Wraiths of Restless Witches Still Haunt Modern day Salem Village
by Lee Holloway
The Salem witch hysteria began not in Salem, but in nearby Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts), a community of scattered farms facing the great wilderness. The winter of 1691–92 was harsh. Ponds, lakes, and wells were frozen thick; ever-deepening snow blanketed the landscape as far as the eye could see; and icy winds penetrated even the thickest woolen cloaks. Days were short, nights long and dark. It was in this setting of abject isolation that several girls started gathering in the cozy kitchen of the village parsonage, where they were entertained by Tituba, a West Indian slave belonging to the Rev. Samuel Parris. Tituba, reveling in her suddenly exalted position, regaled her listeners with tales of ghosts, witches, and island magic.
The Witch Madness
There have been many theories concerning what sparked the insanity that followed this seemingly innocent pastime. Some scholars claim the girls became frightened while attempting to ascertain the occupations of the men they were destined to marry, but this is doubtful because various forms of divination, though forbidden by the Puritan Church, were fairly common in 17th-century New England. Regardless of what transpired during those fireside assemblies of three centuries past, it culminated in the Salem Witch Trials.
From the beginning, specters played leading roles in the witch madness. Religious leaders were convinced the devil could not assume the shape of an innocent person, therefore, when the accusers—often referred to as the “afflicted girls”—identified the “shape” of an individual invisible to others, the magistrates accepted such as proof of witchcraft. Before long, the jails in nearby Salem Town, Ipswich, and Boston were overrun with accused witches, and more were being “cried out on” (i.e., named) every day.
It seems only fitting that a phenomenon directed by ghosts should be ended by a ghost, and so it was. By September 21, 1692, 11 “witches” (seven women and four men) had been hanged, and a fifth man had been crushed to death. That night, Mary Easty—the younger sister of Rebecca Nurse, executed July 19—knelt in prayer on the straw in her dank, fetid cell, preparing for the Final Judgment. Goodwife Easty was scheduled to hang the following day. Although a simple confession of witchcraft would have saved her life, Mary Easty was a pious woman who feared the judgment of God over that of man. Knowing she was innocent, Goody Easty could not totally expel the feelings of righteous indignation and, at some point, her spirit escaped the confines of the cold stone walls of her rancid cell, and the iron shackles binding her legs, and appeared to 17-year-old Mary Herrick in nearby Wenham.
“I am going upon the ladder to be hanged,” the apparition of Goody Easty announced to the frightened teenager. “But I am innocent, and before a twelvemonth be past, you shall believe it!” Mary Herrick was deeply disturbed by the spectral visitation, but mentioned it to no one, fearing she might be accused of witchcraft herself.
The following day, a cart carrying eight condemned witches made its arduous journey through Salem Town and up Gallows Hill. According to legend, the seven women and one man were hanged from a locust tree, but a special gallows may have been constructed when the trials began. Whatever the object to which the nooses were tied, by the time the life was choked from the last victim, the sky had grown unusually dark and a savage wind announced the approach of a ferocious storm.
Nevertheless, the Rev. Nicholas Noyes tarried long enough to gaze upon the bodies of the wretched souls dangling in space and address the crowd: “What a sad thing it is,” he thundered, “to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there!” Shortly thereafter, the rain commenced—a storm so fierce it seemed the wrath of God Himself had been unleashed on northeastern Massachusetts.
Dozens of other accused witches languished in jail. But some ministers had begun to question the validity of spectral evidence and on the night of November 12, the spirit of Mary Easty, now dead, again appeared to Mary Herrick, this time in the company of the specter of the very much alive Sarah Hale, wife of Rev. John Hale of Beverly. The terrified girl, quaking in the presence of the vaporous Goody Easty, and recoiling from the painful pinches inflicted by Sarah Hale’s shape, cried, “You be the devil!” and pulled the covers over her face to hide from the hideous sight before her. But she could not shut out the words of the determined ghost. “Vengeance! Vengeance!” the spirit of Goody Easty proclaimed, and proceeded to instruct the girl to report what had happened to her minister and Reverend Hale.
Mary Herrick, now terrified more by the prospect of another ghostly visitation than being accused of witchcraft, confessed what had transpired to the ministers. Hale, knowing his wife was no witch, reconsidered his position on spectral evidence and later expressed contrition for “unwittingly encouraging…the sufferings of the innocent.” Other ministers followed suit and it was determined that spectral evidence could not be considered as proof of trafficking with the devil. Without spectral evidence, there was no evidence at all against the majority of the accused. The witch madness came to an end.
