It Happened in Town House Square

I didn’t expect to be posting on Salem for a while as I’m on my way to Maine to escape the Halloween Hordes (haven’t quite broken away yet!) but I’m in the midst of writing the last chapter for Salem’s Centuries and I thought posting would help. It’s why I started this blog in the first place, so long ago, to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s lost history and free up my writing from its academic constraints! This last chapter is on the long history of Salem’s center, Town House Square, and I’m just kind of enraptured with everything that happened there, but also haven’t figured out the meaning of it all. I’m trying to use the chapter to summarize the book Salem’s Centuries and also Salem’s centuries by using the Square as kind of a “stage” (at least that’s the word I’m using now). So this will be kind of a sketchy post as it is a work in progress and I welcome all comments and corrections.

I’m happy with my opening paragraph:

A crowd filled Town House Square on a sunny day in June of 2005, cheering and jeering the unveiling of a bronze statue of the actress Elizabeth Montgomery in character as Samantha Stevens of the television series Bewitched. The rationale for the statue was the filming of a few episodes of the series in Salem in 1970, commencing a successful intensification of witchcraft-focused tourism in the view of those who cheered, while less-enthusiastic attendees noted the impropriety of installing a fictitious witch within view of the sites where the victims of 1692 were accused and tried. The Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell, 31st pastor of the First Church of Salem, which stood across the street for centuries, was among those who had urged the Salem Redevelopment Authority to reject the statue weeks before“in due deference to our history”and its location: “we must object to this statue being sponsored by the city of Salem, less than twenty yards away from site where we committed, arguably, one of the worst…..crimes in the history of this city.” This argument was countered by the majority opinion, expressed succinctly by Salem City Councilor Thomas Furey: “Salem is the Witch City. I think we all need to lighten up, take a breath, and let Salem have fun.” This moment in time and place is representative of the continuous significance of a small parcel of land, more of an intersection than a square, over Salem’s centuries. The crowd, the expression of civic identity, representations of church, state and commerce: all have had their role to play in Town House Square.

Then I go back to the seventeenth century and start with the English settlement of Salem from 1626, including a brief discussion of how the topography shaped the town and its center at the intersections of its two main thoroughfares, later called Essex and Washington Streets. This became known as Town House Square in the 18th century, and that’s still its place-name, although I wonder how many Salem residents (much less tourists) know it as such today. Then it’s all about meeting houses—-four on the same site: it really took a lot of time to figure out all that building history. First there was a small meeting house built in 1634 which was long thought to be the small building you can see in the rear of Plummer Hall on the Peabody Essex Museum’s campus, a larger though still quite simple structure built around 1670, the first “churchly” meeting house with a belfry, built in 1718, and finally the present building (1826) which long served as the Daniel Low & Co. store after the First Church departed to its present building further along Essex Street. Salem’s meeting houses are confusing, both before and after the First Church splits up into successor congregations: East, North, South and Tabernacle. Thank goodness I don’t have to go into the theological and factional disputes: I’m sticking to Town House Square.

So, once I set the stage, action will begin: here’s what happened in Town House Square, with an emphasis on the public. Obviously lots of other things happened in this vicinity over 400 years but why do some leave a mark or record and others not? And do the happenings in the Square reveal its public nature and role? Just questions I’m asking myself as I am writing.

