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.

Benjamin Hawkes House, Salem, Mass

The house at 4 Custom House Court, just off Derby Street in Salem, on June 27, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was originally intended as the home of Elias Hasket Derby, a prominent merchant who was among the wealthiest men in the country during the late 18th century. He had previously lived in the brick house on the right side of the photo, which his father Richard Derby had built for him in the early 1760s, but he had moved out of the house by the late 1770s. In 1780, he began construction on this large, wood-frame house, hiring noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire to design it.

However, the house was only partially completed by 1782, when Derby changed his plans and purchased the former home of merchant Benjamin Pickman on Washington Street. Derby hired Mcintire again, this time to make alterations to the Pickman House, and this half-finished house sat vacant for nearly two decades. In 1800, a year after Derby’s death, local pastor and diarist William Bentley described the house in his September 23 diary entry, noting that,

On this Land in 1780 Mr. Derby raised a Great House which he never finished. The third story was as high as the first & higher than the second. The pediment was lost in the roof & the Cupola which was finished was without any good effect. The back part was finished but the front only covered with boards & was very rotten. It was sold this day to the Carpenters for 600 Dollars. A more uncomely mass was never piled up for a building. The Lot under it sold for above 2,000 D. It has now stood 20 years as a monument of folly.

The “monument of folly” was ultimately sold to shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes in 1801, who had the house completed later that year. The original design was altered somewhat, including the removal of the cupola that Reverend Bentley had described, and the interior of the massive house was converted into a two-family home. It seems unclear exactly how much of McIntire’s original design was retained for the completed house, and whether the architect was involved in its completion, but either way the house became a good example of the Federal style that was common in Salem around the turn of the 19th century.

The house is located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the longest wharf in the city. Because of this, it was right at the center of Salem’s busy port, where fleets of early 19th century sailing vessels arrived with valuable cargoes from around the world. Benjamin Hawkes’s shipyard was just a short walk from his house, at the site of present-day Kosciusko Street, and in 1819 the Salem Custom House was built directly adjacent to the house, just out of view on the left side of this scene.

Benjamin Hawkes lived here during the peak of Salem’s prosperity as a seaport, but by the middle of the 19th century the city’s shipping industry was in decline. However, many of the elegant mansions from this golden age are still standing today, including the Benjamin Hawkes House. After years of being used as a duplex, it was acquired by the National Park Service in the late 1930s, becoming part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Established in 1938, this was the first National Historic Site in the country, and the first photo shows the house as it appeared just two years later. Very little has changed in this scene since then, and the house is now used as administrative offices for the park.

Clifford Crowninshield House, Salem, Mass

The house at 74 Washington Square East, at the corner of Forrester Street in Salem, on May 12, 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was built between 1804 and 1806 for Clifford Crowninshield, a merchant who was a member of one of Salem’s most prominent families. It was the work of noted Salem architect Salem McIntire, and featured a Federal-style design that was typical for mansions of this period, including a symmetrical front facade, three stories, and a hip roof that was originally topped by a balustrade. Crowninshield had the house built around the same time as his marriage to Elizabeth Fisher, the daughter of Nathaniel Fisher, who was the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. There was a considerable age difference between the two, with Clifford about 44 years old and Elizabeth only about 20 at the time of their marriage in 1805.

Ultimately, though, neither of them lived in this house for very long. Elizabeth died in March 1806, less than a year after their marriage and possibly before the house was even completed, and Clifford died three years later in 1809. However, their short marriage did manage to cause significant controversy within the Crowninshield family, and not necessarily because of their age difference. Writing in his diary on the day after Clifford’s death, local pastor William Bentley explained the circumstances surrounding their marriage:

In this wealth & unmarried he [Crowninshield] attracted the notice of N. Fisher . . . & was persuaded to marry his only daughter, who soon deceased after marriage. This alliance was displeasing to his 6 sisters who had no advantages from education, & many of them scanty means, & an open alienation from their Brother ensued with continued three years till within a few months of his death.

Fisher had evidently hoped that Crowninshield’s estrangement from his sisters would give him access to the family fortune, but Bentley went on to explain that, after he and his sisters reconciled shortly before his death,

This reconcilliation excluded the Rector & disappointed his hopes who had removed into one of the houses of his Son in Law & had indulged great expectations. In the last hours all intercourse ceased & the Rector has been left to lament his numerous indiscretions & ill placed confidence, in the serious evils of his affairs.

In the end, Crowninshield’s mansion was inherited by his sister Sarah and her husband James Devereux. He was, like so many of Salem’s other upper class men of the era, a ship captain and merchant. In 1799, his ship, the Franklin, became the first American ship to sail to Japan, and he subsequently developed a lucrative trading business with Europe, Southeast Asia, the West Indies, and South America. His company specialized in commodities such as coffee, pepper, and sugar, and included one 1808 voyage from which the Franklin returned with a cargo of over half a million pounds of coffee.

Sarah Devereux died in 1815, only a few years after inheriting the house from her brother, but James lived here until his death in 1846. His daughter, Abigail, then inherited the property, and lived here with her husband, William Dean Waters. They were both in their 40s at the time, and had six children, four of whom were at the house by 1850. That year’s census shows their sons William, James, Edward, and Clifford, whose ages ranged from 20 to nine, and they also lived here with Abigail’s sister Elizabeth and a servant.

Abigail died in 1879, followed by her husband a year later, and the house was then inherited by their son, William Crowninshield Waters. He sold the property in 1892, ending almost 90 years of ownership by the same family, and it was purchased by Zina Goodell, who was a machinist and blacksmith. Goodell made some alterations to the house, including moving it closer to Forrester Street. This made room for a second house on the lot, which was built just to the right of the house, at 72 Washington Square East.

Goodell lived here until his death in 1920, but the house would remain in his family for many years. His daughter Mary and her husband, George Patterson, were living here when the first photo was taken in 1941, as part of the New Deal-era Historic American Buildings Survey. Today, more than 75 years later, the house has since been converted into condominiums, but the exterior has not seen any substantial changes from this angle, aside from the loss of the balustrade atop the roof. It is now a contributing property in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.