Take the Secret Stairs in the House of Seven Gables

TJ and I recently had a spectacular trip to Salem, Massachusetts. While the emphasis of our journey was to learn more about the nefarious witch trials and to plunge our feet into the city’s esoteric culture, one spot captivated us more than the others.

I’m not talking about the lobsters we’d salivated over with each bite at Sea Level in the Pickering Wharf section. If you push on down Derby Street past the harbor inlet, the coffee shops and The Witches Brew pub, you’ll land at the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, more famously known as The House of Seven Gables. The multi-gabled home was the inspiration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic supernatural novel of the same name, originally published in 1851.

If you’ve read the story, you know Hawthorne set his tale during the time of the Puritan-led witch trials, staged within the corrupt Court of Oyer and Terminer from 1692 to 1693. Hawthorne’s second cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, owned the home while he wrote the book. Their ancestors had connections to the trials which saw the arrest of more than 200 accused of witchcraft, 19 of those men and women hung and 81-year-old Giles Corey brutally pressed to death.

New England maritime merchant Captain John Turner built the timber-framed House of Seven Gables (branded as a National Historic District Landmark) in 1668. Turner’s descendants and future purchasers of the mansion added sections to the estate through its later owner, Captain Samuel Ingersoll, whose daughter, Susanna, inherited it upon his death in 1804. Expanding the property to include its namesake seven gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne frequently visited the Ingersoll-owned property while working in the Salem Custom House. The mansion was later lost by Captain Ingersoll’s adopted son, Horace Connolly.

Today, the House of Seven Gables is a popular tourist attraction for history, architecture and literary buffs alike. Philanthropist and preservationist Caroline Emmerton founded The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, adjacent to the famed estate. The intent was to help immigrating people to the United States find work and shelter to get a one-up on their new lives. Even now, the House of Seven Gables grounds serve in the same function for new immigrants.

A tour of the mansion and garden grounds will take you through a recreation of colonial life during Salem’s maritime trading heyday and the groups are often packed. So why write about The House of Seven Gables as a road lesser traveled?

Be on the lookout if you take the tour for a surprise brick-fortified entryway that was seldom used even by the house’s flow of occupants. The narrow, spiraling passage is challenging, even for folks of yesteryear; perhaps even more so, given the layers of clothing men and women were heaped with during the 17th to 19th Centuries.

Your tour guide likely won’t give you advance notice. In fact, ours acted as if she herself had just discovered the slim, challenging ascension that leads to a tiny, sweltering attic room, also accessed by another, wider entry. The feigned dupe of this “discovery” by our tour guide whetted TJ’s and my appetite for adventure. Without hesitation and full permission, TJ led the charge into the unknown with me behind her. A few other people followed suit, but most of the tour group stayed with our guide and showed up to join us minutes later.

Taking the shoulder-hugging, attenuated stairwell felt briefly claustrophobic, and the surrounding view of bricks had me thinking more of Poe than Hawthorne, but it was a giddy experience nevertheless.

Use discretion depending upon your body type, but if you can hack and squeeze it, it’s well worth taking the secret stairwell at The House of Seven Gables.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

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