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      PEMcast | July 29, 2021

      PEMcast 22: Thank You, Mr. Peabody, Father of Philanthropy

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      George Peabody, a local boy raised with nothing, rose to international prominence and today is recognized as the father of philanthropy.

      He's also the reason why the city of Peabody is called "Peabody," a name change that honors their famous and most generous resident. In this episode of the PEMcast, we focus on Peabody, who spent his life giving away his fortune to help others. In addition to building his merchant banking career, he donated millions to help build libraries, house the poor in London, educate Southern children after the Civil War, establish science museums at Yale and Harvard and pretty much save the Peabody Essex Museum at a crucial juncture in its history.

      A. Bertram Schell, Portrait of George Peabody, 1869, gift of the Estate of S. Endicott Peabody, 1912.

      A. Bertram Schell, Portrait of George Peabody, 1869, gift of the Estate of S. Endicott Peabody, 1912.

      Letter to Francis Peabody, June 23, 1865, Institutional Archives, box 11. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

      Letter to Francis Peabody, June 23, 1865, Institutional Archives, box 11. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

      Our Associate Curator George Schwartz, who wrote a book about PEM’s history, takes us through the museum’s timeline and how it corresponds to the adventurous life of George Peabody. While working on this episode, Schwartz came across THE letter in our institutional archive that Peabody’s cousin read aboard a ship from Salem to London, giving him instructions on how to approach the philanthropist for the big ask.

      ABOVE IMAGE: After his cousin sails from Salem to London to request money to save the museum, George Peabody gifts $40,000 to purchase East India Marine Hall for the museum and another $100,000 goes into a trust to support the institution. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      We also take a tour of the modest homestead of George Peabody and visit with its director, Dick St. Pierre, and see the spot in Peabody where people like Kelly Daniell, curator of the Peabody Historical Society, want to see a statue to memorialize the city’s most famous resident.

      The George Peabody homestead in Peabody where the philanthropist grew up with many siblings and then went on to support the family after his father died young. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      The George Peabody homestead in Peabody where the philanthropist grew up with many siblings and then went on to support the family after his father died young. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
      Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Every year, third graders from Peabody participate in an essay contest about George Peabody’s legacy of giving.

      Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Next, we go to Harmony Grove cemetery where every February both locals and Brits alike visit Peabody’s elaborate tomb to honor his birthday.

      Incorporated in 1840, Harmony Grove cemetery straddles Peabody and Salem and is the final resting place for many philanthropists. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Incorporated in 1840, Harmony Grove cemetery straddles Peabody and Salem and is the final resting place for many philanthropists. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      All of this has us thinking about our own fundraising efforts at PEM. The pandemic has changed the world of philanthropy forever. A more inclusive way of giving is on the horizon for the nonprofit world. If you are not a wealthy person, perhaps you contribute your time or talent? Like those who helped plant the garden at Ropes Mansion this spring.

      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
      Originally from Spain, PEM Trustee Ana Colmenero is particularly interested in PEM’s new bilingual initiative as a way for the museum to be more inclusive. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Originally from Spain, PEM Trustee Ana Colmenero is particularly interested in PEM’s new bilingual initiative as a way for the museum to be more inclusive. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Blair Steck in PEM’s garden. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Blair Steck in PEM’s garden. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      To understand more about the effort to be more philanthropically inclusive, I interviewed both Ana Colmenero, who serves on our board, and Blair Steck, whose new title is PEM’s Director of Inclusive Philanthropy.

      Steck is excited that the annual Gala fundraiser is being redefined this year with the launch of the PEM Prize, an annual award that celebrates artists who work at the intersection of creativity and community engagement. The first recipient of the PEM Prize and its $25,000 award is multidisciplinary Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa. Over the next year, Garaicoa will lead a series of events at the museum, including the reopening of Partitura, his multi-sensory installation featuring dozens of street musicians from around the world, and will create a new artwork in partnership with the PEM community.

      Carlos Garaicoa preparing his exhibition with PEM staff. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Thanks for listening to the PEMcast, which is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund. To learn more about how to give to PEM, go to To learn more about the PEM Prize, go to This show was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. Music for the episode by Ketsa.

