Major Appleton and the Lady of the Oven
by Tom Sheehan
One of our historical signs in Saugus, Massachusetts, a mere dozen miles north of Boston, north of Old Ironsides berthed all these years at the Charlestown Navy Yard and not far at all from Bunker Hill Monument, this one at Appleton’s Pulpit, is inscribed: “In 1687 Major Appleton of Ipswich made a speech on this rock denouncing the tyranny of the Royal Governor, Sir Edmund Andros. A watch was stationed on the hill to give warning of any approach of the Crown officers. Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Committee 1630-1930", the bottom line noted as the source of inscription.
That sign, 87 years now mounted in the ground, cast of heavy iron, thick, in black letters on a grayed surface with a black border, seemingly resistant to the weather and theft so far, for a few of our historical signs have mysteriously disappeared over the years.
The headline of one local paper said, at one such incident, "History Disappears!" I think some twisted historical buff has one or more of them standing against the wall in his cellar hideout, might in celebration with a crooked elbow offer a nod to the old folks, probably a beer drinker waiting to tell his new story at a local bar, a bar of long standing, of course, though it may not bear a solid cast iron sign of notoriety.
A second sign, a plaque mounted directly to the rock higher up on the site, has an inscription that reads, "In September 1687, from this rock, Tradition asserts that, resisting the tyranny of Sir Edmond Andros, Major Samuel Appleton of Ipswich, spoke to the people in behalf of those principles which later were embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
That’s what the signs still say all these years after they were placed into the ground at the foot of the rock and on the rock itself; now and since that time the site has been called Appleton’s Pulpit. It is three minutes’ walk from my house (only its trees visible outside my rear window) right beside the First Iron Works in America, fully reconstructed starting in 1948 by Dr. Roland Wells Robbins, the archeologist who found the ruins of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. It is a site where Scottish prisoners were indentured, perhaps worked to the end of their days, but hewed a place of history from this wilderness.
From another window, my favorite chair stationed there for these 30 years of retirement, I can look down across the Iron Works site where I labored during summers of 1948-1950, and during college summer breaks after service in Korea, from 1952-1956, after which I worked outside history's fiery interest.
The Iron Works ran from 1636-1648 until newer operations were invented, at other sites along the Atlantic shoreline or inland on the continent, business booming near great lakes.
A heart of history lurks about this neighborhood between Appleton’s Pulpit and the site of the First Iron Works. There are days that some of us can hear that heart pumping yet. Constancy does it, and change, as we all know, we who oftentimes try to reprint history, make amends or excuses, see it as it was, what it is thought to be, what we might make of it in our moments of solitude as to where we've gone since we've been here in this singular place, the echoes alive, the possible moments also, the otherwise dictates in place.
But in truth there's not much that Roland Robbins, the archeologist, could more unearth at Appleton’s Pulpit if he were given such a chance.
The real story, for history's buffs, is not there.
The real story is just down the street a short way, a mere hundred or so yards to where Hull Drive runs off Appleton Street. and has only been around for little more than half a century. Historians say that Major Appleton fled from the pulpit when a lookout gave notice that a troop of Crown officers were cresting the hill just a half mile from what is now Cliftondale Square, and within 15 minutes could be at the pulpit site. They were spotted on the slope of current Central Street, then a part of a road that became, in short order, the Newburyport Turnpike, now the whole run designated as Route 1, north and south, starting at Fort Kent, Maine on the US-Canadian border, to its finish at Key West, Florida..
The major, upon alert from the lookout, scampered for safety, right in the area where I live on Central Street in a house that was built in 1742. Once it was known as The Oyster Inn on that early road. Little of the house interior reflects those days, but it has stirred to the constant sound of an old L. C. Smith Corona typewriter, now daily stirring in my 90th year to the triple dipple of a two fingered typist, with a thumb on a back-swing hitting the space bar on my fourth computer
That day of alarm and alert, the first thing rising in the major's mind was a lady just down the road. She had favored him lately with a bit of charm, as a beautiful maiden and he as a handsome young man tend to compromise affections. Her name was Olivia Harkness, living alone in a small house, with a beehive-shaped oven. The oven is like two that are built into my house, out of the eight fireplaces in this structure, probably holding the place together for its 275 years on the historical scene.
