Historic Salem, Massachusetts | A City Wrapped in Layers

Historic Salem, Massachusetts, is a city of layers—one historical era layered upon another—if you seek only witches here, you are merely scratching the surface.

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Historic Salem, Massachusetts, is a city of layers—one historical era layered upon another. It’s evident in the architecture; from the dark, medieval homes of the original settlers, to the grand wood and brick 19th century Federal houses built in the McIntire district for those made wealthy by Salem’s preeminent seaport. Settled by hardline Puritans, intolerant of anyone veering from their established norms, Salem reached its well-known fanatical climax with the witch trials of 1692. Though short-lived, this appalling chapter in the city’s history left a stain so dark and abiding that over three centuries later the witch-hunt remains the biggest draw for tourists. Such interest was helped along by Salem whole-heartedly embracing its past sin and turning it into a very profitable industry. While I love the witchy side of Salem, it’s a city of many stories—if you seek only witches here, you are merely scratching the surface.

The House of Seven Gables, built in 1688

The House of Seven Gables, built in 1688.

Alyson Horrocks

Salem has produced vast fortunes, brave souls, and brilliant minds. One of the most brilliant was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author of The Scarlet LetterThe House of Seven Gables, and many other works was born in Salem on Independence Day in 1804—at the height of Salem’s prosperity. It was the wealthiest seaport per capita in the country at the time, and his father was a ship’s captain. Before Nathaniel’s fourth birthday, his father died at sea. As the boy grew, Salem began to lose much of its seafaring luster due to the embargo of 1807. It was a city beginning its decline. All of the success and failure of his city, the death and sadness, the tales of the sea and of long-ago witch-hunts must have made a deep impression on the mind of the young, fatherless Hawthorne. Salem, and its joys and sorrows, created this author of deeply moral and dark tales.

The Salem of Hawthorne’s era is still here, woven into the tapestry of the 21st century. The places that helped forge his personality are accessible to visitors today. A must-see on any Hawthorne-inspired agenda is a visit to The House of Seven Gables. This non-profit site also includes Nathaniel’s birthplace and other historic buildings that have been moved to the property since it opened for public tours over a hundred years ago.

The 17th century house was once owned by Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, and her tales of the home’s history, as well as his own visits to the place, were the inspiration for the novel, The House of Seven Gables.

The House of Seven Gables interior.

The House of Seven Gables interior.

Alyson Horrocks

Inside the House of the Seven Gables.

Inside the House of the Seven Gables.

Alyson Horrocks

Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace

The birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Alyson Horrocks

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Outside the House of Seven Gables.

Outside the House of Seven Gables.

Alyson Horrocks

The Counting House on the Seven Gables property. Derby Wharf can be seen in the background..

The Counting House on the Seven Gables property. Derby Wharf can be seen in the background..

Alyson Horrocks

The property fence between the House of Seven Gables and harbor.

The property fence between the House of Seven Gables and harbor.

Alyson Horrocks

The House of Seven Gables, with the gardens in a winter slumber.

The House of Seven Gables, with the gardens in a winter slumber.

Alyson Horrocks

Salem is a walkable city, and as you stroll down Derby and Essex Streets, or Washington Square and others, it’s easy to imagine it in Hawthorne’s day.

Ye Old Pepper Companie has been around since Hawthorne was a toddler.

Ye Old Pepper Companie has been around since Hawthorne was a toddler.

Alyson Horrocks

West India Goods Store

West India Goods Store, was built in the year of Hawthorne’s birth, and is now run by the National Park Service.

Alyson Horrocks

Nathaniel was surveyor of the port at the Custom House for three years, which served as his inspiration for the preface of The Scarlet Letter.

The Custom House

The Custom House

Alyson Horrocks

Across the street from the Custom House, the Friendship of Salem, a replica of a 1797 ship that was once owned by a Salem merchant, sits anchored in the harbor.

The Friendship at Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

The Friendship at Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

Alyson Horrocks

The Friendship of Salem.

The Friendship of Salem.

Alyson Horrocks

The Orientation Center

The Orientation Center

Alyson Horrocks

Evidence of Salem’s reverence for her native son is clear in places like the Hawthorne Hotel and in the statue of the author, which sets prominently on Hawthorne Blvd.

The Statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Alyson Horrocks

The Hawthorne Hotel.

The Hawthorne Hotel.

Alyson Horrocks

Hawthorne Hotel, built in the 1920’s, is not only a lovely place to stay, but also perfect for a good meal at one of its two restaurants, Nathaniel’s and Tavern on the Green.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's portrait hangs over his namesake restaurant.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s portrait hangs over his namesake restaurant.

Alyson Horrocks

The lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel.

The lobby of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Alyson Horrocks

A shop named after Nathaniel's wife, Sophia, is housed in the building where she lived as a child.

A shop named after Nathaniel’s wife, Sophia, is housed in the building where she lived as a child.

Alyson Horrocks

A gift shop called The Marble Faun, where I bought an antique copy of The Scarlet Letter, is named after one of Hawthorne’s novels.  Nathaniel’s influence runs through every part of Salem.

The Marble Faun

The Marble Faun

Alyson Horrocks

Before saying goodbye to the Salem of Hawthorne, a stop by the old Burial Point is a must.  An old, white house borders the ancient graves.  This was home to the Peabody’s, and where Hawthorne courted Sophia Peabody before their marriage.

The old Burial Point.

The old Burial Point.

Alyson Horrocks

Buried nearby is Nathaniel’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, a harsh judge who condemned many during the witch trials.  A man, who no doubt, helped fuel Nathaniel’s sense of shame and his introspective morality.

