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OLD SALEM TOWN
A Scarlet Letter Day in the Witch City
Over all the hum of business activity that rises from Salem town sleeps the glamour of old-time memories. Factories drone, traffic roars or clatters, and the multiple message of modern civilization goes forth to eye and ear, but among all these sits the ancient city dreaming long dreams and careless of the children of to-day.
Along Charter Street and down Derby the once stately mansions of the great merchants of another century droop in senile decay, knee deep in the dust and debris that immigrant, alien races scatter, and note it and them no more than they do the rats in the wainscoting. The thoughts of the old houses are busy still with ships in the China Sea, battling round the Cape of Good Hope with the Flying Dutchman, or running down the trades from Senegambia, Surinam or Ceylon, and their upper window eyes stare unwinkingly across rotten wharves and out to the island gaps in the horizon of the bay, watching for the sails that come no more. So the world thinks of Salem to-day as the city of romantic memories. It may weave cotton cloth and tan hides and make shoes and carry on a thousand other inventions of modern business, yet we who dwell away from it, far or near, will always know it best for its romance of elder days, the dread delusion of its witch finding, the astounding deeds of its merchant sailors, and in the end most of all perhaps, for its man of dreams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who dreamed there the grim story of "The Scarlet Letter" and made it live for all men for all time.
More and more, as the years slip by, Hawthorne comes to be the presiding genius of Salem, and reverent pilgrims in increasing numbers come to seek the few abiding traces of his life there; and though they go to Gallows Hill and also view the relics of the old merchants and their portraits and the pictures of their ships, they go first to the house where Hawthorne was born, to the other houses where he lived and worked, and to the sleepy, dignified old Custom House from whose drab duties grew the strange flower of weird romance. It may be that out of the Ghettos and Warsaws which now surround the old Custom House will come again as great merchants as once dwelt there, or as great a writer of romance as he who worked on its scarred old wooden desk now preserved with such care in the Essex Institute, but one may be pardoned for having his doubts. The world matures rapidly, and the heritage of primitive environment and primitive opportunity is smoothed out by the steel roller of modern invention. New ports no longer wait the seaman adventurer. Steam makes all ports common, and the knowledge of them common, to all the world. We shall look long for the successors to Derby and Peabody and their ilk, and we may well doubt if ships like The Grand Turk, Rajah and Astraea will sail again from any future Salem.
Never again, the world surely hopes, can come upon a pioneer people so mysterious a madness as the Salem witchcraft delusion, yet in it were set the roots of temperament which made Hawthorne what he was. Its grewsome mystery seems to brood in all he wrote, and one cannot visit his haunts and the scenes of its terror to-day without feeling some atmosphere of it still hovering over the place. Hawthorne's ancestor sat in judgment over the witches, and judge Hathorne, invisible indeed but grimly onlooking, seems to me to preside over many a tale which he wrote. As relentless fate mocked the witches while it gripped them and killed them with trivialities, so it does the characters in Hawthorne's stories, nor in the progress of events is there room in the tale, in the one case or the other, for the saving grace of humor. From Hawthorne to Hathorne came the somber impress of the days of witch finding.
The spring sun and the spring rain fall alike gently on Gallows Hill, yet it stands bare and wind-swept to-day as it did when the witches met their fate there, as it has stood since the glaciers ground over it, no one knows how many hundred thousand years ago. The tough rock of which it was built shows everywhere the traces of the fires which melted and reset it in its present form, its twist and coloration burnt into it as the story of the deeds wrought on its summit is seared into the annals of old Salem town. Here and there on its fantastic ledges one sees zigzag marks struck pale as if lightning had welted the tormented stone and left the impress of its sudden anger there. The softening years can do little with this rock. A curse far older than that of the witch finding has set its seal upon the height, and though the gentle things of earth strive patiently to ameliorate the evidence they do little to wipe out the bleakness of the place. The green of spring grasses climbs patiently toward the topmost ledges, indeed, and draws with it the gold of potentilla and the white of wild strawberry blooms. Dandelions set the round image of the sun in sheltered places, and little lilac constellations of bluets star the moister spots adown the slope, but the barren soil is too shallow and the summer turns all these to a brown garment of sorrowful sackcloth and sprinkles it with the gray ashes of drought.