  1. Lots of Quaker resistance: holding their own meetings right next to the First Church/Meeting House, wearing their hats into the latter, and then in 1662, Quaker Deborah Buffum Wilson, accompanied by her mother and half-sister, walked “naked for a sign” down Washington Street in imitation of an Old Testament episode (Isaiah 20.2-3) and in denunciation of the spiritual “nudity” of those who condemned them. Yes, a NAKED QUAKER walked down Washington Street. This resistance was met with an equal (or larger) measure of persecution, especially by the William Hathorne, who lived right on the Square.
  2. Anti-Royalist protests: by the same William Hathorne, who as Major of the Salem Militia, assembled his armed soldiers in Town House Square for his impassioned speech against the Royal Commissioners present in Massachusetts in 1664, after which he himself was summoned to England on the charge of refusing to submit to royal authority.
  3. The Salem Witch Trials: also happened in Town House Square once the judicial proceedings moved from Salem Village to Salem Town. Close quarters! Judge John Hathorne, son of William, lived right there, as did the Reverend Nicholas Noyes, and victim Bridget Bishop. The combined courthouse/schoolhouse at the northern end of the Square, made of the framing of the 1634 meeting house, separated the properties of Noyes and Bishop, and High Sheriff George Corwin resided at the southern end of the Square.
  4. Salem’s first July 4th: came before the Revolution! There was a huge party at the Town House (sometimes called the provincial Court House, sometimes even the State House—think of the old State House in Boston) to celebrate Sir William Pepperrell, the hero of the Siege of Louisbourg, in 1746. The cannons surounding the Town House were fired after every toast, and there were many.
  5. Big Town Meeting Protests: against British taxation, commencing with the Stamp Act (1765), at the Town House. (But less than 20 years earlier they were celebrating the hero of a war they were not willing to pay for–just a British historian’s perspective.)
  6. Salem’s “Tea Party”: a crate of tea from Boston is seized and burned in Town House Square on October 4, 1774, “in the presence of several hundred spectators.”
  7. Last meeting of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly: against the orders of Governor Thomas Gage, electing delegates to the new Provincial Congress which met in Concord on October 7, 1774.
  8. Colonel Alexander Leslie and his regiment passed through Town House Square on their way to the North River to recover rumored cannon, and back again on their retreat, February 1775.
  9. Presidential Parades: George Washinton in 1789, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
  10. Salem’s “big digs”: the first railroad tunnel built in 1839, and rebuilt in the later 1950s.
  11. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romanticized view of colonial history set against Town House Square in two stories: A Rill from the Town Pump and Endicott and the Red Cross.
  12. Town House Square Transportation Hub: trains, trolleys, and later, buses.
  13. Daniel Low & Co. established in the former fourth meeting house of the First Church, 1867. A mail order innovator, the store also issued a catalog which projected both Salem and Town House Square to the entire country.
  14. War Bond Rallies: the Square was the center of  “community chest” and war bond events during both World War I and World War II, including one which featured  fake Germans attacking during the former!
  15. Restaurant action: I think this can take me from the second half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first, from the long-running Gerber’s “Little Town Hall” restaurant through various fast-food experiments to today.
  16. And then came Samantha……back where I started. I don’t really believe in historical objectivity, but I know that I can’t even try to write about that awful statue in a balanced way, so I better close with a reprise of Reverend Barz-Snell’s and Councillor Furey’s statements.

John Smibert’s portrait of Sir William Pepperrell, Peabody Essex Museum; the “Salem Tea Party” of October 4, 1774; there are great historic placques in Town House Square but I don’t think the tourists are really interested. Where can I Get a Car?, 1894; The Story of a Store, 1926. Boy, what a devolution of opponents: from King George to Burger King. Town House Square today, or yesterday: it’s Samantha’s neighborhood.

11 responses to “It Happened in Town House Square

  • Donald Carleton


    Another great post as always!

    Just a couple of points: you dropped an “r” from “Pepperrell.”

    Would writers learn to rightly spell
    The Ancient name of Pepperrell
    Then please these easy lines recite
    And one will surely have it right
    Of letters four make ten from these
    of p’s and r’s and l’s and e’s
    Begin with p and e and then
    Use all the letters that you can
    That is to say in Pepperrell
    Use doubles p and r and l.

    Also, in regard to point #5, I don’t think its quite right to say that the Mass Bay Province’s role in the Austrian Succession War was one “they were not willing to pay for,” because MA mounted the Louisbourg campaign largely on its own account with an outcome uncertain.

    As things played out, Hutchinson (early on in his career) negotiated a hard-money reimbursement for a good portion of the victorious campaign’s cost, but that happened well after the gamble had been made. The late Bill Pencak’s fine study War, Politics and Revolution in Provincial Massachusetts, goes into all this in some detail, as I recall.

    • daseger

      Two great points! That’s why I put it out there–it’s definitely a work in progress. And as a southern Mainer, I feel truly awful about spelling PEPPERRELL correctly! I’ll never forget again.

  • Normand Corbin

    I’m looking forward to reading the final version. Keep up the good work. Norm
    PS: Shopping at Daniel Low for a special occasion gift was always enjoyed by my mother.

  • Caroline May

    Just want to let you know that I was at Logan yesterday and met a family who had been visiting Salem (Kids in Salem sweatshirts were a dead giveaway.). Chatted with the mom who said they loved seeing the beautiful architecture of the old houses. So…it’s not lost on everyone who visits the Witch City!

  • John Treggiari

    I would love to see the steeples restored on the Daniel Low building.
    Or at least a bit of signage at the spot explaining the store’s significance.
    But, fortunately, the “Salem Stories” exhibit at PEM presents an excellent take on it.

  • John Treggiari

    My greatest disappoint with the Daniel Low Building is the fact the Grand Staircase was demolished.
    But I do enjoy the food.

  • meryka

    Hello Donna,
    I very much enjoy your blog and wish you the best with the new book. The Square as a stage is a great idea! Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the concept of an objective correlative as a writing device––”the artistic and literary technique of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of symbols that objectify that emotion and are associated with it.” I think this Square might to be a good one. I’m so looking forward to reading the book.

    • daseger

      Oh how interesting! That’s kind of what I’m going for too. We’ll see how it turns out! I really like blogging things out when I’m stuck in my academic sphere.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: