The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight
Tom Bowen's Church
|Marblehead's brawling, irreverent fishermen converged on their favorite grog shop shortly after their town was founded in 1629, shamelessly boasting that they were on their way to church ... to Tom Bowen's church!
This so-called church, run by a graceless scamp of uncertain origin, flourished from 1640 to 1673; then all mention of it disappears from the Colonial Records. In addition, the name of its genial, glad-handing proprietor no longer embellishes the archives of the Essex County Quarterly Court after that date. Nevertheless, Bowen's snug dramhouse gained such durable fame that its reputation has endured more than 300 years despite the fact that the structure survived only a generation. And today, Tom Bowen and his renowned tippling house are now legend.
Mention "Tom Bowen's church" today, and the few remaining patriarchs of Marblehead, steeped in the lore of the past, chuckle with glee. For them, such mention is an opportunity to retell the story of how the jerrybuilt little barroom won its incongruous and beguiling name. Nothing pleases these patriarchs more than to relate how, and why, the impious Marbleheaders of a bygone era humorously dubbed their popular drinking place a "church."
How did it acquire its name?
Well, the answer is simple ... and singularly appropriate. In the early days, half a century before Marblehead citizens belatedly erected a meetinghouse to serve the religious needs of their community, the town's devout worshipped in Salem. To attend church, Marbleheaders had to walk from their homes to a point of land several miles distant from the heart of town called Naugus Head.
There, they embarked on a small ferry that plied the waters separating the neighboring seaports. That is, the women did. Their decidedly less pious menfolk refused to escort them to the other side. Instead, they chose to turn aside and enter the cozy and convivial quarters nestled close to the landing place that had been built by Tom Bowen. There, within its dingy, smoke-mellowed walls, they whiled away the time while their wives attended services. Eventually, the hail of the ferryman signaling the return of their helpmates would bring their smoking, drinking and yarning to an abrupt end.
Needless to say, the straggling procession of women bedecked in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, making their weekly pilgrimage to Naugus Head, did not pass unnoticed. Especially when it was observed that their spouses' apparel was as ragged and unkempt as theirs was prim and proper. That the male members of this ill-assorted Sabbath Day cavalcade had no intention of attending church services was common knowledge.
The best, and indisputably the most pointed, was the crack that sprang full-blown from the lips of a shrewd and vinegary wit. The unidentified humorist, observing the rambling line of men and women threading its way towards Naugus Head, gave the place its name when he jeered:
"Look at 'em. There they are a-going to church ... to Tom Bowen's church!"
The name, so spontaneously bestowed upon the humble dive, instantly captured the fancy of all Marbleheaders. And succeeding generations, equally enamored by its stringent humor, seized every opportunity to keep the story alive. Within a century, the tale of Tom Bowen's church became another Marblehead legend. Oddly enough, however, those who relished the chance to recount the incident, and thus gave birth to the quip, invariably overlooked one important thing: they never mentioned Tom Bowen, the proprietor of that notorious taproom.
Due to their oversight, the reputation of Bowen's church survived the test of time, while regrettably, Bowen--the man who "ministered" to the parched barnacle-backs of Marblehead--remained an obscure, shadowy figure. The patriarchs readily remembered scores of lurid tales stemming from the barroom itself, but their memories faltered whenever questions were asked about its owner and bartender.
Even today, after long and painstaking research, the full and complete story of this legendary Marblehead character eludes historians. And aside from the fact that Bowen was born in 1623 (a prime bit of information dragged from him by a determined and inquisitive judge), Bowen's ancestry is still shrouded in mystery. He was briefly employed by John Devereaux, an early Marblehead settler and businessman who subsequently became a prominent town official; Devereaux presumably employed Bowen as a laborer or house servant before Bowen established his Naugus Head grogshop. Bowen achieved not only a fair degree of success, but survived and prospered for two full decades after he opened the doors of his "church," welcoming his fellow townsmen into its warm, comforting quarters.
But according to the age-old memoranda spread in Salem's public archives, there is evidence that Bowen's grogshop blossomed speedily into something more than a popular hangout for thirsty mariners -- that it became a rich spawning ground for many a knavish escapade. Such records indicate that Bowen, a friend and confidant of Marblehead's unpredictable fishermen, made the first of many a trek in 1642 that would eventually become commonplace for him. On this first journey, he traveled to Salem (county seat of Essex) to answer a summons demanding his presence in a court case, a case which involved one of Bowen's friends, who had been charged with the crime of being "distempered with drink." This earliest-known record of Bowen's brush with the law apparently had a salutary effect on the amiable tapster because his name does not appear on the books for two years.
