Category Archives: Houses

Calm Descends on Salem

It always takes me a few days to recover from Halloween here……two nights ago I had an all-too-vivid nightmare about a bacchanalian orgy in the Charter Street cemetery. But I woke up to a calm and beautiful day: Election Day, always a hopeful day for me. You’ve got to love off-year, local elections when the big issues are new trash barrels and cobblestones! Actually I am trivializing our election quite a bit: the large, looming development projects that I’ve been writing about all year are also big issues (but trash is big too). After I voted, I walked to work and checked the cemetery and Witch Trials Memorial along the way: all was calm and a few respectful people were walking around, really looking at the grave- and memorial stones rather than sitting on them! Salem has been returned to its residents, the dearly departed are not being trespassed, and I slept much better last night.

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Feeling fortunate that two great, smart people ran for councilor of the ward that I live in, and that I can walk by the beautiful PEM garden on a 70-degree day in November.

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Feeling fortunate that all those disrespectful people are GONE………

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and that someone left an appropriate memorial to their ACTUAL ancestor, and that I get to walk by my favorite Salem house, now artfully adorned with pumpkins, several times a week.

Witch Houses

Central to Salem’s evolution as the Witch City was the Witch House, a first-period structure that was the residence of one of the Trials’ judges, Jonathan Corwin. It was referred to as the Witch House back in the nineteenth century, when it housed a number of businesses–a longstanding drug store, later an antiques shop–and looked quite different than it does today, but it really became the Witch House when its evolving image was published on variant postcards from around 1900 on. The Corwin House acquired its seventeenth-century look in the middle of the twentieth century through a “restoration” under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb, and was opened to the public as the official “Witch House” by the city of Salem in 1948. As I’ve written about this House and its history before, I want to widen its context today by featuring some other Witch Houses, near and far, past and present, material and immaterial. There are at least two other houses in Essex County which were identified as such on postcards from a century ago, a time when there was a limited effort to turn the entire region into “Broomstick Country”. This was historically correct–the “Salem Witch Trials” were indeed a regional phenomenon–but commercially tricky, so Salem eventually claimed its exclusive title as the one and only “Witch City” with the Witch House.

The Old Witch House--Scene of Examinations at Salem. Illustration from Columbus and Columbia (Manufacturers' Book Co, c 1893).

Witch House Salem 1905

Witch House Danvers

Witch House Rockport 1910

Salem’s “Witch House” in 1893 (Columbus and Columbia Manufacturers’ Book Co, c 1893) and 1905: the George Jacobs “Witch House” in Danvers in 1907 (located in what was then Salem in the seventeenth century) and Rockport’s “Witch House”, also known as the “Old Garrison House” and still standing, in 1910. Supposedly two brothers from Salem built this house as a refuge for their accused sister or mother (depending on the source).

Farther afield, Witch Houses don’t have anything to do with witch trials: they just look like the sort of gothic structure that a romanticized witch might inhabit, like the Spadena “Witch’s” House in Beverly Hills, California, a storybook-style house built in 1921, or the famous Carl Van Vechten photograph of a long-lost “Witch House” in rural Maine during the Depression. The fairy-tale witches of the nineteenth century had created a more whimsical images of their houses in the twentieth, and clearly gables were seen as integral architectural details, so it is quite suitable that Salem’s Witch House would soon be enhanced with several.


Witch House Van Vechten

Witch House Pyle 1887

Witch House Key Nielsen 1921

The California “Witch’s House’ in its original Culver City location, courtesy Beverly Hills Heritage; Carl Van Vechten, “Witch House”, 1936, Library of Congress; the Prince visits the Witch’s House in Howard and Katharine Pyle’s The Wonder Clock: or, Four & Twenty Marvelous Tales, Beind One for Each Hour of the Day (1887); The Witch’s confectionary cottage from Hansel and Gretel, by Kay Nielsen (1921).

Even farther afield in terms of both space and time is the woodcut print of a Witch House from the later sixteenth century by an anonymous English artist. This image, quite unusual as witches were generally depicted outside, in the wild, at this time, is often cited as appearing in the Swiss theologian Thomas Lieber (Erastus)’s Two Dialogues Concerning the Power of Witches (1579), but as Charles Zika points out in The Appearance of Witchcraft. Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe, the image appears to have been simply inserted into a 1579 English edition. Another fantasy house, although in this case it’s more about the exit than the architecture!

