Historic Salem, Massachusetts | A City Wrapped in Layers
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.
Salem has produced vast fortunes, brave souls, and brilliant minds. One of the most brilliant was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author of The Scarlet Letter, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.