (Another daughter, Ellen Augusta, had died in 1848, aged 8). The residence was staffed by four Irish servants.
By 1855, Captain Bertram was a successful merchant and ship owner. Although he was considered one of the richest men in Massachusetts, he was not born with a “silver spoon in his mouth.” His is a “rags to riches” story. He was born February 11, 1796 in the Parish of St. Saviour, on the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. Since the Islands had originally been part of the Duchy of Normandy, the inhabitants spoke Norman French as their native language. The islands subsequently became self-governing while owing allegiance to the British Crown. His parents were both of middle class farming background. He was educated in primary schools and then attended and English Grammar School for one year. (Later in Salem, he attended Mr. Hacker’s School briefly, but achieved only the equivalent of an 8th Grade education. He read avidly, however, and became what we would call a “self-educated man”). His father, Jean Bertram, although a master carpenter, felt that prospects would be brighter for his family’s future in America. After careful planning, he, his wife Marie Perchard, their three sons, and three daughters (all under the age of 12) embarked from Jersey in July of 1807, in hopes of finding a better life “on the other side of the water”. Although destined for Baltimore, their leaking ship had to put in to Boston. Upon recommendation of a fellow Jerseyman, they decided to settle in Salem.
The Jefferson Embargo of 1807 and the war with Great Britain that followed, cut off American trade and brought an abrupt halt to Salem’s growing fortunes. It was a time of great economic depression. It was especially difficult for the Bertram Family. Although they had been comfortably situated in their native island, they found themselves poverty-stricken in their new country. John, aged 11, the oldest son, was the only member who could speak a few words of English. Father Jean, craftsman at home, could not find work in Salem and was advised to open a grocery store. This attempt failed, as, although his customers were many, they could only afford to buy on credit. With the proceeds from the sale of his wife’s Jersey property, he built a house and carpentry shop on Central Street, and took son John out of school to assist him. Even this did not sufficiently support his large family. (Another son was born in Salem, later to die tragically at the age of 3 by drowning under the South Bridge.) John had “no taste for the Mechanical Trade” as he put it, and determined to go to sea. He became a sailor and for many years his “take-home-pay” added substantially to the family’s income and helped to pay their debts.
His first voyage was as a “cabin boy” at 16 in December of 1812. During the following years, he ably filled every grade aboard ship and became a Master in 1824, thus gaining his lifetime title of “Captain”. His shrewd and lucrative investments in cargo and his achievements as a commander of vessels made it possible for him to retire from the sea in 1832, at 36. Throughout his lifetime he had a great talent for carefully estimating the probability of success or failure of a venture whether it be a particular cargo, a potential market, a different trade route or a new railroad line. He dared to take the “calculated risk”. “I made it a rule,” he said, “to go where nobody else went.” Once he had taken the leap he would “get the jump” on his competitors and come out way ahead.
Home from the sea, he commenced his brilliant new career as a merchant and shipowner, and eventually established his own shipping firm in Salem. He was principally engaged in the South American or “Para” trade for hides and rubber; the Zanzibar Trade for gum copal (a component of varnish), ivory, coffee, spices, hides and cloves, from Indian Ocean and East African ports; and the California (“Gold Rush”) Trade.
He had a long-standing interest in railroads, having been a stockholder in the Eastern Railroad Company in 1836, two years before its first passenger train ran from Boston to Salem. Twenty years later he became the founder and vice-president of the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad. In 1868, his Railroad forged a link Westard with the Union Pacific, two years ahead of his competitors.
At the end of his life, Captain Bertram was considered the richest man in Salem. The High price of his prosperity, however, was a life of self-denial (he was a teetotaler and non-smoker), self-discipline and hard work. His professional successes, however, were marred by personal tragedies. Untimely deaths claimed his three brothers, a sister, one daughter and an adopted daughter. His father died at 51, an alcoholic, and John, as the only surviving son, had to support his mother until she died 17 years later. His first two wives died in childbirth. His two sons died in infancy and even his adopted son died at 41, childless, leaving him with no male heir to perpetuate the Bertram name. The name only lived on in the Bertram School (now gone), Bertram Field in Salem and in the Town of Bertram in Iowa.
Having known poverty in his youth, Captain Bertram was very concerned for the “poor and needy” and used his wealth to serve them, by founding and supporting numerous charities that still exist in Salem today. In 1860, he was a founder and life-long supporter of the Old Ladies’ Home (now the Brookhouse) on Derby Street. In 1873, he proved the first gift of $25, 000 and a brick mansion on Charter Street to create Salem Hospital, which moved to its present building in 1917. In 1877, he founded the Bertram Home for Aged Men. In 1879, he donated the Bertram Fund to the City which provided an annual supply of fuel to the worthy poor as the Mayor and Aldermen should designate. In 1882, he presented a home for working women to the Women’s Friend Society. He was also a benefactor of the Children’s Friend Society and the Plummer Farm (Home) for Boys. He joined the Essex Lodge of Freemasons in 1827, the Salem Marine Society in 1829 and the Salem East India Marine Society in 1830. Although not interested in “public life”, he did his civic duty serving as a member of Salem’s Common Council 1837-8, and as a representative to the Massachusetts General Court in 1857 and 1863.
Captain Bertram was characterized as kind, generous and “most genial and companionable”. He was described as a “stout, square built man, of medium size.” He was considered “robust”, but in the last years of his life, his “Jersey stamina” deserted him. He suffered from a kidney infection that was the eventual cause of his death. Honored and beloved by the whole community, he died March 22, 1882, aged 86 years, at his home. He was buried in his mausoleum at Harmony Grove Cemetery. His widow purchased and moved into the Assembly House on Federal Street. In a letter dated December 1, 1887, his widow and daughters offered the Mansion on Essex Street to the City of Salem for use as a Public Library. The offer was accepted and the Salem Public Library opened its doors on July 8, 1889.
This brief life of Captain John Bertram was written by Selina F. Little, a Trustee of the Salem Public Library and great-great-granddaughter of John Bertram.
Reference Dept Information
Address and Phone:
370 Essex St
Salem, MA 01970
Parking and Transportation:
Street parking along Essex St between Boston and Beckford Streets.
MBTA bus stop “Essex St opp. Monroe St” is in front of the library, served by bus 450
- Conference Rooms
- Museum Passes
- The Salem News from 1880 – Present
- Boston Globe & New York Times on microfilm
- Microfilm readers & printers
- Newspapers & magazines
- WiFi (100+ Mbps download)
- The Salem Room (local history)