Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.

17 responses to “Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

  • Franny Zawadzki

    Ok, shameless plug time … if you’re walking on a Saturday or Sunday, go into the Salem Arts Association to take in the latest exhibition or do some shopping in the shop. We have some amazing artworks currently on display and we’re only getting started this season!

    Also, if you need a time-out and want to read a real newspaper or magazine, or want to read up on Salem history, stop in the Salem Athenaeum! We’re open to visitors. There are some amazing paintings on display from well-known international and national artists like Courbet and Corot. Our garden is getting much-needed love, but it’s a peaceful retreat for residents and tourists alike.

    Ok, shameless plug is over. 🙂

  • az1407t

    Fabulous photos, Donna! I don’t know why, but in recent months, the “Like” function of your articles no longer works (and I like all your articles). However, I can reply. Go figure…

  • Nancy

    Lovely post! Springtime in Salem is extraordinarily beautiful! Despite your attempt to remain “witchless” in this post, the magick there is undeniable.

  • Caroline May

    Thanks for the walk around some of the beautiful houses of my old haunts! I’m not a Salem witch, but was born there and grew up on Raymond Ave. My friends and I used to love to play at Pioneer Village and ice skate on the little pond there. My family owned Bernards Jewelers on Essex Street. I spent a lot of time at the former Peabody and Essex museums when I was a kid, and when my husband and I lived in Marblehead from ’06 to ’16, I was a member at the Peabody. I couldn’t get over how much the “witch thing” has turned Salem into a real tourist trap..especially around Halloween. That was so low key when I was growing up in the ’50’s and ’60’s! We’re now retired to Florida, but I miss the North Shore…though not in winter so much! I really enjoy your postings, especially with old photos. Thanks!

    • daseger

      Lovely to hear from you, Caroline. I loved your family’s store. I think some things may have been donated to the SSU Archives? I’ll have to check it out and do a post.

  • Josiah Fisk

    Honored to have my house among the other (mostly much fancier) houses shown in this post. Excellent photography. I’m struck by the effort necessary to walk through a town famous for its history without passing the most shameless efforts to cash in on a fabricated carnival-show version of that history. And even then, as you point out, if you really want to see only historical sights, you need to avoid looking in certain directions. It used to be you had avoid walking the city during October, but last year there were sizable contingents of witch hunters from May well into November. As things stand in Salem, expanding historical protections is not on the agenda, nor does the one institution with the historical and financial assets to promote history seem to have any interest in that. You wonder who they think is going to come to Salem if the witch-kitsch economy continues to expand.

    • daseger

      Your house always impresses—I always loved it but its newish color has gilded the lily! I know: I’m really worried about the tourist trap reputation but no one else seems to be but us!

  • Diane Baia Hale

    Thank you so much for this timely post. I’ll be in Salem in two weeks for a long-delayed research trip (I’m writing a book about Louisa Lander) and want to avoid “Witch Central” at all costs!

  • paull61

    I really enjoyed these photos. I’ve always found that Salem has a particular beauty and charm in the spring.

  • salemhandkerchiefgarden

    Well done you! (as always)…

  • Robert Albert

    Great advice for a nice route avoiding the witch kitch

  • Bret Cantwell

    As the direct descendant of Mary Estey, Susannah Martin and Rebecca Nurse I loved this essay and travelogue. The witchy kitsch and associated insipid bacchanalia has driven ke crazy for years.

    My mother is an Ipswich native and worked for Ma Bell in Salem. In 2000 my parents and I were in town to catch the T into Boston and I had my dad take a photo of me in front of the Witch “Museum”. By 2018 I had gotten the genealogy bug and made such amazing discoveries that I had to head back to Essex County.

    My dad stood next to the Conant statue to take me photo in 2000 and I had learned that not only did I have my hysteria ancestors, but I had Old Planters including Roger in both of my maternal grandparents lines. My mom passed by hos statue many times in the 60s and early 70s never knowing then that he was her ancestor.

    During my 2018 visit I was able to reverse the image from 2000 with me standing next to the Conant statue while ny cousin took a photo from in front of the Witch “Museum”.

    The photos are beautiful and I thank you again for them and your prose.

    • daseger

      Thank you, Bret! I appreciate your comments as I often feel like the only one in my community who feels this way—I was just looking at all the Congratulations posts or the Witch Museum on my fb feed as it is celebrating its 50th anniversary. I have yet to meet a historian or a descendant who is not horrified by this place but in Salem everyone seems to think it is just fine–a true Museum. Very active Conant groups on fb if you are interested!

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