Olivia, as a few historians likely say, had a dubious reputation, and a few years later would possibly have been subject to a witch trial if local rumormongers had a say in the matter. As a matter of truth, to other historians of a different school, Major Appleton, English born, had heard some of the talk about Olivia but discounted it; she was a most beautiful woman and that beauty possibly surmounted or allayed any suspicions he might have had. How interesting and majestic it would be to find a note written by either of them, to line this report with romance atop rescue. For years I have sought such discovery; it would make for an excellent story to faithful readers.
But that knotty kernel remained in his mind as he scurried off the hill and fled down the path toward the old turnpike, and a sure way home to Ipswich where a suitable hiding place could be found. Doubts about that successful flight came when the major heard a warning bugle call. He looked for a quick place to hide; and there at the front of her small house was Olivia, motioning him with full-bore wiles to come to her door.
“Hurry,” Olivia must have said, motioning him inside, “The oven, it’s the best place to hide," and he slid into that beehive-style oven, larger than many he had seen in local houses (even my house has two large beehive ovens, though I'd hesitate fully to trust that entrance these days) But the knotty kernel of suspicion remained in his mind, refusing to accept the invitation.
He felt the nub of the kernel again, even as Olivia, we might think, added, “It’s really the sole place to hide from the Crown at this time. Be assured, my goodly man.”
And when she began to close the iron door of the oven behind him, a serious thought of survival came upon him. In quick response, even in tight quarters, the major slid the blade of his small knife into place where it could easily open the door from inside the oven.
Shortly there was a bang at the house door. Olivia said, “A moment, neighbor, I will be with you shortly. I am not fully clothed at the moment.”
Appleton, one might think, at that moment had a single image of Olivia at her best.
The voice outside yelled, “Open the door. This is a Crown officer in pursuit of a treasonous speaker, Major Appleton of Ipswich. Have you seen this man?”
Olivia’s softest voice came back. “This minute I am not properly disposed, Captain, but I will be with you in a short manner. Please be a patient man with me.”
She opened the door and Appleton heard her say, “Goodness, Captain, a Crown officer at my door and looking for a treasonous man, a man raising the rabble to discordant actions, I presume. Come, search my house, my handsome Captain. I am about to light a fire to bake some bread and beans with which you might fend off any hungers you have once I am finished my chores for the day.”
Appleton could see the coquettish moves taking place at the small house, the smile so recently sent his way, the invitation as well.
“Oh, no, Madam,” the officer said, “Not in this house. They have said that you are twined with the witches that emanate from Salem port. I tread no ground with them, Madam. I bid you goodbye, satisfied that the treasonous Appleton is not under your roof.”
In the oven, hearing the fire start in the fireplace, the bricks of the beehive oven still warm from some earlier bake, Major Appleton made sure his knife was still in place to guarantee his escape from the chamber, even as he heard Olivia throw on a few additional logs to the kindling now at a roar in her fireplace.
When she pushed hard at the oven door, and his knife blade was enough to curtail its shutting properly, he slammed back at the iron door with his hands and shoved it open.
Major Appleton, saved from one danger, slipped out of the oven to a second danger, as Olivia Harkness said, with all apologies, “Oh, my goodness, Major, I forgot that you were ensconced in my oven. Oh, woe is me.”
“Oh, woe would have been me,” Major Appleton said, as he looked into the fiery eyes of a witch and a mouth full of sharp teeth for which he would have been easy picking once he had been done to a turn.
To this day, there are no other signs or plaques attending to Major Appleton’s escape from Crown officers and the witch-like Olivia Harkness, though history says he did frequently serve as a judge and assistant on the Essex County Quarterly Courts in the Salem witch trials. From these two historical escapes he lived to the age of 70 years and died on May 15, 1696 and lies in the Old Burying Grounds in Ipswich, the site suitably marked, and him never quite done to a crispy turn.
He served as justice of the Quarterly and General Sessions Court. He was also a judge on the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Ipswich on April 16, 1692 for the trial of persons charged with witchcraft. All were acquitted.
Appleton died on May 15, 1696.
Bio note: Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-56) has published 30 books, has multiple works in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Literally Stories, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, etc. He has 32 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Latest book publications include Swan River Daisy by KY Stories, The Cowboys by Pocol Press, and Jehrico by Danse Macabre. Back Home in Saugus (a collection) is being considered, as is Elements & Accessories (poetry), and Valor's Commission ( a collection of war and post war tales reflecting the impact of PTSD). Beside the Broken Trail just accepted by Pocol Press, which will be the 8th book from them. He was 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas.