I recently went to Massachusetts for a conference, and with a couple of friends, spent the three days prior to the conference traveling all over New England looking at cemeteries and historical sites. Our first day in MA was a trip to Gloucester, the town from where my husband’s fishermen ancestors sailed the seas.
As you can see, the day was wet, rainy, and miserable. But that didn’t stop us, we only had one day to see it all! Our first stop was the coast. There are two memorials to fishermen and their wives and children, and though I got completely soaked, I checked them both out!
Gloucester coast near the memorials
Fishermen’s Wives Memorial
The monument to the Fishermen’s Wives was secondary to the memorial to the men, but it had been in the works since the 1930s. Since I went there first, I’ll discuss it first. According to the North Shore Community College website, the memorial went through various iterations that included themes of melancholy, sadness, and waiting, before the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association settled on the monument that now stands on the Stacy Boulevard Esplanade. The inscription, “The wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of Gloucester fishermen honor the wives and families of fishermen and mariners everywhere for their faith, diligence, and fortitude,” evokes a sense of the strength and dignity held by widows of men who toil at one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Ground beneath the monument with stones dedicated to women and children and fishermen
Inscription for the memorial
Nearby is the first memorial, the one to the fishermen and mariners of Gloucester. “The Man at the Wheel” was erected in 1923 as a memorial to the over 10,000 men lost at sea. It was also made famous as the idea behind the Gorton’s fisherman, for those of you who eat frozen fish sticks! This was particularly important for me to see, as my husband comes from a long line of fishermen and farmers in New England. Near the monument is a list of the names over 10,000 men lost at sea between 1623-1923, listed alphabetically by year.
The names of over 10,000 mariners lost at sea from 1623-1923
One of those 10,000 men lost at sea was David Merry. David, his brothers James and Jonathan, and their father Hiram were all fishermen from Edgecomb, Maine who sailed from Gloucester to Nova Scotia to make ends meet. On April 1, 1859, David and Jonathan left the harbor en route to Nova Scotia for another day’s work. Family lore states that sometime during the day, their schooners passed each other and the brothers were able to wave hello to one another. That evening, a gale came up suddenly, and the Grace T. Powers was lost to the depths of the sea, taking with her David Merry and his 7 shipmates. Also lost that day was the Charles E. Grover, with 9 men aboard. (per the Gloucester records, from the Sawyer Free Library, linking to Down to Sea in Ships)
David Murray aka David Merry 1859. Fishermen’s Memorial, Gloucester, MA
David, at the age of 24, left behind a widow and one son (potentially two, but I have still not proven the second son). His brother Jonathan, so distraught over this loss, left the fishing industry to become a farmer in the town of Sherman, Maine. He and his wife Emeline, who was the sister of David’s wife Sarah, raised David’s son Brainard as their own and Brainard’s descendants still live in the family farmhouse in Sherman today.
Meanwhile, David and Jonathan’s brother James had his own adventures, and I visited the area of Gloucester where his story takes place.
Entrance where you turn to get to Dogtown Commons
Dogtown Commons was many things over time. In 1641, it was a settlement for early American colonists that was safer than living right on the coast, with the threat of pirates and native american attacks. Eventually, the coast was more habitable and people left. After the Revolutionary War, elderly widows of the soldiers settled here and brought dogs to keep them company. The wild dogs that run free in the Commons today are rumored to be descended from them. Some say that is where Dogtown gets its name. Others claim the name comes from another iteration of the area, when it became a wild and ruthless wilderness with only the hardcore willing to call the area home. Dog can be used to refer to loafers, inferiors, or other undesirables. Today it is a beautiful green area perfect for hiking, biking, walking and running. Google it and you’ll find scores of ghost stories, poems, songs, videos and books written about it. You can also read my travel companion’s article about our trip the area here.
Welcome to Historic Dogtown
Dogtown is mostly known for the decorative boulders that indicate old homesteads or interesting stories, most are carved with numbers or have a nearby plaque with information. They generally refer you back to the City of Gloucester page, located here.
Under the trees, the smallish boulders are what is left of a cellar from an old 17th century house
Some areas are marked with carved numbers that correspond to a story of that space, like this one. Kind of like an early QR code.
During the Depression, Roger Babson commissioned artists to carve inspirational messages on boulders in Dogtown. You can read about their history and see a map of the area that Babson drew here. It was these that drew me to the area.
James Merry, brother to David and Jonathan, was also a fisherman like his brothers. There are about as many stories about James as there are about the origins of the name of Dogtown. The most romanticized story about James is that he spent a lot of time in Madrid, running with the bulls. When he came back and settled in Gloucester, he boasted so often to friends that he was the best bullfighter ever, that he had to raise his own bull and stage a bullfight to prove his prowess. Unfortunately, the bull won, and James was dashed against a boulder to the shock and horror of his friends.
However, the newspapers of the time tell a less glamorous story. The Boston Post from 19 September 1892 says:
Gloucester, Sept. 18.– Today, while Isaac Day and Henry and Chester Norwood were walking along Dogtown Common road, a desolate place, they saw a bull with blood on his horns, and a short distance from him they found the dead body of James Merry lying between two rocks. A large wound was found in the abdomen of the dead man, and it is supposed that it was made by the bull, which is a vicious animal. Merry resided in this city, and had a wife and family. He left home this forenoon to pick barberries, and it is thought he was attacked by the bull and gored. The animal belongs to Patrick Nugent.
The Babson boulder commemorating the site of the goring goes along with the more romantic story,however, and bears an uplifting and inspirational “Never Try, Never Win” message.
Babson boulder near the site where James Merry was found
These are supposedly the actual boulders that Merry was dashed against and died on:
Scratched on the boulder are the words First Attacked
Jas Merry, Died Sept 18, 1892 – the red paint indicating this was where his bloodied body was found
Nearby is a clearing believed to be where the bull was pastured:
James is buried in the local cemetery Cherry Hill, and we scoured the whole cemetery but did not find any marker for him. Likely it was unmarked, as the cemetery history indicates the earliest burials were unmarked. We did use a dousing rod that seemed to think one particular area was where he may be buried, and it’s near the entrance so entirely plausible.
Though James may not have been a 60 year old bullfighter, he sure left a great story to be passed on to many Merry generations!