Nathaniel West & James W. Thompson House, Salem, Massachusetts

The house at 38-40 Chestnut Street in Salem, probably around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Glass Plate Negatives Collection.

The house in 2023:

This double house was built in 1845, and it stands on the north side of Chestnut Street. It consists of two separate homes standing side by side, with 38 Chestnut on the right and 40 Chestnut on the left. It is somewhat newer than most of the other houses on the street, which generally date to the first two decades of the 19th century. As a result, while the house has many of the same Federal-style features of the earlier homes on the street, it also includes a mix of Greek Revival elements.

The original owner of 38 Chestnut was merchant Nathaniel West, although he does not appear to have actually lived here. By the early 1850s, the house was owned by another merchant, Joseph S. Andrews, who also served as mayor of Salem from 1854 to 1856. In the meantime, the house on the left side at 40 Chestnut was originally owned by the Rev. James W. Thompson, who lived here until 1859. It was subsequently the home of merchant John B. Silsbee and his wife Martha.

Both houses would have a number of other owners throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. The first photo was taken sometime around the turn of the century by Frank Cousins, who used photography to document many historic properties throughout the city. Very little has changed with the appearance of the house in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and it is one of the many historic homes that still line Chestnut Street today.

Francis A. Seamans House, Salem, Massachusetts

The house at 48 Chestnut Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Glass Plate Negatives Collection.

The house in 2023:

The early 20th century was they heyday of the Colonial Revival architectural movement, although in many cases these buildings bore little resemblance to actual colonial-era buildings. However, this house in Salem is an exception, and it stands out as an excellent 20th century imitation of 18th century architecture. It was built in 1910, and its architect, William G. Rantoul, drew heavily from the design of Salem’s famous Derby House when designing it. The result is a convincing replica that fits in well with the historic 18th and early 19th century homes in this neighborhood.

The original residents of this house were Francis and Caroline Seamans. They were both about 50 at the time, and Francis was a business owner who sold contractor supplies. He died in 1930, and Caroline subsequently sold the house. By the 1940 census she was listed as a boarder in a house around the corner from here, at 384 Essex Street.

The first photo was probably taken soon after the house was completed, and not much has changed since then. Although much newer than its neighbors, it is nonetheless a historic property in its own right, and it stands as a good example of early 20th century Colonial Revival architecture. it is a contributing property in  the Chestnut Street District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Joseph Dean House, Salem, Massachusetts

The house at the northeast corner of Essex and Flint Streets in Salem, probably around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Glass Plate Negatives Collection.

The house in 2023:

This house has been expanded and altered many times over the years, but it is said to have been built around 1706 as the home of Captain Joseph Dean and his wife Elizabeth Flint. He did not get to enjoy the house for very long, because he died in 1709, but the house would remain in his family for many years, until it was sold around 1775.

The next owner of the house was Colonel Joseph Sprague, who served in the American Revolution. He also played a role in Leslie’s Retreat, a confrontation in Salem between British redcoats and colonial militiamen that occurred a little less than two months before the battles of Lexington and Concord. He lived here until his death in 1808, and the house was subsequently inherited by his daughter Sarah.

Sarah Sprague had married Dr. William Stearns in 1781, and by the time she inherited this house they had ten children. The third floor of the house appears to have been added at some point around this time, as was the portico above the front door, which is believed to have been made by Samuel McIntire, the famous architect and builder.

The Stearns family owned the house throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1880 census, for example, shows William and Sarah’s daughter Harriet—who by this point was 79 years old—living here with her nephew William and his family. This younger William Stearns was a lawyer, and he was the son of William and Sarah’s youngest child Richard Stearns. By 1880 he was 57 years old, and his family here included his wife Hannah and  their sons William and Richard, both of whom were also lawyers. The family also employed three live-in servants here.