The grave of John Hathorne.

The grave of John Hathorne.

Alyson Horrocks

Witches will most likely be the enduring draw of Salem, so by all means come for the witches, but stay for Hawthorne.  It isn’t a true visit to Salem unless you scratch the witchy surface.

Have you ever visited historic Salem, Massachusetts?

Comments
  • Hi, Actually Hawthorne’s judge ancestor was ‘Hathorne,’ (as it says on the grave stones). Nathaniel added the ‘w’ to distance himself from his ancestor’s past crimes.

    Reply
  • Hi Joe,
    I’m the author of the article, and I do know his ancestor’s name was spelled Hathorne. These things sometimes get changed during the editing process. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

    Reply
  • Nicely done article, Alyson, and you were commendably polite to Joe H.: nothing “got changed during the editing process”; Judge John Hathorne’s last name was spelled correctly. I would like to have seen perhaps one picture of the witch memorial park, with its granite remembrances of each poor victim of that “appalling chapter” in our city’s history; but, I realize it’s not always possible to cover everything. Thanks for a great job!

    Reply
  • Hi Tom — The spelling did inadvertently get changed from Hathorne to Hawthorne, but we corrected it after Joe brought it to our attention.

    Reply
  • Thank you, Tom! I love the witch memorial as well. When I write another time on my blog to concentrate on the witch trial history, I will be sure to include pictures of those remembrances of the victims. Three of my ancestors were accused witches there, and that part of Salem’s history always touches my heart. Thanks for your comment!

    Reply
  • Wonderful photos, Alyson! You make me want to visit Salem. It’s exciting to see your work published here.

    Reply
  • The author obviously understands the history of the area and its influences, but also has an artistic eye (love the photo of the picket fence and the sign “Prithee . . .”) and poets’ soul that infuses her work and makes it pleasing to both the scholar and the romantic. I can hardly wait to visit Salem again with this perspective as my guide.

    Reply
  • Great pictures & nice article, Alyson! Love the town of Salem & need to visit the House of Seven Gables every time I visit!

    Reply
  • This was a nice historic overview Alyson- thanks! I also live in Salem, and walk or drive past most of these places all the time.

    I think it would have been of interest to mention that the origin of most of the witch trials, i.e. those that were accused and did the accusing, actually lived in what is now Danvers (the next town over for readers who are not familiar). The town, like Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt more than a little bit of shame over the incident, and changed its name from Salem Village to Danvers about 50 years after “The girls in Salem Village begin the witchcraft delusion. 1692”.

    Unfortunately, as one might expect, this little trick has indeed largely let them off the hook,and over time the remaining city of Salem seems to have taken it all on. That said, you can visit the Rebecca Nurse Homestead (one the women accused and hanged), which sounds to be an amazing historic tour, situated on 30+ acres of farm land. http://www.rebeccanurse.org/

    Reply
  • Thanks, Doug! I’ve actually written about Danvers role in the witch trials and the Rebecca Nurse Homestead on my blog. Love all that history! I chose to concentrate on Hawthorne in this article, but do love delving into the witch history and the surrounding towns. Two of my accused witch ancestors lived in Peabody and Lynnfield, so that whole North Shore area was encompassed in the fear and accusations. It is all so fascinating and tragic.

    Reply
  • I was sent a link to this – as my friend (from New Hampshire) and I (from Australia) will be visiting Salem next year. It does take a bit of planning when you fly half way around the world for a trip. This has been a wonderful resource for my planning – thank you so much.

    Reply
  • Wonderful article and photos! My wife was born here. We visited again (from Australia) in 2012.

    Reply
  • Everything looks so very quaint, comfortable and oh so inviting……….
    Great Photographs and descriptions.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Reply
  • Lorelei

    Thank You I loved the pictures and thought you did a great job. I hope to read more articles about Salem! Blessings Lorelei

    Reply
  • This is a wonderful summation of historical Salem! I had the pleasure of visiting Salem for the first time yesterday. Lunch at Hawthorne Hotel was quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, the ferry doesn’t run this time of year, so I hope to return again one day by ferry.

    Reply
  • Alyson is my go-to for all things New England. As I sit in CA, her words and images transport me to the beauty of the region. Such an informative, fun article with enchanting pictures to illustrate.

    I’d love to see more articles by her :)

    Reply
  • My family’s been in Salem since 1910. They emigrated from Italy. I really enjoyed your article, I love my Salem! It’s nice to see an article express the historical significance it offers in addition to just the witch trials. It’s our history and it’s nothing to be ashamed of but Salem offers so much more. Your photography was beautiful and maybe on your next visit you might want to photograph our famed Chestnut Street. When I was growing up in Salem there were so many chestnuts on the ground, we used to gather them and roast them. Thank you again for a lovely article.

    Reply
  • please stop referring to the christians who were accused and hung/stoned as witches, as they were not.

    Reply
  • I’ve lived in Salem for almost a year now and have yet to do any of the Witchy stuff. I actually live across the street from Old Point Burial Ground and love the rich history this town has. There is so much more to see and investigate here than any visit can cover! You did a great job of covering a lot of the more interesting fact. Thanks so much for this.

    Reply
  • Michael

    I grew up in Salem in the 60s, there was not nearly as much attention to the “witch city” as there is today.I lived at the base of what was then called “gallows hill”. I have often wondered if that hill (across essex st, from the old Salem High School.) really was where witches were hung or did they just call it that?

    Reply

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