Witch House 1590

The Little Locksmith

Several years ago, one of my favorite readers, and bloggers, told me about a book written by a Salem author called The Little Locksmith, but for some reason I didn’t pick up a copy until just this past week–and I spent the cold and windy weekend reading it. This was quite an experience, as this is a memoir that puts our indulgent modern memoirs to shame in its ability to present an engulfing narrative of suffering (or perhaps I should say not suffering) and survival. The Little Locksmith was published in 1943, several months after the death of its author, Katharine Butler Hathaway, who was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis right here in Salem in 1895, when she was five years old. For the next ten years, she was confined to her bedroom and strapped to a board “like a specimen butterfly” in the hope that her spine would grow straight. She emerged not only hunchbacked, like the little locksmith that used to come to her Salem home (on Lafayette Street, sadly swept away by the Great Salem Fire of 1914), but also severely stunted, a very wise young woman in a child’s body. One would imagine that she would look back on this childhood with horror, regret, and even anger, but she does not, instead we read of “joyous” days:  Though my back was imprisoned, my hands and arms and mind were free. I held my pencil and pad of paper up in the air above my face, and I wrote microscopic letters and poems, and made little books of stories, and very tiny pictures, I sewed the smallest doll clothes anybody had every seen, with the narrowest of hems and most delicious little ruffles. I painted with watercolors and made paper dolls and dollhouse furniture out of paper. Paper was the nearest thing to nothing in the way of material, and yet it was possible to make it into something that people would exclaim over and fall in love with. It was something precious made of nothing.” 

Little Locksmith Katharine Butler Hathaway

Little Locksmith cover

Little Locksmith House Pen

Katharine Butler Hathaway (1900-42): from the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where her papers are located; a first edition of The Little Locksmith (1943); the Mark Hatch House in Castine, where she lived from 1921-1931, Penobscot Marine Museum.

This ability to discern, appreciate, and make things that are precious stayed with her for the rest of her life. After she emerged from her Salem bedroom at aged 15, her “horizontal life” leaving her misshapen yet somehow also enchanted, she was off to Radcliffe, New York City, Paris, and Castine, Maine, where she found a neglected old house which she crafted into a precious touchstone. The Little Locksmith is really about this house and what it means to her more than anything else, which makes it even more fascinating for materialistic me. Her ability to describe places and what they mean to her is captivating: the chapter where she describes her family’s return to a sultry September Salem from their summer residence in Vermont is probably my favorite, as the sounds of crickets and steps on the brick sidewalks of Salem are the sounds that I always notice when I return home from up north. Upon her marriage to Daniel Hathaway of Marblehead, she is forced to sell her beloved Castine house, but they move on to settle in an old brick house in Blue Hill, Maine, which becomes yet another charmed setting for her, unfortunately her last.

An Endicott House for Sale

There is no more venerable and ubiquitous name on the North Shore of Boston than Endicott, after John Ende(i)cott, the first (also 10th, 13th, 15th & 17th)  governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There are Endicott streets, parks, schools, and many houses that have some sort of connection to this illustrious family, whose members married into other notable Massachusetts families to produce generations of ship captains, benefactors, and statesmen. A particularly passionate Puritan who famously desecrated the English flag because it bore the cross of St. George and persecuted Quakers and merrymakers with zealous intent, Endicott has been memorialized by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “the severest Puritan who laid the rock foundation of New England”. There are several houses in Salem still standing in which his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descendants lived, and now one of them is for sale. Formally called the Smith-Crosby-Endicott house as it was built by Benjamin Smith and Captain Nicholas Crosby in 1788-89, 359 Essex Street was the home of Captain Samuel Endicott and his heirs for most of the nineteenth century. It’s a perfect Federal mansion, complete with a large Colonial Revival carriage house out back–way out back. I have long loved this house, and if I hadn’t just had a conversation with my husband about our need for a smaller house I might prod him to make a move. I don’t think we need eight bedrooms! I had always heard that this house had a ballroom but I don’t see one in the listing–well, I suppose we don’t really need one of those either.

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359 Essex Street Salem

Endicott House 1902


359 Essex Street in Salem today and in 1924 , from the Memoir of Samuel Endicott; William Allen Wall (1801-1885), Endicott and the Red Cross, 1851. New Bedford Whaling Museum: Gift of Flora B. Pierce, 1987.


For every sleazy developer who destroys an old house, there are many, many more Salem homeowners who take great care to restore and preserve their old houses, showering them with effort, energy, and money. I’ve been dwelling on the former too much lately, and not enough on the latter, even though I am literally surrounded by ladders in my own neighborhood. This summer I believe that I have heard the sound of saws every day, often all day, and I don’t mind a bit! I think there is a cyclical pattern to home improvement in neighborhoods, although to tell you the truth “housework” is intermittently never-ending for an old house. We’ve done a lot of interior work this summer to repair the damage from February’s ice dams, and in the fall roofing and chimney work will begin. At some point we need to take on our 1960s kitchen (the original one is in the basement and is now my “potting shed”): some people actually think it’s deliberately retro! Clapboard repair on the back next year, and then…….something else. Still, our challenges are nothing compared to what some of our neighbors have been through, and I truly appreciate their efforts, each and every day.

