Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Joshua Ward House - Salem, MA

1692 is an innocuous series of numbers to most, but what happened that year in American history still calls dread to mind. There is definitely a slight widening of the eye when the gruesome event is mentioned. I’ve seen people shake their head in shame for the small puritan village, wondering how piety could become so twisted. I’ve also seen others swear up and down that the Devil truly did walk in Salem. Whatever your belief, it’s hard to deny that both Salem and America are still haunted by the Salem Witch Trials, both figuratively and perhaps literally.

Salem has a reputation, one that it’s proud of. Today, it prides itself on its inherited spookiness, creating commerce out of its macabre history that has done well for community. The Salem Witch is a ubiquitous symbol throughout the city. It’s part of the city’s seal, and can be found everywhere from street signs to, ironically, the uniforms of the local police force. Even the high school football team is called the Witches, which is only appropriate for a place known as the Witch City.

New England itself being a bastion of the macabre and creepy, Salem has long served as its capital in all things other-worldly. But what is fact (as much as can be found on the subject) and what is marketing? It has a mystique that is ripe for ghost stories, creepy folklore and unexplained phenomenon. Combining its violent history with the inherent eeriness most North Shore towns in Massachusetts (or any seaside town) possess, and you get a place where every other building is reputed to be haunted.

A checklist of supposedly haunted spots in Salem will give you an idea of just how much this town has been transformed by a mere 15-month period in its ancient history. Among them are the House of Seven Gables, The Gardner-Pingree House, Ropes Mansion, the Customs House, the Old Town Hall, and the Joshua Ward House.

Stately in its federal-style architecture, the Joshua Ward House, a historical landmark since 1978, is one that can actually claim relation to the Witch Trials. While Joshua Ward himself made his wealth from Salem’s port and sea business, it’s the location of the house, not the man who gave it its name, which inspires the home’s notoriety. The Joshua Ward House is built over the site of the original home of George Corwin, the High Sheriff of Essex County in 1692. Corwin is notorious in Salem’s history as the man whose signature brought the arrest and execution of those in Salem village accused of witchcraft. Corwin also disseized many of the accused and condemned of their land, leading to his massive unpopularity following the hysteria. While this may not make him less culpable than the accusers and the ruling judges of the trials, Corwin is known for his cruelty in gaining confessions from the accused, most notably in the case of Giles Corey.

Under the auspices of “Spectral Evidence”, Giles Corey and his wife Martha were accused of witchcraft by Anne Putnam and Abigail Williams. Refusing to enter a plea, Giles Corey was subjected to "peine forte et dure", or pressing to death, under the direction of Sheriff Corwin. Corey was stripped naked with a board laid over his body. Heavy stones were placed on the board, which slowly crushed him to death. The torture, which wasn’t abolished until 1772 in Great Britain, was customary when accused criminals refused to enter a plea. The folklore of the event claims that Corey answered each of Corwin’s calls for a plea with “more weight”. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, "In the pressing, Giles Corey's tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again."

Corwin was eventually crushed to death by the weight without entering a plea. According to the folklore, before he died, he raised a finger to George Corwin and said “I curse you and I curse Salem.” His wife Martha was found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill three days later.

George Corwin died at age 30 (a fairly decent life expectancy for the time and place) of a heart attack. Curse-wise, it is said that every High Sheriff since Corwin has either died in office of a heart or blood condition, or left on the same grounds. On the subject of the curse, I’ll refer anyone interested to Robert Ellis Cahill, a folklorist and former High Sheriff of Essex County who investigated the topic personally and professionally.

Following his death, Corwin’s body was not buried, a lien had been placed on it until one of the accused, Phillip English, had is disseized property returned to him. It was interred in the basement of his home on Washington Street by his family, who feared reprisals from the townsfolk who reviled Corwin and other collaborators after the hysteria passed. His body was quietly buried later in the town cemetery. Both surviving evidence and local folklore suggest that Corwin had used the disseized properties to house prisoners.

Today the house, now a historical landmark and home to Higgins Book Company, has been the site of unexplained phenomenon for some years. While it is not the subject of inspiration and tourism as the House of Seven Gables, the Joshua Ward house has seen its own fame in books on the collective hauntings of Salem and a comprehensive segment on the History Channel series Haunted History.

Reports testify to cold hands put on the backs of house employees, candles knocked over and twisted into S shapes, mysteriously locked doors, overturned furniture and cold spots. Pretty standard fare for many “ghostly activities”. But perhaps the most compelling piece of supernatural evidence comes from a Polaroid taken of a new agent when the house served as a real estate office in the 1990s. The new associate posed for a headshot at the bottom of the stairs. A few minutes later when the picture developed, a black-dressed figure of a woman was clearly visible standing at the top of the stairs.

Without proof of no photographic tampering, it’s hard to call this evidence. One has to decide for themselves.


robinsonbrianna97 said...

ummm, i think that that picture is a fraud because it looks to realistic

Ephemerot said...

A lot of people have thought so. But it's almost too bizarre to be made up. But, like all ghost photos, we have to either take the photographer at their word or not. In either case, it fires the imagination.

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