October in Salem: Witches and Ghosts

Salem, Massachusetts found itself shrouded in controversy almost from the beginning – factions bickering over politics, elections, visions for the city’s future – with accusations against each side always flying. Once the witch trials came to a close in 1693, a pall fell over the city that has proved inescapable since. The trials, often propelled by the passionate minister John Hale, also ended largely because of him when his own wife stood accused. He knew two things to be true – that this woman who never spoke an ill-word against anyone was incapable of the kinds of atrocities of which she was accused and also that others who made similar claims of innocence, but who were jailed and hanged, were also innocent of the charges. Yet, Hale knew they suffered and died- tried at his urging and sentenced to death at the hands of Judge Hathorne. He denounced his support of the trials, a crucial step in bringing them to a close.

In the aftermath, attempts were made by the city to absolve itself of shame and guilt and begin a new chapter. A visiting judge listened to the stories of the accused and of the families of those hanged. He awarded each a single, silver sovereign for their pain and suffering and overturned all guilty charges. It was something but not enough to lift the shroud of guilt from the city or clear the air of bitterness. Meanwhile, the meeting house in which many of the trials took place fell into disrepair over the decades and no one desired to breathe life back into it. Today, a monument stands at the site, now in a subdivision, but there is nothing left of the building.

Salem attempted to polish its image by becoming a center for shipbuilding and other maritime activities. Perhaps bringing wealth and commerce to the city would alter its course in history. Businesses cropped up in the city’s center with mansions erected along side them. Just across the peninsula, Plum Island gained popularity as a favorite spot for holiday-ers and honeymooners. Even then, the city was not to escape its bloody past, nor has it to this day.

The ghost of Captain Joseph White keeps the city’s bloody past alive at 128 Essex Street as he regularly looks out from the second story window and is captured on film by visitors every year. And each April 6th, the anniversary of his death, witnesses report seeing the murder spectrally re-enacted through the same window.

Captain White was an 82-year-old, childless widower living in a house bought and paid for with blood money. He, like many in Salem, made his fortune in the buying and selling of slaves. White’s fleets sailed to Africa loaded with items which were traded for people who were taken to the Caribbean, and those who survived the journey were sold as slaves for doubloons – gold that White used to fund his fleets, build his mansion in Salem, and serve as the fabled contents of an iron chest in the crusty old man’s bedroom. Captain White was cold. He told a local minister that, despite the fact that his slave business was illegal, he had no problem selling any part of the human race, and he used his money to manipulate his family, often changing his will to reflect who pleased or displeased him at the moment. While inarguably cold, White was not completely heartless. His one weakness was his great-niece Mary who grew up in his house. He loved her deeply, but when she announced her intent to marry a captain of one his ships, White became enraged and threatened to disown her. She chose love over money and married Joseph Knapp, and Mary’s uncle rewrote his will, moved Mary from his house, and fired Knapp from his fleet.

When White’s body was discovered on the morning of April 7, 1830, there were surprisingly few clues and many suspects. There was, indeed, an iron chest filled with gold in the bedroom, but it was untouched. The murderer or murderers entered through an unlocked second story window and killed the captain in his bedroom with either a club (There was a blow to the head), or they killed him in his bedroom with a dagger (There were thirteen stab wounds to his chest).

Once again, accusations flew in Salem. A secret commission was formed of citizens given the authority to “search every house and interrogate every individual,” and rewards were exchanged for accusations leading to convictions. Seventy miles away, a ne’er-do-well, an inmate, sent a letter through his jailer to the nephew of the slain captain claiming knowledge of crucial evidence. He claimed to have overheard two brothers, Richard and George Crowinshield, sons of some of the most prominent citizens of Salem and descendents of some of the city’s founders – men who grew up in the mustard yellow mansion adjacent to White’s own property – plotting to take White’s iron chest. Arrests were made, and a former defense attorney turned prosecutor, a man by the name of Daniel Webster, tried the case.

Before the proceedings, Richard hanged himself in his jail cell with two silk scarves, but the trial continued nevertheless. Ultimately, Webster proved that the brothers were paid $1,000 each to murder Captain White by none other than the disgruntled former employee, Joe Knapp, husband of White’s great-niece who mistakenly believed his mother-in-law would inherit a part of White’s fortune.

Despite efforts to the contrary, Salem’s reputation is sealed. The Puritan attitude was forever immortalized in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a descendant of the judge in the witch trials (and who changed the spelling of his last name according to some experts in order to hide the relationship) who was both repulsed and fascinated with his own personal history. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” takes its inspiration, in part, from the White murder. And, of course, there are the ghosts of Salem that continue to tell their stories.

So, if you ever find yourself on holiday on Plum Island, drive over to Salem for a visit. Visit the house where Hawthorne penned The Scarlet Letter. Drive slowly past the house with the beautiful stained glass peacock window. Drive up Bridge Street a short distance past the site of the old Parker Brothers game manufacturers on the left, and turn right on Brown Street. Turn on to Essex where you’ll pass the mustard yellow mansion where the murderers slept after killing their neighbor, Captain White. At 128 Essex, stop and look up at the second story window, and be sure to have your camera. Captain White may be there to greet you, and if you’re there on the 6th of April, he may put on a show for you.

6 responses to “October in Salem: Witches and Ghosts

I value your thoughts and comments. Please share them!! ~Donna

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