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A Witch’s Tale: 7 Spooky Ghost Stories from Salem, Massachusetts

Witches and ghosts and asylums—oh my.

With the arrival of autumn, our thoughts turn from the passion-filled days of summer to the ghosts and witches of Halloween. Perhaps no town in the United States has as rich a history of witchcraft and terror as Salem, Massachusetts.

In its earliest days, Salem was a haven for Puritan settlers, a place where they could practice their own religion in peace and quiet. This is, perhaps, what made the infamous witch trials in 1692 so shocking. The moral panic that gripped this town was rooted in an intimate sense of the supernatural, tensions among a divided population, and local family feuds. At the time, the New England region—and also most of Europe—was rife with belief in witchcraft as the cause of horrible fits, violence, and physical pain. As such, it is hardly surprising that a moral panic spread like a virus through the town’s population: taking the lives of 20 innocents by the time it abated.

Salem is a much different place today, with a thriving community and tourist trade—mostly based around the witch trials. It is additionally home to a high concentration of practicing witches. Still, the landscape is dotted with buildings that remind Salem’s visitors and citizens alike of those dark days of American history. The women and men who perished still linger, seeking vengeance or possibly peace after a death they did not deserve. The following locations are the most haunted and haunting places in Witch City.

1. The Witch House

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Jonathan Corwin House, also known as the Witch House, can be found at 310 Essex Street. Perhaps the last standing structure with direct ties to the Salem witch trials, The Witch House was home to Judge Jonathan Corwin. He was a local magistrate that became central to the trials. Corwin took over the trials when Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned in protest after Bridget Bishop was sentenced to death. Bishop was the first person to be killed during the trials. Far from abating the hysteria surrounding the trials, Corwin helped renew and strengthen the panic–sending a further 19 people to the gallows.

Corwin first acquired the structure from a man named Richard Davenport in 1675, though it may be a few decades older. The house remained in Corwin’s family until the mid-1800s, after which it received little attention beyond being moved in the 1940s to make space for a widened street. As a museum in the McIntire Historic District, the Corwin house was restored to its 17th-century appearance and today features guided and self-guided tours. Ghost-hunters flock to the museum, the most haunted house in Salem, and visitors regularly encounter cold spots, disembodied voices, and experience the touch of spectral hands.

Related: The Bell Witch: An All-American Haunting 

2. The Joshua Ward House

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

This three-story, Federal-style brick house at 148 Washington Street was built in 1784 by retired sea captain Joshua Ward. As the first home in Salem constructed with brick, it includes some of the oldest woodwork by local builder Samuel McIntire. George Washington even requested to stay in this austere home-turned-tavern and hotel. Its connection to the witch trials? The house's foundation was laid upon Sheriff George Corwin’s former homestead.

During the witch trials, Corwin (nephew of Jonathan) was in charge of interrogating accused witches and used the most gruesome methods of the era, from hot pokers to pressing stones. Most infamously, he pressed Giles Gorey to death for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty. After a sudden death, Corwin’s body was temporarily interred beneath his home. A man who had gone accused during the trials, Phillip English, would not allow Corwin's body to be buried until he received the property that Corwin had stolen from him during the trials. Both Corwin and Corey haunt the Joshua Ward House–along with an unidentified angry, raven-haired woman. Visitors often complain of a heavy feeling in the air, and ghost hunters regularly record high EMF readings within–showing that something still lingers here.

3. The Ghost of Giles Corey

witch tales salem
  • Old drawing of the death of Giles Corey by being pressed with heavy stones

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aside from haunting the Joshua Ward House, Giles Corey’s specter also lingers at his unmarked grave in Howard Cemetery. According to legend, he appears before terrible events, as an omen of the horrors to come. In 1914, several witnesses saw Corey wandering the cemetery just before the Great Salem Fire. Such sightings align with his final words, as he cursed both Sheriff Corwin and the city of Salem.

Corey’s death was no accident, as he owned a great deal of land that would pass to his sons-in-law. However, once accused of witchcraft, entering a plea would have forfeited his land to local government and, in turn, the farmer’s enemies. Corey thus held fast; as the only example of a pressing death in American history, the 80-year-old endured boulder after boulder being placed upon his naked body, with a single plank of wood in between.

Although Corwin demanded a plea, Corey only ever replied ‘more weight’ before passing away after three days. His torture and death led to broader questioning of the trials, and his curse long plagued the office of Sheriff of Essex County with blood ailments–until the role was moved to Middleton.

