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THE FAMOUS OLD SEAPORT OF SALEM
N the minds of many, Salem is chiefly notable on account of Hawthorne; in the minds of others the city is equally notable on account of the witches; yet most of the Salem people themselves do not relish any talk of witches; in their treatment of which unfortunates after all, this city only followed the example set by Boston; and as to Hawthorne, he for his part frankly disliked pretty much everything connected with the place even though he was born in Salem and achieved his greatest triumph while he lived there.
The ancient house where Hawthorne was born on the patriotic day of July 4th, 1804, at 27 Union Street, is still preserved, and it is a house that could never have been very attractive, and is situated in a faded quarter of the town which was never of the best. Salem was settled at about the same time as Boston, but a little earlier than the big neighbor that was to outgrow it; it was settled almost ten years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth; and among the various and notable things in the long history of Salem there has been nothing finer than its standing undauntedly by Boston when Boston's port was closed in punishment for unrest and outspokenness shortly before the beginning of the Revolution; Salem might have profited by a rival's misfortune, but would not, and nobly set forth, in formally phrased declaration, that "We must be dead to every idea of justice, lost to all feelings of humanity, could we indulge a thought to raise our fortunes on the ruin of our suffering neighbors."
Hawthorne lived in Salem an several different houses in turn, and in one of these houses, the house on Herbert Street where he lived as a boy and as a young man, and twice at different periods afterwards, he wrote, in 1840, "If ever I should have a biographer he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because here my mind and character were formed. By and by, the world found me out in my lonely chamber"; and it was of this Herbert Street house that he wrote, "In this dismal chamber Fame was won." Future fame, in the person of another, had certainly found him out as far back as when he was a boy, when he lived in this Herbert Street house, for at one time, when he was kept from school through having hurt his foot, his kindly school-teacher came here to call upon him, this quiet school-teacher being a man of the name of Worcester, himself to be famous as the author of a dictionary honored on both sides of the Atlantic!
In his earlier years and well into middle life Hawthorne had no doubt of his claims to high literary fame, but, as with many another author, doubts came to him with lack of financial returns, and when, at the age of forty-five, he wrote his masterpiece, he was so afraid that it was a failure that he actually feared to show it; he had had so little of practical success that he could not believe that he had really written a book that was even worth looking at; he was utterly downhearted; and this brought about the most interesting happening in the entire history of this town of Salem, the discovery of the "Scarlet Letter." And I do not mean the supposititious discovery, by the author, of the letter itself, but the actual discovery of the novel by the publisher.
James T. Fields came out here to Salem to see Hawthorne one day in 1849, when Hawthorne was living at 14 Mall Street, and encouragingly asked for material for a book, to which Hawthorne only replied, gloomily, that he had been doing nothing. "And who would publish a book by such an unpopular author as I am?" he demanded. Whereupon, "I would," promptly responded Fields. His publishing instinct told him that Hawthorne had really been at work and had something ready. "You have a book already completed," he insisted, in spite of the author's demurs; and at length Hawthorne reluctantly admitted that he had really been writing something and that it was enough for a book. And he reluctantly took from a drawer the manuscript of the greatest of all American stories.
Fields took it with joy, hurried with it back to Boston, sat up that night to read it, realized its greatness, and hurried back next day, aglow with enthusiasm.
He found Hawthorne still discouraged, awaiting his report on the story, but the discouragement swiftly vanished when he found that Fields was bubbling over with energy and happiness, and eager to make a contract for the book's publication. And that was how the "Scarlet Letter" saw the light.
Previous to this inspiration and encouragement on the part of Hawthorne's publisher there had been the encouragement and inspiration of Hawthorne's wife. For when, downhearted, thinking that without a salary he could not live, he had gone home to her with the news that he had lost the place in the Salem Custom House that had come to him from the friendship of his old-time college-mate, President Pierce, his wife neither joined him in repining nor urged him to seek some other salaried place, but, instead, put down before him money that she had been saving, unknown to him, from the domestic allowance, and said cheerfully, "Now, you can write your novel." It was under that inspiration that he wrote it, and when, the work done, fear came upon him that it was not good, it was from his publisher's inspiration that it saw the light. In all, a strange story of literature and of Salem!
