Built around 1727, the Crowninshield-Bentley House was constructed for fish merchant and ship captain John Crowninshield. Four generations of Crowninshields lived here until 1832.
But it is Rev. William Bentley (1759-1819), who boarded here from 1791-1819, who makes this place special, too. The minister of the Second Congregational Church, Bentley’s philosophy focused more on good works than inflexible dogma, and his warm personality made him endearing to parishioners.
Bentley led by example, using half of his annual salary to help the less fortunate. A staunch advocate for education, he also fought for public schools for all, and supported a school for Salem’s Black children as well.
A member of the town school committee and a popular substitute teacher, Bentley was a Harvard graduate who spoke 21 languages (!), seven of then fluently. He was called upon to translate documents for the United States Government on more than one occasion.
In addition, Bentley was a huge bookworm, and owned one of the largest personal libraries in America with some 4,000 books to his name.
But wait, there’s more for this astounding man with seemingly boundless energy: He wrote for the local newspaper, traveled extensively, belonged to numerous clubs, founded the East Indian Marine Society in 1799 and regularly swam in the harbor.
Sadly, he died suddenly at the age of 60.
“The man who numbered among his Friends John Adams and James Madison and, who once refused President Jefferson’s offer to head the proposed University of Virginia, left behind nearly three dozen volumes containing church and town records and his own thoughts on such diverse topics as literature, ornithology and religion, mathematics, scriptures and languages,” according to a page on the Salem, Massachusetts city guide, from which we got most of this information on Bentley. “Eleven volumes were devoted to his personal diary, which was later published in abridged form and which provides us with the most complete and lively look at life in Salem during its Great East India Trade Era.
Today, Bentley’s books, papers and artifacts enrich the collections of Tufts and Harvard Universities, tiny Allegheny College in Western Pennsylvania, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.”
The house was moved one block to the campus of the Peabody Essex Museum in 1959. It is open for public tours, but things everywhere are wonky because of Covid; please see the PEM website for details.