The Colonel Jeremiah Lee House, Marblehead, Massachusetts


Marblehead was a comparatively insignificant port when Jeremiah Lee came to town. At once he made a place for himself among the humble fishermen and other seafaring men of the place. He was a member of the Board of Firewards in the town’s first fire de partment, and he served on important committees.

When, in 1768, he built a wonderful mansion that cost more than ten thousand pounds, the most wonderful house in Massachusetts at the time, his townsmen knew him well enough to understand that he was their good friend, even if he did have much more money than any of them.

The Lee Mansion was a hospitable home. The Colonel and his wife Martha entertained lavishly, not only the people of the town but famous men from abroad. In 1789 Washington was entertained in the house. But it was one of the glories of the mansion that the hum-blest mariner in the place was not slow to go there if he wished to have a chat with the bluff owner or if he desired to go to the quaint cupola from which it is possible to look far out to sea. To this outlook Colonel Lee himself often went, for his ships were sailing to Marblehead from all parts of the world, and he was as eager as any one to turn his eyes seaward.

The house is sixty-four feet by forty-six feet, and the walls are of brick, though they are covered with wooden clapboards two feet by one and a half feet. There are fifteen rooms, in addition to the great halls that make the house seem like a palace.

In these rooms the Colonel conferred with other patriots as to the welfare of Massachusetts and all the colonies. From the house he went out to the town meetings where the men gathered to talk over the Boston Port Bill and the Boston Tea Party and questions of Taxation without Representation.

He rejoiced to serve as a representative in the General Court and on the Committee of Safety and Supplies of the Province. He was chosen to represent the town in the Continental Congress, and when he was unable to go, Elbridge Gerry, who later became Vice-President of the United States, was sent in his place at the expense of the town.

On the night of April 18, 1775, in company with Elbridge Gerry and Azor Orin, who were members with him of the Committee of Safety and Supplies, he was attending a meeting at Weatherby’s Black Horse Tavern just outside of Cambridge. The meeting adjourned so late that the three men decided to spend the night at the tavern. The eight hundred British soldiers who were on their way that night to Lexington learned of the presence in Cambridge of the patriots. Some one rushed to the tavern and roused them from slumber. They did not even have time to put on their clothes, but ran at once from the house and hid themselves at some distance from the tavern. When the disappointed troops had gone on, the hunted men returned to their room.

Three weeks later Lee died as the result of the exposure. He has been called one of the earliest martyrs to the cause of the Colonies. Before he died he left directions that five thousand pounds should be given to the treasury of the provinces.

Mrs. Lee, who was Martha Swett of Marblehead, lived on in the mansion with those of her eight children who had not gone already to homes of their own. Under her guidance the hospitality for which the house had become noted was maintained.

Those who pass between the beautiful porch pillars and enter the chaste colonial doorway are amazed at the remarkable hallway and the stairs. The hall is fifteen feet wide and extends the length of the house. It is heavily wainscoted with mahogany. On the walls hangs remarkable panelled paper whose designs, depicting ancient architecture, are in keeping with the majestic proportions of the place. The stairway is so wide that four or five people can climb it abreast and the balustrade and the spindles are of exquisite workmanship.

The rear stairway is far more ornate than the best stairway in most houses, and the rooms are in keeping with the hall and the stairways.

The cupola is one of the most striking features of the house. Here six windows give a view that is worth going far to see.

When Mrs. Lee died, the property descended to her son. Judge Samuel Sewell was a later owner. But the day came when it was to be sold at auction. All Marblehead feared that the historic place would be destroyed. Fortunately the Marblehead Historical Society was able to raise the fifty-five hundred dollars needed to secure it.

Since July 9, 1909, the Society has owned the mansion. For six months of every year it is open to visitors who throng to see the choice collection of china, portraits, embroidery, and furniture that has been gathered together by the Society.