Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Part Five

Guten tag, Ghost Busterz!

During supper, Prudence Goodwyfe and I discussed the pros and cons of going on a water-logged ghost tour in Salem.  Just as we were on the verge of canceling, the clouds parted, the sun beamed down and a heavenly host of angels sang "AAAA, ooooo, AAAAAHHH!"

Encouraged, we bought our passes and waited anxiously outside the headquarters of Salem Night Tour on 127 Essex Street.  As it turned out, it was located in the same place as Remember Salem I.E. the Harry Potter store where we'd gotten smashed on Butterbeer the day before.  Despite the previous spate of nasty weather, we were pleased to see a good thirty to forty fellow ghost hunters turn up to take the tour with us.

We were also delighted to recognize our guide, Jeff, who we'd encountered the day before while visiting The House of the Seven Gables.  Replete with top hat and walking stick, Jeff mingled amongst the gathering crowd, asking folks where they were from and what brought them to Salem.  You could easily tell that he was a bundle of coiled energy, ready to make with the spooky just as soon as he was unleashed.

An odd thing happened just before the tour began, but it was a decidedly material, not spiritual, occurrence.  Across the street from where we were all standing a woman attempted to extricate herself from her parking space.  We all watched with a combination of horror and amazement as she backed into the car behind her and then struck the bumper of the car in front of her.  This happened so many times that it began to resemble a scene from Austin Powers:

Jeff made a note of her licence plate number as she finally inched out of the vehicular death trap and sped away.

At the appointed time, Jeff was off like a shot, leading us back behind the Peabody Essex Museum.  Just before the Witch Trials Memorial we paused next to a grey, red-trimmed ominous-looking house where our illustrious guide spun his first yarn.

This was the Pickman House, built in 1664 and once home to a wealthy but cold-hearted business man (is there any other kind?).  When one of his female slaves contracted a particularly virulent and contagious illness, this cheap bastard refused to spend so much as a penny for her treatment.  Instead he chained her up in the attic and slowly let her starve to death over the course of several weeks.

In a completely unrelated point: Romney/Ryan 2012!  

Eventually this charming one-percenter met his own karmically-appropriate demise, but that's not where the story ends.  Completely oblivious to the house's dark history, a man, his wife and their seven year old daughter moved into the house a few years later.  Almost immediately the patriarch of the family started hearing weird, disembodied noises that alternately sounded like screams, moans and pleas for help. 

The incessant, unnerving noises eventually sent this poor bugger over the edge.  One day, without warning, he dragged his wife and young daughter out into the backyard and tied them up.  He then went back into the house, brought out a cauldron of boiling oil and dumped it over their heads.

It's a wonderful world, eh, kiddies?     

Jeff then took us back to the Old Burial Point and told us about how tightly packed the bodies were underneath our feet.

"Hey, it's not like in Canada where there's tons of room," he said, giving us a knowing glance.  "In Salem burial space is a real premium and sometimes we have to stack our bodies like cord wood."

He went on to tell us about a local pub named Spirits (now Murphy's Pub) that experienced a rather disconcerting and unexpected breakthrough one night.  During a particularly heavy rainfall when the place was packed with customers, the basement wall gave way and two coffins popped out.  And wouldn't you know it, one of the caskets broke open, spilling the remains of a rather desiccated young woman out onto the floor.

Wow, talk about yer unappetizers!  Zing!    

He then took us to the old Salem Police Station on 15 Front Street, the site of one of Harry Houdini's most amazing stunts.  While touring New England with his famous stage show, Houdini would often answer challenges from local authorities who wanted to lock him up in their local jails to see if he could escape from them.  The Salem Chief of Police, who was convinced that his cells were infallible, threw down the gauntlet and Houdini was quick to pick it up.

The legendary illusionist was stripped bare, trussed up in three pairs of handcuffs and two sets of leg irons and cast into the middle cell.  The challenge: break his bonds, spring himself from the cell and then recover his clothes, which were locked up in a completely different cell.  He was only given twenty minutes to accomplish all of this.

He did it in thirteen.

To make the best of it, after he got dressed, he opened up all the other cells, handcuffed himself to one of the prisoners, escaped from the station and then appeared in a window on Front Street where the local authorities were eagerly counting down the minutes.  Needless to say, the Chief of Police was left with a carton of eggs on his face and Houdini had little problem selling out his local stage show.