Near the waterside, in the older part of the city, looking out at a lovely view across the water of the harbor and off toward the broad Atlantic, is an ancient, nestled, low-set house, with ancient stack-chimney of brick; a house overhung by great trees and pleasantly surrounded with grass, and reached by a little private-looking lane known as Turner Street, which leads down from a main thoroughfare. Hawthorne wrote of this house, which even when he wrote was about a century and three quarters old, and he gave it fame as the "House of the Seven Gables." Within my own memory this house had only five gables, in spite of its fame – given seven and its actual present seven, for it has not only been restored and kept in repair on account of its association with Hawthorne, but an architect discovered, or thought he discovered, that it originally had seven gables, just as Hawthorne described it, and so the necessary two were built out again! And a wonderful roof-line the house has, with its clustered gables and that old central chimney, "stacked" stacked" like those of Tudor days. Perhaps it was not altogether desirable to put on the two gables; Hawthorne had no desire to have the house precisely match his description; he pictured it in his imagination and that was quite enough. Hepzibah's "cent shop" has also been given to the building, and its interesting old rooms are open to the public for a small fee.
Hawthorne began to write the "Scarlet Letter" at a high desk in the Custom House, a satisfactory, good-looking, old square building down near the waterfront, while he held the appointment of surveyor for the port of Salem, and it was after he lost that official position that he finished the story.
Hawthorne felt very critical toward the people of Salem, not having found precisely congenial surroundings there, even though it was in Salem that fame came to him, with some of his early work, and even though his wife was a young woman of Salem. He kept very much to himself while he lived in that town, at least in his maturer years, and his attitude is expressed by a letter in which he comments on an invitation which he has just received, for his unsocial expression is, "Why will not people let poor persecuted me alone?" It need not be thought that he was a recluse, but at no time in his life did he care to spend time with people who did not interest him.
Hawthorne has somehow managed to offer for future generations such an atmosphere and detail of the past of old Salem, and thereby of all of old New England, as shows us the very life and feeling of the ancient time. He could see and feel the fine old romance of the past, the charm of it, the beauty of it, and he could also see the vivid human nature of it. And Salem could never quite forgive him that he recognized also the impermanence of much that was so good in it, and that in that very town he discerned what he termed "worm-eaten aristocracy." It was his ability to see and to feel the past not only in its romantic colors but in its entirety that made it possible for him to write his greatest works, "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of the Seven Gables."
One's first impression of Salem is that it is rather an uninteresting place, for the entire central district near the railway station has been made unattractively brick-red and modern; but by getting away from this central region, one finds that there is still left very much of the interesting.
Gallows Hill, on which the witches were hanged, is a hill that seems to be a solid rock, at the edge of the town, bare of trees but covered with grass and dwarf sumac. The actual place where the gallows stood has been forgotten, but the general position is remembered and avoided, and the city itself owns the land. Not far away, however, quite a settlement has grown up and the people who live there have formed themselves, with cheerful bravado, into a Gallows Hill Association, and when the children of Salem not long ago paraded in a pageant, those from this part of the city dressed themselves proudly as little witches.
At the court house in Salem, some ancient witchcraft mementoes are preserved, including some of the "witch pins" that figured in the evidence, and the curious death warrant that directed the sheriff to hang one of the witches until "dead and buried" – which was an unintentional order to carry vengeance beyond the grave.
Under the old English Common Law, which was in force in America until modified by local laws, conviction for felony involved confiscation of property, but there was no provision for procuring conviction in case the accused refused to plead. Nowadays, in case of such refusal the court enters "Not Guilty," but formerly there was nothing to do but try to force a plea by the frightfully painful method known as peine forte et dure, which was the heaping of stones and weights upon a man's chest until he yielded or died. If a man was brave enough to bear the torture to the bitter end, he could not be convicted, and there could be no forfeiture, whereupon his heirs inherited his property; and now and then a man actually bore the pain to win that result. In all American history there has been but one example of peine forte et dure. Giles Corey, accused at Salem of witchcraft, and knowing that if he stood trial he was certain, in those days of blind excitement, to be convicted, refused to plead and heroically bore the punishment of pressing to death.
There can be no possible appreciation of Salem without going from end to end of Chestnut Street. Yet even a mention of this street is likely to be omitted in Salem guide-books, merely because no incident ever happened there. But no greater mistake can be made by any one who wishes to understand the past than to look only at places connected with definite occurrences, for the history of the past and the interest of the past often lie even more deeply in houses and localities that only represent the past with indirectness. And Chestnut Street is in itself a remarkable American street.
Among the most interesting streets in America are Chestnut Street of Salem, Chestnut Street of Boston, and Chestnut Street of Philadelphia, and each of these has justly been deemed a street with much of the old American charm of architecture, each has been a stronghold of aristocratic living, each has still much of the flavor of the past, each is a street of houses of beauty and good taste, and all these three Chestnut Streets still preserve a great degree of their original felicitousness, even though the greater part of the Chestnut Street of Philadelphia has lapsed into business.
