By Caitlin Fisher
“The ghost of Nathaniel Hawthorne really let us down today,” I told my friends as we ran to catch the train back to Boston on Saturday afternoon.
Really, it should have been ideal ghost hunting conditions. We were in Salem, Massachusetts, universally acknowledged as one of the most paranormally active cities in the country. We wanted to meet the ghost of Bridget Bishop, the first of 20 victims to be hanged for witchcraft back in 1692, and renowned “The Scarlet Letter” author Nathaniel Hawthorne. And, of course, it was Halloweekend, infusing our trip with the sanguine serendipity of an adventure with ghouls and freaks of all kinds. It was the perfect recipe for finding some solid evidence for the existence of ghosts.
On my previous outings, I was amazed to discover that all one really had to do in order to uncover a fantastical ghost story was to ask someone who worked at said haunted location a simple question: “Can I ask you about ghosts?” All sorts of people — from fellow college students to park rangers to middle-aged waitresses — were as compelled and interested in the supposed spookiness of their workplaces as I was, making my job pretty easy. I had assumed that Salem, known as Witch City, would provide the most enthusiastic spooky storytellers yet. What I found was the biggest group of skeptics I have ever met.
I had two destinations in mind for finding the alleged spirit of Bridget Bishop, a woman had an independent spirit, spitfire wit, and disregard of social norms that was unacceptable for a Pilgrim community in the 17th century. Bridget had married three times, and had ownership over an apple orchard and tavern in Salem after the death of her third husband, but was ostracized because of her eccentricities. Her spirit is said to haunt Turner’s Seafood, a restaurant housed in the old Lyceum building where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first long-distance telephone call. The building sits on Bridget’s former apple orchard. Bridget, bedecked in a flowing white gown, is said to haunt the the top floor, though the manager refuted this. Mrs. Turner dismissed the ghost stories as silly tales for silly people, though she mentioned that several paranormal investigators had found evidence on the second floor. Servers have reported cases of plates flying off shelves in the kitchen for years, though she suspected that was more a result of clumsiness than of the presence of a poltergeist.
After her dismissal, we headed to the Hawthorne Hotel, which also claims to have been built on Bridget Bishop’s land; a quick internet search reveals countless Yelp reviews left by spooked guests, claiming to hear mysterious wailing, electrical problems and the overwhelming scent of apple — due, I suppose, to Bridget’s apple orchard. The concierge, a flustered woman who was in the midst of blowing up bright orange balloons for the Halloween party the hotel was hosting that weekend, dismissed these as hyperbolic fables. She admitted that guests claimed to see a woman in white in Room 612, a possible connection to Bridget. She recounted a time when paranormal investigators stayed in Room 325, another haunted room, and used a Ouija board to contact the former hotel manager, who had killed himself in the room by jumping out the window. However, she immediately discounted this story, as Room 325 faces the interior of the building, and the roof of the kitchen is only a few feet below the room’s window, making suicide rather difficult. There were also rumors of a sea captain haunting the hotel’s restaurant, as a large wheel on display on the wall often whirls on its own, as if steered by an undead boater. But that was just a fun story to tell tourists, according to the concierge.
Filled with disillusionment as I was, I was still hopeful: I convinced my friends to make the ten-minute trek to the House of the Seven Gables, the infamous residence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. If I couldn’t find a verified story about Bridget Bishop, I figured Hawthorne would have something supernatural to offer, especially considering his own connection to the occult. His great-grandfather had been the judge who sentenced the accused witches to hanging, a fact that haunted Hawthorne so greatly that he was moved to change his family name from Hathorne to Hawthorne. But on arrival to the museum, all we found were long queues of tourists and irritated staff. After waiting in line, and asking after any writerly residential ghosts (we were pretty familiar with those), I simply received a blank stare and a shake of the head.
I couldn’t believe the irony of the situation — here we were, in the spookiest town in the world, and we couldn’t find a single person who believed in ghosts. But there was an element of excitement, too — that one could never really anticipate how ghosts and their stories were going to manifest, and who was going to believe in them, or where you were going to find them — dorm room ghosts and falsely accused witches are funny that way.