After waiting two weeks, I finally tapped out a response to a text from my cousin Bevan. It was an important text and my silence had made me more anxious each day, something I hadn’t noticed because my attention had been so focused on work. In my sudden leisure just moments before my friends and I began to explore Salem, the weight of all the messages from friends and family that I had neglected dropped down on me.
In anxious moments like these, I’ve learned that even the tiniest action can lift what seems like an unmovable burden. Bevan’s text was foremost in my mind, so I chose to respond. My anxiety was exorcised, and I felt free to explore.
In the course of exploring, we stopped in at a teashop one street over from Salem Common. There is just enough room inside for a few tables and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with jars of tea. Madeleines and macarons are for sale, which fit in with the Parisian decor. I sat down with a cup of Witch’s Brew (black tea with aromatic herbs) and my eye was drawn to tiny portrait in a frame over a few books. A sign read “The George Whitman Memorial Library.” I almost spit out my tea.
My cousin Bevan had written a short essay on her time with George, which had been included in a book commemorating his Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. It’s a site of literary pilgrimage. I’d made a point of going there in my 20s. Bevan herself had lived in the rambling upper floor of the store and been one of George’s last assistants and, as her lovely essay shows, a friend to the eccentric old man. He’d sheltered generations of young bohemians like her.
Why was this little node connecting Paris and Bevan tucked away behind some jars of tea in a little shop in Salem? George, the sign informed me, had been a Salem native.
My message to Bevan had inadvertently conjured the spirit of George to give his blessing to the moment and the day.
Touring Salem last weekend, I learned that one of the causes of the witch hysteria of 1692 was the absence of a colony-wide government. About six years before the trials began, the governor of Massachusetts had been ousted, and the status of the colony’s government and even the colony itself were in disarray. This left the villages of Massachusetts at the mercy of the judges, magistrates, and clergymen who ran the local institutions.
In the absence of clear leadership at the top, these men started using and modifying the machinery of the state into a tool for state-sanctioned theft of property, the extraction of fees from the poor, and the punishment of their political enemies. And they took advantage of the lower status of women and religious prejudice to do it.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has compares political institutions to Meso-American pyramids. If you start digging into the grand exterior you’ll eventually hit on the decrepit, subterranean sacrificial mound the whole thing was built on. At the root of the American political pyramid is a Puritan theocracy. If you put enough stress on the overlying structure, eventually you’ll find yourself cast down on the underlying ruin it’s built on. Atavism in institutions can be charming, but it can also be harmful, all the more so because it is so often invisible to those affected by it.
Salem, MA is not the tiny, forest-choked hamlet I’d always imagined. It’s a breezy harbor town of mazy streets lined with roomy mansions. Like Concord, MA there is a cosmopolitan feel that overlays the small town charm. The elegance and deep quiet of the place withstand the kitschy occultism of Essex Street and the downtown, which have been cashing in on the witch trials of 1692 for at least 150 years (more on that in a later post).
At the far end of town on some prime land overlooking the harbor is The House of the Seven Gables. The tour guides call it the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, but the signs and everybody else call it by the name that Hawthorne gave it, also the title of his great novel.
I’ll confess haven’t read the novel, but I have been on the tour, and here are seven things that surprised me.
1. The house did not have seven gables when Hawthorne saw it. He was having dinner with his cousin Susannah Ingersoll, lady of the house, when she mentioned that she remembered the place with seven gables in her youth. By the late 1840s, when she and Hawthorne met, her father Captain Ingersoll had long ago demolished three of the gables (triangular extensions of the roofline) to give the mansion a more streamlined modern feel. After learning of the house’s old appearance, Hawthorne raced to the attic to puzzle out where the gables had been. Today, because of the novel he wrote, the gables and the house have been restored.
2. The pine floorboards in the attic are no wider than 32-inches, because all trees that afforded any larger planks had to be shipped back to England by edict of the King, to form the hulls of ships in the Royal Navy.
3. At one point, three slaves lived in the attic. We know they lived in the attic because an inventory lists the slaves along with the other “property” that was stored there. The museum staff are looking through plantation records in Barbados, where they think the slaves may have been sold, to learn more about them, but for now they are only three names on a list.
4. The cent shop on the ground floor is not original to the house, but an early 20th-Century recreation of the one that appears in Hawthorne’s novel. Families built cent shops into their homes to sell what the industrious mothers and children of the house made by hand—baskets, dried herbs, tallow candles, etc. Both the Turners and the Ingersolls were too wealthy to need a cent shop, but one was added in the house’s restoration to satisfy the romantic expectations of museum goers.
5. Behind a panel in the dining room is a secret passage that leads to the attic. It’s a claustrophobic climb up two and a half stories through the undulating brick tube that used to be the chimney. Like the cent shop, it was built for charm over function.
6. Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s cousin and frequent entertainer, whom he nicknamed “The Duchess,” never married, likely because she didn’t want to be forced to hand over her family’s considerable fortune to her husband. So she went into business for herself and made an additional family fortune trading real estate in the Salem area.
7. Hawthorne’s childhood home is just across the garden, but it was originally down the street. It was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid being demolished. I like to think that it was in the kitchen near the massive brick fireplace that would’ve warmed the house 365-days a year, that Hawthorne heard and read the tales which first kindled his own genius. I started tapping the words of this post in the very same kitchen.
I’m heading to Concord later this autumn and maybe to Sleepy Hollow, too so more writer’s houses to come. And more on Salem later this week.
Me, with the House of Seven Gables. The new sections were added after a record string of storms last winter, which the 350-year old house withstood better than the 20th-Century visitors’ center.