We also had a chance to walk by the notorious Gardner-Pingree House on 128 Essex Street.  With its box-like shape, flat roof and prominent chimneys, it just looks like your typical Federal-style mansion.  But what happened behind those innocuous-looking brick walls was so ghastly that it's said to have inspired the Gothic writings of Nathaniel Hawthorn, "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe and the murder-mystery board game Clue.

It all started on April 6, 1830, when the owner of the house, Captain Jack White, was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in his bed.  Since nothing obvious had been stolen, many suspected that revenge was the main motive for the killing.  After all, in addition to being an unapologetic slave trader, Captain White often threatened his family members with disinheritance if they didn't acquiesce to his wishes.  He even disowned his grandniece Mary after she married Joe Knapp, a "fortune hunter" whom White despised with a passion.

The rest of the story is a great example of life being a lot helluva weirder then fiction.  It's a tale rife with mistaken thefts, hand-crafted weapons, desperate confessions and an oddly noble act of suicide.  I won't ruin the story for you; if you're interested you can read all the amazing and completely real details right here.  I'm just surprised that no-one's turned this incredible tale into a movie yet.  I call dibs!

Another memorable stop was 43 Church Street.  The space was once known as Lyceum Hall, where many a learned public debate took place, but way way back in 1692 it was an apple orchard owned by Bridget Bishop, the first person hanged during the Salem Witch Trails.  More recently the space has served as a succession of restaurants where many a guest claim to detect the overpowering smell of apples while dining upstairs.  Take note: apple pie appears no-where on the desert menu.  

By the time the witchcraft hysteria broke out, Bridget was on her third husband and had a penchant for nasty public quarrels with all of them.  Since she had the unmitigated gall to wear "a red paragon bodice bordered and looped with different colors", the Puritans were quick to brand her as a slattern.  She was also a habitual carouser, played verboten games like shuffleboard and had a tendency to flirt with anything with a penis.  She also owned and operated two pubs, which was unheard of at the time.  Since many women in the village saw her as an outspoken, free-thinking rival, she became Public Enemy Number One when the accusations of witchcraft started to fly.

Although she maintained her innocence to the very end, Bridget was undone by a host of accusatory testimony as well as her own inconsistencies and irreverent attitudes.  She was hung on June 10, 1692, the first of eighteen other victims.

En route to the Howard Street Cemetery, Jeff showed us the bricked-up entrance to a series of catacombs running underneath Church Street.  In addition to being a popular route for smugglers, he also explained that these dark passages were sometimes used for even more nefarious purposes.  As awful as it sounds, the remains of an inordinate amount of women have been found underneath those cobblestone streets.

This has led some experts to believe that some local chaps had a habit of doing away with their mistresses down there after they became too demanding or threatened to expose their trysts.  After he told us this, I couldn't shake the feeling that we were walking on the graves many restless and justifiably vengeful spirits.

En route to our final stop, we passed by the former site of the Old Salem Witch Dungeon on 10 Federal Street.  Although it's long been replaced by a modern structure housing apartments and offices, Jeff pointed out the approximate place where suspected witches were held while awaiting trial.  It's estimated that as many as thirteen additional innocents died in prison and after learning more about the horrors of this particular dungeon, it wasn't difficult to understand why.

Prisoners were forced to pay for their own food, straw bedding, manacles, and even their own implements of torture.  All suspects were put through a humiliating examination which required them to be stripped naked and have their hair shorn off.  Then every inch of their bodies would be inspected for blemishes, moles and birthmarks, which was supposed to prove that you were somehow tainted by evil.  A plea of innocence was often met with hours of grueling questions and cruel incentives to admit guilt.  

If you couldn't afford to pay for food, then you went without it.  Water was often withheld since the Puritans believed that thirst was the perfect catalyst for confessions.  Although the dungeon cells didn't have metal bars, the accused knew that they'd be caught and killed within hours if they tried to run away.  To make maters worse, the place was swarming with vermin and prone to flooding.  When the waters rose, prisoners would often find themselves knee deep in sewage and rats.

It's little wonder why folks like Sarah Osborne, Ann Foster, Roger Toothaker and Lydia Dustin died under such incredibly inhumane conditions.

Jeff then pointed out the entrance to Howard Street Cemetery.  It's the only place in all of Salem that legitimately creeped me out.  And that probably had a lot to do with one of the saddest stories to come out of the Salem Witch trials: the tale of Giles Corey.

