Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, Salem, Mass

The Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, on Federal Street in Salem, around 1909-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The courthouse in 2017:

As mentioned in an earlier post, Federal Street is the site of four Essex County courthouse buildings, representing a wide range of architectural styles, from mid-19th century Greek Revival to 21st century Postmodernism. The oldest of these, just out of view on the far right of this scene, was built in 1841, and was followed by a second courthouse in 1862, which can be seen in the distance on the right side of these photos. However, both of these buildings were subsequently dwarfed by the much larger Registry of Deeds and Probate Court building, which was completed in 1909 and is seen here in these two photos.

The Classical Revival-style courthouse was the work of Clarence H. Blackall, a prominent turn-of-the-century architect whose other works included a number of theaters in Boston. This style of architecture was particularly popular for public buildings of the era, and features a granite exterior with a large pediment above the main entrance, supported by six Ionic columns. Other classical elements include the carving above the door, which includes the head of a woman who is wearing a Greek helmet, presumably symbolizing Athena.

Today, this scene looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken a century ago. The building was used by the Registry of Deeds and the Probate Court for many years, and was expanded from 1979 to 1981 with a large addition to the rear. More recently, it was joined by a new county courthouse, which was completed in 2012 and stands just out of view on the left side of the scene. The two 19th century courthouses were subsequently closed, but this courthouse underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2017. This $50 million project included preservation of the original 1909 structure, along with the demolition and reconstruction of the 1979-1981 addition, and the building now houses the Essex County Probate Court and Family Court.

City Hall, Salem, Mass

City Hall, at 93 Washington Street in Salem, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

City Hall in 2017:

During the early 19th century, Salem was among the largest cities or towns in the country, ranking among the top ten in the first four federal censuses. It was also the second-largest in New England during this time, behind only Boston, and in 1836 it was incorporated as the second city in the state, with a population of 15,886. At the time, the municipal government occupied the town hall at Derby Square, but construction soon began on a purpose-built city hall here on Washington Street, just north of the intersection of Essex Street.

The building, which was completed in 1838, was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, whose other Salem works included the 1854 Tabernacle Congregational Church (demolished in 1922), as well as the 1841 county courthouse on Federal Street. Bond’s design for City Hall had a Greek Revival exterior, with a granite facade on the Washington Street side and brick walls on the rest of the building. The main entrance is flanked by four Doric pilasters, supporting an entablature that features seven laurel wreaths, with a gilded eagle atop the building. On the interior, the building was constructed with city offices on the first floor, and the mayor’s office and city council chambers on the second floor.

The first mayor of Salem was Leverett Saltonstall I, a prominent politician who had previously served as president of the Massachusetts Senate and would later go on to serve in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1838 to 1843. He was also the great grandfather of Leverett A. Saltonstall, who would serve as governor of Massachusetts and as a U. S. Senator during the mid-20th century. Other notable early mayors included Stephen C. Phillips and Charles W. Upham, both of whom also served in Congress, and Stephen P. Webb, who served as mayor from 1842 to 1845 and 1860 to 1862, while in the interim serving as mayor of San Francisco from 1854 to 1855.

The first photo was taken at some point in the post-Civil War era, most likely in the late 1860s or early 1870s, and shows the front facade of City Hall, along with a horse-drawn trolley on Washington Street. The building was significantly expanded in 1876, with an addition that doubled its length, although its appearance from this angle remained unchanged. Another addition came a century later in the late 1970s, but likewise this did not affect the Washington Street side of the building.

Today, this building remains in use as the Salem City Hall, with a well-preserved exterior that shows hardly any changes from the first photo. Now over 180 years old, it is the oldest continuously-used city hall building in the state, and it survives as a good example of Greek Revival-style architecture. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and it is also a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District.

First Church, Salem, Mass

The First Church at the southeast corner of Washington and Essex Streets in Salem, around 1865-1874. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The building in 2017:

This location, at the southeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, was the site of the First Church of Salem for nearly three centuries. The congregation worshipped in four successive buildings here, beginning with the completion of the first meeting house in 1634. The pastor at the time was Roger Williams, who would preach here for less than two years before his banishment and subsequent founding of Providence. This building was used until the 1670s, when it was replaced by a new meeting house that, in 1692, was the site of some of the examinations during the Salem Witch Trials.

The fourth church on this site was built in 1826, with a Federal-style design that was the work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. The church itself was located on the second floor, while the ground floor was rented out to retail tenants on Essex Street side, providing the church with about $1,000 in revenue per year at the time of its completion. The first photo was taken around 40 years later, and shows the church in its original exterior appearance, with a granite first floor, brick upper section, and Ionic pilasters on the Essex Street facade.

