Tag Archives: Essex County

A County in Crisis, 1692

The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.

Essex County Witch VictimsThe names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.

When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.

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Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “We Do Testefy : The Felton Family & Salem Witch Trials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “Skeletons in the Closet: The Memorialization of George Jacobs Sr. and Rebecca Nurse after the 1692 Witch Trials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.

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Nathaniel Saltonstall 4 Perley History

Saltonstall CrestI can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.

Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!


The Older Andover

About forty minutes inland from Salem to the northwest are the towns of Andover and North Andover, both early settlements and bustling towns today. Due to the anniversary of the last executions of the Salem Witch Trials on Friday, I had Samuel Wardwell—who hailed from Andover, along with several other victims—on my mind, so I decided to drive there and see if I could find the location of his farm, which is always referred to as lying in the “southern” part of what was then one big Andover. That was my goal, but I got waylaid and distracted by the other Andover, the North Parish, which became North Andover in 1855. I hadn’t realized that North Andover was actually the first settlement: whenever I see North or South or East or West I assume that that designated location was settled after the adjoining town without the geographical adjective (is there are word for that?) But in the case of the Andovers, this assumption is incorrect. And because I assumed North Andover was later, I had always given it short shrift and driven through or around or by it—but this Saturday, the weather was fine and I had time so I drove into it, and spent a considerable amount of time in the vicinity of its perfectly pristine center village, in which a striking Gothic Revival Church overlooks one of the prettiest commons I have ever seen. It was the first day of Fall, and the North Andover Fall Festival was in full swing, so I parked the car and walked all around the old town center.

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All of the houses above surround the large Common, and bordering it is the little building built for the North Andover Hay Scales Company, established in 1819, which Walter Muir Whitehill refers to as “a rustic corporation of twenty-five proprietors who not only missioned a public utility but had a good sociable time doing so”. (Old-Time New England, October 1948). And down the road apiece is the Trustees of Reservations’ Stevens-Coolidge estate, with its extensive gardens, and this intriguing brick double house.

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On the other side of the Common, I walked past the North Andover Historical Society, a rather stately Greek Revival house and two “Salem Federals”, which really do have the air of displaced Salem houses, especially the Kittredge Mansion (1784), which looks just like the Peirce-Nichols House! Apparently its design is attributed to Samuel McIntire, which is complete news to me—must find out much more about this house.

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Kittredge House

Kittredge House 2The Kittredge Mansion & gate in HABS photographs from 1940-41, Library of Congress.

Finally I came to the beautiful Parson Barnard House (1715), which was long believed to be the home of Simon and Anne Bradstreet and has been owned and maintained by the North Andover Historical Society since 1950. It is perfectly situated and colored for early fall reveries, and I could have sat there looking at it for quite some time, but Wardwell business was pressing, so I retrieved my car, drove over the other Andover, and took a really cool virtual tour of its downtown courtesy of the Andover Center for History and Culture.

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New Condos in Old Ipswich

Shameless promotion of husband’s work follows. Ipswich is my second-favorite Essex County town, so I was thrilled when my husband got the contract to convert its former town hall into condominiums. The project was long and complicated but is now completed: I accompanied him to the open house last week to take some photographs, but in all honesty I’ll seize any opportunity to go to Ipswich, whose inventory of First Period and later antique homes is without parallel. The District Condominiums provide quite a contrast to this material heritage in terms of interiors, but the exterior restoration of the building is faithful to its second incarnation. It began its life as a (one-story) Unitarian Church in 1833, was considerably enlarged in 1876 when it was transformed into the town hall, and underwent a series of additional alterations during its service as administrative offices and a district court before it was sold by the town in 2004. There were hopes for a theater conversion, but eventually condominiums emerged as the only option for its preservation (visit the wonderful blog Historic Ipswich for a far more detailed history and lots of photographs). While the building has long presented a dignified silhouette along South Main Street, it has been vacant for a decade, so I hope residents are happy with the new residences. The building is on the National Register and the local historical commission holds a preservation restriction, so there were considerable constraints governing the construction process, most notably windows. As you can see, there were two windows added to the front facade, and smaller ones in the back and sides, but all the other windows had to be incorporated into the interior design, in one way or another.

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Ipswich town hall 1930s

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Ipswich Museum

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The former Ipswich Town Hall/District Court (today and in the early 20th century) transformed into condominiums–across the green, the Ipswich Museum @ the Heard House, c. 1800; and just a few steps away, the Ipswich River. 


Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.

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My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

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An Abandoned House in Essex

Brakes literally screeched, disturbing a quiet neighborhood, as I spotted a beautiful abandoned house in Essex yesterday. I was on my way from Ipswich to Beverly to home on a rather circuitous route, and then I spotted this stately house on Western Avenue: striking in both its elegance and abandonment. Neighbors looked warily on as I took some pictures, and then I hopped back in the car and drove home so I could research the house, forgetting all about my Beverly errand. Here it is.

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Barr Farm Essex 1979

The Col. Andrews House (Barr Farm) yesterday and in 1979.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have MACRIS, a digital database of inventories of historical properties undertaken for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and I quickly found the Essex house, which was identified as the Colonel Andrews House, built in 1806 and better known as the “Barr Farm”. Besides the decaying elegance, that’s what caught my attention: this is no country Colonial but a pristine Federal farmhouse. The inventory, which dates from 1979, is largely based on an interview with the 99-year-old Mrs. John Barr, who had lived in the house nearly her entire life and still lived there at that time. She notes that it had always been a farm (I didn’t even notice outbuildings–I only had eyes for the house) up until the death of her husband 40 years previously, and then it became “inactive”. And so it remains–or does it? That chimney looks rather rebuilt to me, and the surrounding lawn is mowed……

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Essex County Seats

Salem is the county seat of Essex County, which extends from north of Boston to the New Hampshire border, encompassing a great marsh, a rocky coastline, the Merrimack River,and what used to be fertile farmland in between. Now much,but not all, of it is residential, but because of its early development (just after Plymouth, to the south of Boston), the marsh, and some early conservation and preservation efforts there remains a seemingly-eternal landscape that is both natural and man-made. The county is full of long-established towns with clearly-defined centers and commons, even though progressive sprawl has blurred the lines of distinction among them. There are seventeenth-century, “First Period” houses in several Essex County towns (with Ipswich claiming the most) and eighteenth-century houses everywhere. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, Essex County was just a place to drive through, between Boston and my hometown in southern Maine, but then I began turning off route 95 and exploring a little: first the old seaports, Salem, Gloucester, Newburyport, then the smaller coastal and inland towns between the ports and the highway, and then the Merrimack Valley, still bearing the structures of its early industrial revolution. Now that I live here, I still go exploring, and find new (old) houses, roads, and landmarks every time.

Over a century ago, Boston lithographer and publisher George H. Walker encouraged the exploration of Essex (and other) counties by issuing a series of  “driving maps”, birds’ eye views, and lithographs of the notable structures of the region: “stately” homes, factories, educational establishments, public buildings. A large collection of his Essex County lithographs was donated to the Archives of Salem State University earlier this summer, and they are now online, with great descriptions written by a former student of mine. Published in 1884, in the midst of an age of dynamic growth and industrialization, these images seem to harken back to an earlier Arcadian age. They are beautiful in a very idealized way: prancing horses dance about and even the factories are pristine. But as you can see below (in just a sampling of the entire collection), where I’ve managed to contrast a Walker lithograph with a standing structure, the architectural details are quite delineated.

Essex County Kernwood

Essex County Kimball

Silsbee House, Salem

Essex County Peabody

John Bertram House, Salem

Walker’s Salem Lithographs: the Kernwood Estate in North Salem (now radically reconstructed as the clubhouse of the Kernwood Country Club), the Kimball House (built by Nathaniel Silsbee and now the Knights of Columbus) & the George Peabody House (now the John Bertram House, a senior living community).

Essex County Appleton

Essex County Oak Hill

Two long-lost houses in nearby Peabody: the very eclectic Appleton estate, and Samuel McIntire’s “Oak Hill” shown in Victorian guise–now the site of the Northshore Shopping Center!

Essex County Peabody Beverly

Essex County Danvers

St. John's Prep administrative building

Another Peabody (family, not town) house: the summer residence at Light House Point in Beverly, where President Taft summered, and the Spring residence in Danvers, now the administrative building of St. John’s Preparatory School.

Essex County Elm Vale Cottage N Andover

Essex County Moulton Hill

The very charming Elm Vale Cottage in North Andover (I don’t know if this is still standing; I’ll have to go exploring), and the long-gone Moulton Castle in Newburyport, situated on the Castle Hill that is now part of Maudslay State Park.


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