Salem, Massachusetts: Stories of ghost tours and witch trials


SALEM, October 21, 2012 – With All Hallows Eve just ten days hence, it is time for a ghost story or two, beginning in Salem, Massachusetts.

Salem is replete with the haunts of history and there are numerous options on how to tour the area. The best option being to find a knowledgeable guide to bring 17th Century Salem alive, offering insight into Salem’s witchcraft trials of 1692. 

There are numerous tour choices. Our choice for this windy, rainy night was a walking tour, where we could stand in the very places of frequent ghost sightings, with Puritan Guide Eric Fialho of Salem Ghost Tours

Puritan Guide Eric Fialho of Salem Ghost Tours (Image: Jaquie Kubin)

Puritan Guide Eric Fialho of Salem Ghost Tours (Image: Jaquie Kubin)

Walking to the Charter Street Burial Ground or The Old Burying Point, the site of the 1692 hangings of those condemned as witches, Eric began to spin tales of a Salem long past and buried - or not.

It is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) that was known to have said, “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” 

Giving pause to look at the tombstones in the cemetery, Eric speaks of the engravings and what they mean, what they tell us of the early Puritan settlers found living in this bustling seaport.

Puritans, believing that the cross and other familiar religious etchings we see today was idolatry, carved their stones with images of souls departing from earthly bodies. Unfortunately they did not believe in a pleasant afterlife for all and this reality is depicted in the imagery of their stones.

Most common on early graves is the “death head,” a skull with or without wings that illustrates the Puritans’ belief that the soul leaves the body, hopefully to heavenly paradise.   

As concepts of eternal damnation for all shifted to a more heavenly after life, we see the macabre death skull give way to images of weeping willows, urns that depict the full gathering of life and images of redemption.

Interesting to the historian or trivia fan is that this cemetery is home to the longest and most complete set of head and foot stones, marking both the head and foot of the dearly departed. Also of note is that the bodies are buried facing east, the better for the dead to see the coming of God.

Old Burying Ground (Image by Jacquie Kubin/Click to enlarge)

Old Burying Ground (Image by Jacquie Kubin/Click to enlarge)

Pointing out the above ground tombs, our guide explains that no, it is not always the final resting place of one. If you were to open it you would see stairs leading to a larger area where the bodies are stacked. 

Offering some serious creep factor, Eric related the story of one father whose child had died. Carrying the body down the stairs of the children’s tomb, he remarks upon coming up of the fetid water covering the floor with its “slick” of fat and skin from the decaying bodies.

That tomb holds over 600 young bodies, many of who died because of the practice of full immersion baptism during the colder months.

Searching the tombstones in the graveyard, you will find Magistrate John Hathorne, great-great grandfather of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added the ‘w’ to his name as he carried a burden of guilt for his grandfather’s role in the witch trials. 

Hathorne was the chief interrogator of the alleged witches. Bartholomew Gedney, physician and examiner/member of the Court of Oyer and Terminet worked with Magistrate Hathorne to send 24 innocents to their death at the gallows, the stone press or in prison, where at least 13 other accused died, from among the more than 150 that were arrested for the crime of witch craft. 

The bones of Mary Corry, first wife of Giles Corry, pressed to death for refusing to plead guilty to or deny the charges of witchcraft, lay here. Also interred is Rev. Nicholas Noyes, minister and participant in the prosecutions of the Salem Witch Trials.  

Another good tale of witchery is that according to records, in 1717 the reverend died from an internal hemorrhage, choking on his blood and therefore fulfilling the prophecy of Sarah Good, who met her death at the gallows.  

Good is recorded as saying just before her death, “God will give you Blood to drink.” 

Samuel Sewall, judge, businessman, and printer caught up in the Salem Witch Trial hysteria, writes that Noyes is “Malleus Haereticorum” – the “hammer of heretics.”

Eric peppers the history with ghost stories, one from this burial ground that has a tie to the recent past when rains caused the ground to loosen and one corner of the graveyard wall gave way along with ground sending two caskets, one woman and one child, to Derby Street.

Numerous tales of seeing the ghosts of these graveyard denizens woken from their rest abound.

Between the Salem fires of 1917 and more modern day development, many original Salem structures were lost. Still standing next to the cemetery is the home of Samuel Pickman, circa 1664, believed to be among Salem’s oldest buildings and one of its most haunted.

It is the site of a verified ghost sighting by none other than our guide Eric.

