A visit to Salem

May 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

On Friday my friends Tim and Betsy drove us to Salem, a historic town in coastal Massachusetts and, of course, notorious for the Salem Witch Trials.  Those trials, in 1692 and 1693, wound up with the kangaroo-court conviction and execution of 19 people: 14 women and 5 men accused of witchcraft.

But we went there not for the witch-related tourism (there’s a lot, including modern women purporting to be witches), but because it’s a beautiful town with many houses dating from the mid 17th to the mid 19th century. There’s also a lovely port district with a famous Custom House, as Salem was a center for international sea trade for many years.

On the way out of Cambridge, we saw this woman whose photo I snapped from the car. The combination of her “Jesus is coming” sign, the face mask, and the axe strapped to her back makes her a scary character indeed. I wouldn’t want to cross her up!

A statue of Roger Conant (1592-1679), the founder of Salem, also credited with founding the communities of Peabody and Danvers (parts of Salem in his time). Conant led a group of fisherman from Cape Ann to the site of Salem, founding the town in 1626.

The John Ward House, built between 1684 and 1723.

Salem’s oldest house: the Pickman House, dating from 1664.

The memorial to those executed in the witch trials is a small square surrounded by stone benches, each inscribed with the name and fate of one of those executed. All were hanged save one man, who was “pressed”: crushed by piling stones on top of him.

The old graveyard, with many of Salem’s early citizens and people involved in the witch trials.

This John Higginson lived only 42 years, dying in 1718. There’s another John Higginson, a minister, who died in Salem, but this apparently is not him.

Random but lovely houses that I couldn’t be arsed to identify:

Lots of plants were in bloom and seed, including rhododendrons and azaleas.


Houses at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, by the port. This is the Hawkes House, built in 1780. A lovely lilac sprouted beside it.

The Derby House, built in 1762:

Built in 1819, this is the last of 13 Custom Houses that served the port. Their function was to collect import duties from goods brought to Salem from abroad (tea, silks, spices, molasses, etc.). Goods for which taxes weren’t paid, or were to be paid later, were stored in a warehouse behind this building.The Custom House is perhaps most famous for featuring in Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter  (Hawthorne was born and lived in Salem, serving for a while as its official surveyor. In the preface to the novel, Hawthorne recounts that the story of Hester Prynne and her illicit relationship with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale was found among papers in the Custom House (all of that was of course fiction).

For two centuries Salem was a center of international trade. Here are some of the trade routes that ended in the port; you can read about the goods that were imported at this site.

Every American knows the phrase “cash on the barrelhead”, which means “payment at the time that goods or services are received.” On our drive to Salem we discussed its origin, which is mysterious, though here’s one theory:

The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk surmised that this term originated in the days when upended barrels served as both seats and tables in bars, and customers were required to pay for their drinks immediately, literally putting their money on the top (head) of a barrel.

We reenacted this usage when we found barrels behind the Custom House:

The most famous house in Salem: The House of the Seven Gables, built in 1668. Its fame comes from its use as the setting of Hawthorne’s eponymous Gothic novel published in 1851.

On the drive home, which took about 45 minutes, we stopped to see the mighty Atlantic Ocean rolling out to the east. This was taken in Beverly, Massachusetts.


49 thoughts on “A visit to Salem

  1. I wonder why atheists/agnostics/humanists don’t feel the need to wander around with threatening weapons and signage declaring their worldview…

    I also wonder why the buildings in Salem have so many windows. Lovely buildings but that’s a lot of glass to clean!

    1. That’s a normal area of glass for tall ceilinged homes without electrical lighting to push back the interior gloom.

      All these fine houses had free [or very cheap live-in] labour including black & native slaves lodging in the too hot or too cold attic space [no fireplaces up top usually] with the small dormer windows. They hauled coal up the servant back stairs & brought the chamber pots down & cleaned the windows & etc. Perhaps three or four ‘servants’ per family resident means you could even get the lawn cut with a scissors if the fancy took you.

    2. Because religion (or, at least, certain sects of it) gives one certainty about causes, events, the future, etc. Atheism involves an extreme lack of certainty when it comes to anything beyond the fact that supernatural forces don’t exist. People like the woman pictured think they know what will happen tomorrow or in the near future, so they feel it’s their duty to warn others. My view is that I have no idea what the fuck will happen tomorrow and I have no beliefs of such import that I need to share them with others. I have no reason to tell anyone what little I have to say unless we’re having an interesting discussion about it, but the woman pictured thinks she’s telling everyone something very, very important: repent, lest ye go to Hell when Jesus draws the Armageddon card.