The hysteria lasted only a few months, but this very short period of time in which the devil reigned supreme in Massachusetts has captured the imaginations of Americans like no other single event in the history of our country. And even after the passage of more than three centuries, thousands of people flock to Salem to walk where the witches walked and learn more about this shameful blot on U.S. history. Is it any wonder some of those convicted witches refuse to rest in peace?
Vengeful Spirit of Giles Corey
Salem’s Howard Street Cemetery is in close proximity to where the old Salem Gaol (English spelling of jail) once stood and here accused wizard Giles Corey was pressed to death September 19, 1692. When arrested and charged with the practice of witchcraft, Corey, who was around 80 years old at the time, stood “mute,” refusing to enter a plea. The sitting judges decreed that he undergo peine forte et dure (extreme and lengthy pain).
Sheriff George Corwin, nephew of Judge Jonathan Corwin, supervised the “pressing” of the frail, but feisty, wizard and as stones were added, the sheriff would lean down and ask, “Are you ready to enter a plea now, old man?” Corey’s response never altered. “More weight!” was all he would say. According to Robert Calef, an outspoken critic of the trials who witnessed the event, “In the crushing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth and the sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again.” Finally, just before merciful death claimed him, Corey looked directly at Corwin, and with his final breath, gasped, “Damn you, Sheriff! I curse you and all the sheriffs of Salem!”
From shortly after the event to the present, the spirit of Giles Corey has stalked the spot where he died so horribly. During the hot, dry June of 1914, several citizens—including the father of author and historian Robert Ellis “Bob” Cahill—saw the eerie specter. Cahill, who identifies himself as “a very cowardly ghost-hunter,” refuses to enter the Howard Street Cemetery after dark. But protected by the light of day, he willingly accompanies visitors to the seemingly tranquil old burial ground and tells them about the ghost.
“My father and a friend of his came down here and tried to spend the night here in the cemetery,” Cahill explains. “That night, they saw, coming across the cemetery, old Giles Corey!” A few days later, on June 25, a great fire swept down upon Salem from Gallows Hill, and before it could be contained, 1,600 buildings were burned to the ground.
Corey’s ghost, which is often seen prior to disastrous events, is generally considered a harbinger of doom. However, the Howard Street Cemetery is now included on one of Salem’s ghost tours and on several occasions, people have seen what appears to be a “male shape” flitting about the old graveyard.
Cahill, a former High Sheriff of Essex County, also believes the curse Corey placed on Salem’s sheriffs is still in effect. “After being sheriff some five years,” he relates, “I was rushed off to the hospital with…well, nobody knows what it was.” His condition was severe; he underwent two open-heart surgeries and was forced to resign as sheriff.
Afterwards, Cahill began researching the health of other Essex County sheriffs and discovered that every one—from George Corwin to the present—has suffered some sort of blood disorder or heart problem. “We’ve often wondered,” Cahill contends, “we, who have served as sheriff of Essex County, if the curse of Giles Corey hasn’t put its hard fist upon us over these 300 years.”
“Old Mammy Redd of Marblehead”
A Salem witch also haunts Old Burial Point, one of the most picturesque cemeteries in the eastern United States, in nearby Marblehead. Wilmot “Mammy” Redd, a cantankerous woman who threatened to “curse” anyone who crossed her, was considered a witch long before the start of the Salem hysteria. There are few extant records of her arrest and trial, but for some reason, Goody Redd refused to admit to the practice of witchcraft and died on the gallows September 22, 1692.
Goody Redd lived in a house near Redd’s Pond, a 1.81-acre body of water bordering the cemetery, and for many years, it was said that on nights when the moon glowed full over Marblehead Harbor, the cackles of Old Mammy Redd reverberated throughout Old Burial Point. To this day, children playing in the vicinity of the pond will occasionally chant: “Old Mammy Redd of Marblehead, sweet milk could turn to mold in churn,” in an attempt to raise the spirit of the witch.
Does a Witch Haunt the House of the Seven Gables?
The most recognizable building in Salem is the House of the Seven Gables. Although the dwelling itself has no known connection to the infamous trials, one visitor claims she had an “overwhelming impression” of the presence of convicted witch Sarah Good in what is now the gift shop. Nathaniel Hawthorne based his novel, House of the Seven Gables, on the curse uttered by Goody Good just prior to execution. As she stood upon the ladder, July 19, 1692, Sarah Good, defiant to the bitter end, glared down at Rev. Nicholas Noyes and shouted, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink!”
