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.

Essex Street from Washington Street, Salem, Mass

Looking east on Essex Street from the corner of Washington Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This scene shows the commercial center of Salem, with a mix of 19th century buildings that, for the most part, have not seen significant changes since the first photo was taken about a hundred years ago. Starting on the left side, at the northeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, is the four-story, Classical Revival-style Neal and Newhall Building. It was completed in 1892, and can also be seen from a different angle in this previous post, which shows the Washington Street side of the building. When the first photo was taken, the storefront on the left side was holding an “Auction Sale,” with a sign in the window encouraging customers to “Buy You Holiday Presents Now and Save Money!” The upper floors housed a variety of professional offices, including real estate and insurance agents, and an optician whose second-floor office is marked by two large eyes that are reminiscent of the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Just beyond this building are two smaller commercial blocks. Closer to the foreground is the three-story Browne Block, which was built in 1862 and was occupied by the Hall & Lyon drugstore when the first photo was taken. The shorter building to the right of it, located at 216-218 Essex Street, is even older, dating back to around 1801. It was originally owned by Jacob P. Rust, and in the first photo its tenants included the Palace of Sweets, an ice cream and confectionery shop that was located in the storefront on the left side. At the time it was probably the oldest building in this scene, and today it still stands as the oldest surviving commercial building in the city.

On the right side of the scene, the large building in the foreground is the First Church of Salem, which was built in 1826 and heavily modified in the 1870s. Upon completion, it had a fairly plain Federal-style building, which was work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. It was built as a mixed-use property, featuring storefronts on the ground floor and the church itself on the second floor. The original design lacked towers, but these were added in the mid-1870s, when the exterior of the church was extensively rebuilt with a High Victorian Gothic-style design. By the time the first photo was taken, it was still in use as a church, and the ground floor was occupied by Daniel Low & Company, which sold jewelry, watches, and silverware.

Today, this scene has not had many changes in the century since the first photo was taken. All of the buildings in the foreground are still standing, although some have been altered in one way or another. The Neal and Newhall Building on the left has modern storefronts, and the Browne Block beyond it is nearly unrecognizable, with the top floor gone and a different facade. On the other side of the street, the white building just beyond the church has gained a fifth floor, and the church itself has lost the top of its towers. This building has not been used as a church since 1923, when the First Church merged with the North Church and relocated to their building at 316 Essex Street. The Daniel Low store is also gone, having closed in 1995, and the ground floor now houses the Rockafellas restaurant.

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.

Derby-Ward House, Salem, Mass

The house at 27 Herbert Street, at the corner of Derby Street in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was built around 1735-36, and was originally the home of Richard Derby, Sr., a mariner who would go on to become a prosperous merchant and the patriarch of one of Salem’s leading families. He moved into this house when he was in his early 20s, around the same time as his marriage to Mary Hodges in 1735. The following year he made his first voyage as captain, commanding the sloop Ranger, which he sailed to Spain with a cargo of fish and returned with oil, fruit, and handkerchiefs. He would spend the next two decades as a captain, taking many voyages to Europe, the West Indies, and other destinations, before retiring from the sea in 1757.

By this point, Derby had become a wealthy man, with ownership interests in a number of ships, and he began operating as a merchant here in Salem. Then, in 1762, he began construction of Derby Wharf, which would eventually become the largest wharf in the harbor. He did lose a few ships during the French and Indian War, and his business was further affected by the Sugar Act of 1764, which placed a tax on the molasses trade. However, Derby still continued to prosper, and was actively involved in the merchant business until the early 1770s.

Richard and Mary Derby raised six children here in this house: Richard, Jr., Mary, Elias, John, Martha, and Sarah. Both the younger Richard and John became ship captains, with John achieving some fame for the role he played at the start of the American Revolution. The war started on April 19, 1775, with the battles of Lexington and Concord. However, in the days when transatlantic news traveled only as quickly as the ship that carried it, the accounts of the battles would take time to reach England. The Patriot leaders recognized the value of being first to bring the news to the British people, since it would allow their version of events to influence public opinion, so John Derby was given the responsibility of carrying these reports. He departed Salem on April 29 aboard the Quero, and arrived in London on May 28, nearly two weeks ahead of the ship that brought the official British account of the battles.

However, the most prominent of Richard Derby’s children was his son Elias Hasket Derby, who took over control of the family merchant business after Richard’s retirement.  Like the rest of his family, he was a staunch Patriot during the war, and owned a number of privateers that preyed on British shipping. He profited from these successful privateers, and his fortune continued to grow after the war, as Salem ships began trading with the East Indies, China, India, and other distant ports. By the 1790s, he was among the wealthiest men in the country, and lived in an elegant mansion on Washington Street, near the center of Salem. This period coincided with Salem’s height of prosperity as a seaport, when it ranked as the seventh-largest city or town in the country, and the wealthiest on a per-capita basis. Derby had much to do with this, and some 50 years after his death he was referred to as “King Derby” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter.

Richard Derby died in 1783, leaving this house to Elias, who rented it out to several different tenants between 1785 and 1795. Then, in 1795, he sold the house to lumber merchant Miles Ward, who subdivided the property and lived in this house with his wife Hannah. Ward died just a year later, but the house would remain in his family for many years. His son, Joseph Chipman Ward, later inherited the property, followed by his son Miles Ward. As late as 1897, the house was owned by Frances L. Ward, who was the widow of Chipman Ward, another of Joseph’s children.

The first photo was taken a few years later, around 1906. By this point, the house was being rented by Thomas and Anna Rock, two Irish immigrants who were in their 60s at the time. They lived here with two of their adult children, Mary and Thomas, both of whom were employed as clerks. This was a significant difference from a century and a half earlier, when it had been the home of one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants, but this reflected the changes that the city had undergone in the 19th century, as its once-prosperous shipping industry steadily declined. However, the house is still standing today, more than 280 years after the newlywed Richard and Mary Hodges first moved in, and its exterior has seen few changes since the first photo was taken.