I started reading The House of the Seven Gables a few weeks before Halloween. Here in Salem we talk about this piece of literature quite often. Hawthorne was born here and wrote about our little city several times. We also have a museum dedicated to the House of the Seven Gables, which includes Hawthorne’s birth house – moved to the site of the museum in the 1970s – and I have visited several times. It’s one of my favorite places to bring guests when they visit. I know about the gables, and the family who actually lived in the home (The Turners, not the Hawthornes), about how Hawthorne changed his name from Hathorne because he felt shameful of his family’s history during the Salem Witch Trials. I know Hawthorne married one of the Peabody sisters – wealthy women known for making the world a better place through education and through writing.
Can I tell you a secret, though? I had never read this book. Not in high school, not in college. Never. GASP. I’m not finished yet, but I had a real-life experience that related so greatly to the beginning of those book that I couldn’t wait to share it with you.
This gothic novel, written in the 1850s, is about family history dealing with guilt, shame, atonement, witchcraft, and the supernatural. Although it’s written in sort of a matter of fact manner, the content is quite intense. Today, we’ll simply talk about the pre-story. That of the house being built in the 1700s.
In the first pages: “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 street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm-tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon Elm.”
The land on which this house was built is nearby a beautiful stream, and Colonel Pycheon built the home in order to pass it on to future generations of Pycheons. The problem was, the man who owned the land, Matthew Maule, who is poor and seen by members of the town as a bit strange, refuses to sell it to Pycheon. So, Pycheon uses the Witch Trials as an opportunity… He accuses Poor Maule of being a witch – he’s murdered by the “judges” in Salem, and the land is turned over to Pycheon. Terrible. Maule’s last words: “God will give him blood to drink”. Of course, when Pycheon dies mysteriously in his home, and when he is discovered he has blood in his mouth. Where were the lawyers? Where was the documentation of who owned the land?
While reading this part of the book, I attended work meeting with several individuals around the county to discuss a large fundraising event I’m helping to plan. In those meetings, we talked with people who founded/work for nonprofits in the area that promote land protection for the greater good. For example, one organization uses old records from the City of Salem to determine who the official owners of land are. One individual shared stories with us about families who were given land in the 1700s in a town north of here called Essex. The land was to be used as wood lots – it was too swampy to live on and too rocky to farm on. Assignment of the properties was completed, mostly, verbally and very few actual measurements were used. Families knew their land “ended at the big, overgrown tree”, for example. As coal became a primary heating source in the 1800s, the woodlots became used less and less and the ownership became more and more murky. Now, in the 2000s, there are some parcels of land that should be taxed but sit empty, and it is unclear who owns them. So, this small nonprofit uses its resources to review old records in hopes of finding the families who own the parcels, and convince them to create a conservation restriction on the land – then the land can be used for trails and other public use.
As the woman from this small nonprofit explained this all to me, I couldn’t help but think of Pycheon and Maule. Their story could never existed but for the distribution of land with little or no record and the increase in use of coal for heating. As I sat in this meeting listening to this history of the region, I started thinking about how sometimes there are lessons in life that are so obvious and sometimes there are lessons in life that sneak up on us, and sometimes there are lessons that we learn without ever even really learning them. It never occurred to the settlers around Essex that the woodlots would become obsolete some day so they never felt the need to document more clearly who owned them. There was a sense of trust that we can not understand in our modern society. Was it better to leave the land ownership up to interpretation and to trust your neighbors? Maule would say “no”, that’s for sure. Would Pycheon be so lucky with his witch accusation if there was a document showing Maule owned the land? I think not.