However, around 1874 the exterior of the church was heavily remodeled to give it a High Victorian Gothic-style appearance. The granite first floor was rebuilt, creating a new storefront with large windows on the Essex Street side, and the Washington Street side was expanded to add towers on either side of the building, which were originally topped with pyramidal roofs. Also on the Essex Street side, the pilasters were removed and the rounded arches of the old windows were given pointed stone trim, matching the arches of the new third-floor windows on the addition.

When these renovations were completed, the new ground-floor tenant was Daniel Low & Company. Established in 1874, this store sold jewelry, watches, and silverware, and was a longtime fixture here in downtown Salem. The store would remain here until it finally closed in 1995, although the signs still hang above the first-floor windows in the present-day scene. In the meantime, the First Church continued to worship in the remodeled building until 1923, when the congregation merged with the North Church and relocated to its 1836 Gothic Revival-style church at 316 Essex Street.

Today, the building bears little resemblance to the church from the first photo, aside from the large pediment and the windows on the Essex Street side. However, aside from the missing tops of the towers, the exterior has remained well-preserved since the 1870s renovations. The former Daniel Low storefront is now the Rockafellas restaurant, and the building is now a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Essex Institute, Salem, Mass

The Essex Institute buildings at 132 and 134 Essex Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These two historic Italianate-style buildings were built a few years apart, and for different purposes, but later became home of the Essex Institute and were united into a single building. The older of the two sections, on the right side of the scene, was built in 1851-1852 as the home of merchant John Tucker Daland. It was designed by noted Boston architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, who would later go on to design the old Boston City Hall, and was among the finest homes of this period in Salem. Its square, three-story design echoed the style of earlier Salem mansions, such as the Gardner-Pingree House on the far right side of the photo, but featured Italianate details such as quoins on the corners, bracketed eaves, and arched windows on the third floor.

The building on the left side, Plummer Hall, was built only a few years later, in 1856-1857. It was the work of local architect Enoch Fuller, and included many of the same design features as its neighbor to the right. The building was originally owned by the Salem Athenaeum, a private library that was located in the large space on the upper floor. The lower floor was used by the Essex Institute, which had been established less than a decade earlier in 1848 with the merger of Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society. The organization later shifted its focus to regional history, and over the years it accumulated a large collection of books, documents, and artwork, while also holding regular events such as lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions here in the building.

John Tucker Daland died in 1858, and two years later his daughter Susan married physician Benjamin Cox, Jr. The couple lived here in this house, and had two children, Benjamin and Sarah. Dr. Cox was evidently a wealthy man, as shown by the family’s 1870 census listing, which values his real estate at $21,000 and his personal estate at $40,000, for a net worth that would be equivalent to about $1.2 million today. However, he died just a year later, at the age of 65, although the family continued to live here until 1885, when the house was transferred to the Essex Institute and converted into library and office space.

The Essex Institute also acquired ownership of Plummer Hall in 1906, when the Athenaeum relocated to a new building. A year later, the two buildings were joined by a small connector section, which can be seen a few years later in the first photo. The facility would be expanded several more times during the 20th century, including the addition of a five-story bookstack in the 1960s, but its exterior appearance from Essex Street has hardly changed since the first photo was taken. The only noticeable differences are the loss of the balustrades on the roof of the Daland House and on the porch of Plummer Hall, and the addition of a third story atop the connecter section.

Today, the property is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, which was formed in 1992 by the merger of the Essex Institute with the nearby Peabody Museum of Salem. The museum also owns a number of historic houses in the area, including the adjacent Gardner-Pingree House, the John Ward House on the other side of the building, and the Andrew-Safford House around the corner on Washington Square West. All of these buildings are now part of the Essex Institute Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Gardner-Pingree House, Salem, Mass

The house at 128 Essex Street in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

The peak of Salem’s prosperity as a seaport came at the turn of the 19th century, a period that coincided with the height of Federal-style architecture. As a result, the town saw the construction of a number of elegant Federal homes and public buildings, many of which still stand today. Among the finest of these is Gardner-Pingree House, which was built in 1804-1805 at 128 Essex Street. It is believed to have been the work of prolific Salem architect Samuel McIntire, and today it is widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece of this era. Like many of McIntire’s other homes, it has three stories, with a rectangular front facade, a hip roof with balustrade, and a small portico at the front door. The house is built of brick, but it also includes marble lintels above the windows and marble trim above the first and second floors.

The original owner of this house was John Gardner (1771-1847), a merchant who owned a number of ships and operated a wholesale business on Union Wharf. According to a 1907 Gardner family genealogy, his business included importing commodities such as “sugar, coffee, cocoa, dyewood, mahogany, broadcloth, Peruvian bark, indigo, spices, etc., etc.” He purchased this land from his father, and moved into this house upon its completion in 1805, along with his wife Sarah and their young children. However, he would go on to suffer significant financial losses in the years before and during the War of 1812, when the British preyed on American shipping. As a result, in 1811 he sold the house to Sarah’s brother, Nathaniel West, for $13,333.33, although the Gardners continued to live here until 1814, when West sold it to wealthy ship captain and merchant Joseph White.