Corey was an eighty year old farmer and a devout church-goer who fell under suspicion after Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Abigail Williams accused him of:
  • Transforming into an apparition and physically beating them.  Damn, that ectoplasmic specter sure has a mean right hook!  
  • Urging the girls to write in his "Devil's book", which I can only presume was co-written by Stephanie Meyer.
  • Murder!  Which they learned about when the victim's ghost appeared to them and explained that Corey was their killer.  Sounds perfectly legit to me...    
  • Being a "dreadful wizard".  Did they mean a wizard that inspires dread like Bavmorda or just a shitty wizard like Willow Ufgood?
Naturally, all of this hardcore scientific evidence resulted in Giles being arrested and brought before the
magistrate for a humiliating physical inspection and a battery of questions.  Although Corey might have been advanced in years, he was also quite wise.  He knew that all of the accused who confessed or were convicted had been stripped of their holdings.  He also knew that if he refused to enter any sort of plea, he couldn't be tried.

The law's countermeasure to this sort of three dimensional thinking was peine forte et dure, literally "hard and forceful punishment".  On September 17'th 1692, Giles Corey was led to an open field (probably right where we'd been standing), stripped naked, laid out in a pit, and then covered with a long, wooden board.  Then six goons began to load large boulders onto the old man's stomach and chest.  At no point during this ordeal did Giles cry out or beg for mercy.

Over the next two hellish days, Giles was ask to enter a plea several more times but his only reply was "More weight!"  Periodically the Sheriff would stand on top of the rocks and look down into Corey's bulging eyes.  A witness to this travesty, Robert Calef, later said, "In the pressing, Giles Corey's tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again."

At noon on the third day, Corey was once again asked to enter a plea.  He had just enough strength left in him to shout "More weight!" one last time before he expired.  Some also claim that he cursed Sheriff Corwin and the town of Salem just before he was crushed to death.  Although he suffered a horrendously painful demise, he did manage to retain ownership of his lands, which stayed within his family in accordance to his will.  He was also instantly martyred and his brave death seemed to cast some much-needed aspersions on the legitimacy of the trials.

Locals still believe that his spirit haunts Howard Street Cemetery and its appearance is considered to be an omen which predicts some impending calamity.  Supposedly his ghost was spotted just prior to the Great Fire of 1914 which saw 253 acres of property and 1,376 buildings destroyed in Salem.  

And with that, our tour was concluded.  We thanked Jeff heartily for his efforts and went out of our way to give him a generous tip.  I'm always amazed when people get treated to something so informative and entertaining and then they just walk away at the end of it without passing on some well-deserved praise.  And let me tell you, it was blistering hot that day and Jeff worked his ass off to keep us all engaged.

There were many more awesome tales spun during the Salem Night Tour, but I want to leave you with plenty of revelations should you ever decide to go.  The tour was so good that I kicked myself for not going on our first night in Salem.  I learned a lot about the surrounding area which certainly would have influenced our visit quite a bit.

For example, Salem Village separated from Salem Town in 1752 and changed its name to Danvers in the hope of distancing itself from the Witch Trials.  In addition to boasting the intact homesteads of both Judge Samuel Holten and Rebecca Nurse, the town also features Danvers State Insane Asylum which is said to be the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanitarium and subsequently the home of Batman's Rogues Gallery of villains Arkham Asylum.

Sometimes I forget that America is a helluva lot more then NASCAR, Republicans, Fox News and rednecks.  We Canadians (especially Maritimers) have a lot in common with the New England states, and frankly I can't wait to go back again to explore more of the rich history there.  Although I kick myself for not doing some research before we left, it was still a fun and spontaneous trip which offered plenty of interesting revelations.  

Next time I might fly down to Boston for a week, rent a car and take some day trips out from the city.  I'm really looking forward investigating places like Providence, Rhode Island, the birthplace of H.P. Lovecraft.

But, alas, that will be a tale for another day...        

EPIC  If you happen to find yourself in the vicinity, I highly recommend Salem Night Tours.  In fact, make it the first thing you do; you won't regret it!

EPIC SNIPPET  One of the SNT guides talks about the Police Station and Harry Houdini's great escape.

FAIL  Well, at least it's still scarier then the last Paranormal Activity movie...

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