The first photo was taken at some point around the turn of the 20th century. By then, the house had undergone further changes, including additions to the back and right side. It also had a porch on the right side, which is partially visible in the photo. William Stearns died in 1905, but his son Richard subsequently inherited the house. He was the great-great grandson of Joseph Sprague, making him the fifth consecutive generation to own the property. During the 1910 census he was living here with his wife Carrie, their five children, and two servants.

The house ultimately remained in the family until 1930, and it was subsequently converted into an inn and tea house known as the East India House. It has since been converted into apartments, with a total of eight units in the building. On the exterior, though, not much has changed in its appearance. The shutters—which would not have been original to the house—have been removed, but overall it still looks essentially the same as it did at the turn of the century. Along with the other nearby homes, it is now part of the Chestnut Street District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Joseph Neal House, Salem, Massachusetts

The house at 358 Essex Street in Salem, probably around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Glass Plate Negatives Collection.

The house in 2023:

The house in the center of these photos was built around 1729 as the home of Joseph Neal. Over the years it was expanded several times, and by the mid-19th century it was divided into two separate properties, with one family owning the western half of the left side, and another family owning the eastern half on the right. The early ownership history seems difficult to trace, but according to the book Architecture in Salem by Bryan F. Tolles Jr., the western half was owned by the Clark family during the 19th century, and the eastern half was owned by the Morgan family.

The first photo was taken sometime around the turn of the century. It was around this time that the Benson family acquired the entire building, and the 1911 city atlas lists the owner as Rebecca A. Benson. The house would remain in the Benson family for many years, and throughout this time the exterior has remained well preserved in its historic appearance.

Today, the house is still standing here on Essex Street, as are the homes on either side of it. The elm trees that once lined the street are long gone, but otherwise this scene is still very recognizable more than a century after the first photo was taken. These houses, along with the other historic homes on Essex Street and the adjacent streets, are now part of the Chestnut Street District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Ropes Mansion, Salem, Massachusetts (2)

The Ropes Mansion at 318 Essex Street in Salem, probably around 1895-1910. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Glass Plate Negatives Collection.

The house in 2023:

As explained in more detail in a previous post, this house was built around the late 1720s as the home of Samuel Barnard. He was originally from Deerfield, Massachusetts, but he moved to Salem after the death of his first wife Mary and his son Samuel in 1720. In 1723 he remarried to Rachel Barnard, his cousin’s widow, and they lived in this house together until her death in 1743. Samuel later married his third wife, Elizabeth, who died in 1753, and then he subsequently married his fourth wife, Catherine, in 1756.

Samuel Barnard died in 1762, and he had no surviving heirs, so his nephew Joseph Barnard inherited this house. In 1768 he sold it to Nathaniel Ropes, a lawyer and judge who served on the Governor’s Council and on the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. In 1772, Ropes was appointed as a justice on the Superior Court of Judicature, the highest court in the colony. However, this was an inopportune time to be a justice on the royal court, especially for someone with Loyalist sentiments like Ropes. His house was supposedly attacked by an angry mob in March 1774, while Ropes was inside and gravely ill from smallpox. He died the following day, and the stress from the riot is said to have been a contributing factor in his death.

Many Loyalists lost their property in Massachusetts during the Revolution, but the Ropes family managed to retain ownership of this house, and it remained in the family for many years. By the late 19th century it was the home of Nathaniel Ropes V, the great grandson of Judge Ropes. He died in 1893, and ownership then passed to his three unmarried sisters: Sarah, Mary, and Eliza. They modernized the house with hat, electricity, and plumbing, and they also moved it further back from the street and added a large wing in the back.

The first photo was likely taken at some point during the sisters’ ownership, or soon after. The last living member of the family was Eliza Ropes, who died in 1907. With no children or close living relatives, she left the property to the Essex Institute, which subsequently preserved the house as a museum.

Today, the house is owned by the Essex Institute’s successor, the Peabody Essex Museum. It is one of a number of historic homes owned by the museum, and it stands as an important architectural landmark. However, it is a major tourist destination in modern Salem for different reasons. The 1993 film Hocus Pocus used the house as a filming location, and it was prominently featured as the home of one of the main characters, Allison Watts.

