Salem Jail and the Second Witchcraft Hysteria

Salem JailIn 1811 the Old Witch Gaol was set to be closed as they started construction on the new jail up the road on St. Peter Street. 1811 was the Second Witchcraft Hysteria. I assume they were expecting a bigger turn out this time.

A woman had come from Boston and stayed with a friend on Northey Street, up from Joseph Story’s new mansion on Winter Street. She claimed she was being harassed remotely by a woman in Boston and she was having fits. A thousand people gathered in front of the house that day.

Rev. Bentley explains, “3/03/1811 The fanaticism of this town has had a new aggravation. A Girl named Bancroft came from Boston to a house in Northey street, Wind mill point, & had terrible convulsion fits, was tormented, had outcries, & complained of a woman in Boston who bewitched her, was troubled only in the night & prophesied the death of the woman, besides endless circumstances which report had aggravated into all the extraordinary things of 1692. The public mind long disturbed by fanaticism took the alarm like tinder. The house was crowded day & night by priests & people. A thousand were assembled this evening & the subject was debated among the multitude just as it would have been in 1692 & as extravagant fears betrayed. A firm policy is our salvation. Mr. Lambert shews us the extacies of the Negroe in Charleston & the boundless eccentricities of the Camp Meeting. Not a traveler passes the country but he has his remarks to make upon the fanaticism, folly & prevalence of little sects in our County. Mr. Kendal says he went from the Stafford Springs to Wilmington, & after giving an exact picture of the house & assembly he gives a sermon or sketch in the true style of the better sort of Anabaptists when not in camp & extacy. It might be judged an illnatured ridicule did not the preaching on the Common, the exhortations of women & children, the singing in the street, the tales of changes, & the irregularities of their Assemblies, furnish, even in Salem, all the means to verify these accounts & to confirm this dismal description of our fanaticism. The overseer of the poor ordered her to the work house or leave town. She moved on to Maine. One thought they seen an invisible specter torment her. She was from the poor neighborhoods of Boston.”

In 1811 as General Derby is selling off his mansion and leaving town, John Gardner is facing bankruptcy, The First Bank of the United States is loosing its charter, the Whites and Story are moving into grand mansions along with Thomas H. Perkins as they start laying the foundation for the new prison. One that will never be the residence for our Salem locals who got away with murder, protected the bank that sold America away, or helped over 80% of the youth in China to become dependent on opium. My friend was friends with one of the Sheriff’s in town and he came about a good stack of intake document from the nineteenth century. Many of the people who resided in the prison then were arrested for being drunkards. The real criminals went on instead and shaped our nations history.

The Salem Jail had many illustrious/infamous convicts. Bobby Hebb who had the hit Sunny in 1966 that led to a successful tour with the Beatles spent a few years inside after shooting his wife which survived. She was one of Laurie Cabot’s first student witches. They might of met in the West India Good Shop when it was owned by my friend Charles Wellington who gave me those intake documents. He would get customers looking for readings in his shop and he would call Laurie Cabot to come by. Bobby Hebb and him would drink together in the building upstairs where he lived.
Albert Desalvo resided in the prison for a short period. Although he never was convicted of the murder and rape of 11 women, most know him as the Boston Strangler. Later he would be killed in Walpole. My friend worked on a commission for Dukakis in the 80’s doing outreach in the prison mentioned that at that time area police had assassin squads to kill those people they could never gather enough evidence to convict. One of these squads he had said killed the real strangler.
Also tales of people in Witness Protection, people caught by the FBI, and any other high profile convicts would be kept on the top floor in secret. At one time the floor below would house the women prisoners. They were forced to move to another women’s prison after they bared their breast once too often at the men below during Sunday services. On this floor was also the eye loop for the hangman’s rope and the trapdoor which would drop the condemned into the dining area below. In the basement behind the boiler was the tunnel leaving the building with shackles on the walls. My friend who was a bit of a scamp as child could go through the tunnel from his house to the prison, but was stopped by an iron door from keeping from entering the property from below.
There were stories that Bobby Hebb and others could escape for the weekend and come back on Monday. Sherif Cahill called the jail porous when he became warden. Two tried escaping through some lose slates on the roof, but when they realized how steep the roof was…they called for help.
The conditions were so rough inside the warden tended to cut most prisoners stays in half. There was no plumbing in the cell and prisoners got to empty their bucket once a week. Sometimes they emptied them on their jailers. My friend also explained that the only difference at times between the inmates and the guards was one escaped long enough through military duty to not become a criminal when their friend from the neighbourhood did not. The jail would be open without plumbing in the cells to 1991 for regular population and then be used as holding cells for the county court till 1993. It was closed after 850 prisoners sued the state and won a shared settlement for $1,395,000.
In 1811 Joseph Story would rise to the bench of Superior Court and will be in complicity of the murder of Joseph White when in belief and proof his brother-in-law committed the murder. Also he would be in complicity to the assassination of one president if not three. He would side with The Second Bank of the United States against all comers as they sold control of our treasury to England. He remained all of his life behind the bench, but if you had a little drink too much you landed inside the Salem Jail.


For more tales like this about how Salem MA has shaped American History read Sub Rosa by Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin available at Barnes & Nobel,, and your favorite local independent book seller.
Ask for it by name!