“HALFWAY down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst…the aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within.”
--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
THE HAWTHORNE CONNECTION
Prime among Hawthorne’s inspirations for The House of the Seven Gables was the old colonial mansion at the end of Turner Street on Salem harbor. He was often a visitor at this house, just as you are today, however, The House of the Seven Gables did not begin as a tourist destination. Built in 1668, 42 years after the original settlement of Salem was established, wealthy merchant John Turner would eventually expand his home into a 14 room, seven-gabled mansion. Over the next 114 years the house would be lived in by successive generations of the Turner family. The Ingersolls, relatives of Nathaniel Hawthorne, purchased the home in 1782. It was Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, who would ultimately inspire the young author.
The House of the Seven Gables would, over the next two centuries, become a cultural icon and would draw visitors from all over the world. The connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne is one that will always be part of the legacy of the house. The stories of those who inhabited and those who visit the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion are part of that legacy as well.
Susanna Ingersoll and Horace Connolly
Susanna Hathorne Ingersoll, widow of ship-master Samuel Ingersoll, died in 1811, leaving the house at the end of Turner Street to her only remaining child, 27-year-old Susanna, namesake of her mother and second cousin to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Susanna would come to be the house’s longest resident, living unmarried and without biological children within the home for another 47 years. During her tenure as owner of the house, she was one of Salem’s wealthiest women, and would entertain her young cousin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during his visits.
Upon her death in 1858, Susanna left her estate to an adopted son, Horace Connolly. Horace was of unknown birth, yet Susanna saw potential in the young man and paid for his education. In 1858, Horace would change his name from Connolly to Ingersoll, a choice most likely made to solidify his connection to the house’s legacy. In 1879, the house was sold at auction to pay debtors, and over the course of the following four years, it would be owned by a series of absentee landlords, before life would once again appear in its halls.
Henry and Elizabeth Upton purchased the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in 1883. The house had not been lived in for four years, and the possibility that it would be torn down to make room for tenement housing was a threat. Henry was known as a musician and dancing master, and held classes in Hamilton Hall located on Chestnut Street in Salem.
Perhaps the most captivating feature of The House of the Seven Gables is the secret staircase. The staircase consists of 20 steps that lead from the dining room to the attic through the middle of the center chimney. Though long thought to be an original part of the house, recent research identifies the staircase as a feature added by Joseph Chandler between 1908 and 1910. He reconstructed the central chimney in a 17th-century style while also adding the secret staircase to increase the tourist attraction of the house.
The origin and purpose of the staircase have been subject to much speculation and mythology over the years. The earliest surviving tour script, from around 1915, is missing the page which would discuss the staircase. Caroline Emmerton claimed that Henry Upton discovered a servant’s staircase while restoring the central chimney of the house which would later become the famous “secret staircase.”