Tag Archives: Witch House

Witness Houses

I was out and about in Lexington and Concord last week as my favorite nurseries are in that area, and between bouts of perusing plants I walked around Lexington Green and along the Battle Road at the Minute Man National Historic Park. In both locales you will see eighteenth-century “witness houses” which overlooked the opening acts of the Revolutionary War and now stand as physical reminders. The National Park Service also utilizes “witness trees” to enhance historical interpretation, particularly at Civil War sites. Certainly both the houses and the trees add to the ambiance of these historic landscapes, but their roles are much more important than that. The trees might bear scars, the houses might have served as refuges or makeshift hospitals: every physical remainder is a reference point or a touchstone. One can grasp their landmark status immediately by glancing at photographic records like Alexander Gardner’s photographic sketchbooks of the Civil War, which documented the contemporary significance of the Matthews House in Manassas and the Burnside Bridge in Antietam among other structures: the house still stands as does the sycamore tree by the bridge, connecting us to the past with their very presence.

Mathews House Gardner

Stone House

Burnside Bridge

witness-tree-sycamore-burnside-bridge-antietam-620Pages from Gardner’s Sketchbook, Volume One at Duke University Library’s Digital Repository; the Stone House and Burnside Bridge at Manassas National Battlefield Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

The importance of place—both in general and in many specific instances—can also be gleaned from accounts of the long process of reconciliation and remembrance following the Civil War. The grave of Calvin Townes, a Salem shoemaker who fought and was wounded with the valiant 1st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery at Spotsylvania, drew me into the heady history of memorialization for and by these men, who lost 55 of their comrades at the “engagement” at Harris Farm on May 19, 1864, and 484 men during the entire war. The surviving members of the Regiment met annually after the war, and raised funds for a monument on the battlefield near the farmhouse which was the focus of so much of their collective remembrance. The monument was dedicated in 1901; it endures but unfortunately Harris Farm does not, despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: it was purchased by a developer in 2014 and rather promptly demolished.

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1st regiment reunion at Salem Willows 1890

1st Regiment Monuments

Spotsylvania_HarrisFarmCalvin Townes of the First Regiment; the surviving Regiment at Salem Willows, 1890; Memorials at Spotsylvania and in the Essex Institute, from the History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917); the demolished Harris Farm.

Revolutionary remembrance does not seem as intense, or we don’t have as much evidence of its expressions. Nor do we have opportunities for dramatic photographic contrasts, but the witness houses of Lexington and Concord remind us that these 1775 battles took place within a very human context—-settlements, not barren battlefields. And they also played their roles within the narrative of events. In Lexington Center the houses are privately-owned, and located around the Green; along the Battle Road they are part of the public park.

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20190528_114456The Munroe House on Lexington Green (which is presently for sale); the Smith House, Hartwell hearth and Tavern, Minute Man National Historic Park.

The term “witness” implies to something: an act or an event. Salem’s historic structures witnessed many events: the arrival of precious cargoes, military maneuvers, political parades, the progress of transportation technology, fires, men going off to war, hordes of Halloween revelers. But of course one event looms large over Salem’s long history: the Salem Witch Trials. There is only one surviving structure which “witnessed” that tragedy: the Jonathan Corwin House, better-known (unfortunately) as the Witch House. Despite Salem’s (unfortunate) dependence on the witch trade, it bears remembering that the Corwin house was not saved and restored by the City, but rather by Historic Salem, Inc., which was founded in 1944 for the purposes of saving the storied house (and its neighbor, the Bowditch House) from demolition due to the widening of Route 114, one of Salem’s major entrance corridors. After its slight relocation and restoration (or recreation? or creation?) by the Boston architect Gordon Robb, the Witch House opened to the public in 1948. Historic Salem, Inc. went on to play key roles in preventing full-scale urban redevelopment in the later 1960s and early 1970s and advocating for both preservation and sensitive redevelopment for decades—a particularly pressing responsibility now. This year marks its 75th anniversary, a notable achievement which will be celebrated this very weekend with an event at the Hawthorne Hotel. Come one and all, and congratulations to HSI!