A few houses have boldly climbed the hill from the street below, but none has yet dared the very spot on the bare, red-gray summit where the irons that once helped support the gibbet rust, still firmly bedded in their holes in the rock. Over the ledges and down the hill to the southeast lies a little pond of sweet water that sparkles in the spring winds, cosily sheltered in the hollow and surrounded by the vivid green of smooth turf. But even this the long scorn of summer heat dries to a brown bog where sedges fight for the life remaining in the stagnant pool in its center. About this pond the barberry bushes have found a foothold in straggling clumps to bear little crosses of witch-pin thorns, and steeples of hard-hack blooms spire solemnly near it in summer. Potentilla and cudweed dare the slope toward the summit of Gallows Hill when the rain and sun are kind, and fragaria and violets and bulbous buttercup trail after, but even in the soft days of May the height where the witches were hung is desolate and forbidding. Yet it dominates the outlook upon the town as the story of the witchcraft delusion dominates the annals of it, as both will for all time.
Yet, for all its bareness, the country about Gallows Hill has its golden days. These come in late June, when it seems as if the sun had wrought a miracle among the bleak ledges and along the treeless slopes. Everywhere then in the seemingly barren pastures springs up the shrubby, lanceolate-leaved genista, clothing them in a rolling sea of its golden bloom. For weeks then the hills are glad with a wonder of papilionaceous yellow blossoms that any other pastures, however prolific of beauty, find it hard to match. The same Puritans that cherished the witchcraft delusion brought this plant with them from England, the dyer's greenweed, woadwaxen or whin, and as they passed on into history left it behind them. It has wandered far in the waste places in New England, but nowhere does it so clothe the hills and rough slopes with beauty as it does in the region about Salem. The thought of this, already pushing up through the sod, is best to take back to the city with one. As the good in the Puritans was far greater than their grim misdeeds, so this goes far to hide the bleakness of the ledges, as it seems striving to. Perhaps some day it will even overgrow and hide the iron in the summit of the hill where children play to-day, and make them forget the story of its tragedies which now they are so eager to tell to the visiting stranger.
Salem's golden days began a century or more after the witchcraft delusion had burnt to ashes in the fury of its own fire. Certainly the descendants of the men who feared the devil and his emissaries feared little else. He might be formidable dancing at night with withered crones on the weird hills of Salem pastures, but they laughed in his face when he came on the high seas with shotted guns and foreign sailors outnumbering their own guns and crews two to one. They beat the devil and they outgeneraled him, those Salem sailors of the seventeen hundreds, whether he came in English privateer or French man-o'-war or a score of feluccas or piratical junks, and they brought great treasures home to Salem town. They explored uncharted seas, visited ports unheard of before and carried the name and fame of their home town the world over. The world has made a great hero of Paul Jones, but there were half-a-dozen young sea captains out of Salem in Revolutionary times who did all that he did, and more, vet did it so unostentatiously and so much as a part of the day's work that the records of it are hard to trace and for the most part have been lost. During the Revolution Salem sent out 158 armed vessels carrying more than 2000 guns. They took 445 prizes, losing in return fifty-one of their own fleet. Jonathan Harraden, for instance, sailed from Salem in the privateer General Pickering, 180 tons, carrying fourteen 6-pounders and a crew of less than fifty men. Thus manned and equipped they captured a British privateer of twenty-two guns. Harraden put a part of his crew on the captured vessel and the two sailed on. Off the coast of Spain they sighted a vessel bearing down upon them, and the captive British captain laughed as he told Harraden that this was the British frigate Achilles of forty-two guns.
"Well, I shall not run from her," said Harraden, stoutly; and he did not. The big frigate soon recaptured the prize with its short crew, but the little Pickering laid up alongside of her at nightfall when the battle ceased for want of light.. Harraden went to bed and got a good night's sleep. In the morning the battle began again so near the coast that a hundred thousand Spaniards made the hills black with spectators. The disparity in size of the two vessels was such that an eyewitness said it was like a ship's long boat attacking a man-o'-war. But the little boat won the battle, and not only the big frigate but the recaptured prize struck to the indomitable Salem captain and his fearless Salem crew. The battle was no sooner over than the sea was black with the boats of admiring Spaniards who came out in great numbers and later took Captain Harraden ashore and carried him about the city on their shoulders. Report does not state whether the captain enjoyed the ride, but at least he must have been proud of the admiration which called it forth. Sailing again after the battle with the Achilles, Harraden met three British ships of the size of his and captured the three of them, one after another. In all during the Revolution this one Salem captain took from the British more than a thousand pins and sent home great wealth in prizes taken from the far stronger sailor nation with which his country, one might almost have said his town, was at war. Joseph Peabody was another Salem sailor whose fame was to outlast the Revolution and grow greater in the succeeding days of hard-won peace. In those following days of peaceful, or at least semi-peaceful trading adventure, Peabody owned, first and last, 83 ships which he freighted himself. In his time he shipped 7000 seamen and promoted 45 men from cabin boys to captains. In Salem ships these cabin-boy captains, often striplings of nineteen or twenty, sailed the seven seas, opened new ports to commerce, conquering the prejudice of potentates, matched their wits and wisdom against those of skilled merchants of the Orient and brought back princely profit to the ship owners of Salem and in part to themselves, for often captain and crew alike shared in the profits they helped to make. In those days the Chinese called the Yankees "the new people," for they first heard of them when Salem ships visited their ports, and the list of new lands first visited by American ships from Salem is a long one.
