Joe's grave lies in a hollow of Marblehead's Old Burial Hill where the
winter snows drift deep, blanketing all but the carved eagle holding
the banner than reads "Victory Peace." In summer, the gravestone
of Marblehead's most famous black resident stands in stark relief against
the grass, its back scarred as if a streak of green lightning had struck
it one night when the spirits of the dead grew restless.
The town has several times honored this former slave, whose tavern still
stand on Gingerbread Hill beside the mill pond that bears his name.
After World War II, a group of citizen's privately erected the present
gravestone to honor Black
Black Joe's Pond off Gingerbread Hill in early June.
Joe's memory, and in 1973, Town Meeting named the wooded area on the far side of Black Joe's pond, the Joseph Brown Conservation Area. For the town's 350th birthday party, "Joe Frogger" jars were the unofficial symbol of the celebration, immortalizing the rum and gingerbread cookies
that bear his name.
Black Joe's presence hovers over Marblehead, but why?
Not because of his service in the Revolutionary War, for there where
many local black soldiers, like "Pomp" Deveraux, who marched
beside his master in Marblehead's militia, the Glover Regiment. So many
slaves were freed to join the army that by 1778, Massachusetts boasted
two negro companies which included several Marblehead blacks in their
ranks. Unfortunately, the details of Black Joe's military service, and
even the name of his regiment are lost to history.
Ownership of a tavern made Black Joe master of his own fate, able to
devote his later years to fiddling and spinning yarns, but that was
not unusual either. In the late 1800's Marblehead boasted many taverns,
yet most of them are no more than a name on yellowing newsprint today.
No, Black Joe's fame springs from the fact that he and his wife Lucretia
were "characters" in the finest Marblehead tradition, capable
of capturing the imagination of a town that prides itself on independence
and individual quirkiness. They were exceptional for their time, no
Black Joe's House, preserved for antiquity, as it
still stands today.
The stories about Black Joe and Lucretia's life together still have the power to amuse and delight. They also reveal the bias that has hidden away so many women's contribution to history. While Black Joe got a remarkable gravestone, Lucretia's resting place is unknown. The cookie was named after him even though she created the recipe and spent the better part of her life mixing the batter. Black Joe is a household word in Marblehead and yet, Aunty 'Crese, as Lucretia was called, has received no comparable public recognition.
It is hoped that this account will redress that imbalance.
Black Joe was the son of a black mother and native Gray Head Indian father. He was born in 1750, when nearly every Marblehead family of sufficient wealth owned several slaves. He was thirty before the new Massachusetts constitution gave free black men the right to vote and forbade slave owners to treat the children of slaves as property. He must have been gainfully employed for his name does not appear as one of the black "drifters" forced out of Marblehead in 1788, when they were regarded as such a drain on the town's charitable funds that Town Meeting ordered all former slaves to find work or leave.
Seven years later, when Black Joe was forty-five, he bought the northeast end of a house on Gingerbread Hill from William Peach, a relative of John Peach, Sr., on of Marblehead's founders. The "mansion-house," as the deed describes it, is small by contemporary standards. A colonial saltbox, it is thought to have been built by ship's carpenters in 1690. For two years, John and Lucretia Brown's hone consisted of a first floor parlor and a small "keepin room" where infants slept, a bedroom on the second floor, and half an attic. When the co-owner Joseph Seawood died, his widow Mary sold their portion to the Browns, including the small "borning room" where women delivered.
With all that space and an energetic wife 22 years her husband's junior,
who wouldn't open a tavern?
While Black Joe lived, his tavern was the liveliest spot in town, and the Barnegat section of town surrounding it, the roughest neighborhood. During "Election Week" in May, slaves were given their only legal holiday on Wednesday, and the schools closed so that all citizens could turn out to see the soldiers training.
Then Gingerbread Hill came alive with parents and children, and Aunty
'Crese did a brisk business in "Joe Froggers". The never-stale
cookies, named for her husband and the neighboring amphibians in the
pond, accompanied many a Marblehead fisherman on long sea voyages. "Sir
Switchels" were a big hit too, a thirst-quenching blend of water
and molasses, which a touch of vinegar to cut the sweetness.
Nights on Gingerbread Hill, however, were a different matter, earning the Barnegat area an unenviable reputation. According to Marblehead Historian Joseph Robinson, "a more uncouth assemblage of ruffians could not be found anywhere." It would not be surprising if the term "Down bucket!" originated here, that fearful Marblehead expression warning those below that the contents of the chamber pot where about to be flung out a bedroom window.
Undaunted by their ill repute, both white and black men gathered at the tavern after a long day of fishing, blacksmithing, boatbuilding, farming or shop keeping to spend the night dancing, drinking and gambling. About five percent of Marblehead's population were black and the two races mixed freely, crowding into the two downstairs rooms, each no bigger than 10 by 14 feet. Inexpensive clay pipes passed from hand to hand, the long stems shrinking as each man broke off the tip after taking a few puffs. Even the bitterest cold night was warmed by the wood fires, alcohol, and the body heat of active men dancing jigs and reels to Black Joe's fiddle accompaniment.
