The Tale of Salem's Gardner-Pingree House

While going through some of the images that I took during one of my visits to Salem, Massachusetts, I came across a couple that made go "hmmmm ..." as there was something on them that I couldn't really seem to easily explain.  Now granted I'm pretty sure that whenever anyone goes to Witch City USA they're hoping to get photos that have unexplained spots on them, but I really wasn't looking for anything like that as the ones that I was looking at had been taken about 4:00 in the afternoon and the last thing I was thinking of was perhaps capturing a ghost out for an afternoon stroll!

What I was looking for were photos of some nice front doors as I rather like front doors as well as other aspects of nice architecture.  I think a front door speaks volumes about a house in general and I'm a sucker for a house with a nice front entryway.  Sadly, classy front doors and entryways have pretty much gone the way of the horse and buggy but back when they were building houses in Salem, they sure knew how to make a good first impression with their front door!  At least those folks with money did and due to its success as a seafaring town, Salem had more than its fair share of wealthy sea captains and merchants who could afford to build nice houses and nice front entrances.

The Gardner-Pingree House

The entrance photo above belongs to the Gardner-Pingree House which was built for John Gardner Jr., a wealthy Salem merchant, and his wife Sarah in 1804. The home was designed by Samuel McIntire who was one of the earliest architects in the United States. Born in Salem in 1757, McIntire was a woodcarver by trade who went on to become one of the most celebrated architects of his time. He specialized in the Federal style of architecture which got its name from the Federalist Era - a time period in American history from roughly 1789 to 1801 when the Federalist Party was dominant in American politics. The Federalist Party, aka our Founding Fathers, chose to associate the nation with the ancient democracies of Greece and the republican values of Rome and consequently the architectural style - balanced and symmetrical - followed suit.

Samuel McIntire had an  innate sense of proportion and attention to decorative detail which can be seen to this day by visitors to the house which now belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum.  In addition to the Corinthian columns on the semicircular portico (that entryway I'm so enamored of) there are neoclassical ornaments on the mantels and the door-frames as well as on the furniture in the double parlor.  The Gardner-Pingree House is said to be the finest surviving example of the many Federal style houses built in Salem between 1793 and 1825 but it has a bit of a dark past, too.

You see, the Gardner-Pingree House is actually the Gardner-West-White-Pingree House as the house was sold in 1811 to Nathaniel West when John Gardner had some financial difficulties. Three years later, West sold the house to Captain Joseph White, a wealthy, retired merchant. Captain White lived in the house with a manservant and his niece, Mrs. Beckford, who worked as his housekeeper and who had a daughter that was married to Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and lived in Wenham, Massachusetts. 

The Gardner-Pingree House

One day Joseph learned that the 82-year old Captain had made out a will leaving $15,000 to Mrs. Beckford and it was then that he got the idea that if his great-uncle-by-marriage were to die without a will, that his mother-in-law would inherit half of Captain White's sizable fortune instead - an amount that was nearly $200,000 - and by default, some of that fortune would then come to him. Being an ambitious and impatient man, Joseph conspired with his brother John, another ambitious and impatient man, to hire a local criminal by the name of Richard Crowninshield to hurry his great-uncle along to his grave,  On the night of April 6th, 1830, Captain White was brutally murdered when Crowninshield entered the house through a window that had been left open by Joseph earlier in the day, went to the bedroom where Captain White was sleeping, and  fractured the Captain's skull with a club as well as stabbing him thirteen times with a long dagger.

The murder shocked the town of Salem and even inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write about it in Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe which appeared in Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a collection of short stories. It's believed that the murder may also have been the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story The Tell-Tale Heart which was first published in 1843. 

The Knapps were prosecuted by the great Daniel Webster, one of the most successful lawyers of the era, who was primarily a defense lawyer but also known to serve as a prosecutor from time to time. Webster's courtroom skills and persuasive oration eventually set legal precedent and the two brothers were found guilty and hanged for their role in the crime.  Their hired-man Crowninshield had already committed suicide early on when he realized he had no hope of getting away with the murder.   

As for Poe's possible story inspiration, it's been said that it may have come from Webster's "Argument on the Trial" which he published as a pamphlet. In the text, Webster wrote that the murderer’s guilt will eventually reveal itself and that “the secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him … it overcomes him. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master.” Yep, I can see where that could be inspiration for Poe's tale! If you'd like some interesting reading, you can find the court case from 1830 here and a bit more about Poe's possible inspiration here

As for the house, in 1834 it was sold to David Pingree and ownership remained in the Pingree family until 1933 when it was donated by the Pingree heirs to the Essex Institute - which later merged with the Peabody Museum to become the Peabody Essex Museum.

Front door of the Gardner-Pingree House
Today, in addition to being a part of the Essex Block Historic House Tour available through the PEM, the house is a stop on the many walking ghost tours that one can take in Salem as it is believed to be haunted due to the circumstances surrounding Captain White's death - naturally! People claim to see ghostly faces looking out of the second floor windows and many have claimed to hear ghostly footsteps while touring the house.

While on one of those walking ghost tours myself in October of 2008, I took the photo to the left which shows a small orb near the top right-hand side of the front door - a rather odd-looking orb when you get right down to it but then again, there is no exact science when it comes to orbs.

Having a memory like a sieve, I knew that one of the houses on Essex Street was supposed to be haunted but I didn't really remember which one and in all honesty I thought it was the house next to the Gardner-Pingree house but when I looked at the following photos, I did a little research, dug through my photo files, and exclaimed "Oh yea!  It was that house!"

Front Door Collage

The two photos above were taken at the exact same time as I tend to have my camera set on continuous shooting mode for some strange reason; I think it was a habit I got into while trying to take pictures of trains. At any rate, see that slightly foggy area to the sides of the steps?   I can think of no good reason as to why that's there in those pictures as there was no sun that would have caused reflections, it wasn't a humid day, nor was it a foggy day. And nowhere do I have that sort of effect on any of the other 200+ pictures that I took that afternoon.

Front door of the Gardner-Pingree House

Now I'm not saying that those foggy areas are definitely something paranormal or supernatural but I am saying that I can't think of any good reason as to why they're there and the house does have a rather interesting history.  Needless to say, when I saw those pictures it gave me pause and that, my friends, is what ghost stories are generally made of!


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