Witch HOuse HNE

Witch House 1947

Witch House 1940sThe Jonathan Corwin (Witch) House, in all of its incarnations in an early 20th century postcard, Historic New England; in 1947 as restored by Gordon Robb and Historic Salem, Inc., and photographed by Harry Sampson, and in the tourist attraction in the 1950s, Arthur Griffin via Digital Commonwealth.


Stereo Scenes of Salem, 1897-1947

Browsing through the vast collections of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) last week,  I came across a haunting image of the Corwin or “Witch House” in Salem. It was a stereo image taken by photographer Harry L. Sampson in 1947, so I assumed it was an artistic composition as that is very late for a stereoview, but it is deceptive: it’s not a stereoview or card but rather a dual image on a contact sheet, and part of of the Keystone-Mast collection of 350,000 images at the California Museum of Photography located at the University of California, Riverside. About twenty percent of this collection  (with more to come) can be accessed digitally via the portal Calisphere, which is linked to the DPLA. The Keystone-Mast Collection is the archive of the Keystone View Company of Meadville, PA, which was active from 1892 to 1963,  and constitutes a major source of visual documentation of the twentieth-century world. I’ve seen some of these images before, but not all, and I’m grateful for the context and source information as so many Salem images are floating out there without either.

Witch House 1947

Witch House 1926 Keystone-Mast Henry Peabody

Witch House 1920 Keystone Mast Henry PeabodyViews of the Jonathan Corwin “Witch House” in 1947, 1926, and 1920 by Harry L. Sampson and Henry Peabody, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Hawthornes House 1926 Keystone Mast

Keystone-Mast Underwood and Underwood

Pioneer Village 2 Keystone-Mast

Pioneer Village KeystoneNathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location in 1926 and 1897 (Underwood & Underwood); the newly-built Pioneer Village in 1930, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography.

Old Custom House 1926 Henry Peabody Keystone-Mast

Gables Keystone-Mast 1926

Conant Statue Keystone-MastThree 1926 images: the entrance to the Old Custom House, the House of the Seven Gables, and the Roger Conant Statue, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography.

While I’m discussing visual sources, repositories, digitization and access, I’m going to make a (-nother) little plea to the Peabody Essex Museum and Phillips Library: according to the 1925 Catalogue of Negatives in the Essex Institute Collections, the museum has among its collections thousands of negatives representing every single street in Salem (and many of towns and cities) in the early twentieth century: could some (many, all) these be digitized and shared via the DPLA, please? Such an initiative would be an amazing compensatory gesture on behalf of the PEM.

Negatives collageJust a few negatives listed in the 1925 Catalogue of Negatives in the Essex Institute Collections, which is available here


First-Period Fantasy

I’ve been obsessed with the Downing-Bradstreet house (which once occupied the site of another current obsession, the Phillips Library) for quite some time: consequently I took advantage of some extra time during this past spring break to dig a little deeper into its history. Actually, the history is easy: it’s the projection that is difficult. We know that this “mansion house” was built by 1640 and demolished more than a century later, but our only image of it was created by a man who was born after its demolition and whose source is unknown:  did it really look like this?

