Hard Dig and the Ark


Hard Dig was a notorious section of New Bedford in the nineteenth century. Located on the north side of Kempton Street, Hard Dig was home to a tough crowd of inhabitants made up of head hunters, cannibals and other such characters that could find themselves at some point in the busiest whaling port in the world during that time. “Respectable” folks stayed out of this and other similar areas of New Bedford and law enforcement officials did the same. Sailors came into port and sometimes never left Hard Dig. No one noticed or cared. In the early 20th century while excavating the foundations of a house in Hard Dig, skeletal remains were found believed to be of such sailors. In Hard Dig, seamen could find “saloons dealing out delirium and death”, dance halls, boarding houses, and pay for the services of the “harpies” who worked at the various brothels.

One such brothel was known as the Ark. The Ark was actually a whaling vessel known as the Camillus that was out of commission by 1822 and brought to the base of Water Street. A house-like structure was built on top of it and it was used for a time as housing by respectable people in “moderate circumstances”. It got its name when a bark named the Ark was brought to port in New Bedford from Nantucket to be dismantled. Its stern board with its name was affixed to the Camillus.

Soon the Ark’s inhabitants deteriorated in character and the structure became known as a “moral offence” to the good people of New Bedford. A period painting of the Ark shows a run down structure with broken windows and a roof in disrepair. Several people are standing around on the deck of the Ark engaged in various activities such as hanging laundry and emptying fecal waste. All of the people appear to have dark skin.

Tensions were running high in the summer of 1826 after two boys, out picking huckleberries in the woods near Hard Dig, discovered the grisly remains of an apparent murder victim. Local Quaker, Samuel Rodman described the situation as a suspicion that “a white man had been murdered at [a]… house of bad character kept by people of colour” from Dartmouth. The boys led the town people back to the site of the body but the body was gone. Evidence or not, the idea of a dead unknown white man that no one would have cared about otherwise was enough to set the morally righteous people out to do the “right” thing.

A mob was formed and went about burning down brothels, saloons, and houses occupied by people of questionable character. An attack on the Ark was put off that evening because a family that lived in the Ark had lost a child. With the corpse of the child still inside the Ark, the mob respectfully waited until the child had been buried. The next night the mob went after the Ark. They brought along a cannon filled with mud and aimed at the house. The occupants fearing that were about to be blasted out of the Ark fled the structure. The mob partially tore apart the Ark and set the rest of it on fire. They went home feeling victorious not realizing the fire they had set spread to a near by cooper’s shop, candle house, and barn. The New Bedford Mercury warned that “The authority of the law is the only proper means for the remedy of public grievances”. Fifty citizens were subpoenaed in to court and questioned over the affair. Nobody seemed to know enough about the events related to the Ark and the court’s investigation into the mob’s activities was dropped.

Three years later, the Ark was back from the dead. By 1829 the hull of a retired ship named “Indian Chief” was fitted with a house and stood near the site of the original Ark. The Indian Chief, owned by a man named Titus Peck, was renamed the Ark.

The 1850 US Census describes Peck as a 73-year old Mulatto born in Rhode Island. He was living in the local poor house with about 48 other people including what appeared to be a 3-month old orphan and an insane sailor from Germany. However, twenty years earlier, Peck was a dangerous and feared man. Peck and his associates were considered town bullies and despite pleas from the public, the local selectmen stayed out of Peck’s business. Nobody had the courage to confront the Ark or Peck. In the spring of 1829, the Elm Street Methodist Episcopal Church caught fire. Without proof the citizens of New Bedford suspected it was the tenants of the Ark who were responsible. In August, Samuel Rodman described an event that enraged the people in to action after hearing about “the bararous outrage committed on a white man… on the road to Dartmouth village by colored men…” It was 1826 all over again.

Peck and his cohorts presumably terrorized the God fearing people of New Bedford throughout the summer. With the memory of the first Ark still fresh in people’s minds and the dislike of such un-Noah-like Arks (and the obvious racism and shady Dartmouth connections), 200 townsmen gathered at the town hall with the intent to organize forces and destroy the Ark on the evening of August 22.

The influential citizens of the town pleaded with the crowd to disperse and go home. They were not influential enough for the Anti-Ark crowd. At the ringing of the 9 o’clock bell someone shouted “Jerry is in town. Hurrah for the Ark”! Jerry’s identity to the history books is a mystery. In the weeks leading up to the attack on the Ark the townspeople could be over heard talking about Jerry. “Keep dark” about Jerry they warned one another, signaling that they didn’t want the authorities to know he was in town.

The crowd marched to the Ark where they were met by 25 masked men. One of the masked men may have been the infamous Jerry. They were dressed in white canvas pants, slouch hats and coats worn inside out. The masked men began to tear apart the Ark. At midnight the remains of the Ark was set on fire. Not to be out done by the 1826 Ark attack, the fire spread this time resulting in heavy damage to buildings and residential homes.

The following year at a town meeting the people voted to form a vigilance group. The group would be made up of citizens who would report on the activity of their fellow citizens who showed any sign of organizing or were under suspicion of associating with mob activity. The group was named the Protecting Society and became part of the New Bedford Fire Department. Hard Dig and the memory of the Ark have since passed in to the history books. However, a water color painting of the Ark can be seen on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum or by visiting their Flickr page.

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