When the unrepentant Noyes died of an apparent aneurysm December 13, 1717, his mouth filled with blood. Although 25 years had passed, everyone recalled the witch’s curse. Perhaps the spirit of Sarah Good is somehow attracted to the house she made famous.
Witches in the “Witch House”
The “Witch House” at 310 Essex Street, now a museum, was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over many of the trials. For those unfamiliar with the Puritan way of life, the house, which contains 17th-century furnishings, provides a glimpse into the material culture of the period that spawned the witch madness.
Some of the preliminary examinations of those accused of witchcraft took place in the east parlor of the Witch House, the room directly to the right upon entering the museum. It is this room that is haunted. Visitors and docents often hear “voices” emanating from the east parlor and several people have reported seeing fleeting “shapes” in their peripheral vision.
Then there was the chilly afternoon in late October when the docent responsible for locking the front door after the museum closed glanced into the east parlor and, for a split second, saw what appeared to be several people in Puritan attire. Although unwilling to admit the possibility of a throng of ghosts in her place of employment, this particular docent has never again remained in the house alone.
The Most Haunted House in Salem
A third Salem building haunted by the aftermath of the witch-hunt is the Joshua Ward House at 143 Washington Street, an austere, three-story, Federal-style brick structure where George Washington once slept.
Although built long after the notorious trials ended, the present edifice stands on an elevation once occupied by the home of Sheriff George Corwin, who, cursed by Giles Corey, died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1697 at the age of 31. Corwin’s death prompted Philip English, whose property had been confiscated by the sheriff during the witch hysteria, to either steal—or threaten to steal—the body of the unpopular law enforcement official. Although history is silent on many of the details, the end result was that Corwin’s family, fearing theft or desecration of the corpse, buried the body in the cold, dark, stone-walled cellar beneath the house—the same cellar over which the Joshua Ward House stands.
The house presently serves as the offices of Carlson Equity Corporation. According to Julie Tache, after Carlson closed on the Joshua Ward House, the seller nonchalantly commented, “Oh, by the way, there’s a body in the basement.”
Over the years, Tache and others have seen, heard, and felt many strange things in the historic building. In the mornings, Tache sometimes discovers the sconces from above the fireplace in her office turned upside-down and the candles lying on the floor in “an s-shaped squiggle” or horn shape. At other times, lampshades are removed, trash cans overturned, papers and other items scattered about, and there are inexplicable blasts of frigid air that are especially chilling on gloomy, overcast days and near Halloween, when people are more aware of the supernatural. “I try to be normal and not believe in ghosts,” Tache says, “but there is something here!”
According to legend, Sheriff Corwin had a habit of taking women accused of witchcraft to his home. There, he forced the lady to sit on a bench, placed a rope tied in a slipknot around her neck and, standing behind the terrified prisoner, gradually tightened the noose, all the while demanding the “witch” confess her practice of the evil arts. The general consensus is that the sadistic Corwin, though dead more than 300 years, still enjoys strangling someone every now and then. Because of this disquieting proclivity, his ghost has been dubbed the “Strangler.”
Both John Gagnon and a contractor working in the Joshua Ward House encountered the Strangler on separate occasions. Upon entering the second-story room immediately to the right of the stairway, the contractor was overcome by a choking sensation. “I was being strangled,” he insists, “but I didn’t feel any hands around my throat.” Gagnon was frightened one night when he started down the basement stair by what felt like “hands” on his shoulders.
One of the most terrifying paranormal incidents in the Joshua Ward House occurred in broad daylight during a Christmas party while Dale Lewinsky was taking Polaroid shots of Carlson employees for a “picture wreath.” People were enjoying themselves and, for once, the subject of ghosts had not been mentioned.
After taking several photos without incident, Lewinsky’s cheerful expression suddenly changed to one of sheer horror. “Look at this!” he exclaimed, his entire body trembling. As co-workers gathered round, they saw, not a picture of the comely young woman who had posed, but the image of a wild-haired female in black. “There is no doubt,” one employee contends, “what came out on that picture is definitely a witch!” Interestingly, an emergency medical technician who saw the photograph remarked that “the swollen, discolored face” had the appearance of someone who died of “hanging or strangulation.”