Oldest House Bradstreet-Downing

Wow: that’s a big house with a lot of windows, gables, glass, and finials. What in the world are those “flanking towers reminiscent of feudal days”, in the words of Frank Cousins? Are they made of glass? Indeed they were according to Robert Rantoul’s 1888 essay on the “New Domain” of the Essex Institute, which describes what preceded its buildings on “Downing Block”: it had two massive sets of chimneys and also two transparent, hollow columns of lead sash and diamond glass, great lanthorns (?????), one of either side of the front door, for lighting up the ample grounds in front, and these rose from the foundation to the roof and contained a cupboard-door at each floor of the house for inserting candles or other illuminating appliances on occasion of festivity or other need of light. Wow again. All of this illumination, combined with the scale and detail of the house, makes it appear more like a romantic fantasy of a seventeenth-century house than an actual seventeenth-century structure, especially as it was situated in frontier Salem. This “grate” house, either real or embellished, was built by London barrister Emmanuel Downing, the brother-in-law of Governor John Winthrop, who eventually returned to England leaving the mansion to his daughter Ann as part of the dowry for her marriage to Captain Joseph Gardner, who was killed in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War in December of 1675. In the following year, the Widow Gardner married Simon Bradstreet, the last Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose first wife Anne, America’s first published poet, had died in 1672. Bradstreet returned to Salem (his port of entry to the New World) and took up residence in the Mansion until his death in 1697. Both he and Ann are buried in the Old Burying Ground on Charter Street. The now-Bradstreet House was passed down in the Ropes family for a few generations, but ultimately it was transformed into a tavern (the Globe), divided, and demolished in 1753. The artist of its iconic image, Marblehead painter and muralist Samuel Bartoll (1765-1835) created both the painting above and a similar one of the Corwin (Roger William House in the 19th century; “Witch House” in the 20th) in 1819-1820: what was the basis of his conception?

Bradstreet collage

Bradstreet Witch House BartollFrank Cousins photograph of the Bartoll painting; 1930 Port of Salem map, Boston Public Library & illustration from Lossing’s History of the United States of America (1913); Samuel Bartoll’s Corwin House, Peabody Essex Museum.

I have no answers to the questions I am asking, but it’s still important to ask them, as these idealized (?) images guided so many restoration projects later on. Nathaniel Hawthorne likely saw the Bartoll paintings in Salem: they influenced his vision in the House of the Seven Gables, which later inspired the material transformation of the Turner-Ingersoll mansion into the more “picturesque” House of the Seven Gables by Caroline Emmerton and Joseph Everett Chandler in 1908-1910. Later in the twentieth century, the Corwin House underwent a similar transformation—back (or forward) to the Bartoll vision, with a few less finials.

Bradstreet Bartoll Chairs Julia Auctions

Bartoll Landing of the Pilgrims 1825More idealized American imagery from Samuel Bartoll: Painted Hitchcock Chairs, James D. Julia Auctions; and a Fireboard Depicting the Landing of the Pilgrims, 1825, Peabody Essex Museum.


Dark Etchings

Though he is primarily identified as a New York artist, the German émigré etcher Charles Frederick William Mielatz (1864-1919) also produced many New England images: port scenes, a few pastoral landscapes and many more urban streetscapes, and detailed depictions of structures. When in Salem, he apparently ignored the wharves (which seem to have captivated him in Nantucket and Boston) in favor of an old house–which he calls the “Witch House”, but it doesn’t really look like the Witch House would have looked in 1903, the year in which the etchings below were made. This makes sense in context: Salem’s harbor must have looked rather dreary at the turn of the last century and its Witch City identity was forming, a decade after the commemoration of the bicentennial anniversary of the Trials with all its commercial tie-ins. Mielatz’s Witch Houses are dark indeed, in contrast to his most of his urban scenes, which include some rather pioneering colored etchings. As if he could not resist, he does give us a pop of contrasting red in the second Witch House etching, which emphasizes the darkness of this mystical olde Salem house.

Witch House 1903 CW Mielatz

Witches House 1903 CF Mielatz

Witch House Pencil Drawing Mielatz

Mielatz Houston Street Door

Mieletz State Street NYC

Charles Frederick William Mielatz, Witch House etchings, 1903, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Bonhams Auctions; Pencil Sketch for the same and Houston Street, NYC door, both also 1903, Kramer Fine Arts & Prints, Inc.; “No. 7 State Street”, NYC, 1908, Skinner Auctions.


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