      Collecting the Globe book

      For Collecting the Globe: The Salem East India Marine Society Museum by George Schwartz, go to the PEM Shop or where ever you buy books.

      Host, Dinah Cardin: I found you.

      Perry Hallinan: Hey, Dinah

      Dinah: So my question is. When I say Peabody, I’m working too hard. How would you say Peabody?

      Perry: Peabody. I’m from Peabody.

      Dinah: This is Perry Hallinan. Editor of the PEMcast. I’ve just caught him in the middle of editing this episode. Were you aware growing up that Peabody was named after George Peabody?

      Perry: No. No idea why Peabody was called Peabody. But it is good to learn a little more about George and what he stood for and I do think Peabody tends to be a humble city.

      Dinah: OK. So where are we?

      Kelly Daniell: Yeah, so we are at the corner of Chestnut Street and Lowell Street in Peabody. And we are right next to City Hall and this is the corner right next to Brodie's Pub where the community was thinking of putting the statue to George Peabody.

      Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin. In today’s episode we’re digging into a little known story of the Father of modern Philanthropy. We’ll explore his unlikely rags-to-riches story, see how his legacy envelopes us, and talk to people who are ushering in the next chapter of how we give back.

      Dinah: My curiosity about George came in 2019 when I was celebrating Christmas in London. Prior to Christmas lunch, I took a stroll on this balmy day and found myself in Belgravia where a blue plaque on a stately home announced the location where a philanthropist had lived. For some reason, I walked right up to the front door. As if I held the key. And that home belonged to an American, to George Peabody.

      Kelly: London has a statue of Peabody, but the namesake the city of Peabody doesn't actually have one. It seems a little strange and something that would be a long time coming.

      Dinah: This is Kelly Daniell, (DAN-YELL) who you heard earlier in the episode. She is curator at the Peabody Historical Society and is looking to get the man memorialized with a statue.

      Dinah: Why would you be particularly pleased to have people see it here in downtown?

      Kelly: But it will be more of a visual daily reminder that you know, the people of 1860s Peabody revered this man and were appreciative of his efforts so much so that they completely renamed their community after him. And you know if I know anything about New Englanders is that we tend to cling to tradition and sometimes feel a little bit shy of change and changing an entire name of us a town at the time would have been a big deal.

      Dick St. Pierre: All of this land around here, which is now factories and housing, was all farmland, that's why George's father was in the farming business, that's pretty much what people did or they worked with leather. There wasn't a whole lot else to do.

      Dinah: This is Dick St. Pierre, director of the George Peabody House, the family homestead. He and Kelly are giving me a tour.

      Dick: By the way, I should tell you that when he died in 1869, Queen Victoria sent along a lock of her hair, which back then was an intimate gift, and it's in the vaults, on the main floor of the Peabody Public Library.

      Dinah: At that library, you can also see an enameled miniature portrait of Queen Victoria, gifted to her American friend. As they show me around the modest house, we come upon a fancy teacup with the man’s face.

      Kelly: Oh. OK. It says, It's a cup from the late 19th century. It's black and white transferware. And it says, "George Peabody, the poor man's friend."

      Dinah: Let’s unpack a little history. As a boy, George Peabody was the poor cousin to the wealthy Salem ship owner Joseph Peabody. One of eight kids, George didn’t go to school past the age of 11. He went on to apprentice with a shopkeeper and when his father died young, George took responsibility as the family breadwinner. He sent his mother and siblings food, clothes and money. Through a series of ups and downs, George found his way to making a fortune. Without children of his own and only an elementary school education, George Peabody prized education above all else. He gave to libraries and museums all over the U.S, and helped rebuild the public school system down South after the Civil War.

      Dick: It's pretty much, wherever he saw a problem, as he got older, he would try to resolve it.

      Kelly: And the question is if you were a philanthropist, how would you use your money to help the world?

      George Schwartz: It's probably one of the number one things that people would think because they see the words Peabody and Essex, but we're not in Peabody. We're not in Essex. We're in Salem.

      Dinah: This is George Schwartz, Associate Curator at PEM, who wrote a book on the history of the Peabody Essex Museum. And you can’t write that history without including George Peabody. It begins when the East India Marine Society was formed in 1799.