Romantic Chestnut Street, in Salem
Salem is proud in the belief that of the three Chestnut Streets its own has always been the best; and it really has been, and that is a great deal to say of even the best street of a little city like Salem. These Salem houses on Chestnut Street were built in the first quarter of the 1800's by the rich merchants of that period, and there is not only a superb line of mansions, well kept up, but also even more superb lines of huge trees, glorious trees, trees that splendidly overarch the entire length of the street, the houses themselves being just far enough back from the sidewalk line to permit of the complete rounding of the shapes of the trees. One cannot well be too enthusiastic, too appreciative, of this street of mansions, fine American in style as they are, and designed, most of them, by the Salem architect, McIntire, or at least built under his influence. It is the finest street, taken in all, of any of the streets of old-time mansions in America, and the double line of old mansions is remarkably unbroken.
Toward the other end of the city, with staid old homes built about it, is Washington Square, with its iron-railed and elm-bordered training-green. The houses of wealth and dignity that front this green are of the same general period as those of Chestnut Street, and both of these sections show the fine and even magnificent living of the period of Salem's highest prosperity, when her great shipping fortunes were made; and, indeed, by far the greater part of the fortunes of New England had their origin in the glorious days of American shipping.
As one goes about Salem, the first impression that there is little of interest here entirely disappears; one forgets entirely the portions that at first jarred expectation; and there comes the full understanding that the city is remarkably rich in interesting houses of the past. And it is one of the chief charms of the place that upon these houses of the past the hand of the restorer has been but lightly laid, and that they remain as their builders intended them to remain.
One of the most interesting of the many old houses is the Pickering house on Broad Street, a particularly attractive home that has stood there for two and a half centuries; it has actually stood, right here in Salem, since the later years of the time of Cromwell, or at least since 1660, the year of the restoration of the Stuarts! How unexpectedly far away this seems, for America, even after one has come to a realization that this is not a new country! For it is hard to realize that actual living was so fixed and comfortable here so long, long ago. This Pickering house is still preserved and cared for by Pickering descendants, and the building serves to keep in mind not only the general charm and interest of the charming and interesting past, but the career of a particular Pickering who was born in this house and who won unique honors – that Timothy Pickering who, as a right brave fighter, was an officer at the battles of Germantown and Brandywine, who, as a legislator, was successively representative and senator, and who, in Washington's Cabinet, was given the successively high distinctions of being postmaster-general, secretary of war and secretary of state.
The best parts of Salem are interesting not only because of the admirable buildings but because of the not infrequent fine and planned harmony of mansion and carriage-house and garden, arranged and designed as a complete whole. There is a house at 80 Federal Street which, with its surroundings, is a particularly good example, a house built in 1782, a house which ought to be seen by any visitor; it is of fine New England architecture, and I remember its doorway as a work of special beauty; and it has carved urns of most admirable classic design on its gateposts, showing how very beautiful may be a plain gateway with posts and ornaments of wood; and this house, with its garden and adjuncts, is one of the excellent examples of harmonized planning.
More than most other Eastern cities Salem offers direct inspiration for visitors from the West, because from the first it has been built with detached homes, each with grass plot and garden, instead of with houses ranged closely, shoulder to shoulder, as in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
One of the most famous of naval fights, that between the Chesapeake and Shannon, the gallant "Don't give up the ship!" action, was fought so near Salem, just off its harbor, that the heights along the shore were thronged with Salem people who watched the progress of the battle with eager suspense. Always a brave city, this; a city ready to encourage others in bravery and to do brave things itself. It is said that in the War of 1812 forty armored vessels of the two hundred and fifty furnished by the entire country were from Salem. And the mettle of Salem was shown in the brave way in which it faced the devastation of the fire of 1914, that swept away hundreds of houses; for instead of helplessly yielding to what might well have seemed an irreparable disaster, the city began at once, and on a broad scale, the task of rebuilding.
A fortunate thing with that fire was that with few exceptions it did not take away the old-time buildings of the city. They still remain. In fact, there is no better place, and there is probably no place even as good except a remote town like Guilford in Connecticut, where the various styles and periods of American buildings may be seen. Salem still has houses of the 1600's, with their overhanging stories and stack chimneys; it has houses of the 1700's, with their gambrel roofs or roofs of double pitch; it has the great square-fronted stately houses of the period from 1790 to 1825. Those who would study the old houses of America should go to Salem.
And there is many a little detail here, too, that is noticeable, as well as the houses themselves; for example, all over Salem there is the opportunity to see excellent designs in old-time door-knockers.
The Ropes mansion, a house of the 1700's, is interesting both in itself and in the way in which it has been preserved, for it is an endowed memorial of the past, left by its late owner to be kept, with all of its old furniture and with its garden planned as an old-fashioned garden of finest type, not as a museum held by one of the patriotic societies, but as a possession of the public into which the public may freely go. The house, with its belongings, is forever to be shown to one generation after another, with no chance of being sold or torn down at the whim of some tasteless heir.
Yet, if all these old houses, with their wealth of old belongings, should be destroyed, the Salem of the past would still be represented if it should still retain the treasures of its Essex Institute. The building that holds these treasures is a three-story structure of generous proportions, standing near the center of the city, on Essex Street; and that where this house now stands there once stood the house of a man named Downing, is remindful of one of the romantic facts in regard to early America. For the son of this Downing went over from here to London and became so strong a friend of Cromwell as to be made Minister to The Hague, and then by a swift transfer of allegiance, in order to retain his ambassadorship, he swung over to the cause of Charles the Second; and eventually he gave name to Downing Street; that street of all streets that is most typical of the English, the street whose name typifies the English government itself!
The Essex Institute holds, in itself, Old Salem. Enter the door – and the building is freely open to entrance by any one who is interested – and instantly you are generations away from the present, for there is nothing that does not tell of the past, and the past is shown with infinite picturesqueness and particularity. There is a great central portion, and there are little alcoved rooms full-furnished as rooms of the olden time, all in immaculate ship-shape order. There are paintings of the men and women of the past; there are the very costumes that they wore, the gowns, the bonnets, the coats, the waistcoats; there are wedding gowns and there are uniforms and there are the very looking-glasses in which those old-timers saw the reflection of their faces. Here are the very glasses from which they drank and the very dishes from which they ate; and these are preserved in amazingly great quantity and in amazingly good condition; and glass collectors would like to know that one item alone is of some one hundred and fifty cup-plates of glass of Sandwich make!
Here in Essex Institute is the furniture of our forefathers, tables and sideboards and chairs, and among them is a black, heavy three-slat chair with high-turned posts which was the favorite chair of that beloved Mary English, who, with her husband, the richest ship-owner of Salem, had to flee from Massachusetts for very life under the shadow of witchcraft accusation; and this excellent old chair seems to stand as a reminder that neither wealth nor high character nor charm of manner nor social position can be relied upon to check a popular, delusion.
On the whole, the relics are remindful of a cheerful past, a happy, bright, refreshing, pleasant past; and the surprising number of spinets that have been preserved would alone show that the early days were far from being days of mere gloom and severity.
But not only the personal belongings of the past, and the furnishings of the old buildings, are preserved, here at the Essex Institute, and not only is there a delightful old house of the seventeenth century, with overhanging second-story and peaked roof-windows, actually within the grounds of the Institute, but fascinatingly among the possessions of the museum are portions of old houses that have been destroyed: for here are pilasters and balusters, pillars and window-tops, here are the very cornices of rooms, here are the essential fragments of buildings that have gone. It would seem as if not only in cases of demolition of old houses, but in the fewer cases of restoration and "improvement," the Institute has been on the watch for treasure. Some time ago the old house in which Hawthorne was born had some of its window sash replaced by larger panes – and the little window through which the eyes of Hawthorne first looked forth to the sky and the great world is preserved at the Essex Institute.
A few miles from Salem, out beyond Danvers, is the old Putnam homestead; a sturdy old house, gambrel-roofed, and built around a great central chimney. Spacious rooms, great fireplaces, old sideboard, sofa and chairs, old-time portraits and silhouettes, all tell of the long-past time. Here many a Putnam was born, including the famous General Israel Putnam, "Old Put," who so bravely galloped down the stone steps in Connecticut and who left a general impression of going gallantly galloping through the entire Revolution. Putnams still live in the old house, and the present small-boy Putnam has the big, frank, blue eyes of the distinguished Israel.
There is an inclosing tall thorn hedge, and the house is shaded by great elms and by a monster willow tree that was anciently planted by a Putnam slave. The house is away from the center of Danvers, in a charming region of hills and dales and stone walls and apple orchards; it is a countryside not greatly changed since the Revolution – except that the State has set a monstrous ugly asylum on a hilltop near by; a poor return for the loyalty of the Putnams.
And what a wonderful family these New England Putnams – who changed their name from the English form of Puttenham – were! It is believed that they gave more men to the Union army, in the Civil War, than did any other single family; it seems even more sure that they gave more men to the Revolutionary army than did any other family; and on the great day of Lexington and Concord there were more Putnams than men of any other name who eagerly hurried to take part in the conflict. Seventy-five Putnams, all supposed to be connections, from various Putnam homes, responded to the call that day; the more distant could not come up till the British were back within the Boston lines, but many arrived before that – and the family toll for that very first day was one wounded and two killed.