31 May 2015

The house where witchcraft started

In 1892, Salem—which basked in its architectural splendor, its rich maritime history, and its scientific and educational pursuits—wanted to bury its dark past. But as the 200th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials approached, publishers and businessmen stirred up the pot by producing newspaper articles, travelogues, books, pamphlets, photographic prints, and even witch spoons. Taking advantage of the renewed interest, many of these printed items relied on town histories, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction, and unsubstantiated traditions.

One such book, Witchcraft Illustrated, Witchcraft to be Understood: Facts, Theories and Incidents with a Glance at Old and New Salem and its Historical Resources, includes images of Salem and Danvers interspersed between stories of witchcraft near and far. One curious photograph, identified as “The House Where Witchcraft Started, Now Danvers, Mass.,” also appears on Wikipedia and Find a Grave, but not in the many witch-hunt history books that have been published. The photo caption clearly is referring to the parsonage, home of Reverend Samuel Parris (1653-1720) when his daughter Betty Parris and niece Abigail Williams showed symptoms of being “under an Evil hand” in 1692. This same photo is featured on postcards captioned “the Old Parris House,” of which a colorized version, available at CardCow.com, is postmarked 1914.

Photo from Henrietta D. Kimball’s Witchcraft Illustrated (1892)
What a find! But, wait. If this is “the parsonage in Salem Village as photographed in the late 19th century” (as labeled on Wikipedia), why didn’t historians include the image in their books?

The Parsonage

The first minister of Salem Village, Rev. James Bayley (1650-1707), kept his own house, though the village promised a few times to build a parsonage. It wasn’t completed until after the second minister, George Burroughs (1650-1692), arrived, for in February 1681, the town voted: “We will Build a House for the Ministry and provid convenient Land For that end: the Dementions of the House are as followeth: 42 foot long twenty foot Broad: thirteen foot stude: fouer chimleis no gable ends” (“Salem Village Book of Records 1672-1697,” SWP No. d1e711).

According to the plaque at the parsonage site, “The house faced south and included a half-cellar on its west side which was composed of dry-laid fieldstones, and which was entered by means of a stairway from the porch (front entry). The east side of the house did not include a cellar, the house sills resting on ground stones. The first floor consisted of two rooms separated by the front entry and a massive brick chimney structure. Two bed chambers were located on the second floor. Each of the house’s four rooms included a fireplace. By 1692 a saltbox lean-to was attached to the rear of the house, and used as a kitchen.” 

Addition and Demolition

Rev. Peter Clark (1696-1768), who served as the Salem Village minister from 1717 to 1768, had the town build an addition to the original building. In January 1734, “it was then voted that ‘we will demollesh all ye Lenture behind ye parsonage house, and will build a new house of three and twenty feet long and eighteen feet broad and fifteen feet stud with a seller [cellar] under it and set it behind the west room of our parsonage house.’ This new addition was two and one-half stories high, included a side door which faced the west and a roof which ran perpendicular to the 1681 parsonage. The cellar foundation was composed of cut and faced stones and included a jog for a chimney (from 1734 Addition marker).

Over the ensuing decades, the parsonage continued its decline, but the townspeople could not afford to build a new parsonage nor repair the old one. In 1784, Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth (1750-1826) was given “an acre of land, bordering upon the road, for a house-lot. And upon this lot, the bounds of which may now be traced, he built for himself, about twenty rods west of the old site, the spacious house which is still standing” (Proceedings at the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the First Parish at Salem Village: Now Danvers, October 8, 1872p. 91). Afterwards, the original 1681 parsonage was demolished and the 1734 addition was moved to Sylvan Street.

By 1872, Charles Baker Rice describes the 1734 addition on Sylvan Street “in a condition next to ruinous, and occupied by hay, squashes, old barrels, and pigs” (p. 91). Rice continues, “It will thus be seen that this building, contrary to the report that has had some currency, was not in reality any part of the original parsonage, and was never occupied by Mr. Parris or any of his witches. It was not in existence until nearly forty years after he had left the place; and it has no other flavor of witchcraft upon it than what it may have absorbed in standing for half a century in contact with the older and once infected building (p. 92).

Righting a Wrong

67 Centre Street, Danvers
In his footnote, Rice refers to mistakes in J.W. Hanson’s History of the Town of Danvers, from its Early Settlement to 1848 (a sketch on p. 276) and John W. ProctorCentennial Celebration at Danvers, Mass., June 16, 1852 (on p. 13). Rice says: “Mr. Hanson has given, in his history, a view of the building now standing as of ‘a portion of the old Parris house.’ John W. Proctor also was misled in the same manner, though he speaks less confidently, and only as from report. But the measurements are conclusive. The present building corresponds to the dimensions of the addition of 1734, while it bears no likeness to the original house of 1681, or to any practicable section of it. The difference in height to the plates, for one item, is three feet. Due inquiry would have shown, too, that the more trustworthy tradition does not identify the buildings; while the fact of the removal of the present structure from the old site will readily account for the mistaken notion of some concerning it” (p. 92).

Richard B. Trask, town archivist at the Danvers Archival Center, also says the 1734 addition moved to Sylvan Street acquired an incorrect but much touted witchcraft connection during the 19th century” (Postcard History Series: Danvers, p. 20). That mistaken belief persisted long after the 1734 addition was torn down in the 1870s, and now has cropped up again, thanks to digital reproductions of the photo, postcards, and old books.

Recovering the Past
1681 Salem Village parsonage site (2014)

In time, the parsonage cellar hole filled in and by 1898 only a rough stone on the slight elevation in the field off the street...helps to identify the place where the Parris house stood, Edwin Monroe Bacon writes in Historic Pilgrimages in New England. After all, he explains, Upham says there was a general desire to obliterate the memory of the calamity” (p. 178). 

The place where the witchcraft outbreak started was almost lost to history until 1970, when Trask, then a history student, asked the property owners about excavating the land. Today, visitors can see the stone outline of the original parsonage, with a few interpretive markers adding context. Artifacts from the archaeological dig are located at the Danvers Archival Center. 

Thanks to Pie Ball and others who replied on my Facebook page, for helping me resolve this photo identification—once again.

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