They Swear Like Pirates!

This was the title of an article I found in the Boston Herald for September 19, 1893. Not only did it make the Boston Papers, excerpts were reprinted in newspapers in Ohio, Illinois, Idaho and California. Word traveled fast about our little town and their bad language. This was not to be the subject of this blog but as usual when researching something else I got led down another path and had to investigate.

Marblehead has many claims to fame, “Birthplace of the American Navy”, “Yachting Capitol of the World” and in 1893 it was known as the “Profanity Center of the World”, an honor we did share with Gloucester, MA. Most of us are familiar with the common Marblehead expressions, “Whip”, “Down Bucket”, “Up for Air”, and others, but profanity! I know it was never allowed in my house when I was growing up. I can still taste that bar of Palmolive soap in my mouth. I always thought “Whip” and “Down Bucket” were swear words but I guess not, as I could say them and not get into trouble. “Shittin Hill” was also allowed to be talked about at home, as it was a  landmark in town, so I guess in that context it was not profanity. (For those of you unfamiliar with this area of town, it is the hill coming down from Abbot Hall towards the Boston Yacht Club. The corner of the house that was cut off, supposedly for Lafayette’s carriage to make the turn; it was actually removed so the “slop” from the hill could find its way to the harbor. Or so the legend goes.)

According to the article there was a crusade going on in town in 1893 against the vice of profane swearing, which even the inhabitants of the town acknowledged with sorrow, was indulged in to an alarming extent by men, boys and even some women and girls. A prominent townsman gave a talk at the YMCA and took the young people to task for indulging in blasphemous expressions and suggested that they purge themselves of this bad habit. Discussions went on for months and the “Marblehead Anti-Swearing League” complete with a constitution and bylaws was created and signed by many charter members. It was agreed that each member should work to reform some confirmed swearer, just the same as the temperance people got to reform a man who had taken to tippling. According to the bylaws there was to be no swearing on the streets at the end of a year.

So where did this swearing habit originate. In 1894, James J. H. Gregory commented about profanity in town, saying “profanity was shockingly common in town. I know of no place where I have ever heard so much of it as in this town. It is a relic of the rude old age which had been passed down to Marblehead people.”   One gentleman who was staying at a local hotel in 1893 was interviewed by the writer of the original article and here is his story:

            “I am not a native here and when I came here three years ago I was pained beyond endurance by the profane expressions dropped in conversation. I’ve heard a crowd of boys playing in the streets talk like a crowd of Bowery gamins. The girls too, are not free from it. Everybody here though takes it for a harmless eccentricity for the users of the profane words do not attach any significance to the words they utter. It is purely mechanical, that is all.”

A local at the town wharf was also interviewed and here are his thoughts on the subject.

   Reporter: “What is the story about a crusade against swearing in Marblehead?”

Local: “I’ll be _______if I know, it may be needed though. Seems to me, come to think of it I have heard one or two ________cranks talking about it.

Reporter: “Is there much swearing here?”

Local: ‘Oh ______yes, I suppose, but Gloucester can beat us hands down. It has become such an everyday habit, that it seems to make but very little difference what people swear about. One cannot walk along the sidewalks at night without being shocked if he is at all impressionable. It may be that the uses of profane words put them in more because they have an imperfect knowledge of English and wish to fill up a break in their talk. In my own case, I frequently drop a swear word just as naturally as I breathe and just an involuntarily. A good many boys acquire the habit because they think the words sound big and brave.”

So what was the result of this crusade? As the one year anniversary approached of the Marblehead Anti Swearing League one of the members declared that the anniversary could be celebrated as a failure. There was no reform at all, the swearing continued. Just another one of Marblehead’s quirks that makes Marblehead a grand old town and makes people say we are a unique place and unique individuals!! “Whip”


2 thoughts on “They Swear Like Pirates!

  1. Yep, swearing is definitely a longstanding trait in most Marbleheaders especially when conversing with other Headers. I sometimes found it tough not to swear at Town Meeting but my Dad, Ben often said that when he was a kid in the 20’s and 30’s and watching from the upper balcony in Abbot Hall that swearing on Town Meeting floor could peel the paint and was common. I think Headers (real Headers) swear as a rite of initiation and almost a nod to our ancestors most of whom were pretty tough and not terribly religious – my license plate ROCKEM SAYS A LOT ABOUT THAT. Anyhow, I don’t think Headers mean anything by it other that to maybe shock off-islanders a bit which is a constant source of hilarity to us. I say this because there are so few real Headers left as Foy has become a bedroom town akin to Winchester on the water. Gone are the days when we knew everyone and we didn’t hesitate to yell a Whip or a profanity loudly in the street without batting an eyelash. I mourn the extinction of Headers and independence they represented. The new Inhabitants with their trust fund money, foreign cars and haughty attitudes will be the eventual death of the place where the zip code is basically the bragging right. The biggest gathering place for Headers is now Waterside where we will all end up. I have had “Marblehead Forever” and “Whip” engraved on our stone as a last gasp of hope and expression of outrage even as we become one with Marblehead’s soil. No doubt soon, someone will walk by and say what does that mean? And nobody will know.


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