    3. The plastic axe/ax woman is expecting this kind of Jesus to be coming back soon:-

      Matthew 3:9-12 New King James Version (NKJV)

      and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire”

      Us heathens are gonna burn! 🙂

      1. No wonder Jesus didn’t bust John the Baptist out of jail. Way too melodramatic. Nobody likes a drama queen.

    4. Probably because our non-belief doesn’t figure in our lives in any obvious way. It’s like asking why people who don’t have a car don’t tend to talk about their car-lessness.

      On top of which, we are still in the minority pretty much everywhere on earth. In general, it’s best not to advertise your atheism.

  2. It should be noted that during the colonial period Salem and Massachusetts were integrally involved in slavery and the slave trade. The map in the post shows how trading vessels stopped in Africa to pick up slaves. A National Park Service pamphlet relates:

    Slavery and Salem

    Salem was founded as a port, and for its first two centuries, the economic prosperity of the town was tied to the slave culture of the British Atlantic, through transportation of slaves or support of the slave economy through the supply of dried cod as a protein source for the slaves on Caribbean plantations. As early as 1638, the first enslaved Africans were brought into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the Salem-owned vessel Desire. Slaves worked as servants and skilled labor in the homes businesses of Salem throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

    Slaveholding in Massachusetts was abolished in 1783, but some Salem merchants and captains continued to profit by shipping slaves throughout the Atlantic. Few records have survived about Salem’s slave trading, but glimpses can be seen in newspapers, personal papers, and diaries, usually when a voyage went badly. In 1789, Captain William
    Fairfield was killed by a slave uprising on the Felicity as the ship was sailing from the Ivory Coast to Cayenne in South America. The surviving crew members were able to regain
    control of the ship and eventually sold the Africans.


    It is often forgotten that slavery was legal in most northern colonies. Only after the American Revolution was slavery eventually abolished in the northern states.

  3. Man, Jesus has been coming for such a long time now. Sting doesn’t even know what Tantric sex is.

    I guess maybe time isn’t linear for deities.

  4. In reference to the lady with the axe, reading her sign I have to take it that she’s a christian. So many christians condemn muslim women for covering their faces with hijab etc. What is this woman doing that is any different? Why does she not face complaints from other christians about her face covering? Just a thought.

  5. My wife and I had an apartment in Salem for 17 years. A delightful town, however, sadly, the disease of gentrification is sweeping away the charm and raising prices to attract Boston hedge fund managers.

    A note on your photo of Roger Conant: He was a very good fisherman, renowned for the speed with which he could bait the hooks used in the tub trawling from dories. The statue pays detailed tribute to Salem’s Master Baiter!

    1. The John Ward house is striking. I can well imagine it becoming a haunt of the very rich.

      Does the statue of Conant actually say “Salem’s Master Baiter” on it? I’d tip my hat to the town if it allowed something as childish as that to get carved into stone.

  6. I find old houses immensely captivating

    Many times, such homes will have a placard “Circa (date)” – it’s very fun for road “treasure” hunts.

    1. I’ve noticed over the years that PCC(e) is excellent at creating his own photographic caricatures.

    2. The Jesus lady suddenly has “some” appeal after seeing the fearful face at the barrel

  7. Pretty sure that that isn’t a real axe. The axe-head doesn’t look like metal (especially with the rounded edges), and there appears to be a mold seam on the handle. Perhaps she was headed up to Fall River for some Lizzie Borden fun?

    1. My interpretation too, on the same observations. That’s still enough of a weapon to get you shot by the police though.

  8. The last photo in the post is the beach one short block from my home in Beverly. Wish I knew you were in town.

  9. Except for the John Ward house there are no ‘overhangs’ (preventing bending of the upper stores) as seen in medieval wooden multi-story houses, despite many of them being apparently built in wood.
    Would anybody here know why? I don’t know, but am curious.

    1. I was going to reply to your question, but about halfway through I realised that I didn’t actually know the answer and was just commenting for the sake of it.

      But then I thought of the ‘public votes’ from daytime TV back when I was a student, where there would be a hot topic debate, like ‘does pebble-dashing your house make it look ugly?’ or ‘do dogs resemble their owners?’, and along with the options to ring up and say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ there was the option of ‘I don’t know’.

      And reliably, time after time, about 20% of the people rang in(spending almost two quid a throw in the process) just to say ‘I don’t know’.

      I hope that explains the pointlessness of this post, and in a weird way, gives it a point.


      I understand what you’re saying about an overhang cantilever weighted at the end acting as a counterforce on the major load bearing floor joists, but that was not the reason for doing it most times IMO. At one tine it was an indication of status as it introduced some relief [& cost] to a front facade & of course it shades the lower windows while throwing rain away – a caller has a bit of rain cover is a side benefit

      In total the main reasons for doing it besides status was [again IMO]:

      ** To gain 2nd & 3rd storey floor area for any given ground floor area – this can have tax advantages in towns where ground floor area denotes what you pay the town hall
      ** To act as a sun shade to lower windows
      ** Status
      ** Jettying [as it is termed] works well when ‘balloon framing’ i.e. you build the ground floor more or less entirely including floor boards to the next storey & walk on that platform when putting up the next storey – thus no scaffolding required
      ** ‘Balloon framing’ shortens the length of the main structural members & makes carpentry up in the sky safer, easier & quicker

      Incidentally the John Ward House has front & end overhang [but not the back] above the ground [first] storey & it was to gave added space to the chamber in the second storey – it resembles the nearby Benjamin Hooper [Hathaway] House built two years before which had an overhang to the front only.

