So when we booked our getaway to Salem, I knew there’d be a walking tour or three that we could choose from and I wasn’t disappointed. I did minimal research but I found one with a review that said, “If you do one walking tour in Salem, THIS IS THE ONE!” and the other reviews were generally positive too.
We had arrived in Salem 90 minutes before the walking tour began and the meeting point for the tour – the Old Town Hall – was only a block from our hotel! We settled into our hotel, grabbed a drink at a bar that allowed us to sit INSIDE (!!!), and then met up with the other four people taking the “History & Hauntings of Salem Guided Walk Tour” with Witch City Walking Tours on Front Street, at the back end of the Old Town Hall.
If you recognize the Old Town Hall, it’s probably because they used the facade for the shots of the dance hall that Max and Dani’s parents dance all night in Hocus Pocus! The interior was shot on a sound stage though.
The Old Town Hall
Our guide, Vanessa, was a teacher from the south who’d recently moved up to Salem in the last year or two. She was very nice and extremely knowledgeable. In addition to Vanessa and my partner Nick, there was also one more teacher on the tour! I guess I picked the right tour to bring my teacher-boyfriend on.
Vanessa explained that where we were standing used to be where the Salem Harbor waterfront was, hence the name Front Street. She said the Old Town Hall was called such because it was no longer used for government purposes. She mentioned Hocus Pocus and the exterior use of the Old Town Hall, too.
The History of the Town of Salem
Something I did not know was that Salem was a huge port city. Vanessa explained that after the events of the Boston Tea Party occured, and Boston Harbor was shut down, that Salem became the next biggest port in the area.
She pointed towards to the sewer and said that there are a number of tunnels underneath where we were standing and that sailors would transport goods from underneath the ships to those tunnels and deliver them wherever they were meant to go.
She also mentioned that there’s no way to access the tunnels anymore that she knows of. Cheekily I asked where, if someone were willing to risk getting arrested, would one go to attempt to find these tunnels. She pointed to the Old Town Hall and said probably from the basement.
The Founding of Salem
We rounded the corner and she started telling us how the city was founded. There’s a theory about the name – Salem. Lore has it that it was supposed to be the word Shalom, but King James couldn’t pronounce it correctly, so it became Salem, but there’s no historical evidence of that.
The area was originally settled by the Naumkeag tribe, the name of which was given to a bank across from where we were standing. There’s a plaque now on that building to commemorate its history.
The building that we were standing parallel to was the site of Salem’s First Church built in 1629, as well as a former army barracks. This was the site of our first ghost story.
Sarah, the Sailor, and the Captain
Vanessa asked if we knew the difference between a slave and an indentured servant. She explained the latter was a person who’s paying off a debt but will eventually be free, while a slave would never be free unless freed by their owner.
This was a story about an indentured servant called Sarah, the captain that she served, and the sailor that she was in love with. When Sarah was 17, she’d fallen in love with a sailor who lived in the barracks that were once located in the building that we were standing next to.
The captain that she was paying off her debt to didn’t like this and decided he was going to marry her, regardless of whether or not she wanted to marry him.
On the night that he sailed off on his next trip, Sarah and the sailor decided they’d run away together and get married.
The captain may have been an asshole, but he wasn’t a bad captain. He saw the weather was bad as he began sailing and decided to turn back and to try again the following day.
Sarah and her sailor didn’t know this. They came face to face outside the door (which was boarded up sometime ago) next to which we were standing and a brawl ensued.
The story goes that Sarah stood in between them as the sailor picked up something heavy to throw at the head of the captain, but since Sarah was standing there, the sailor hit her, killing her, instead.
Vanessa told us that the captain didn’t want to call the police so he made the sailor help him bury Sarah underneath the floor in the basement of the army barracks.
Vanessa, however, doesn’t believe that. She said a second theory was that it was the captain who actually hit and killed Sarah. She can’t fathom why the captain wouldn’t have wanted to get the authorities involved if he hadn’t been the one to kill her. Good point!
Hauntings in the Building Over the Years
Over the years, the building was transformed into the department store Daniel Low & Co and today it is a restaurant called Rockafellas. Vanessa told us that there have been multiple sightings of an opaque woman with a blue glow sighted in the basement asking for help and saying she was buried.
This is believed to be Sarah and Rockafellas even has a drink on the menu dedicated to her called the Lady in Blue. I ordered it at Rockafellas when we visited the restaurant the following night.
The History of Bewitched in Salem
Onwards we made our way down the block to the center of Essex Street where the famous statue of Samantha from the old timey TV show Bewitched stands.
Vanessa explained that when Bewitched first aired in the 1960’s, the people of Salem were not at all pleased. Salem’s residents take their history very seriously and the Salem Witch Trials are not a period in time that they’re particularly proud of. They felt like Bewitched was mocking their history.
This statue was placed here temporarily but when tourists started flocking to the city (which was having a hard time during that decade) to see the Bewitched statue, they decided to keep it up permanently.
It was around that time that Salem began to clean itself up a bit and became the safe, beautiful little city that it is today.
The Salem Witch House
The Salem Witch House was our next stop. It was hot and humid as hell out so we were grateful to take a short pause around the back of the Witch House and to sit on the stone wall and learn the dark history of the Salem Witch Trials. Vanessa had a bag of water bottles that we were all grateful for (as I’d already drank every drop from my Swell bottle).
