Salem is just a decade short of 400 years old now, and the Witchcraft Trials of 1692 happened more than 300 years ago. Since that time Salem has been many things: the most successful privateer (aka pirate) port of the American Revolution; the richest China Trade city, per capita, in the nation, funding at one point 90% of the federal government budget on our customs duties alone; a 19th century industrial powerhouse producing everything from shoes to Monopoly boards. Given all that, it’s amazing that you can still see evidence of 17th century Salem on almost every street–if you know how to look.
Most visits to Salem start with The Witch Museum, with good reason. It’s a fast, accessible overview of the Witchcraft Trials with wax mannequins that look like they crossed the Atlantic with the Puritans and a soundtrack straight out of a Hammer Horror movie. Never mind that the disjointed story of 1692 doesn’t make a lick of sense in their creaky presentation (that only makes it even more like a Christopher Lee double feature). Everybody goes and the place has got a fabulous gift shop. You’ll probably go too (and I’ll cover it in another post). But I promise that you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more if you see some of the real stuff first. And if you’d rather skip The Witch Museum, you can read this quick, even handed summary of the trials from the Salem Witchcraft Trials Documentary Archive for free.
Done? Okay. Now get ready to go back in time. If you’ve got one day or less to visit Salem and your main focus is the Witchcraft Trials, these are the places to see. They’re the real deal, authentic sites where locals take their out of town guests to experience the real 1692.
The Witch House aka The Corwin House 310 1/2 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts (978) 744-8815
Probably the closest you can get to time travel in present day Salem, this is how the rich–including one of the Witchcraft Trials judges–lived in 1692. From the outside note the steep gables, central chimney, and overhanging second floor (called a jetty). When you see these features on a building in Salem, chances are good that it dates from the earliest period of settlement. The Puritans brought their native English post and beam construction with them to the new world, and you’ll often hear these houses referred to as Post-Medieval or First Period architecture. Inside you’ll find carved furniture, elaborate bed hangings, and displays of wealth that dispel the myth of Puritan austerity. There’s an excellent selection of books and gifts in their tiny shop. Not to be missed.
Pickering House 18 Broad Street Salem, MA 01970 (978) 744-4777
For sheer weight of history in one place, no other site in Salem can beat the Pickering House (1651), the oldest house in America continuously occupied–until just ten years ago–by one family. Like most family homes it’s gone through some changes. The Gothic revival gingerbread and obelisks that make it look like an Edward Gorey fantasy were added in the 1840s, but stand outside for a few minutes and you can see how this house has the same bones as Judge Corwin’s, with its massive central chimney and dramatic steep gables. Inside you can still see the post and beam construction and witness the passing of 350 years of New England family life. Hours are limited so call ahead–you’ll be glad you did.
John Ward House 132 Essex Street (Grounds of the Phillips Library) 978-745-9500
How the other half lived in 1692. Originally located across the street from the jail during the Witchcraft Trials, the John Ward House was built in 1684 and moved to the grounds of the Essex Institute in 1910. It began as a modest one gable dwelling, one room wide and one room deep on two floors with the now-central chimney at the end, and grew around the hearth to accommodate the expanding Ward family. John was a middle class artisan in the leather trade and as he became more prosperous he doubled the size of his house and then added the characteristic “salt box” lean-to on the back. Only the ground floor is open and interpreted, and tours require admission to the Peabody Essex Museum, which is pricey unless you plan a trip to their galleries (which are excellent and covered in another post–but not focused on 17th century Salem) so for most visitors this one is best experienced from the outside–but definitely peak in the windows to get a look at the interior.
The House of the Seven Gables 115 Derby Street, Salem, MA 01970 (978) 744-0991
The House of the Seven Gables may or may not be the house that Nathaniel Hawthorne was thinking of when he wrote the book of the same name, but the 1668 Turner-Ingersoll Mansion is definitely worth a visit. The First Period structure at its core is situated in a complex of gardens on the water that includes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace (moved to the site). “Restored” to look more like the house in Hawthorne’s book by philanthropist Caroline Emerson in 1908. Her vision in turn inspired the design of the Sibley Mansion in WGN’s SALEM.
Salem has not one but three burial grounds that date to the 17th century. Contrary to our perception of the Puritans–and their own PR–they surrounded themselves with art and ornament, evidenced by the winged skulls, urns, and willows carved on their tombstones. If you want to dig deeper into the symbolism of their grave art, the City of Boston offers a guide to three centuries of memorial carving here. Mourning in Early America, though, wasn’t confined to cemeteries and the same motifs can be found on the memorial art and jewelry the Puritans brought with them from England.
Charter Street Cemetery 51 Charter Street, Salem, MA 01970
Charter Street Cemetery is the oldest burying ground in Salem and lies adjacent to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, in the shadow of the 1664 Pickman House. Also a more modest dwelling than the Corwin or Pickering houses, but exhibiting the same steep roof line and massive central chimney. This one is also owned by the Peabody Essex Museum and not open to the public, but check out the red painted “batten” (vertical board with nails) seventeenth century doors. The cemetery contains the grave of one of the Mayflower passengers, and Witchcraft Trials judges Jonathon Hathorne and Bartholomew Gedney are buried here.
Broad Street Cemetery 5 Broad Street, Salem, MA 01970
Howard Street Cemetery 29 Howard Street, Salem, MA 01970
The Howard Street Cemetery lies in the shadow of the Old Salem Jail, built in 1813 to replace the structure that served during the Witchcraft Trials. The original jail, which first converted to a residence and then demolished, stood a few blocks to the north.