      1. The floor area thing: medieval town space was very tight indeed & an extra half meter width upstairs was valuable so it was natural to fling a floor or two outwards a little bit over the right of way. The practice was banned in some places because fire spread easily across the narrow streets – London banned it & I think Amsterdam after their huge fire [many Dutch building restrictions came into force then including a ban on wooden walls].

      2. In the above replace “balloon framing” with “platform framing”. Sorry my old memory is getting defects.

        See image below. Ridge pole framing on the left & platform framing on the right. Coloured members are load bearing & much shorter with platform framing. It is easy to see how platform framing can be done with scaffold.


  10. “The House of the Seven Gables”

    Can anyone name the seven Gables?
    Let’s see, there was Clark and then…


  11. Another former Salem resident here. Used to rent an apartment right on the wharf in the years before it was “cleaned up”. Remember a marvelous pub across the street with live folk music on Thursday and wonderful beer nightly. Also remember a Friendly’s across from Salem State where many a chocolate frappe was consumed. Early to mid-70s. The Chinese export ceramics at Peabody Museum are not to be missed.

    Thanks for sparking the memories


    1. We were at 11 Forrester St., which used to be the stream that drained the swamp that later became The Salem Common, from 1990 to 2007. The street flooded on spring tides, and I suspect it will serve as a reminder of sea level rise, with property values moving in the opposite direction. You may remember Brother’s Deli, where the production of Sunday breakfasts was an art form. Well, it’s now a sit-down restaurant, and a disappointment to those of us who loved the former iteration. Sweet memories!

  12. Danvers, which was once part of Salem, was for awhile the location of a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Insane Asylum. The asylum closed in the early 1970s. The asylums are gone but the insane are still with us. Pardon my use of the word “insane.” Today we would say mentally ill or mentally disabled.

    John J. Fitzgerald

  13. Thirty years ago almost to the day I also enjoyed a tourist day out in Salem, and as a great lover of Hawthorne too, this post brought back a lot of happy memories. Thanks!

  14. The Danvers State Hospital, also known as the State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers, The Danvers Lunatic Asylum, and The Danvers State Insane Asylum, was a psychiatric hospital located in Danvers, Massachusetts. Wikipedia

    John J. Fitzgerald

  15. Roger Conant, eh? I wonder if he was any relation to the Roger Conant who wrote the Peterson Field Guide to the amphibians and reptiles of western North America.

  16. I live in this beautiful part of the country, and sounds like you had a great time. Usually, people here are very kind. I’m hoping you found that to be true!

  17. Surely as an atheist, you should have included a photo of and reference to the Satanic Temple hq in Salem? They are doing great work for the enforcement or the separation of church and state in the US.

    1. Are they though? Isn’t it the kind of hideous PR that secularists should be avoiding?

      They seem decent, the ones who talk to interviewers at least, and I admire what they’re doing in some cases, but I’m not sure that’s the same as helping the cause of secularism.

      1. I very much disagree. They are doing yeoman’s work in advancing secularism. Secularism is their purpose. They expose to religionists exactly how frightening the mix of religion and politics is. My hat is off to them despite the fact that I personally am not inclined to participate in such theatrics.

        1. To be honest I don’t know enough about them to judge them politically. I’ve seen a few videos where they seemed very decent, reasonable, etc., and I liked them and agreed with most of what they said. But these were a couple of videos where their spokespeople came out, so I’d expect to see them portrayed in a good light, and I’d expect to find them sympathetic.
          If you’ve got links for further information that would be good. We don’t have many Satanists where I live, just Jehovah’s Witnesses.

          Either way my point wasn’t about what they were advocating, and how well they were doing it, my point was more about the unfortunate connotations the name has, and how associating separation of church and state with Satanism might not be the best of PR moves for secularists in the long term.

          1. The point is the “unfortunate connotations” the name has. It is exactly because of those “unfortunate connotations” that theocrats are confronted with the hypocrisy of their position. Absent this, the Satanic Temple would have no more value (IMO) than your average collection of nice Unitarians.

  18. Rebecca Ames (Eames) was my seventh great-grandmother and one of the Salem Witches. She admitted to being a witch and said in court that her son, Daniel, was a witch too. Sentenced to be hanged, she was pardoned by the governor or I might not be typing this.

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