Ephraim Huit Gravestone, Windsor, Connecticut

The gravestone of Ephraim Huit at Palisado Cemetery in Windsor, Connecticut, around 1900. Image from Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI.

The scene in 2023:

These two photos show the gravestone of the Reverend Ephraim Huit, who died in 1644. This is generally believed to be the oldest dated gravestone in New England, and it may also be the oldest in the United States. It is located in Palisado Cemetery, which was the colonial-era burying ground for Windsor, the first English settlement in Connecticut.

Ephraim Huit was born in England and was educated at Cambridge. He served as a clergyman in Warwickshire, but he found himself in conflict with the Anglican authorities, apparently because of his nonconformist Puritan views. This may have been what prompted him to emigrate to North America, and he eventually made his way to Windsor, where he was ordained as an assistant pastor of the church in 1639. However, he died only five years later in 1644, when he was about 50 years old.

Among those who had traveled to Windsor with Ephraim Huit were brothers Matthew and Edward Griswold. Both were evidently masons, because Edward is documented as having constructed “the Fort,” a fortified brick house in Springfield, while Matthew was, according to tradition, responsible for carving the gravestone of his in-laws, Henry and Elizabeth Wolcott, here at Palisado Cemetery. Gravestone scholars have likewise attributed several other gravestones to Matthew, including this one here for Ephraim Huit.

The term for this type of grave marker is a box tomb, and it consists of a large flat top that is supported by legs on the corners. In between the legs are four panels, one of which bears the inscription identifying it as the final resting place of Ephraim Huit. Although called a tomb, his body would not have actually been interred in the above-ground space inside it. Rather, his remains would have likely been directly beneath the box tomb.

It is carved of sandstone, which was likely quarried in Windsor. Sandstone was a common material for gravestones in the Connecticut River Valley during 17th and 18th centuries, but it varied in quality depending on its source. Many carvers worked in brown sandstone from the Middletown and Portland area, but this stone tends to be coarse-grained and porous, making the gravestones vulnerable to weathering. Windsor sandstone, on the other hand, tends to have more of an orange-brown color, and it is very fine grained. As a result, gravestones sourced from Windsor have generally survived in much better condition than their Middletown counterparts.

The inscription on the Ephraim Huit stone is carved fairly shallow, but the quality of the material has meant that it is still easily legible nearly four centuries later. Early New England gravestones often have concise inscriptions that give only basic information such as name, age, and date of death. However, this inscription is far more lengthy. It reads:

Who when hee Liued wee drew our vitall Breath
Who when hee Dyed his dying was our death
Who was ye stay of State ye Churches Staff
Alas the times forbides an Epitaph

This last line is particularly puzzling, since it is is an epitaph that says that the “times forbides an Epitaph.” This apparent contradiction is also made more unclear by uncertainty over the meaning of “times.” Did the carver mean it as in there wasn’t enough time to carve a proper epitaph? Or did “times” mean the social, religious, and/or political context of 17th century Connecticut? This latter interpretation seems plausible, since the Puritans generally took a dim view on any kind of elaborate funerary rituals. Could this have been a subversive critique of Puritan society, carved into, of all places, the gravestone of a Puritan pastor?

As for the identity of the carver, there are no surviving records that specifically identify him. It has generally been attributed to Matthew Griswold based on tradition and circumstantial evidence, and it is stylistically similar to several other mid-17th century gravestones that can be found in places such as Hartford, Springfield, and New London. However, it is possible that there may have been another hand involved in making this stone. Matthew’s nephew George Griswold—the son of Matthew’s brother Edward—was also a gravestone carver. His identity as a carver is more firmly established in historical records, and there are dozens of stones that he apparently carved, including many here at Palisado Cemetery.

