Seven Badass Women of Salem: With the Ferocity of Tigers
Updated: Apr 8
By Robin L. Woodman
…with the ferocity of tigers
…is how Susanna Ingersoll entered her maturity according to Reverend William Bentley, the prodigious chronicler of Salem history whose four-volume diary captures the daily life and times of Salem from 1784 – 1819.
First, a little bit of family history. After years of selling off lands, ships and household goods, John Turner, III, owner of what would eventually become known as The House of The Seven Gables, sold the Turner Street mansion to Captain Samuel Ingersoll for £550. Captain Ingersoll was a highly respected ship captain during the revolutionary war who became a very successful merchant.
Samuel and his wife Susanna Hathorne had five children; two who died as infants, two sons who both became ships Captains; one dying at sea, and Susanna. In 1804 Samuel and his 23-year-old son, Ebenezer, developed a fever while returning from the West Indies; Samuel died on June 15. Ebenezer remained alive until the ship reached Salem only to succumb on June 23, while the ship lay in quarantine in Salem Harbor.
Susanna and her mother lived in the mansion until 1811 when the mother died of consumption and Susanna inherited the estate solely—although not easily. Mrs. Ingersoll died intestate and soon after her mother’s death, Susanna was beset upon by her uncle who was determined to take control of the only home Susanna knew.
Dr. Bentley writes:
The death of Madam Susanna Ingersoll, a descendant from the Hollingsworth, English, & Tousel, deceased last Friday evening and she has left an only Brother John Hathorne. This morning I was with her only daughter who has been beset by the Col’s family with the ferocity of tigers. They insisted upon entrance into the house and apartments. The daughter had swooned upon the death of her mother and was very low. I took such charge as she desired me for which I expect their vengeance. No prohibition could keep them out of the house. We talk of savages. What are we without our Laws and penalties…
The following day Bentley continues the saga:
Funeral of Madam Ingersoll. The Col’s family insist upon keeping the house…I first hid the money & then the keys. So much for hungry expectants and for having the intended heirs debtors. It was a curious scene to me. The daughter sick, as she says, in her prison…
Eventually in 1813, the courts did name Susanna sole inheritor, however, in 1811 that was not assured.
Living to be 72 years old Susanna was witness to an extraordinary time: born in 1785, two years after the Revolutionary War ended, she died in 1858, two years before Lincoln was elected.
In June of 1812, shortly after her mother’s death, President Madison declared war on England. What might she have felt during this time as she spied British warships patrolling from her upstairs windows? Ships that bombarded Salem’s coastline regularly. For the first time Susanna was alone in her prison by the sea.
Throughout this conflict, Susanna showed signs of being either a shrewd businesswoman or a bleeding heart. The records indicate that during the war years, 1812-1815, as people throughout Salem fled inland, Susanna purchased seventeen properties. During her lifetime Susanna Ingersoll bought and sold more than 62 properties, making her one of the wealthiest land rich woman in New England.
Susanna began purchasing property in June of 1812, a lot just north of Salem Common. Interestingly, while she was purchasing houses in Salem, she was also mortgaging farms in Danvers and Middleton. She often remortgaged the same property. In 1812, she held the mortgage of a 58-acre farmland in Middleton belonging to John Fuller for $250.00 for one year. In August she extended the mortgage for $900.00 and again in April of 1816 for $2300.00. There is no discharge notice for this property indicating that eventually she became the owner of 58 acres of farmland in Middleton which included a “dwelling house, barn, and all the other buildings thereon; one half of a tract of peat meadow; as well as a Pew in the Middleton Meeting House.” Susanna continued to mortgage dozens of farm properties several times over, discharging few. Consequently, it is not surprising that in the 1840’s her property values exceeded $250,000.00. Most of her deeds are signed: Susanna Ingersoll, Singlewoman.
Many of Susanna’s purchases focused on land around Turner Street. Interestingly, a set of purchases seem to indicate that she was reconstructing the lot once owned by her famous ancestors, Mary and Phillip English. Susanna was twice connected to the witchcraft era through her mother’s side; most famously to Judge John Hathorne, as well as to the Tousel line through her great-great grandmother Mary English who was accused during that frightening time. This property was located on what is now known as English Street. In 1818 Susanna purchased half of the property of 4 English Street and one year later in Nov. of 1819 she purchased the remainder of the property as well as several other parcels of land along Essex Street heading out to Salem Neck—the Salem Willows.
Was Susanna mortgaging farms to help neighbors during the war of 1812 and unintentionally benefitting by forfeitures, was she purchasing for sentimental reasons or was she forecasting that the new mansions of Merchants Row, encircling Salem Common, would extend down Essex Street increasing her own property values? We may never know.
We do know that except for a period when she lived on her Danvers farm, she lived in her birth home her entire life. She furnished it with beautiful decorations, furniture, china, and exquisite cut glass. She honored her family and was concerned about the welfare of others. Susanna lived in an extraordinary time but for all the history that she witnessed and participated in she has left us with many more questions as to who this Singlewoman truly was.
Born and raised in her beloved hometown of Salem, MA, Robin L. Woodman has a long family connection to the Essex County area.
Arriving during the 1635 migration, the Woodman family were among the first settlers of Newbury, MA, eventually making their way to Salem.
Being fortunate to have a family steeped in, and encouraging the love of history, Robin received a B.S. from Leslie College and an M.A. from Harvard University.
She is the Massachusetts Historical Society’s 2017 Swenswerd Fellow, researching, writing and creating a curriculum for Witness to War, A Review of Personal Diaries and Journals of Salem’s Captured and Impressed During the War of 1812. Other writings include Secular or Sacred, Is the Museum Home to Art or Gods, A Distant Bell, The Story of Revere, the Rebels and the Redcoats, and Fallen Heroes, The Return of the Gallant Captain James Lawrence and Lt. Augustus Ludlow describing the triumphant return of their bodies to Salem by George Crowninshield, Jr.
Current projects include researching and lecturing on the women of The House of Seven Gables where she is currently a Trustee and chairs the Community Engagement Committee. She is a proud co-founder, and current President, of the Salem Historical Society.