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.

15 responses to “A Secretive Salem House

  • markd60

    It’s a pity it is abandoned and decaying. Here they built a 7 story tall condo building next to the cemetery at Cemetery Beach, great beachfront condos and they haven’t sold a single one!

    I love seeing the pics of the same thing over time.

  • Bernadette

    You always write such interesting posts, love the Halloween decorations on the house!

  • ceciliag

    Buy that one too! I will help you with the garden.. it has the sash windows!
    So sad, but what a history. i always sit back and pause and really read when i come to your posts.. c

  • Jenn

    Fascinating as usual! I can’t believe the city hasn’t done something to restore or preserve a building with such interesting history. Wouldn’t it make a wonderful literary museum of some sort? Thanks so much for writing this blog…I love learning more about this lovely, quirky place we call home and I always do when I visit here.

    Do you ever do any public lectures on Salem history?


    • daseger

      Thank you so much for your comments, Jenn. This house is in private hands, so I don’t think there is much the city can do about it, unfortunately. I’m actually an English historian, so Salem’s history is my hobby rather than my vocation, but I very occasionally give talks on very focused topics.

  • wolke205

    Wonderful pictures! But I m glad that the spiders are not real 😉

  • thedailydish

    I SO hope you’re leading walking tours through Salem this Halloween. And if you’re not, you really, really should be!

    That house is sppooooooky!

  • Steve

    This is one old house I don’t have a longing for, although that original enclosed portico (?) with its portholes is quite special.

  • Erika Haan

    The original front doorway was moved to back of pem library so it was saved. The house someone lives there it has electricity. The creepers and front overhang were removed as were any trees bushes. The garage to right side was recently convered the leaking riof with tarp. Peabody essex musuem has its eye on acquiring property if it shoukd ever be put up for sale. To become one oif their historic properties. The exterior is a horror show of bad fifties exterior wiuth replacement windows. Very sad state but ut wull be refyrbished when it changes hands. Perhaps waiting for death if current owner?

  • Chris

    I believe the story was that Perceval Peabody who had owned was a Harvard Professor who had help restore several properties in town. When he was denied by the planning department in town to build a nursing home in his other home (Abandoned home behind Ropes’ Garden) on Federal Street Court he got angry. When the planning department denied his plans to put stucco on the carriage house, he got even.
    He decided that he would let this property and the Peabody home fall into almost ruin. It is said his family may inherit the property as long as they do not renovate them. They were only suppose to do enough repairs to keep them from becoming condemned. This could be the reason that the project has been staled on Charter Street.

  • Nick Lucki

    In the late 1980s the house had a sign on it – Rooms for Rent – just an FYI

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