The Witch House is an iconic first period house in Salem, Mass with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials. It was the home of Jonathan Corwin who was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials.
Despite the fact that I go to Salem often and have walked past the Witch House many times, I’ve never been inside and decided to take a tour recently to give it a review.
I visited the house on November 1st, hoping to take a guided tour but was told they were unavailable because it was too busy that time of year.
The woman selling the tickets said they only do guided tours in the spring, summer and early fall. She also said that you get the same information on the guided tour as you do on the self-guided tour.
Witch House Tour Overview:
The entire house consists of four large rooms, two on each floor, with a small foyer in between them. The floors are made of old pine floorboards and all of the rooms in the house have exposed wooden beams on the ceiling and walls, which is really quite beautiful. The walls are white and the dark wood beams contrast really nicely against them.
The entrance to the house is in the back, in a tiny gift shop where the tickets are purchased. The first room you enter on the tour is the kitchen. It is a large sparse room with a huge fireplace that takes up almost an entire wall of the kitchen. The fireplace has a large iron pot hanging in it and what appears to be the remnants of a brick oven on the back wall of the fireplace.
In the kitchen is a table with chairs and reproductions of some of the Salem Witch Trial documents on top of the table. Behind the table, the surface of the wall has been removed to expose the construction materials of the wall, which looks to be some type of brick and mortar.
In the far corner there is another table with 17th century kitchen items on it, such as a brick of tea, a cone of sugar, a tea kettle, bowls and tongs. Also on the walls are signs and displays explaining the general history and events of the Salem Witch Trials.
After leaving the kitchen you enter a small foyer in between the two rooms on the first floor. This foyer is where the front door of the house is located (but it is locked to prevent people from entering without buying a ticket.) This foyer has a glass display case that contains various 17th century objects.
One such object in the display case is an old black shoe that was found in the wall of a house (putting shoes in the wall was an old tradition.) The display case also has a poppet, which is a doll often used in witchcraft, that was also found in the walls of another old house.
The poppet is accompanied by sign explaining that a similar doll was found in the walls of Bridget Bishop‘s house. None of the items in the case belonged to anyone involved in the witch trials and they weren’t found in this house, but they’re very interesting nonetheless.
After leaving the foyer you enter the parlor. This room contains a dining table set with plates and bowls. On the walls are signs explaining what type of objects a typical 17th century household would have.
Also on the walls are old spoons encased in glass as well as a fork that belonged to John Proctor. The fork is a two-pronged fork with a curved wooden handle. It was really interesting but because it’s so dark in the house it was hard to see it and was even harder to get a photo of it.
This room, and the house in general, is very dark because of the small windows and the lack of modern lighting. There are a few small lights on the walls in each room, but they don’t produce much light. Plus, the curtains on the windows in most of the rooms are drawn, probably to prevent sunlight from damaging the artifacts, but it makes it even darker in the house. As a result, all of the signs and objects in these rooms are really hard to see.
Visitors are allowed to take photographs in the house, which is nice because most historical houses and museums don’t allow this, but you’re not allowed to use a flash which sort of makes taking photos pointless since it is so dark in there.
When I was in this parlor, a woman who seemed to work there walked in with a few other people and started shining a small flashlight on some of the objects in the room while discussing them. If you have to use a flashlight just to see the objects on display in the house, I think it’s fair to say that the house is too dark.
Upstairs there are two large bedrooms and another foyer in between them. Climbing the stairs to the second floor, you enter the foyer first. This is where the seasonal exhibits are held. On November 1st the exhibit was supposed to be the history of Thanksgiving, but when I was there is was still the history of Halloween.
The exhibit itself is just a couple of framed signs hanging on the wall which explain the origins of the holiday. There’s also a bowl filled with some kind of food on a table and a sign accompanying it explaining what type of meals people ate during the autumn in the 17th century.
The windows in this foyer provide really nice views of downtown Salem. From the left window you can see views of bustling Essex Street and North Street and from the right you have a nice view of the First Church in Salem next door.
The bedroom to the right of the foyer has a big beautiful white canopy bed in the corner. The room is set up very nicely and really gives you the feeling you are inside an old home instead of a museum. An old bed warmer hangs next to the fireplace and the room has a writing desk next to the bed, and a chest with a lantern and candles on top of it.
There’s also another small chest by the foot of the bed with either a bowl or a chamber pot on top of it and a small bassinet at the foot of the bed. There’s also another desk by the window, sort of in the middle of the room near the door, with a mannequin next to it dressed in a 17th century dress.
The bedroom to the left of the foyer is a bit cluttered and dark. There is a bed near the window and some random objects on top of it. There’s a writing desk next to the bed, a chair in the far corner, and several bassinets near the bed.
On the other side of the room are several chests and bureaus, a spinning loom, some small chairs, a mannequin dressed in a man’s 17th century outfit and a giant weaving loom with a sign explaining how people used to weave fabric in the 17th century as well as a fireplace on the inner wall.
What I found really interesting about this room were the old exposed beams on the ceiling, which were split and worn from age, and the old pine floorboards where, in the corner of the room near the fireplace, you could peer through the cracks in between the floorboards and see light coming from the room below.
The thing that I found perplexing at first about the upstairs bedrooms is that they appeared to be filled with random objects that don’t really seem to belong there and are set up in an awkward way (desks and chests in the middle of the room and a large weaving loom that takes up half the room.)
There are also ropes draped between these objects to prevent people from walking around the rooms and a sign in one of the rooms asking people to help protect the original pine floorboards by not standing beyond the sign.
I then realized that, since the house is so old, the floorboards are probably too weak to allow people to walk on the them so they have instead filled the rooms with numerous objects to take up space and have roped it off to keep people out.
