2017 Vacation, Day 2, Part 1: Seven Gables and Death’s Heads

For me, Salem is the story of two Nathaniels–Bowditch and Hawthorne. I remember being very interested in Hawthorne in high school English (I may have even written a paper about him), but I can’t recall ever having read one of his books. I still don’t know how I graduated without reading The Scarlet Letter.

Since The House of the Seven Gables was on my must-see list for Salem, I made a point of reading Hawthorne’s novel last spring. Some of it was boring, but a lot of it was enchanting to me, especially the part where Hepzibah sets up her shop in a front part of the house. I was also intrigued to find out the witch trials figured into the story as well (a curse by an accused warlock about to be hanged haunts the house and Hepzibah’s family). In real life, one of Hawthorne’s ancestors had been a judge at the witch trials.

There’s a Bowditch connection, too. As Carry On, Mr. Bowditch opens, Nat Bowditch’s family is moving from Danvers to a small house on Turner Lane in Salem. The grandmother points out a nearby house where she had grown up, stating it was the biggest house in Salem, “it has seven gables.”

We started with a big breakfast in the hotel pub (great French toast) meant to last us most of the day, then ventured out on foot to see The House of the Seven Gables. I was fascinated by my surroundings with the first step. The buildings were so old, and even the dumpier ones were picturesque. I’d started snapping pictures of the 18th century ones, but soon it was obvious that such antiquated houses were the rule rather than the exception.

We saw Darby Wharf—Nathaniel Bowditch had sailed on Darby ships—and the Custom House. After his voyages, Bowditch had business to take care of in the Custom House.

In a few blocks we came to The House of the Seven Gables. It’s a gorgeous setting, right on the water thick with sailboats, shaded by old trees. As we toured the rooms, I kept recalling scenes from the novel and tried to place the rooms as settings. It was thrilling to think the original house was built long before the American Revolution was even a dream.

Where the shop might have been in The House of the Seven Gables.

We didn’t have tickets to see the gardens, but we walked near enough to admire them on our way to Hawthorne’s birthplace, which had been moved to the site from its location in downtown Salem. There were lots of artifacts and historical pieces in that house as well, plus an old lady doing extravagant bobbin lace. I was intrigued and started talking to her, and we wound up a captive audience as she showed us what she was making, discussed the local lace club, and described other projects she had or would be working on.

We were already hot and tuckered by the time we returned to the complex’s entrance and the day had hardly begun. We each bought a bottle of chilled water to take along on our further explorations. Before we left, I went around to the side of The House of the Seven Gables to take pictures of the entrance and windows of the room where the penny shop would have been located.

On this trip, I’d made the decision to wear good, strong shoes instead of my “walking” sandals, which hadn’t served me well on past jaunts. Despite the sturdy Skechers I had on, my feet, legs, and lower back were in misery as we made our way back up the street. This was doubly disappointing since I’d started having chiropractic sessions earlier in the spring. By the time we reached the hotel, my feet felt swollen and my knees were stiffening up.

No way was I missing out on anything else, though. Diamondqueen, J.Hooligan, and I walked a couple of blocks to Crown Haven Corner, the shop that had sponsored the witch walk the night before. I enjoyed looking at all the interesting merchandise, but I went out to sit on the front steps and sip water long before Diamondqueen and J.Hooligan were finished shopping.

We stopped in several similar shops throughout the merchant area as well as some selling strictly touristy crap. One thing I’d hoped to find was a miniature House of Seven Gables. Unfortunately, the ones at the Gables gift shop were either too big or little pewter examples. At one metaphysical-type store, I did buy some small deer antlers, hoping to try out some scrimshaw on them. I knew they were probably shed antlers so they didn’t bother me; I was, however, kind of grossed out by some of the other items, such as chickens’ feet and similar animal parts used in one kind of magic or another.

When I’d studied the map of modern Salem, I hadn’t realized that things were actually pretty close together. Before I knew it, we arrived at the Old Burial Point Cemetery and the witch trial memorial.

I’d read up some on the witch trials and watched “The Crucible” and a few documentaries. The injustice of the trials made me livid. And although men were hanged as well, the impact of society’s attitudes toward women depressed and infuriated me whenever I watched or read about the trials.

J.Hooligan and Diamondqueen in the Witch Memorial.

Consequently, the memorial was another of my must-see attractions in Salem. It’s right next to the ancient Old Burial Point Cemetery and is beautifully designed, with a slab bench dedicated to each victim of the trials fitted into the stone walls, the names and death dates engraved into the seats. Flowers had been left on several of the benches. Even with the hubbub around it, there was a sense of serenity about the spot, but also a sense of tragedy and mourning.

As a tremendous fan of old cemeteries, I was thrilled with Old Burial Point. Besides the incredible antiquity of many stones, I loved the variety of death’s heads and other symbolism displayed over the graves. Here was another Nathaniel Bowditch connection: his father and several other family members are buried there. I found their tombstones and thought about these real people depicted in one of my favorite books, and the reality of them actually standing there, heartbroken and grieving over those they were laying to rest. Despite my soreness, I spent a long time wandering around the paths, gazing at the stones.


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