Aunty 'Crese kept a sharp eye on the girls who helped serve her homemade beer and rum, and the fish chowder from the kettle hanging over the fire. If any other women were present, they were probably even less respectable than the men. 'Headers with nicknames like Spanish Joe, Short Jacket, Eagle Beak, Horse Eye, Pie Mouth and Corkleg tossed pennies against the wall or matched coins, heads and tails, in the candlelight reflecting off pewter sconces.
Years later, Black Joe's Revolutionary War gun was discovered in the attic, another man's initials in the walnut butt. It was probably passed on to Black Joe from a soldier too wounded or dead to have further use of it. It is not unlikely that Black Joe kept his musket close at hand, hanging upside down from one of the rough-hewn beams to keep dust from clogging the firing mechanism. The French steel bayonet may have helped him bring the merrymaking to an end many a night. Drink and exasperation oftentimes combined to send handfuls of pennies into the pond, and in the general confusion, it was not unusual for a sore loser to follow his money into the water.
The tavern's gambling crowd was known to be ready to wager at the drop of a hat. One day, the story goes, patrons began to argue about whether a horse and carriage could make it down Gingerbread Lane, a small path that still traverses the hill directly across from the tavern's front door. A baker making deliveries took up the challenge and urged his horse down the steep embankment. The baker lived to collect his money, although reports insist his wagon was in splinters by the time it reached Beacon Street. Another version says the horse did not survive.
Widow Bowen, who ran a rival tavern on Gingerbread Hill, did her best to compete with such goings-on. "Ma'am Sociable," as she called herself, baked 'lection cakes with just as many raisins and currants as those of Aunty 'Crese, sold penny candy, brewed alcoholic beverages and encouraged penny-pitching contests. Highly competitive, she had a practice of waylaying visitors heading towards Black Joe's tavern, stopping them in the street, and inquiring, "Have you any pennies, my dear?"
Understandably, this was a source of friction between the two women.
There is no evidence that Aunty 'Crese ever retaliated, but Widow Bowen's
suspicions grew that Aunty 'Crese was stealing from her flock of geese
paddling about on Black Joe's pond. Her shrill accusations inspired
the neighborhood boys to invent one of the few practical jokes to make
the history books. The boys would crawl into Widow Bowen's bushes and
squawk noisily until the old woman came running out, convinced she had
caught Aunty 'Crese in the act.
Lucretia, the daughter of two slaves freed by Marblehead's Samuel Tucker,
Commodore of the Continental Navy, used to visit Burial Hill after her
husband died. A widow at 40, she would rise at daybreak to reach the
graveyard while the dew still glistened on the wild roses that clung
to the rocky ledges. She would gather rose petals and carry a bundle
back to the tavern where she placed them, liberally sprinkled with coarse
salt, in covered wooden buckets called "firkins."
hanging outside of the old Tavern.
All of Barnegat could tell the day Aunty 'Crese dumped the rose petals
into a great iron cauldron, sealed the cover with clay, and began distilling
essence of rose for her homemade perfume. As the fire blazed, rose vapor
dripped out a small tube, and if much told tales are to be believed, the
air for a half mile around was perfumed with the fragrance of roses. With
Joe gone, Lucretia took to baking delectable wedding cakes and slipping
a tiny vial of perfume into every order. Rumor has it that not a bride
married in Marblehead whose earlobes did not hint of the wild flowers
gathered from the hillsides and graveyards of Barnegat.
The path Aunt 'Crese followed to and from Burial Hill still exists. From Redd's Pond, it passes beyond Black Joe's grave until it bears sharply left at a sod-covered tomb marked CROCKER. Down two stone steps, it meanders left through the boulder-strewn woods until it reaches a dirt road which crosses Norman Street beside a gray clapboard house. Aunt 'Crese may have puffed a little ascending Gingerbread Hill and cast a baleful look at Widow Bowen's inn across the street, before passing through the door crowned with a carved pineapple and finding herself at home.
After more than seventy years in the Brown family, the tavern building
was sold in 1867 by the Brown's adopted daughter Lucy, by then Mrs. A.R.
Fontaine. It has been privately owned by the Barry family ever since,
but though more than one hundred years have passed, the spirits of Black
Joe and Aunt 'Crese have refused to budge.
Black Joe's fiddle still hangs in the parlor "dancing room,"
silent now after so many nights of singing out "Yankee Doodle,"
the one tune Black Joe played in different tempos to accompany the evening's
dances. The floor, now covered with dark pine, is said to have been broken
through in several places, worn out by dancing boots and the heavyfooted
stomping of men with too much rum under their belts. Over a second fireplace,
a Revolutionary War musket rests from its labors, its frizzen missing
and its steel bayonet forever sheathed.
Though Aunt 'Crese lives on in the pages of Anya Seton's novel, The
Heart and Eagle, there are no pictures, verbal or otherwise, of Black Joe. His passing marked the end of an era, for within three years of his death, a branch of the New England Anti-Slavery Society was organized locally. Before another dozen years had passed, Marblehead, its houses rich in secret tunnels and passageways, had become a major stopover on the Underground Railroad for runaway Southern slaves heading north to freedom.
Still, as long as frogs continue to hatch in Marblehead ponds and the aroma of gingerbread fills Marblehead kitchens, the lives of Black Joe and Aunty 'Crese will be as sweetly remembered as the taste of their warm Joe Frogger.
This article was prepared with the help of David F. Barry.