Bowen was the defendant in the next recorded case, accused of having drunk too much wine. But Bowen was innocent of the charge (at least historically) because tippling in Marblehead in 1644 was so general that it was not considered a vice or a weakness of the flesh. However, the Quarterly Court judges ignored Marblehead's tolerant attitude towards those who imbibed too much, and assessed Bowen a stiff fine -- much to the Marbleheader's dismay.
Bowen, disgusted with the type of justice meted out in Salem, chose to assert himself in the only manner he knew how: from that day on, year-in and year-out, he decided not to abide by the court's stricter rules of conduct, and was constantly invited by the court constable to appear before the justices to answer for one misdemeanor or another. So regularly did he wend his way to Salem that it can be stated, without exaggeration, that Tom Bowen spent as much time before the bar of justice as he did behind the bar of his own grogshop for more than a generation! Interspersed, but not too frequently, were brief periods when for some unknown reasons Bowen chose to walk the straight and narrow path.
Nevertheless, as often the case when a man professes reformation, reactions were not those that would have been anticipated. And despite his moral rebirth, Bowen -- though sober, industrious and determined never again to fall from grace -- once again found himself enmeshed suddenly with the law. Time and time again, he hiked his way to Salem to confront his stern-faced opponents, the colonial magistrates.
What had he done?
Nothing! But inexplicably, several of his friends and comrades -- trapped no doubt by a perverse fate -- became entangled with the law. And under such circumstances, the wise authorities did not hesitate. They wisely summoned Bowen again to appear at the next session of the court, reasoning that if any man could enlighten them as to the way of the transgressors, Tom Bowen of Marblehead certainly could. If, by chance, a valuable item disappeared from its customary place, the judges promptly questioned the Naugus Head barkeeper. They also summoned Bowen whether it was for a morals charge, a breach of peace or a more reprehensible crime. They figured that Bowen could draw upon his deep and devious understanding of mankind, and that he could provide them with invaluable assistance. By resorting to such methods, the Salem court magistrates met during the mid-1600's, and with his assistance, dispensed swiftly and impartially their justice in a variety of cases from theft to adultery.
The day came when Tom decided that virtue, by and of itself, had its drawbacks -- mostly because it was practiced by the wrong people. Temperance, probity and regular habits when indulged in for months on end inevitably became a burden for him. And his days grew progressively longer, duller and drearier. There was only one way for Bowen to escape from such a monotonous existence, and that was to seek the solace and companionship of the bottle. Unfortunately for poor old Tom, his deviation from the path of virtue would prove costly. Again and again, he trudged dejectedly the winding road from Marblehead to Salem to confront the familiar faces of his perennial adversaries, the colonial judges.
Was the woman found drunk in his home intoxicated by liquor supplied by him? Or was Bowen a fellow tippler -- a warm-hearted, magnanimous and indulgent devotee of Bacchus? Regrettably, his involvement in the shameful peccadillo is forever lost in history because the judges failed to record their decision. A verdict delivered by the same court in 1644 is also lost. As in the previous instances, the charge in the latter case was right to the point: did or did not you, Thomas Bowen, sell spirituous liquor to the Indian that Timothy Robarts of said Marblehead found dead drunk in the middle of a town way?
It is not recorded whether or not Bowen confessed to being the culprit who committed that infamous deed. Nor do the archives disclose if any punishment was ever meted out to Bowen or any other individual for the debauching of that hapless redskin. As for the inebriated savage, he paid dearly for his fall from grace; he died within the fortnight from over- indulgence, aggravated by exposure and frostbite.
Fortunately, for the community and the county, the passage of years accomplished much more than the colonial magistrates of the Essex County Quarterly Court did. What they failed to achieve by withering tongue-lashings, stiff fines and severe penalties, time accomplished. With advancing age, Bowen became contrite, mended his errant ways, and assumed once more the stature of an honest and upright citizen.
Aside from one brief appearance in court, implying that he was implicated in the mysterious disappearance of a quantity of dried fish, he apparently became at one with the law. Waning appetites, diminishing ambitions and lowered physical powers clearly combined to make him a new man. But for Tom Bowen, reformation, repentance and contriteness came too late. His grogshop, "Tom Bowen's Church," closed its doors for unknown reasons, and Bowen died penniless.
However, Tom the genial publican, and Tom the wily witness, did not depart this world without leaving a mark to testify his passing. Once again, he was hailed into court just before his death. But in this final case his pleas were of no avail, and he was speedily judged guilty and quickly punished.
In a moment of folly, he had unwisely committed one of the most outrageous crimes known to the American colonists of the 1600's: he had sailed to Gloucester with a boatload of hay ... on the Lord's Day!