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Then & Now: History Within History — The Salem Witch Museum

This building and its tenants have ties that go back to Salem's earliest days.

As autumn settles in and the tourist season kicks into high gear we see the long lines of tourists stretching from the along the sidewalk.

In the past few decades, this building and its Witch Museum has become an iconic image for Salem. Even the nearby statue of Roger Conant, Salem’s founder, often referred to as the wizard statue, seems to heighten the sense of the puritan village caught up in the witchcraft hysteria of 1692.

This building was built between 1844 and 1846, replacing the East Church which was on the corner of Hardy and Essex Streets. The East Church had been formed in August, 1718 after a number of parishioners of the First Church living in the eastern section of Salem who were upset that they couldn’t form another church, finally went ahead and built a church without permission.

The leadership of the First Church had refused permission to separate partly because some of these people pretended to belong to the Church of England in Marblehead and wouldn’t attend the required services at the First Church. According to Osgood and Batchelder’s book, Historic Sketch of Salem, these parishioners made it a practice of going back and forth across the harbor instead of attending church services. The Church leadership characterized this activity as, “more like a day of frolicking than the Lord’s Day.”

The First Church, amid continued dissension, finally voted for dismissal of those who wanted to join the East Church on Dec. 25, 1718 for “Peace sake." By being dismissed from their covenant obligations to the First Church, the eastern members had effectively split the town into two parishes. The first sermon was preached in April, 1718 by Cotton Mather, one of the leading Puritan ministers in the colony. You may also recall his role in the witchcraft trials.

This congregation was firmly Puritan in it perspective through its first three pastors. In 1783, things began to change with the ordination of William Bentley to the position of colleague to the elderly pastor. Dr Bentley would stay at East Church until his death in 1819. He was truly an exceptional scholar, linguist and chronicler of his time in Salem. His 11 volume diary provides detailed views of the history of Salem. He led his congregation away from their puritan heritage into the first Universalist congregation in the United States.

While he was offered the chaplaincy of Congress and the presidency of the new University of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, he declined to leave Salem.  During the War of 1812, he stopped a church service so he could lead his parishioners to Salem neck where they manned canons to fight off a British frigate that had chased the USS Constitution into Marblehead Harbor intent on capturing or destroying the ship.

Since many of his parishioners were sea captains and mariners, Dr. Bentley became a driving force for the charitable work of the East India Marine Society. At the same time, many of the objects he requested mariners collect for him in distant ports became the initial offerings of their museum, which over the years evolved into the we have today.

After Dr. Bentley’s sudden death in 1819, Dr. James Flint became pastor. It was during his tenure that the new church was built on Brown Street/ Washington Square North. The church was designed by Minard Lafever, the nationally renowned architect from New York, who was famous for his Gothic Revival churches as well as other revival styles.The masons for this church were Henry Russell and Benjamin R. White.  

In 1897, the East Church united with the Barton Square Church and changed their name to The Second Unitarian Church.

In July, 1902 the Church suffered a major fire that caused extensive damage requiring renovation of the interior. The fire began near the organ, which was destroyed along with much of the interior. The building was quickly rebuilt.

In examining the vintage photo from 1910, you will notice that the towers were much higher. These were lowered around 1925 when the decision was made to lower rather than repair and rebuild.

In 1956, the East Church reunited with the First Church that had earlier reunited with the North Church. With consolidation of these now Unitarian congregations, the Second Church building was no longer necessary and it was offered for sale in 1958.

In 1959, The Salem Auto Museum and Americana Shops opened in this building. Some readers may recall this interesting museum that housed a
number of vintage automobiles as well as a recreation of an old Salem street with 14 shops on the second floor. I recall spending time there in the late 1960s, examining the interesting collection of vintage cars. The owners, Arthur Jannell and Phil Budrose, had put a lot of work into their exhibits.

The museum remained open here until 1969, when another major fire destroyed the interior and the car museum. Among the losses in the fire were a 1907 car, a 1925 Mercedes Benz and a 1825 hand tub from Gov. Dummer Academy as well as a number of valuable early New England
paintings. The loss was estimated to be $350,000. 

In 1972, the building, remodeled after the fire, opened as the Salem Witch Museum. Since that time, the Witch Museum, using stage sets with life-size figures, lighting and a narration has offered an overview of the Witch Trials of 1692 to thousands of visitors.

In August of 2011, the owners completed an eight month renovation of the brownstone and brick exterior. At a cost of close to a half million dollars, they have preserved this elegant building from the ravages of time and weather. With that investment in the preservation of this historic building, the owners have done a great service to Salem and its architectural heritage.

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