It was in November, 1785, that the Grand Turk, belonging to Elias Derby and commanded by Ebenezer West, cleared for Canton, China, the first American ship to seek this round-the-world port. Seventeen months after she returned, the result of her voyage, for one thing, being a cargo that brought her owners twice more capital than she had carried out. The Salem merchants often sold not only the cargo but the ship itself in these far distant ports, and later the Grand Turk was thus disposed of in India, Derby building another and a larger vessel of the same name. In 1794 Salem owned 160 vessels of a tonnage totaling 16,788 tons. In 1805 this number had increased to 54 ships, 18 barques, 72 brigs and 86 schooners, of which 48 were employed in trade around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1806 there were 73 ships, 11 barques and 48 brigs, all engaged in this foreign trade, which gave such splendid opportunity for adventure and such princely returns. Cargoes have been brought into Salem port that realized 800 per cent on the capital invested, and from 1800 to 1807 inclusive 1542 vessels in the foreign trade arrived, paying an annual average duty of $755,157.90, and this at the 10 or 12 per cent ad valorem which was the reasonable rate of those days.
In the story of this Salem shipping from 1775 to 1875 is an Odyssey that some latter day Homer may yet make ring down the future ages. The captains and crews of these ships needed all the courage and wisdom of Ulysses, nor had sea-worn Odysseus so wide wanderings or so strange adventures as they.
In Hawthorne's time this age of Homeric adventure had indeed passed from the port, yet Salem ships still sailed the seas, for in 1847, when he was dreaming of Hester Prynne, her preacher lover and her weird and satanic husband, as he bent over that old desk in the custom-house, 78 vessels cleared from Salem for foreign ports. So true it is that one's eyes see only what they are fitted to see. All about the dreamer were the records of these mighty adventures told for the most part indeed in invoices and clearance papers, but also, one must believe, echoing in the traditions which his snug-harbored mariner confreres must have known, yet no story came from his pen that shows he felt the call of the sea to those keen, daring sea rovers on whose trail he camped. This was no loss to us, doubtless. We would not swap the "Scarlet Letter" for any tale that Stevenson told. Yet think what fancies would have taken shape in Stevenson's brain out of the dusty ghosts that still linger in the nooks of the old customhouse!
More things than these are hidden away in Salem. The homing instinct of the old sailors brought back from the seas of all the earth thousands of strange relics which are still to be seen in the magnificent Peabody Academy of Science and in the Essex Institute, institutions free to all the world of which the city is justly proud. Yet the home-keeping instinct of those who remained behind was as strong, and the Salem homes of the days of the merchant princes still remain, in some cases much as they were a century and more ago. Now and then, within the uproar of a busy street one gets a glimpse over a high board fence of gardens of quaint beauty, the gravel walks bordered with prim box, the sward of a century green and smooth, and the hardy perennials that the old-time home-keepers loved and tended growing and blossoming there still, as beautiful and deep-rooted as were the lives of the Salem mothers that sent their sons forth to adventure on the seven seas while they waited and wove love and longing into the beds of garden bloom. The modern city has crowded these for long, yet the atmosphere of their brave beauty remains still and belongs with the square, patrician dignity of the houses.
In one of these gardens I glimpsed an oriole, flashing his tropic colors along the branches of a magnolia, now just in its wonder of white bloom. It was as if white patience of mother love had waited him there, a gay young wanderer from Surinam, where, very likely, he had spent the winter on an annual voyage. Gay and restless he was, and his mellow voice prattled no doubt of all the strange sights he had seen and the adventures he had met, while the fair tree enfolded him in her arms and worshiped him with the tender home perfume of mother love. It made me wonder a little, too, why Hawthorne missed the orioles in the Salem gardens which he must have seen each spring, and only birds of such somber colors flitted through the flowers of his fancy. But after all it was only one more proof that out of the inner eye come the colors of our thoughts, and that the inherited shadows of the witch-finding days must have dwelt deep in the soul of the Salem-born, Puritan-descended dreamer of weird and somber romances.
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