Vanessa first explained to us that the Salem Witch House had been relocated to its current spot in 1964 and that it was painted an oppressive shade of black so it would absorb heat during the winter.
The sun was starting to set and the large black house cast menacing shadows over the already shadowy backyard in which we were seated.
The Salem Witch Trials
I’d learned about the Salem Witch Trials sometime back in elementary school. That being quite a number of years ago, I barely remembered anything about them. I was grateful for Vanessa’s synopsis including that of what had happened in the house we were standing at the back of.
Vanessa talked about the hysteria of the trials and the fact that there were never any witches living in Salem.
There Were Never Any Witches in Salem
What did she mean by that? She meant that the whole thing was a sham. The people who were accused were usually accused by people to whom they owed money.
Vanessa talked about Tituba, the slave of Samuel Parris, who was the first person accused of witchcraft by Parris’ daughter Elizabeth and her friend Abigail Williams. As she told the story I recognized it from The Crucible – I don’t know if I’d ever known it was based on a true story or if I’d just forgotten but I immediately remember the scenes of the young girls barking and going crazy.
In the end, Tituba accused Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne of practicing witchcraft. Tituba remained in jail during the trials and was eventually purchased for the price of her jail fees by an unknown person, according to Wikipedia. Good and Osbourne were both executed for witchcraft.
This craziness went on until the Governor’s wife was accused of witchcraft. The governor went to the king himself and got permission to disband the Salem Courts and that was that.
All in all the trials lasted just a few months and 22 people were executed.
Vanessa stressed how easily all of this happened and how easily hysteria of this nature can happen again.
Salem Witch Memorial
Behind the Salem Witch House is the Salem Witch Memorial which is a plaza with the last words of the executed engraved in the stone in the entrance. There are stone steps along the walls, one for each of the 22 executed.
There were flowers on some of the steps because, according to Vanessa, descendants of some of the accused still live in Salem and pay their respects from time to time. The memorial is also right next to the Burying Point Cemetery.
The Ropes Mansion
We moved up Essex Street to our next stop, another exterior from Hocus Pocus, the Ropes Mansion.
It was built in the 1700’s for a merchant named Samuel Bernard and then sold to the Ropes family in 1768. Today the first and second wives, Rachel and Elizabeth, of Samuel Bernard are said to still be “living” in the house, as well as Abigail Ropes.
Vanessa told us that people have taken photos of one of the windows on the backside of the house and have seen ghostly appearances, likely of Abigail Ropes, in them afterwards.
I took a few photos of the window but sadly I didn’t see anything in the finished product. (Below!)
The gardens at the Ropes Mansion are beautiful though and you should definitely check them out and they’re free to enter!
The second to last stop was Hamilton Hall on the most famous street in Salem – Chestnut Street.
Vanessa said that the inventors of both Polaroid and Crayola once had houses on this street. I did my best Googling but I couldn’t pinpoint their exact addresses. Chestnut Street is lined from east end to its west end with beautiful, historical mansions; a majority of which have been landmarked with plaques telling you exactly who lived here.
Hamilton Hall was a vast red brick building with large glass windows on the second level and a green front door. We stopped in front of it’s main entrance where Vanessa pointed out where her foot was, on a literal stepping stone. It was called such because it was where women would step out of their carriages when they arrived for a party.
It was designed by Samuel McIntyre (for whom the district where we currently stood had been named) in 1805 and named for Alexander Hamilton, everyone’s favorite founding father.
Vanessa told us that back in the day rowdy parties with lots of alcohol and close dancing were held there. The odd story at Hamilton Hall was that there was once a church across the street from where we were standing and the pastor there didn’t like what he saw so he threatened to have the parties shut down.
The church burned down shortly thereafter and no cause of the fire could ever be determined.
No ghosts, just a very odd coincidence. There’s a park where the church once stood now.
The Merchant House
We walked a few blocks away to our very last stop of the night at what is called the most haunted building in Salem – the Merchant House.
Also referred to as the Josh Ward House, this pristinely kept three-story red brick building surrounded by a white picket fence, enveloped by enormous trees on both sides, is now a hotel and according to Booking.com, the rooms are lovely.
If you book a night here, make sure to request George Washington’s room. Washington stayed here on the second floor after he accepted the nomination for president.
The ghost of Joshua Ward, the original owner of the house, is said to haunt the Merchant.
But this was also the home of Sheriff George Corwin. His basement served as a jail in the 1680’s where the victims of the Salem Witch Trials were interrogated in horrific ways by Corwin and then later executed. His nickname was “The Strangler.”
Vanessa told us that after the trials were over and Corwin eventually died, his family recovered his body and buried him under the floor in the basement of the Merchant House.
She also remarked that since the 1680’s after Corwin was sheriff, Salem has had trouble keeping a single sheriff in office. In fact, she told us they were currently in search of a new sheriff.
Listening to the stories about George Corwin and his victims as the sun set and the massive trees in front of the Merchant cast ghastly shadows felt incredibly ominous and I was relieved to head back to the center of town after the tour concluded.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this tour. It was just the right mix of history and ghosts. It really was the perfect introduction to Salem and I learned a ton (of course, I took notes on my phone too!). It was well worth the $25 price tag.