White was in his late 60s and retired when he purchased the house, and he lived here for the next 16 years. His wife Elizabeth died in 1822, and the couple had no children, although he did live here with his niece, Mary Beckford, and her daughter, who was also named Mary. This younger Mary was 17 when she became engaged to Joseph Knapp, Jr., a young mariner who had been captain of one of White’s ships. White was opposed to the match, viewing Knapp as a gold digger, and had threatened to disinherit her if she married him. She married Knapp anyway, in the fall of 1827, and the newlyweds then moved to the nearby town of Wenham.

Less than three years later, on April 7, 1830, Joseph White was brutally murdered here in this house. He was struck in the head with a club while he slept in his bed, and was then stabbed 13 times. By the time his body was discovered three or four hours later, the killer was long gone, but the murder quickly became a major news story. A committee was formed to investigate it, and in a little over a week the evidence pointed to two brothers, Richard and George Crowninshield. It was later discovered that the pair had been hired by Joseph Knapp, who paid them $1,000 to carry out the murder.

According to Knapp’s subsequent confession, he had entered White’s room a few days before the murder, and had stolen what he believed was White’s will. He also left a window unlocked, enabling Richard Crowninshield to access the house while White slept. His reasoning behind the crime was that, with the will missing, the courts would divide White’s large estate equally among all heirs, including Knapp’s disinherited wife. However, as it turned out, Knapp had stolen the wrong will. The actual will had been stored in the office of White’s lawyer, and after his murder the bulk of his estate went to his nephew, the prominent merchant Stephen White.

The resulting trial became a legal spectacle on a scale not seen in Salem since the witch trials of 1692. Determined to avenge the death of his uncle, Stephen White hired his close friend, Senator Daniel Webster, to lead the prosecution, with a symbolic fee of $1,000 – the same amount that Knapp had paid for the murder. Richard Crowninshield committed suicide while in prison awaiting trial, but the other three defendants included George Crowninshield, Joseph Knapp, and Joseph’s brother Frank.

Both of the Knapp brothers were subsequently found guilty, and were hanged in the fall and winter of 1830-1831. Mary also attempted suicide twice during the trials, although she survived and was never charged in the murder. Of the conspirators, only George Crowninshield managed to avoid the hangman’s noose. He had evidently been visiting a local brothel on the night of the murder, and the madam provided an alibi during his trial.

Both the murder and the trials were extensively reported by journalists, and may have even had an influence on some of the most famous works of 19th century American literature. Daniel Webster’s speech to the jury provided a detailed account of how the murder would have taken place, with descriptions such as:

The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him. 

Webster went on to describe mindset of the murderer after committing the crime, beginning with the initial satisfaction of getting away with it, before the consuming feelings of guilt that inevitably follow.

The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstances to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.

Based on this, many have surmised that the murder – and particularly Webster’s speech – provided inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this story, the narrator murders an old man while he sleeps, and then carefully dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. At first, he feels pride in having committed such a perfectly-planned crime, but is ultimately driven to confess his guilt after hearing what he believes to be the incessant beating of the dead man’s heart. Many of the detailed descriptions in the story closely echo Webster’s speech, including the end of the story, where the narrator’s guilt steadily consumes him until he finally tells the police “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Along with Poe, the murder likely had an effect on Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was living in Salem at the time. Although they would not be written for another two decades, both The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter appear to incorporate elements of the crime and the trial. In the former, the elderly and wealthy Jaffrey Pyncheon is apparently murdered by a relative for his money. In the latter, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale experiences intense guilt regarding his secret affair with Hester Prynne, and the novel traces his mental and physical decline until, after many years, he finally makes a public confession and then dies in the arms of Hester.

In the meantime, Stephen White inherited this house after his uncle’s murder, and in 1834 he sold it to David Pingree (1795-1863), who was yet another prominent Salem merchant. Pingree was born in 1795 in Georgetown, Massachusetts, but spent much of his childhood in Bridgton, Maine. When he turned 18, he returned to Essex County, and began working for his uncle, Thomas Perkins, who owned a merchant business here in Salem. He inherited a substantial fortune after his uncle’s death in 1830, and continued to prosper as a merchant over the next few decades, with a fleet of ships that imported goods from ports throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the East Indies.

Pingree became known as the “Merchant Prince of Salem,” but by this point the city’s once-prosperous shipping industry was in decline. He evidently saw this coming, and began diversifying his investments before ultimately retiring from the mercantile business altogether in 1848. He was a founder and president of the Naumkeag Bank, as well as the president of the Naumkeag Cotton Company, but much of his wealth ended up in the wilderness of Maine, where he purchased vast tracts of timberland as an investment. During this time, he also played a role in local politics, serving as a presidential elector for Zachary Taylor in 1848 and as mayor of Salem for a single one-year term from March 1851 to March 1852.