My Verdict on the Witch House Tour:
My biggest complaint about the self-guided tour is that there is almost no context for the objects in the house and no information on the history of the house itself or Jonathan Corwin. The way the house is presented, it is more of a museum about 17th century living than anything else.
The house is filled with random, everyday household objects from the 17th century. This was interesting to see but it all seemed so out of place. None of the items belonged to Corwin or his family and, in fact, some of the items belong to some of the witch trial victims, which made even less sense.
I just wish they would add some information about the history of the house, Jonathan Corwin himself and his role in the Salem Witch Trials to the displays to help give the house itself some context. Or perhaps they could add a short guided tour explaining this. It would be really easy and simple to do, it wouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes.
As of now, there are only a few signs around the house even stating that it belonged to Jonathan Corwin and these are easy to miss because it’s so dark and cluttered in the house. I seemed to have missed every sign explaining who the house belonged to because I only saw them later while looking at other tourist’s photos of the house online.
The signs that I did see where a bit overwhelming and off-putting. There are a lot of them throughout the house and they all have long dense passages of text which you have to squint to read in the dim lighting. It feels like you enter the house and just start squinting and reading trying to make sense of everything.
What I do like about the tour is that it provides a very rare glimpse into a first period home. There aren’t a lot of these houses remaining and it was wonderful to walk through the house, peer out its windows and listen to the creaky floorboards under your feet.
The house is very well preserved and it is a treat to see it up close and personal. It is a beautiful old house and walking through it feels like taking a step back in time. Despite the lack of context and information about the house, I would definitely still recommend visitors check it out.
History of the Salem Witch House:
To learn about the history of the Witch House, I actually had to do a lot of digging online to find out anything about it. The house was built in the mid 1670s for Captain Richard Davenport who then moved to Boston before he finished building it. In 1675, Davenport sold the partially constructed house to Judge Jonathan Corwin who then completed it and moved in with his wife and children.
Some historians used to believe that the house was built in the 1630s and that religious leader Roger Williams lived in the house while he was preaching in Salem.
As a result, there are a lot of 19th and early 20th century photos and drawings that refer to the house as the Roger Williams house.
The reason they believed this was due to a town document from 1714, according to an Essex Institute Historical Collections periodical from 1888:
“In 1714, Jonathan Corwin was allowed two shares in the common lands ‘for his house and Mr. Williams cottage right.’ That is to say, it was proved, in 1714, to the satisfaction of the Proprietors of the Common Lands in Salem that ‘Mr. Williams’ had lived before 1661 where Jonathan Corwin was then living. The ten acre lot in the Northfield which went with this house in the sale to Corwin is shown to have belonged to ‘Mr. Williams’…That ‘Mr. Williams’ meant Roger Williams cannot be doubted. It is clear that it was perfectly understood at the time whom the expression applied. If there had been more than one Mr. Williams in Salem’s early history, the records would not have so invariably omitted the first name. But there was, in fact, no other to whom that title would have been given. The prefix ‘Mr.’ was used only for magistrates, ministers, eminent merchants and persons holding some official position. The only other ‘Mr. Williams’ who figures in our Colonial records at that period was Francis Williams of Piscataqua and Strawberry Bank, now Portsmouth.”
Historians now believe the house was instead built in 1675, which was decades after Williams was banished from Salem in 1635.
Some sources also state that a few of the pretrial examinations of the Salem Witch Trials may have been conducted in the house when Corwin lived there. There is no mention of the house being used for the examinations in any of the primary sources on witch trials but it is possible that it may have happened.
Corwin lived in the house for 40 years until his death in 1718. The house remained in the Corwin family for many generations and has been renovated many times since then. When Corwin’s grandson, George, died in 1746, his widow removed the gables from the house, added some extra rooms and replaced the peaked roof with a gambrel that covered the entire frame.
The house remained in the Corwin family until the 1850s when it was sold to a pharmacist named George Farrington who added a pharmacy to the side of the building. The main house itself also later served as an antique store called the Witch House Antiques.
In 1944, the house was slated for demolition when the street it was located on, North Street, needed to be widened. A group of local citizens formed an organization called Historic Salem Inc and funds were raised to help move the house back 35 feet from North Street to its present location on Essex Street.
Around the same time, the house was restored to its 17th century appearance by Boston architect Gordon Robb, with the assistance of architect Frank C. Brown, and it was turned over to the city of Salem. It opened as a historic house museum in 1946.
What I couldn’t find out is why it is called the Witch House. Some sources state that Farrington was the first person to call it the Witch House when he was trying to promote his pharmacy business there.
Other sources state that locals starting calling it the Witch House because of its ties to the Salem Witch Trials and the name simply stuck. There are photos of the house as far back as 1901 with visible signs on the house calling it the Witch House, which indicates that it acquired the nickname a long time ago.
Salem Witch House Tickets and Hours:
Address: 310 Essex St, Salem, MA
The Witch House is owned and operated by the City of Salem Park and Recreation Department and is listed on the National Register of historic places.
Great article! I love the Witch House! Thanks for writing this. 🙂
I enjoyed reading your article about the Salem Witch House and the connection to Roger Williams and Jonathan Corwin. I recently came across genealogical information connecting my family to that of Roger Williams through our Colwell ancestors and was having a hard time finding Williams personal history. It has been extremely difficult to locate information on Roger Williams’ early life, family and home in Salem, if not impossible. I have gathered information piece-meal and when I came across your article on the Salem Witch House it gave me in-depth details that I found no where else and I was thrilled. I am also a relative of the San Souci brothers who operated the San Souci Department Store in Olneyville, Rhode Island. Their department store had been an institution in Rhode Island during the early part of the 20th century. I thank you for taking the time to give us a more in-depth look into the Salem Witch House and the history and people behind it. Excellent article, too bad the lighting was so dark in the house.