“Of all the rides since the birth of time, / Told in story or sung in rhyme, — / On Apuleius’s Golden Ass, / Or one-eyed Calender’s horse of brass, / Witch astride of a human back, / Islam’s prophet on Al-Borák, — / The strangest ride that ever was sped / Was Ireson’s, out from Marblehead! / Old Floyd Ireson, for his hard heart, / Tarred and feathered and carried in a cart / By the women of Marblehead!”
This is the opening stanza of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Skipper Ireson’s Ride.” Written in 1828, and revised and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Whittier’s poem details the tarring and feathering of Benjamin “Flood” Ireson in 1808. While this may sound like something out of a novel, Ireson was a real person.
Ireson was the captain of a schooner, which on the October 30, 1808 came across a sinking schooner called the Active. According to some, including Whittier, rather than try to save the crew of the Active, Ireson decided to leave them to their watery fate.
When he got back to Marblehead, where he lived at 19 Circle St., the story of his disregard for life and hard-heartedness spread around town. According to Samuel Roads Jr., the rescued captain of the Active recounted Ireson’s callousness and how he refused to help the sinking vessel “contrary to the principles of humanity.”
As the captain’s story spread, some townspeople became enraged – some so enraged that they decided to take action. Roads Jr. describes several men kidnapping Ireson one night and proceeding to tar and feather him. They intended on taking him to Salem, forcing him to walk part of the way through town before putting him in a cart for the rest of the ride. When he returned to his home, he is alleged to have said “I thank you for my ride, gentlemen, but you will live to regret it.”
However, in Whittier’s poem, women who lost their loved ones in the Active’s wreck plead for his release, taking pity on him. They are not the only sympathizers. Roads Jr., in his retelling of the incident, argues for Ireson’s innocence. He claims that Ireson was no more guilty of leaving the Active to sink than the rest of his crew. A 1952 poem by Charles Buxton Going titled “The True Story of Skipper Ireson” also sides with Ireson, imagining the crew convincing Ireson to leave behind the sinking ship.
Upon realizing the truth of the matter, Whittier, in a letter to Roads, stated, “I have now no doubt that thy version of Skipper Ireson is the correct one. My verse is solely founded on a fragment of rhyme, which I heard from one of my early schoolmates, a native of Marblehead.”
While the original verse may have painted Ireson out as a cold-blooded man and the apology is a mere footnote in history, may Ireson’s house at 19 Circle St. serve as a reminder to always look out for one another – and never pass by a sinking schooner.