Ghosts inhabit the historic home of hanging judge Jonathan Corwin, but not the ones you might expect.
When Jonathan Corwin and the widow Elizabeth Gibbs wed in 1675, they needed a house to match their status as heirs to two prominent Puritan families who made their fortunes in the shipping trade. She brought her three children from Boston to his native Salem, then the shipping capital of the northern colonies, and they settled in a house that featured three steep gables, vaulted ceilings and a massive central chimney. “It was quite grand by Salem standards, befitting the station of Corwin and his wife,” says Elizabeth Peterson, director of what has come to be known as the Witch House.
Corwin’s eternal claim to infamy is that he served as one of the judges who condemned 19 people to death during the 1692 Salem witch trials. Legend has it that some of the examinations of accused witches were conducted in the dining room of the house, but Peterson says Corwin’s meticulous records of expenditures indicate the proceedings took place elsewhere. Nonetheless, there is a foreboding atmosphere in the house that she attributes to 11 deaths that occurred during the four decades the Corwins lived there. “Corwin may have been a frightening person by modern standards, but he and his wife were also human,” says Peterson. “And they experienced more than their share of day-to-day terror and tragedy.”
Corwin came by his work as a magistrate primarily because of his wealth. “There was not a great deal of money in these offices, just a show of status,” says Peterson. He initially dealt with petty crimes and minor charges such as drunkenness, but during the witch trials was appointed a judge of Oyer and Terminer, which means “listen and determine” in Latin. While Puritans who lacked Corwin’s social stature could be fined for dressing above their station, as a leader of the community he was expected to keep up appearances. “If you were wealthy, you were almost obligated to show it,” says Peterson. “And if you weren’t, it would not have been right to look higher up.”
Indeed, according to inventory records the family kept, Corwin was something of a dandy. He wore velvet clothes at times, some with silver and gold lace, and had one of the largest collections of dress clothing in Massachusetts. The family had many practical or decorative artifacts—porcelains and paintings and silver and jewels.
Peterson says it is likely that in Corwin’s era the house interior would have included bright colors on the woodwork, tiling and the filling between the beams. The image of the stark Puritan grays and whites would be for plebeians, not for wealthy townfolk like the Corwins, who would have favored reds or blues or yellows. Exterior clapboards would have been treated with linseed oil, which darkened with age. And there would have been decorative wood pendants and the like hanging from house corners, once again the show of wealth.
While Corwin has gone down in history as a villain, he was viewed much less harshly during his own times. “He was of the first generation born here,” says Peterson. “But their fathers had been used to witch trials in England as an everyday part of the landscape.” With the rapid growth of Puritan commerce, however, times were changing. In the midst of the trials 12 prominent ministers in Boston, including Increase and Cotton Mather, cautioned Salem authorities about their use of spectral evidence—testimony from a supposed victim of witchcraft who claimed to see the apparition or shape of the person who cast the spell. Increase Mather subsequently wrote: “It were better that Ten suspected witnesses escape, than that one innocent Person should be Condemned.” Ironically, the hysteria subsided as accusations of witchcraft were leveled at people higher up the social ladder, including Corwin’s wealthy mother-in-law Margaret Thatcher.
Although Corwin’s reputation apparently survived the witch trials intact, a long run of tragedy befell his household. Jonathan and Elizabeth married in their mid-20s, when she had given birth to four children, one of whom had already died. Soon after they moved into the house, her 12-year-old daughter Margaret died, and of the 10 children Elizabeth bore Corwin, only two reached adulthood, most dying in the first few years of life.
The Corwins and their remaining adult children all died within a few years of each other in the late 1710s. In the meantime, says Peterson, “there would have been a lot of fasting and praying in the house.”
Robert Strauss, a freelance journalist, writes for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.