      George: That's at a time when Salem's becoming a preeminent global port. Many of Salem's pioneering ship captains banded together to form what they thought was a society that reflected the global presence of Salem. Helping others was obviously the founding principle, but they instead of just focusing on navigating in and around the port, they wanted to increase global knowledge of sailing because their members were going all over the globe. By 1867, you would...come into this expansive hall and immediately be surrounded by the sea, be able to take a global voyageGS [10:53].... You would be in this watery world, large natural history specimens, like sperm whale jaws. You had models of ships from all over the globe presented on big cases in the middle of the floor.

      Dinah (tape) But in the 1860s...the Golden Age of Sail is winding down. There's not enough money. Do we know how suddenly they went, "We need a cash infusion"?

      George: So, membership is dwindling, funds are dwindling. At that point, 1865, there are rumors around that the East India Marine Society might sell their collection. There's a scathing editorial in the Salem papers that PT Barnum is going to buy the collection.

      Dinah: Circus owners buying intellectual New England institutions? It’s time to get some help. In London, Charles Dickens is writing about poverty and terrible housing conditions. Children live in slums and people work as public disinfectors. George Peabody set up The London Trust to create quality affordable housing, the properties had playgrounds for children and access to baths and laundry. Located in fashionable neighborhoods, these units went on to house thousands of low-income Londoners, offering job training programs and job placement.

      George: In America, he starts founding institutes and libraries in Maryland where he last lived before he went over to England...and eventually, in the South teaching colleges and so forth.

      Dinah: In addition to the museum in Salem, he funded science museums at Harvard and Yale. Over his lifetime, he earned about $20 million and gave about half away. But back to how that money arrived in Salem. A distant cousin to George Peabody, sitting on the museum board in Salem, is chosen to go to London and ask Cousin George for money.

      George: So, they give him instructions, tell him not to open it 'till he's on board this, the ship that's taking him over to, uh, to the UK. We don’t know what ship he was on. He might have been on the early Cunard Line, of the Scotia, because there are records that I found of him coming back to America on that ship.

      Dinah: The historic letter that contains these instructions for the 19th century epic voyage from America to England turned up during the making of this episode. Needless to say, he was excited.

      George: I came across an envelope that was made out to Francis Peabody, esq, Salem, and written in another hand in sort of darker pen on this envelope is said memo in regards to the affairs of the institute. When I opened it up, I found a 14-page letter in very pristine shape, this is sort of the way a lot of these discoveries go. You are working on something completely different and then it falls into your lap. It looked like it hadn’t been opened in many, many years. It starts out, Dear Sir, on the eve of your departure for Europe…

      Dinah: They were doing this, says our curator George, because the museum’s leadership believed they were at a moment that could] “darken” the museum’s “prospects of a permanent existence.”

      George: So they tell Peabody to please, subscribers are of the opinion that $50,000 at least could be invested and used to advantage for the support of the institute and then they go on to say the institute in this moment has the offer of cooperation from absent sons of Salem.

      Dinah: Meaning some wealthy Salem-ites who have left town to pursue profitable interests have pledged money to the museum.

      George: The subscribers would suggest that a very distinguished son of Essex County, but for many years a resident of Great Britain, a gentleman of world wide reputation for liberty, a relative of yours, bearing your family name, would if properly approached upon this subject..not only freely but with great pleasure bestow a liberal sum.

      Dinah: The plan worked.

      George: George Peabody...then puts together sort of an ultimatum that, um, he'll do this whole project, but he wants this to become a new institution.

      Dinah: A gift of $40,000 purchases East India Marine Hall for the museum and another $100,000 goes into a trust to support the institution. That fund, forever invested at George Peabody’s wishes, is now worth $2.5 million.

      George: And the money would help them sort of get back to their first and primary goal which was to help, you know, support the widows and children of mariners who, you know, died or lost at sea, and so forth, um, their beneficiaries. George Peabody potentially was going to come to the opening of the new...this new institution, but was unable to. He dies in 1869 in London and that is a huge to do.

      Dinah: After an elaborate funeral, George Peabody’s body is interred for a month at Westminster Abbey. An honor given mostly to nobles and kings. But his wishes are otherwise.

      George: And the newest ship in the British Fleet, HMS Monarch, does this grand procession across the Atlantic, stopping at different places. And then, when it comes to America carrying George Peabody and they are doing one that 90 something days and he’s buried at Harmony Grove.

