Daily Archives: September 30, 2011

A Secretive Salem House

There is an old abandoned house in Salem situated alongside the Old Burying Point on Charter Street which almost seems like it is part of the graveyard.  This is the so-called “Grimshawe House”, named for a posthumously-published story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret.  The Hawthorne connection to the house began in the 1830s, as it was then presumably a lively place as the residence of Dr. Peabody and his three daughters, Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia–Nathaniel’s future wife.  And so it also became known, in the words of several popular early twentieth-century postcards, as “Hawthorne’s Courting House”.  Given its abandonment and present state of disrepair (as well as its site), I think that the romantic associations of the house are now largely forgotten; every time I pass by I see tourists having their pictures taken in front of what they perceive as a ghostly, perhaps haunted house.

And who can blame them?  This is the characterization that Hawthorne gives the house in both Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, and another unfinished work which was also published after his death (against his stated wishes, apparently), The Dolliver Romance.  Both stories feature old eccentric doctors rattling around in their gloomy house by the graveyard.  The narrator of  Dr. Grimshawe observes that  “….the old house itself, covering ground which else had been sown thickly with buried bodies, partook of [the graveyard’s] dreariness, because it seemed hardly possible that the dead people should not get up out of their graves and steal in to warm themselves at this convenient fireside.”  Of course, the dead people to which Hawthorne is referring to are his own Hathorne relatives, resting out there while he courted his future wife in the front parlor.  What a small world he lived in; no wonder he often seemed desperate to get out of Salem.

The House today (or yesterday):

The House a century ago:  a 1906 photograph published by the Detroit Publishing Company, and a pair of postcards from 1911 and 1923:

A Frank Cousins photograph of the doorway of the Grimshawe House, circa 1891, and the present doorway.

This house has been in this state for as long as I’ve lived in Salem, and I have no idea what the future holds for it, although (apart from the graveyard) its general neighborhood has improved quite a bit in the last decade or so, with the transformation of the old Police Station across the street into condominiums and the addition of the Peabody Essex Museum‘s eighteenth-century house, Yin Yu Tang.

Addendum:  SPIDERS play a big role in Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, as evidenced by this title page illustration from the 1883 edition, below.  I really like the image, and I couldn’t help comparing it to the Halloween decorations (already!  It is Salem, after all) on a house several streets over from the Grimshawe House.

%d bloggers like this: