As much as I love Sharon Kay Penman as an author, it has never occurred to me to show up at her door, either during her lifetime or after. However that’s exactly what people have been doing to not just one, but TWO, houses in which Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. And in his case, both times, the current family living in the house recognized these visitors for what they were: not an annoyance, but a stream of income! In Concord, the Lathrop family, who lived in The Wayside after the Hawthornes, put up signs in each room with a note regarding Hawthorne’s life there. The later owners of the Turner/Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, now better known as The House of the Seven Gables, took things a bit farther. They renovated the house not to look like it had when Hawthorne lived there, but instead, to match the fictionalized version of the house found in the novel that made the real-life house famous!
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Having followed Edgar Allan Poe along the eastern seaboard and ended up in Boston, Massachusetts, I realized The House of the Seven Gables was only a short ferry ride away, and being incapable of passing up an opportunity for a literary outing, I too felt drawn to Hawthorne’s doorstep once again.
Salem is either a half hour train ride or 50 minutes by ferry (running May through October) from Boston. After checking the map and noting that the House in Salem is only a 5 minute walk from the ferry harbor, I purchased tickets for the next morning’s sailing.
In the morning, with Starbucks in hand, I located the boat docked in the Boston Harbor that conveniently had “Salem Ferry” written across its front in big blue letters. As I sipped my morning caffeine, the ferry sped out of the harbor while a crew member provided historical commentary over the loudspeaker about the harbor islands we passed. One had at one time been home to a horse glue factory, a mental institute, and later, homeless housing!
50 minutes later the boat pulled into Salem’s Harbor and the black gables of the Turner/Ingersoll Mansion came into view.
While living in Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at a custom house collecting ship duties, so he would have seen a ship like ours come in. Though he also wrote The Scarlet Letter while working there, so his mind might have been otherwise occupied as he watched the ships nose into the harbor. Ruminating on this, I disembarked and made my way the few short blocks to the House of the Seven Gables.
“Half-way down a by-street of one of our New England towns, stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables facing towards various points of the compass…”
The 14-room, black, wooden house was bigger than I expected, as I mistakenly first compared it to the several other author house museums I’ve visited. I shortly realized Hawthorne hadn’t owned this house, and wasn’t living off an author’s salary. It had been inherited by his second-cousin, Susanna Ingersoll and he lived with her while he worked in Salem’s custom house. While the house has always been much larger than the houses around it, it was actually a bit smaller in Hawthorne’s day. The gables, the high triangular peaks that tie into the roofline of the house, only numbered three during Hawthorne’s lifetime and it also lacked the later added rear addition. He had heard historically the house had seven gables and so used this fact in his book. Due to the popularity of the house as a destination for literary travelers, a later owner of the house restored the previously removed four gables.
Interestingly, this wasn’t the only renovations made to the home for the benefit of Hawthorne’s readers. Our tour group leader opened the door to the house and we filed into the kitchen. It was surprisingly small. It wasn’t just that the ceiling was low and the fireplace nearly took up an entire wall. It was so small that there was no table or chairs in order to make space for tour groups. I was just trying to imagine the hot, smokey atmosphere which would have filled the kitchen during Hawthorne’s day, when our guide directed our attention through a window in the wall that led into another room of the house.
The room contained shelves of bottles and jars, bolts of fabric, and a shop counter. This was the fictional Hephzibah’s Cent Shop. The real house’s kitchen had been divided in two in order to put in a room found previously only in Hawthorne’s fictional novel. The Cent Shop now existed in the real house for the benefit of the literary tourists!
And that’s not all! There’s a drinking water well that sits just outside the house, but if you take a moment to think, with the house on the sea water’s edge, there’s no way a drinking water well could be dug there! And you’d be right. The closest water source for Susanna and Hawthorne was two blocks away. The well outside is fake. It’s the infamous, and fictitious, Maule’s Well from the novel!
“Be careful not to drink at Maule’s well!” said he. “Neither drink nor bathe your face in it!”
“Maule’s well!” answered Phoebe. “Is that it with the rim of mossy stones? I have no thought of drinking there — but why not?”
“Oh,” rejoined the daguerreotypist, “because, like an old lady’s cup of tea, it is water bewitched!”
A visit to The House of the Seven Gables is not just a walk through a former author’s home, but it is half stepping into the fictional setting of his book!
Our group moved into a room decorated with East Asia trading influences, from the wallpaper to the table China. This was the dining room. I could just imagine Susanna and Hawthorne finishing dinner here and as she retired for the evening, he perhaps sunk into an armchair and began to muse. Susanna lived alone in the house with the exception of a paid maid, because as long as she remained unmarried, the property remained hers. With only the two other women in a house full of rooms, Hawthorne probably had plenty of time to himself.
Although his portrait now hangs in the room over the square pianoforte, I could hardly picture him spending his evening in revelry. Rather, perhaps in quiet reflection piecing together his next novel with inspiration taken from the town’s famous Witch Trial history, the part which his own ancestor had played in it, and the intriguing architecture of the house in which he sat. It’s hard to imagine any story coming out of Salem that would not in some way tie into the town’s gruesome history, especially when Hawthorne’s great-grandfather, Colonel John Hathorne, was the judge that found over a hundred women guilty of witchcraft and oversaw at least 20 hangings. It takes no small stretch of imagination to assume Hathorne became the cursed and horrifying Judge Pyncheon of the portrait in his great-grandson’s novel. Hawthorne not only degraded his ancestor’s memory in his writing, but added a “w” into his last name to further distance himself from the family name that had caused so much horror in Salem.
As if this wasn’t enough fodder for a novel, not five feet from where Hawthorne sat, is a secret staircase! Next to the dining room’s fireplace is a skinny door. Behind it is a small brick-walled room for firewood storage. At the back of this little closet, however, is a fake wall!
The back wall is actually a second skinny doorway, and when open reveals a very tight staircase to the second floor! This surprising bit of architecture, although not mentioned in Hawthorne’s novel, certainly gives way to imagining how the Turner family, who built the house, and their indentured servants, might have moved about, popping into the dining room mysteriously! With all these elements swirling in the mind of a writer, The House of the Seven Gables must have practically written itself.
According to our tour guide, guests have been going up the hidden stairs for 150 years! So into the wood closet we went!
Upstairs in the attic was a model of the house on which we could easily count all seven gables that tie into the roofline.
Back downstairs (the regular staircase this time), our tour took us through a long skinny room, which according to our guide, was the accounting room in which Hawthorne had placed the deaths in his novel. With broad daylight streaming in through the windows, it hardly felt like the place for sudden mysterious passings. But then, on this hot summer day, neither did Salem feel like the kind of place where horrors took place!
Soon we were stepping through what once was the house’s front door on the waterfront side into the garden, squinting in the dazzling daylight. I now understood why Hawthorne’s characters Phoebe and the daguerreotypist preferred to spend as much time in the garden as possible. The garden was stunning!
Unfortunately our time in Salem was limited by the afternoon’s last ferry back to Boston, so we skipped the audio tour of the garden and grounds in favor of heading into town. To better understand Salem’s Witch Trials history which Hawthorne’s book derives from, we made our way to the Salem Witch Museum. We walked past kitschy gift shops full of witchy halloween wear, and shops with crystals in the window and other supplies for the spiritually minded and practicing Wiccans. We passed a wax museum and haunted houses, and made a stop at the Witch Trial memorial and cemetery. The town was a strange combination of hokey and serious, past and present, witchery.
We passed a statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Hawthorne Hotel before arriving at the Witch Museum. Considering nothing else about this town was normal, I should have known this wouldn’t be a normal museum experience. At our appointed timed entrance we were herded into a dark theater with stools in the middle of the room. When we’d all been seated, the doors shut, closing out the last of the daylight. A disembodied narrator began telling us the story of the Salem Witch Trials as one by one sound stages with wax models encircling the room were lit then darkened to provide visuals for the unsettling tale of the town’s history.
Afterward, while walking back to the harbor, I couldn’t help but think as I passed attractions making light of witchcraft and shops selling costumes how insensitive it all seemed considering innocent men and women were killed here just for being suspected witches and wizards. And it had me rethinking my Hogwarts student Halloween costumes!
Back on the boat I watched the black gables of Hawthorne’s house grow smaller as we pulled out of the harbor. I was glad that whatever forces had pulled me to his doorstep had led to an eye-opening, thought provoking, day where heavy history and light-hearted reality mingled to create an experience only Salem can offer.
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Have you read The House of the Seven Gables? Have you been to Salem, MA? Are you familiar with the Salem Witch Trial history?
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