Pingree died in 1863, but his widow Ann continued to live here for another 30 years until her death in 1893. Their son David (1841-1932) inherited the house, and also carried on his father’s business interests. Like his father, he served as president of both the bank and the cotton company, and also continued to expand the family’s land holdings in northern Maine. He was a lifelong bachelor, and he evidently resided here alone after the death of his mother, although census records from the early 20th century show that he regularly employed two to three live-in servants.

In 1933, a year after Pingree’s death at the age of 91, his family donated the house to the nearby Essex Institute. It was opened to the public as a museum, and it is now one of the many historic homes that are owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, which was formed in 1992 when the Essex merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem. Today, the front facade of the house is mostly hidden by two trees, but its exterior has not seen any notable changes since the first photo was taken, and it still stands as one of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture in the country.

Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, Salem, Mass

The house at 27 Union Street in Salem, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This house is known today as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the house itself is actually significantly older than that. It was built sometime around the 1730s, and was originally the home of Joshua Pickman, a ship captain from Boston. He commanded a variety of merchant ships throughout the first few decades of the 18th century, and as late as 1737 he was the captain of a ship owned by Peter Faneuil, the namesake of Boston’s Faneuil Hall. However, he evidently moved to Salem soon after, and lived in this house until 1745, when he sold the property to blacksmith Jonathan Phelps.

In 1756, Phelps’s daughter Rachel married Daniel Hathorne, a mariner who would later serve as a privateer during the American Revolution. They would have eight children, including Nathaniel Hathorne, who was the father of the famous author. Daniel purchased this house from his father-in-law in 1772, and owned it until his death in 1796. His son Nathaniel was married a few years later, to Elizabeth Clarke Manning, and the couple lived here in this house along with Rachel. Like so many of the other members of his family, Nathaniel was also a mariner, and he was at sea on July 4, 1804, when his second child and oldest son, Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr., was born in the second floor of the house.

The Hathornes ultimately had three children, although the elder Nathaniel never saw his youngest, Maria Louisa, who was born on January 9, 1808. He had left Salem a few weeks earlier, on December 28, 1807, as captain of the Nabby, but he died of yellow fever while at Suriname in early 1808. Soon after, his widow Elizabeth and the three young children moved out of this house and into her parents’ house, located on the next street over at 10 1/2 Herbert Street. It was practically in the backyard of their old home, and is still standing in the present-day scene – it is the three-story house on the left that is partially hidden behind a tree.

The Hathornes lived with the Manning family in the Herbert Street house, on and off, for many years. Young Nathaniel, who would later change the spelling of his last name to Hawthorne, spent much of his boyhood there, aside from a few years living in Maine with his uncles. It was a modest house, crowded with many of his relatives, and Nathaniel had a room on the third floor, with a window that overlooked his birthplace. He would later refer to the Herbert Street house as “Castle Dismal,” although it was also the place where he wrote many of his early works. Writing in 1840, when he was still in the midst of establishing himself as an author, he described his room in the house with his characteristic dark and gloomy tone:

Here I have written many tales—many that have been burned to ashes, many that have doubtless deserved the same fate. This claims to be called a haunted chamber, for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all—at least till I were in my grave.

In the meantime, while Hawthorne was in the process of becoming one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century, his birthplace here on Union Street had a variety of residents. By the time the first photo was taken around 1900, it had been nearly a century since four-year-old Nathaniel and his family had moved out of the house. It was owned by William White, a 60-year-old Irish immigrant who worked as a day laborer. He had owned the house since at least 1897, and the 1900 census shows him living here with his wife Margaret, their adult children Robert, William, and Mary, and his sister, Ellen Grady. They also rented a portion of the house to shoe repairer David Pierce and his wife Elizabeth.

The house would remain in the White family throughout the first half of the 20th century. By 1940, it was the home of William’s younger son, William, Jr., and his wife Catherine. William died later that year, but Catherine continued to live here until her death in 1957. The house was subsequently purchased by The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, and in 1958 it was moved about a quarter mile east of here to Hardy Street. There, it joined several other historic houses, including the House of Seven Gables, which had been made famous by Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name.

More than 60 years later, Hawthorne’s birthplace is still open to the public as a museum, at its new location on Hardy Street. Its exterior has been well-preserved, and it does not look significantly different from its appearance when the first photo was taken, although the rear ell – partially visible on the right side in the first photo – was not moved with the rest of the house. During this time, though, the former site of the house here on Union Street has remained vacant, and it is now part of the backyard of a house on Herbert Street.