Which Witch House?

One reason that I’ve been an ardent preservationist for most of my life is my belief that buildings hold extraordinary power–even more power, I think, than unbuilt spaces, no matter how beautiful. I can’t imagine a better example than Salem’s “Witch House” (more formally and accurately known as the Jonathan Corwin House), a structure that represents both the most tangible connection to the Witch Trials of 1692 as well as a symbol (and vessel) of Salem’s modern transformation into the “Witch City”. The Witch House seems to reflect the evolving aspirations and perceptions of the city that surrounds it:  for much of the nineteenth century, it was referred to as the “Roger Williams House”, a designation that tied it to the seventeenth-century minister who left intolerant Salem for free Rhode Island rather than the witch-trial Judge Corwin from a generation later. Freedom of conscience versus irrational jurisprudence.

The Witch House today and in an 1886 card by Edwin Whitefield, author/illustrator of Homes of our Forefathers.  Whitefield’s images seems to be based on that of Samuel Bartoll’s 1819 painting, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.

The early architectural history of the Witch House is a bit mysterious (a study has been commissioned by the city, but I haven’t seen the results yet), but most experts believe that it dates from much later in the seventeenth century than Roger Williams’ time in Salem. All of the above images, those from the nineteenth century and just yesterday, might be idealized images of this fabled house. We do know that Jonathan Corwin acquired a structure in this location in 1675, and that he served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer which tried the accused “witches” of 1692. That fact alone seems sufficient for the house’s transformation into the “Witch House” much later, after it left the possession of the Corwin family in the mid-nineteenth century. More than anyone, the person responsible for this identification was George Farrington, an entrepreneurial Salem apothecary who definitely emphasized the witchcraft (rather than Williams) associations of his new place of business:  Farrington grafted a box-like shop onto the house and sold medicines in bottles with a flying witch insignia, anticipating the marketing strategies of Daniel Low decades later and many Salem businesses today. He also published images of  the “old witch house”, effectively establishing that identity.

The Witch House in the mid-nineteenth century:  very influential photographs by Frank Cousins of the front and rear of the house just prior to Farrington’s purchase in 1856 (the house had acquired a gambrel roof in the mid-eighteenth century), a Deloss Barnum photograph from the 1860s, after Farrington’s pharmacy had been attached to the house, an “Old Witch House” stereoview published by Farrington, and a Farrington medicine bottle from the 1880s as pictured in a recent ebay auction.  All photographs from the Robert Dennis Collection, New York Public Library.

For nearly a century, the Witch House was configured as a strange (maybe not for Salem) combination of business and tourist attraction and thousands (maybe more) of postcards were issued, fixing and broadcasting its identity. In the decades before and after World War I, when Daniel Low was marketing its witch spoon and other witch wares nationally, there seems to have been a marked increase in the number and variety of Witch House cards. There are also some interesting private photographs of the house from this era, confirming its conspicuous place in Salem’s urban streetscape.

Two photographs of the Witch House in the 1890s from the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and postcards from 1900, 1901, 1906, 1908, 1911 & 1922.  Just a random sampling of many on the market!

The 1940s was a decade of transformation for the Witch House, when it came to represent preservation–but also profits: change and continuity. With the planned widening of North Street, a main thoroughfare in and out of Salem, the house was threatened, and its survival (along with that of the adjacent Bowditch House) became the rallying cry for the formation of  Historic Salem, Incorporated and its subsequent restoration under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb (who had worked on Colonial Williamsburg as well as another famous Salem seventeenth-century structure, the Pickering House). Moved to a more secure northwestern position on its lot, its shop detached and gables rebuilt, the Witch House was opened to the public in 1948 by the City of Salem, and it has been doing steady business ever since.

The Witch House in 1940 (HABS photograph by Frank Branzetti, Library of Congress), 1945 & 1948.

For more on the evolving perception, and structural history of the Witch House, see Salem’s Witch House:  a Touchstone to Antiquity (The History Press, 2012) by Salem architectural historian John Goff.


2 responses to “Which Witch House?

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