The bulk of George Griswold’s work dates to the 1670s through 1690s, and his gravestones tended to be small, conventional markers, in contrast to the large box tomb of Ephraim Huit. However, those stones nonetheless show a high degree of skill, leading some scholars to infer that George likely learned from his uncle Matthew. If that was the cause, it seems plausible that he may have assisted in carving the Huit stone. Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of this theory is the lettering on the stone, particularly the letter “y.” On his later gravestones, George Gridswold used a distinctive “y,” with an elongated, curved “tail” that often swooped beneath the preceding letter. Here on this stone, almost every “y” has this feature, with the exception of the one in “LYETH,” which has a standard capital “Y.” This inconsistency might suggest that there may have been more than one carver at work on this stone.

As for the exact date when this stone was carved, it is hard to say. Backdating was a common practice for colonial-era gravestones, with many stones being carved years or even decades after the person’s death. If George Griswold did, in fact, carve some of the letters, then the stone was likely not carved immediately after Huit’s death, since George would have been just 11 years old at the time. But, since the style and lettering is consistent with other mid-17th century stones in the area, it was probably not backdated by much, and was likely carved around the 1650s.

Because backdating was so common during that time period, it is impossible to say with certainty which gravestone is the oldest in New England. There are a handful of others from the 1640s and 1650s, but the Huit stone has the earliest date of any of these. Because of this, and in the absence of any records firmly documenting when a particular stone was carved, the Huit stone seems to have the strongest claim to being the oldest gravestone in the region, and it may also be the oldest dated gravestone in the country. There is a knight’s tombstone in Jamestown, Virginia from 1627, but this stone does not appear to have any dates or other markings.

It would not be until the late 17th century that gravestones would become more common in New England. Early graves may have been marked by wooden markers, or by simple fieldstones, but the idea of permanent, carved monuments was not firmly established in the region until several decades after the Ephraim Huit stone was carved.

Here in Windsor, George Griswold became the first carver in Connecticut to produce gravestones on a large scale. Over the next century and a half, the high-quality sandstone here would continue to draw gravestone carvers to the town, and some of their works can be seen in the background of these two photos. Most visible among these are the three stones directly beyond the Huit stone in this scene. The shortest one, located furthest to the left, marks the grave of John Warham Strong, who died in 1752. His stone was carved by Joseph Johnson, one of the most talented of all the colonial-era carvers in Connecticut.

The two stones on the right, just beyond the Huit stone, were both carved by Ebenezer Drake, another prolific carver in the Windsor area. The stone further to the left marks the grave of Return Strong, who died in 1776, and the one on the right is for his wife Sarah, who died in 1801. The designs of these stones reflect the changes in gravestone carving traditions during those intervening years. When Return died, most gravestones were topped by a winged face that likely represented the soul ascending to heaven. However, by the turn of the 19th century these tastes had shifted to more neoclassical symbols such as willows and urns, as depicted on the top of Sarah’s gravestone.

When Sarah’s gravestone was installed here at the turn of the 19th century, the Ephraim Huit stone was already a relic of a much earlier era. It was also in poor condition, and by the early 19th century it had collapsed. The panel with the inscription was left lying flat and facing up so that it could be read, but the other large panel on the opposite side of the stone evidently disappeared. However, in 1842 it was restored, and a new panel was installed on the other side of the stone, bearing an inscription that commemorated another early Windsor pastor, the Reverend John Warham.

The first photo in this post was taken around 1900, and by this point the gravestone was widely recognized for its historical significance. An 1894 newspaper article described it as “the oldest original monument in the Connecticut valley,” and it also quoted the “quaint inscription” on the stone. In later years, this inscription would also catch the attention of other writers, and it was even featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper cartoon panel in 1958.

Today, nearly 380 years after the death of Ephraim Huit, his gravestone has remained in good condition. It has seen few noticeable changes since the first photo was taken, although the left side of it does appear to be more weathered and eroded than in 1900. Palisado Cemetery is still an active cemetery, with many modern burials, but the oldest stones are here in the southwestern part of the cemetery. The Huit stone is the oldest of these, but there are many other 17th and 18th century gravestones here in the cemetery, providing many opportunities to study the changing ways in which colonial New Englanders chose to memorialize the dead.