With a bit of prompting Eric tells us how on a tour, just like “this one, I was standing over there by Sarah Good’s stone, and one of the guests was looking up into the window of the Pickman house. Looking up I saw what she saw, as did others on the tour. It was a woman standing at the top of the stairs, dressed in olden clothes, standing in the light, where others have seen her.”

Eric shares tales about what was once the oldest operating jail in the country, serving its purpose until 1991. The Salem Jail is a building in the Gothic Style built in 1813 by architect Samuel McIntire. When it was a working jail, the building did boast 100 prison cells. Hundreds of prisoners, innocent and guilty, found their death there, leaving many a spirit to wander.

Giles Corey, 80 years old, was pressed to death in the adjacent Howard Street Cemetery, or more accurately where there is now an alleyway alongside it, and he is said to haunt the grounds often placing a cold hand on an unsuspecting visitor’s shoulder. 

In 1692, Sheriff George Corwin oversaw Corey’s death, a process of placing two boards on the condemned man’s chest, placing larger and heavier stones on the board, literally pressing the man to death.

It is said that Corey’s dying breath was “Damn you Sheriff. I curse you and Salem.” 

It is interesting to note that since Corwin, every subsequent Sheriff to occupy his office at the old jail either died from a heart attack while in office, or contracted a “blood” ailment that kept him from working.

There are tales of ghosts mixing it up with the living by an old tree in the corner of the cemetery, where a voice and ethereal presence can often be detected.

Completed in 2012, the jail is now a mixed-use development including a restaurant and condominiums.

The Old Jail (now refurbished) adjacent to the Howard Street Cemetery

The Old Jail (now refurbished) adjacent to the Howard Street Cemetery

Residents of the condominiums report ghostly activity. One tale, told by our ghost tour Puritan, is of a young woman who rented a ground floor apartment. Awoke from her sleep one night, she arose to see a man standing in the cemetery. She thought little of it, as he was in the distance, going back to bed.

The next evening she saw the man again, only this time he is standing closer and she could see him. He is tall and dressed in odd clothing. He is very thin. 

The third evening she invites a friend over and both women see the man; however, in a move one may consider to be ill-advised, the young woman opens the door to confront the man, to tell him to leave, only to have him rush toward her.

Slamming the door and calling police, she is told he visits homes and if not stopped, would have eventually entered her home. This ghost is well known and is said to be a young prisoner executed at the jail. The tale may explain the reasonable rent charged for the unit. 

Whether that renter remains is uncertain. My guess is not.  

The above is a retelling of only a small portion of the tour that ends at the mansion of Capt. Joseph White, a wealthy shipmaster, and trader. On the evening of April 6, 1830, Capt. White retired only to never wake.  

Captain Joseph White's mansion where it is said he can be seen in the window above the portico. (Salem, Massachusetts).

Captain Joseph White’s mansion where it is said he can be seen in the window above the portico. (Salem, Massachusetts).

He was found in his bed, the victim of a crushing blow, and thirteen stab wounds. Nothing else disturbed or stolen.

Capt. White was murdered for greed the plot designed by the brothers John Frances and Joseph Jenkins Knapp, Jr., who was engaged to marry the daughter of the Captain’s housekeeper. Under the impression that the Captain had left a sum of $15,000 in his will to the housekeeper, the brothers employed one Richard Crowinshield to murder the Captain.

Crowinshield was captured and hung himself in his cell while the famous Daniel Webster was prosecutor of the Jenkins brothers who were found guilty and hung.

In addition to being one of America’s most haunted sites,  Salem is also the “game capital of the world,” long home to Parker Bros. and the Monopoly factory. The game of Clue is based on this infamous, and possibly first murder for hire case in America. 

And to this day the Captain can be often seen peering out of his upper floor windows.

During the tour, Eric notes that Massachusetts’s law prohibits entering this cemetery after nightfall. He also warns that you should never leave a cemetery exactly the way you enter it, the latter being the more ominous warning of the two.

People in Salem do not ask if you believe in ghosts, they ask where was the last ghost you saw. We did not see any specters on our tour or during our time in Salem, but possibly on a quieter night you will. 

Nevertheless, there is no doubt Salem is haunted. You can just feel it.


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Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award winning journalist that began writing in 1993 following a successful career in marketing and advertising in Chicago.  She started Communities Digital News in 2009 as a way to adapt to the changing online journalism marketing place.  Jacquie is President and Managing Editor of Communities Digital News, LLC and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times Communities as well as a member of the National Association of Professional Woman, New American Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalist.  Email Jacquie here

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