4. The Hawthorne Hotel

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: Henry Zbyszynski / Flickr (CC)

This hotel takes its name from Salem resident and author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, most famous for writing The Scarlet Letter. In life, the renowned writer was haunted by the witch trials: His uncle, Jonathon Hathorne, was the only judge involved who never recanted his actions. Hawthorne even changed his last name to avoid being associated with the man but was still haunted by his relative’s actions for the rest of his life. The hotel, too, is haunted by the past, as it supposedly stands upon the former orchard of the witch trials’ first victim–Bridget Bishop.

To this day, visitors to the Hawthorne report the smell of apples from this phantom orchard. Mists, spectral sounds, and poltergeists are also encountered, though most activity occurs in Rooms 325 and 612. Visitors to the former report an unseen hand and a ghostly baby’s cries, while those staying in 612 awake to an undead woman’s stare. Meanwhile, the connected Turner’s Seafood is home to the spirit of a woman in white who appears in mirrors and messes with electrical equipment.

5. The House of the Seven Gables

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This colonial mansion started as a two-room, 2.5 story house in 1667 for Captain John Turner. It became famous thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. After Captain John Turner died at sea, the house was passed on to his children. Over three generations of the Turner family went on to live in the house, remodeling and adding to the structure until John Turner III eventually lost the family fortune and sold the mansion in the early 1900s to the Ingersolls. The Ingersoll family soon set about removing much of the Turners' previous work–including the gables and porches.

By the time Hawthorne came to visit his cousin Susanna Ingersoll, who had inherited the mansion from her father, little remained of the original structure. Thanks to the popularity of its fictional counterpart, the House of the Seven Gables became a local landmark and later museum and settlement house. Even with several programs for children, the mansion’s inhabitants linger, with many visitors spotting Susanna walking the halls and peering from windows. Other phenomenon includes odd sounds and a cheerful child’s spirit that is said to haunt the attic.

6. Old Salem Jail

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: goodharbor / Flickr (CC)

The reputably haunted correctional facility played host to an estimated 50 hangings and enjoys a long and dark history. The Old Salem Jail was built in 1813, located next to the Howard Street Cemetery, where accused witch Giles Corey was crushed to death. Among the many inmates to be incarcerated in the prison, Albert DeSalvo, also known as the Boston Strangler, was famously confined here. By 1984, conditions in the prison had deteriorated to such a level that a federal judge ordered the jail’s closure. By 1991, it was officially closed. To that date, it had been the oldest operating prison in America. And there it sat abandoned, crumbling into ruin and collecting ghost stories as the years passed.

Visitors to the Old Salem Jail reported sightings of dark apparitions wandering the empty corridors and rooms of the prison. Mysterious lights were sometimes spotted shinning from within, and unearthly screams were heard echoing from the thick granite walls. Today, after an extensive renovation, the structure has been turned into luxury apartments, and the spirits of Old Salem Jail appear to be at rest–for the time being, that is.

Related: America’s 7 Most Haunted Prisons 

7. Danvers State Hospital

witch tales salem
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This gothic-style, psychiatric hospital was built in 1874 and opened its doors 4 years later. It has had many names, including State Lunatic Hospital, Danvers State Insane Asylum, and, finally, Danvers State Hospital. The campus was set just 10 miles from modern Salem in Danvers, Massachusetts. Danvers, although no longer called Salem, was originally Salem Village, and where most of the witch trials took place. Danvers State sprawls over 77 acres, with the central facilities atop Hathorne Hill, which takes its name from the land’s former owner, notorious Judge Jonathon Hathorne. The hospital’s reliance upon barbaric and often lethal treatments led to a terrifying reputation and inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham sanatorium and DC Comics Arkham Asylum in the Batman mythos.

Little remains of the hospital today, as a residential company purchased and demolished almost the entire campus–including the historic Kirkbride Building. After removing several buildings, though, its construction trailers strangely caught fire–destroying the new developments and the Kirkbride in a blaze that could be seen as far away as Boston. Only the administration building’s brick shell remained, along with the hospital’s cemeteries and blocked network of tunnels. After completing much of their development, the company put the property up for sale–many believed this was caused by a curse upon the property.

Related: America’s Most Haunted Hospitals and Asylums 

This Story Was First Published on Occult Museum.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photos: Alchetron; Henry Zbyszynski / Flickr (CC); goodharbor / Flickr (CC)

Published on 27 Oct 2017

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