      Dinah: He comes back to fanfare in his hometown, to a place where he had once looked out over the crowd and said: "There's not one among you that couldn't do the same sort of thing."

      Dinah (tape) Here we are at Harmony Grove Cemetery. Walking up the hill where George Peabody’s grave is. The family plot. Peaceful spring day. George Peabody, born Feb 18 1795, died Nov. 4, 1869. Looks like some people have placed some rocks here. It has been said that little George played here when he was a boy.

      Dinah (tape)What do you love about the cemetery?

      Margie Lavender: Every day that I’m out in the cemetery I find something new. We have red foxes, we had a couple of coyotes a couple of years ago. We have two resident hawks. Usually the babies are out memorial weekend when I’m planting geraniums.

      Dinah: Margie Lavender has been working at Harmony Grove Cemetery for almost 25 years. In this romantic nearly 100 acre property that spans both small cities.

      Margie: 95 percent of us is in Salem and 5 percent of us is in Peabody.

      Dinah: With elaborate tombs and sepulchres, It seems like George Peabody left England only to be buried in a high Victorian (very English looking) cemetery.

      Margie: This is a line drawing of his funeral when it came to Harmony Grove. I found this at a flea market. It was snow on that particular can see everyone with umbrellas.

      Dinah: Visitors to his grave continue. This past February, they celebrated his 225th birthday.

      Margie: We do get a lot of people asking about George Peabody, who he was. ...Every year on his birthday, it’s a group from Peabody. They come and lay a wreath on his grave and have a little ceremony and then they have birthday cake back at the Peabody House.

      Dinah: There is also a group who come every year from England.

      Dinah: (tape) I just saw rocks on his grave. Have you noticed people doing that?

      Margie: I have noticed that...And also the Peabody Bank goes way back and I know with our Greek population that is buried here, they said the Peabody Bank was the only bank at that time that was offering loans to the Greek community, so they were very appreciate of everything that George Peabody did.

      Ana Colmenaro: I think the first thing that comes to mind is that you want to change the world to be a better place.

      Dinah: This is Ana Colmenaro, a PEM Trustee. I asked Ana why she has been volunteering her time on the board for five years.

      Ana: PEM is at the intersection of everything that I consider very important for me. Three main things that I consider important, that I care about...arts and culture, education, and social justice.

      Ana: My goal is that everybody that comes to PEM feels as welcome and at home as I do. That is what belonging to me is. It doesn't matter your first language, your race, your ethnicity, your economic status, nothing. This is that place.

      Dinah: Ana started bringing her now 13-year-old son to PEM when he was a toddler for a program called PEM Pals.

      Ana: I brought him here every Wednesday. When you can open the eyes of little kids that will grow into leaders of the world with a more global vision.

      Dinah: A program that has been expanded online during the pandemic and now kids everywhere can experience it.

      Ana: We moved so fast into what it was a very uncertain world, a very scary world.

      Dinah: Since March 2020, thousands of households have enjoyed PEM’s digital programming. The reach has extended around the world.

      Ana: I hope that part of that stays even when we're all over this because it is incredible that how allows people to do things that they couldn't do before. I know that all of us want to come back, and all of us want to be together again, but we should keep some of the good parts of what we learned in the last year about making the world a little bit more inclusive.

      Dinah: To be more inclusive, many museums and non profits are now thinking of a more modern version of philanthropy than what George Peabody, a white wealthy man, was able to do. Impact philanthropy. Catalytic philanthropy. Systems philanthropy. Strategic philanthropy. Inclusive philanthropy. This expands the definition of giving to skills and time. The donor does not simply sign a check but becomes a partner and is equally accountable for the result.

      Ana: Sometimes people think of a museum as a neutral institution where people can gather. I don't like the word neutral because neutral is almost passive. Neutral is like, "Things are fine. I'm going to do nothing." I feel like we need to realize that this world is not just yet. That the world is not equal. You can say I’m open to everybody. We have to invite those to come in. Are we sure that everybody is at the table?Once they're at the table, are we listening to them and acting on what they're saying? This is our challenge at present. I think that is the challenge of many cultural institutions that are at this point trying to be more inclusive. Everything focuses on people and on listening.