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Just one walk’s worth of housework: houses in varying stages of renovation and painting projects in the McIntire Historic District.

De Facto Demolition

One year ago contractors working for a developer/convenience and liquor store owner named Jewel Saeed tore the roof off a Federal house on Carlton Street here in Salem and exposed it to the deluge of an approaching tropical storm: in the following weeks they ripped out all of the original (soaked) fabric, including its massive center chimney, and rebuilt it as petrochemical-clad condominiums, surrounded by blacktop. I may rant against the huge generic buildings which are gradually transforming the Salem streetscape, but no Salem development has ever troubled me more than the mutilation of 25 Carlton Street. The act was so brazen, and the response so tepid. Carlton Street is not located in one of Salem’s four historic districts, so it is not subject to overview by the Historic Commission, but all Salem structures are subject to the city-wide Demolition Delay Ordinance and Mr. Saeed did not apply for a demolition permit or a waiver. He didn’t have to bother. But make no mistake: the structure that now occupies the lot designated 25 Carlton Street is not the same building that existed a year ago.

Carlton Street 1985

Carlton Street 2014



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25 Carlton Street in 1985, 2014, and this (very foggy) morning. The fine grain of vinyl siding.

The Reverend Billy Cook, Salem’s Self-Published Poet

As I am typing this, beside me is a little hand-bound and -printed pamphlet of verse, what one might call a chapbook, dating from 1852: it is one of many similar publications produced by the Reverend William “Billy” Cook (1807-1876) in the middle of the nineteenth century and sold to family and friends. The son of a prosperous ship captain, Cook spent his entire life in Salem except for stints at Phillips Academy in Andover and Yale University, from which he failed to graduate because of illness–both physical (typhus) and mental: his sole biographer, Lawrence Jenkins, writes in 1924 that “unkind Nature” had failed to outfit this “gentle soul” with a “complete and well-balanced headpiece”.  After his return to Salem, Cook studied for the ministry but never made it beyond the level of Deacon: nevertheless he and everyone else seems to have referred to him as “Reverend”. To make ends meet (as the captain’s money seems to have run out), Cook tutored private students in Latin, Greek and mathematics and began writing and sketching. He maintained what is referred to as an “art gallery” in his home on Charter Street and included woodblock illustrations in all of his publications. These woodblocks are quite primitive, nevertheless they highlight the fact that Salem was Cook’s entire world as numerous street scenes and buildings are intermingled among his verse whether they have anything to do with Salem or not. According to Jenkins, the woodblocks were carved from maple or birch wood by Cook with a jack-knife, and touched up with lead pencil or paint after they were printed–one page at a time–on a hand-press that he had built himself. This rather rudimentary process is revealed by the folk nature of the prints, but I think it also renders them a bit more timeless, and charming.

Cook Ploughboy Prints

Cook Ploughboy's Harrow

Cook East Church

Cook First Baptist Church Print

Cook St. Peters Church

Cook Tollhouse Print

Cook Pickering House Print

I wish I knew more about William Cook. Jenkins’ article definitely paints him as a rather eccentric figure, but isn’t he in a similar situation as his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne? The old Salem money had run out for both of them, and they had to depend on the their well-placed friends and ink-stained hands to provide for themselves. And they were both so so shaped by Salem. (I think the similarities must end here). The poem that illustrates Cook’s life the best for me is his “Chestnut Street”: not only did he include the names of all the contemporary residents of the street but also accompanying illustrations of nearly every building by my estimation (including the McIntire South Church). He had to: these were his patrons. So here we have quite a different Chestnut Street than that portrayed later in the photographs of Frank Cousins or the etchings of Samuel Chamberlain. Cook’s style emphasized the elemental fundamentals–chimneys and windows–and all those top-heavy, twisting trees–the lost elms of Chestnut Street, I believe.

Cook Chestnut Scene

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Cook Chestnut Scene 7

Cook Chestnut Scene 8

All illustrations from The Euclea collection of Cook’s poetry, 1852;  For more on Cook see the only source: Lawrence Jenkins, William Cook of Salem, Mass.: Preacher, Poet, Artist and Publisher,” in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, New Series, Vol. 34, April 9, 1924-October 15, 1924.


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