Colossal Victorian Divorce

America’s First Family in Disarray…

West Vs. West Divorce with America's first Millinaire FamilyMany of us living on the North Shore of Boston know of the mall called…The North Shore Mall. Some of us know the stories of the various graves that dot the property in the hedges before you walk into JC Penny’s and other locations or the  stories of the church that resides in the basement; very few know of the mansion that resided on this location and the nasty divorce that got the home pulled apart and reassembled in various places.

So lets back up a bit; who were the couple who built the mansion known as Oak Hill. Well Elizabeth Derby West was the daughter of Elias Hasket Derby who was America’s first millionaire and on some lists is described as the 10th wealthiest man in American history. Imagine that a millionaire who had more wealth than today’s billionaires? Inflation… Elizabeth married Nathaniel West, a man her father declared a scullion. Well in time Captain West won over his father-in-law and was confided in business decisions more often than not than his own children. So much so that the father willed to his son-in-law Derby Wharf which was the largest and most profitable in town. This little act led to  a no holds bar fist fight between Elias Hasket Derby Jr. and Elizabeth against her husband. later she would probably have such a fight with her brother after he inherited the family mansion on Derby Square which he soon squandered away.

In 1803 the scandal opened in court. Here is a few words from Rev. Bentley (diarist and friend of John Hancock):

Never could Johnson’s words better [be] applied, when a man marries a fortune it is not all he marries. The woman became all that is execrable in women from vanity, caprice, folly, & malignity…

He was an enterprising seaman with no uncommon advantages of education or nature, but his ambition led him to address the eldest daughter of the late E.H. Derby…The mother of Elizabeth was a Crowninshield and well known for vanity which she exposed to constant & deserved ridicule. E. possessed the rigid temper of her father, with all the weakness of her mother.”

and

“…after every quarrel with all her relatives she waged open war against her husband & this day, aided by the unfeeling perseverance of her malignant Br[other] Gen. E.H. D[erby] who has a private quarrel to avenge, she displayed in open court, to prove the incontinence of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann.

The mansion. It remained in Elizabeth’s hands during her life, but she was to die 10 years later. Then one of her daughters gave it to her father, against the wishes in the mother’s will… It was torn apart; a parlor is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, some rooms were on display at the Peabody Essex Museum a few years ago, a summer house is on the Glen Magna estate, and a portion is added to the Phillips House on Federal Street in Salem.  So Oak Hill remains no more, in its entirety, but you can visit the ghost of Captain West at the Salem Inn. Most of the time his spirit can be felt by his bottle of port which you are welcomed to share a glass with him. Plus if you are in the Christmas spirit…you can shop for many gifts at the North Shore Mall on the location of this once famous mansion.

To read more about how Salem shaped American history read Sub Rosa by Chris Dowgin published by Salem House Press.

www.salemhousepress.com

 

A Nasty Divorce. West Vs. West

West Vs. West Divorce with America's first Millinaire Family Nathaniel West was a master mariner who was in the employment of Elizabeth Derby’s father. Elizabeth fell in love with a social inferior. At 21 she eloped in the spring of 1783. Her father was unhappy, but eventually learned to love him more than Elizabeth will. He gave Nathaniel West more responsibility in this mercantile interests and made him one of his heirs. She blamed him when her father died in 1799 that she didn’t inherit the family mansion. She and Nathaniel did inherit a farm in Danvers called Oak Hill, which she set about renovating and expanding.

Their marital quarrels grew fiercer and more frequent. Her brothers also fought with him over family business issues. In 1800, Nathaniel West had a public fist to cuffs with Elias Hasket Derby Jr. and his sister Elizabeth on the docks of Salem. The year after Elias Hasket Derby Sr. died West inherited Derby Wharf, dispossessing his children of the property. In 1803 the couple separated. Divorce was rare in those days. Between 1692 and 1774 only 82 Massachusetts couples – one a year — were granted annulment, divorce or separation. Elizabeth waited for a change in the law that allowed for the wife to retain more property in cases of adultery.

The feud between the Derbys and Nathaniel West reached a nadir when Elizabeth brought prostitutes’ into court, wrote Bentley: “…after every quarrel with all her relatives she waged open war against her husband & this day, aided by the unfeeling perseverance of her malignant Br[other] Gen. E.H. D[erby] who has a private quarrel to avenge, she displayed in open court, to prove the incontinence of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann.” She submitted a statement by a woman claiming Nathaniel West fathered her two children. She procured a letter stating West made financial arrangements the child, but denied his name to. Nathaniel West produced evidence his wife offered local women money to claim he fathered their children. The court was unmoved. Since the judges dined with Elizabeth West’s brother after the evidence was presented, Bentley correctly assumed they would rule against the husband.

She was no saint either Rev. Bentley says of her, “Elizabeth was a Crowninshield and well known for vanity which she exposed to constant & deserved ridicule. E. possessed the rigid temper of her father, with all the weakness of her mother.” So sometimes there are two sides why someone seeks a friendlier bed.

After the divorce, not only did they get separated, so did their house. Many parts of which ended up being added to various homes throughout the surrounding towns. A parlor she designed for the farm house is now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After both her death and that of one of their daughters, West inherited a third of the estate and promptly removed his inheritance to Salem, creating a “spite house” of sorts. He erected (or assembled) in 1821 a mansion on Chestnut Street from that third. Then he added additional rooms to create a new (late) Federal mansion.

Mrs. West had wanted the Captain to have nothing to do with Oak Hill, but after living in his boarding house where the Salem Inn now stands on Summer Street in Salem he got the best of her in death. Now he haunts his old boarding house. My friends’ dog hates going past his portrait in his parlor of the Salem Inn. He digs his feet in before the painting and when dragged past he runs up the stairs and away. If you go to his parlor, have a drink of port and toast him. There is always a decanter waiting for you.

By the way, that wharf West fought the Derby’s on, I assume he won the battle or at least the wharf in the end. He will leave Derby Wharf in his will to the Salem Marine Society. The will was contested, but in the end the Society profited $12,500 from it.

bottomFor more tales like this about how Salem MA has shaped American History read Sub Rosa by Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin available at Barnes & Nobel, Amazon.com, and your favorite local independent book seller.
Ask for it by name!