Bob Cahill is convinced the malevolent figure captured on film is the restless spirit of one of Corwin’s victims who has never left the site of her suffering. Thus far, the witchlike creature hasn’t injured anyone but as another Carlson employee puts it, “She doesn’t have to do anything! She looks so hideous, a person would hurt themselves just trying to get out of her way!”
On another occasion, this time just before Halloween, a visitor to the Joshua Ward House became disoriented while walking through the first floor hall. He stopped before the grand staircase and while trying to regain his equilibrium, saw “a swarm of tiny pinpoints of light” and had the overpowering impression of “an angry old woman on the stairs.”
Later, a local ghost-hunter who calls himself “Brian, the Monk,” photographed the interior of the house, but the pictures of the first floor stair contained no discernable image, only tiny flickers of light.
“A Most Dreadful Wizard”
Branded “a most dreadful wizard” by his accusers, George Jacobs, Sr., was a stooped, elderly man who “walked with two sticks” when he was accused of witchcraft in May 1692. Although unable to read or write, the crippled old farmer was shrewd, nonetheless, and when taken before the magistrates, vehemently proclaimed, “You tax me for a wizard! You may as well tax me for a buzzard! I have done no harm!” While Jacobs was on trial, one of the afflicted girls showed the judges bite marks on her arm that she claimed were made by his specter. Incredibly, the judges accepted this “evidence,” even though Jacobs had not a tooth in his head!
The ghost of George Jacobs once haunted the location of his former home and grave site in what is now Danversport, but in the early 1950s, the contents of the grave were removed to make way for new development. In 1992, the year of the Witch Trial Tercentenary, after 40 years on a shelf, the pitiful remains of the old man were laid to rest in the small cemetery on the Rebecca Nurse estate. Following the 1950s disinterment, there were no further sightings of Jacobs’s ghost near the river, but many believe the convicted wizard’s spirit follows his bones.
The isolated family graveyard in which George Jacobs is now buried is situated in a copse of trees on the Rebecca Nurse homestead, and for the past few years, there have been reports of an apparent phantom in the cemetery. One such sighting occurred August 19, 1999, when a group of visitors walking from the house toward the cemetery saw what one later described as “a man in dark clothes.” The observers initially assumed it was one of the Danvers Alarm List militiamen who operate the Nurse farm, but as they neared the burial ground, the figure vanished. Later, one of the ladies mentioned the incident to the militiaman in the gift shop. “I’m the only one on the estate today,” he maintained. “Maybe it was the ghost of old George Jacobs! They hung him on August 19, 1692. Let’s see, that would be exactly 307 years ago today!”
A Congregation of Witches
Of all the “witch” sites in and around Salem, the well-preserved Rebecca Nurse homestead provides the best perspective of what life was like in 17th-century New England. It is the closest one can come to stepping back in time to 1692 when the devil held sway in Massachusetts. The authentic red-stained saltbox dwelling and farm figured prominently in the Salem Witch Trials and served as the location for many scenes in the 1985 A&E special, Three Sovereigns for Sarah, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Here, one is able to stand in the actual unpainted, sparsely-furnished room where the aged Goodwife Nurse lay in her sick bed, tended by her younger sisters, Sarah Cloyce and Mary Easty, both of whom were also accused of witchcraft.
A replica of the Salem Village meetinghouse, constructed for use in the movie, is also located on the estate. Many of those accused of serving the devil attended services in the original meetinghouse and, ironically, many were also taken there for questioning after being cried out on by the afflicted girls. The rebuilt meetinghouse, both inside and out, has every appearance of a genuine 17th-century structure. Some sensitive individuals, upon entering the building, claim to feel “uneasy”in the dark interior, and believe the replica, though recently constructed, harbors the unsettled spirits of accused witches.
There is something bewitching about the Nurse estate, especially in late October when the air is brisk and pumpkins rest beside besoms in the lean-to kitchen. Looking from the house toward the reconstructed meetinghouse, enclosed by an old-fashioned rail fence and surrounded by trees in brilliant shades of scarlet and gold, it is easy to imagine a congregation of phantoms within its weathered walls.
What is difficult is reconciling a scene of such incomparable beauty with the sad period in our nation’s history when innocent people were put to death on the bizarre assertions of misguided children. But those brave souls did not die in vain, for today Salem has more practicing witches per capita than any other location on earth.
Lee Holloway is a writer and researcher living and working in Florida. In addition to articles, she has contributed to several books and has conducted research for television specials.