      Dinah: On a more local level, the food insecurity issues caused by the pandemic spurred the museum to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the Salem Food Pantry. The museum has also created a new bilingual initiative. Staff will be taking Spanish, while the museum teams up with the House of Seven Gables in Salem to offer English classes.

      Ana: They came to us with this idea. PEM has space. This sounds like a great partnership. We start becoming that resource that the community needs. We have to go and meet them when they are. I’m from Spain and I live in the US. When you are an immigrant, whether it has been a difficult experience or not, there is a sense of place that you need to explore. You need to feel comfortable where you are. I arrived to the US and I thought I could speak English, but I couldn’t. That was shocking and that’s when you feel that you don’t belong. It’s really hard. This is an area where the museum is working now with a lot of intention.I spent many days and nights going through that transition. It was very hard. I know that happens when anybody who arrives to the US with a different accent, with a different language. Arts and culture...has that power to create community because everybody is the same. It definitely has a very positive impact on wellness and on health, mental health. Sometimes when people say, "Why do I need to support museums?" Museums have the power to educate masses, to educate each one of us the same way, and to let us be creative, and to inspire.

      [Sounds of movement and breath workshop as part of School Vacation Week]

      Blair Steck: I think what I love about PEM is that any time and anywhere you can encounter the joy of creative expression. It’s music, it’s dance, it’s connection with other people.

      Dinah: On the way to the museum’s garden we just encountered little kids and big kids with artists Armando Silva and Wes Sam-Bruce. This movement and breath workshop was part of our programming for School Vacation Week.

      Blair: Oh, yes. I am excited to say that my new title is Director of Inclusive Philanthropy.

      Dinah: This is Blair Steck.

      Blair: That is a new idea in giving. There are many ways to give and there are many people who can give and we want to make sure everyone feels included in giving.

      (tape) Dinah: And so, if I can’t give you a big check, what does that mean?

      Blair: That means You can’t give me a big check, you might be able to give me $10 or you not be able to give me $10, but you may be able to give me time. We understand too that gifts of treasure, or gifts of time or gifts of testimony all have equal weight.

      Dinah: The idea is to give by volunteering time tending to PEM’s gardens or get involved in the bilingual initiative or just tell others what you experienced at the museum.

      Blair: It’s sort of a democratization of philanthropy. I see that as being on the edge of where philanthropy is going. Much like the way George Peobody was on the edge of philanthropy. There was a movement in philanthropy then. There is a movement in phailantry now where we bring people together.

      Dinah: We’ve all seen it. A lot of these early philanthropists had their names on the buildings.

      Blair: They are sort of these lion philanthropists. They set a really important precedent that In order to support the civic engagement of their people, of their community, they gave. They gave to help people discover libraries and reading or art work. But it was one person with an enormous amount of wealth that were creating things for others to enjoy that they themselves decided.

      Dinah: But what if more people were involved in the creating?

      Blair: You see it with Go Fund Me, even Kickstarter campaigns. Many people can come together and make an impact, whether that is in social justice or in art and making art more accessible. At the heart of it, creative expression is a uniter. Museums are uniquely positioned in that way to bring people together. It is an incredibly unique time, but really this idea of equal access is not new. It’s just something that we have to do now. We are bound to do it. If we are an institution that serves our community, we have to serve our community. One of the things many people associate PEM with is a PEM Gala and it’s fancy people in very fancy clothes, enjoying a fancy meal and financially significantly supporting the museum. That’s all wonderful. That’s a lot of fun to do those kind of events. I think we have an opportunity now to retain that specialness celebrating PEM, celebrating creative expression.

      Dinah: Look for this annual event to kick off when PEM launches the PEM Prize. The museum will award an artist or group who helps change the way we see the world. Along with the cash award, the PEM Prize recipient will work with the museum on a community engagement project.

      Blair: Unveiling that for the broader community to show what we can do when we do something together. A festival, a celebration, is definitely how I would describe it. We are coming at it with a renewed sense of purpose. We are coming at it with a duty really to be inclusive on every level.

      Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. To learn more about inclusive philanthropy, visit This show was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and it was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. Music for this episode by Ketsa. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker fund. Thanks for listening.

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