What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“An ELEGY on the affecting Tragedy at Salem.”
Three days after Ezekiel Russell first advertised a broadside “Decorated with the Figure of Ten Coffins” that gave the “Particulars of the late melancholy and shocking TRAGEDY,” the drowning of three men and seven women, “which lately happened at SALEM, near Boston, the 17th of June 1773,” in the Boston Evening-Post, he ran a similar advertisement in the Massachusetts Spy. That new advertisement, repeated in the next issue, included all of the copy from the Boston Evening-Post with the addition of a note about a related item, “An ELEGY on the affecting Tragedy at Salem … By a friend to the deceased.” These broadsides memorialized the deaths of ten colonizers, including five pregnant women, but they also commodified the tragedy in the form of a keepsake that Russell recommended as “very proper to be posted up in every house in New-England.” To that end, he offered a similar deal for both broadsides to peddlers who purchased copies to sell near and far. For the first broadside, the Particulars, Russell noted that “Great allowance is made to travelling Traders, who buy them by the Groce.” For the other, the Elegy, he offered “an allowance to travelling traders.”
The broadsides each featured an image of ten coffins, each with the initials of one of the drowning victims, and thick mourning borders, but otherwise their contents differed. In advertising them together, Russell suggested that customers might wish to acquire both as a means of memorializing “the most sorrowful event of the kind, that has happened in America since its first discovery.” In addition, the broadsides expanded on the coverage that already appeared in newspapers published in Salem and Boston. The Particulars included the report that first appeared in the Essex Gazette on June 22 as well as an introduction that reiterated the description in the advertisement first published in the Boston Evening-Post on July 12. The “Names of the Deceased” appeared in the center, surrounded by mourning borders. A short poem, “The Salem TRAGEDY. Being a Relation of the drowning of Ten Persons, who were taking their Pleasure on the Water,” appeared below the newspaper account. It consisted of five stanzas of four line each. In addition to the ten coffins, an image depicted a strong gust of wind, so strong that it was visible, and a boat foundering in the water. Mourning borders also surrounded that image.
The Elegy included a shorter introduction that gave the names of the victims and indicated their relationships to each other above a poem, fifteen stanzas in two columns with a double mourning border between them, and a remembrance attributed to “A FRIEND TO THE DECEASED.” That anonymous friend stated, “Surely no one can fully express the horror and anguish of mind these People’s friends at MARBLEHEAD must suffer … resulting from this amazing catastrophe, and which must form such a shocking scene, that it can better be imagined than expressed.” Yet neither that “FRIEND” nor Russell left the “Tragedy at Salem” to the imagination of consumers. The “FRIEND” encouraged others to “make a right improvement” in the wake of “such an awful warning as this from GOD.” Russell may have shared that perspective. Whatever his views in that regard, he certainly leveraged current events in marketing a relic to consumers, playing on their emotions and curiosity about the extraordinary tragedy.