The “Folly” in Folly Hill

Browne Hall
(Image of Browne Hall reprinted in Harriet S. Tapley, Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923 (Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923).

In 1740 a large mansion was built atop Leach’s Hill, a home whose construction was deemed a folly and altered the name of the hill itself. Today featuring the large water tanks towering above Route 128, the hill lost its former glory due to one of the worst natural disasters in New England history.

In those days, from the summit of the hill one could see Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, the Blue Hills in Milton, and the hills of Chelmsford. Today the Boston skyline remains visible on the southern horizon, as is the ocean to the east, and the old Danvers State Hospital perched atop Hathorne Hill to the west. Folly Hill is visible from all across the north shore, and attracted local explorers and wanderers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who as a young man in the early 1800s explored the hilltop and ruins of “Browne’s Folly.”

Folly Hill looking south
(Looking south from Folly Hill, September 2019. Danversport Yacht Club and Sandy Beach in the foreground, and the Boston skyline in the background. Author’s photo.)

William Browne, a wealthy Salem merchant, representative in the Massachusetts legislature, and member of the Governor’s Council, purchased the hill for the location of a fine country estate. In 1740 he built “Browne Hall,” an 80-foot long mansion that consisted of two wings connected by a central entrance hall. The house was extravagantly furnished and built in a neoclassical style, with columns around the main doors and the floors painted to look like a mosaic.

One visitor noted that the entrance hall had an oval gallery with a fine railing above the ballroom, and a large dome for the roof. The mansion had four main entrances – one facing north, east, south, and west – and if all of the doors were propped open, one could stand in the center under the dome and see outside from all four directions. An opulent palace for a wealthy man, this house on the summit of the hill was visible for miles – but its precarious location atop the hill was its downfall.

At 4:30am on November 18, 1755, people across Massachusetts and the Atlantic coast suddenly awoke. The ground rumbled for four and a half minutes, walls shook, and chimneys crumbled as a powerful earthquake struck the area. The quake’s epicenter was off Cape Ann, but its effects were felt as far away as Nova Scotia and South Carolina. Clocks stopped in Boston and more than 1,500 chimneys crumbled, while in New Haven the ground rose and fell like waves on the ocean. Out on the actual sea, sailors 200 miles from the coast felt the rumbling and feared that their ship had run aground. The earthquake was the strongest ever felt in Massachusetts – likely between a 6.0 and 6.3 if measured on the modern Richter scale – and may have caused a tsunami as far away as the Caribbean.

Once the tremors ceased, the inside of Browne Hall was littered with broken glass and it was feared that part of the structure was compromised. Browne no longer considered the home safe to live in due to the damage, which was exacerbated by the house’s location on the peak of the hill. Abandoning this prominent yet precarious location, Browne moved part of the mansion to the corner of Liberty and Conant Streets in Danvers. William Browne passed away eight years after the earthquake and was buried in Salem’s Charter St. Cemetery, leaving the remnants of his once-glorious estate in Danvers to the next generation.

The remaining part of the house, now at its much lower location, was inherited by Browne’s nephew and heir. But, his nephew was a Loyalist during the Revolution and so all of his property was confiscated, including the remnants of Browne Hall. Browne’s nephew returned to England during the Revolution and later became the Royal Governor of Bermuda. The part of the house at the end of Liberty Street was left abandoned, with all of the home’s furnishings still within.

This unkempt building became known as a haunted house, and local children dared one another to enter. Nathaniel Hawthorne recounts the story of several boys hesitantly exploring the deserted mansion, believed to be the home of some evil spirit. On one adventure, they opened a door only to have specters of the home’s former owners lurch out of the closet at them as they turned tail and fled. These images were later discovered to be merely Browne family portraits tumbling off a shelf, rather than ghosts of the home’s former inhabitants.

Browne Hall Portraits
(Two of the Browne family portraits that were kept in Brown Hall. Reprinted in Ezra D. Hines, “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36).

The remnants of Browne Hall were later sold off in sections. The central hall became part of the Danvers Hotel, which was located where the savings bank building is now at one corner of Danvers Square.  It was later relocated yet again across the Square, but it burned in a large fire that destroyed the whole area in 1845.

After the house was removed, the hill – by now renamed “Folly Hill” due to Browne’s folly of building such a large house at the pinnacle of the hill – remained empty during the following decades. Hawthorne enjoyed taking walks to the open land around Salem, and frequently took a route that led him across the Salem-Beverly Bridge, down Bridge Street and Elliott Street past the hill, and then down Liberty Street back to Salem. He wrote about the green cart path that led to the top of Folly Hill, the overgrown cellar hole of the house, and the marvelous view of the surrounding towns from the summit.

Hawthorne, in a letter to his cousin, described the remains of Browne Hall as a connection to a prior glorious age before the Revolution and the uncertainty that followed. He wrote, “The ancient site of this proud mansion may still be traced upon the summit of the Hill… there I have sometimes sat and tried to rebuild, in my imagination, the stately house, or to fancy what splendid show it must have been even so far off as in the streets of Salem, when the old proprietor illuminated his many windows to celebrate the King’s birthday.”

Hawthorne Letter 1 - EIHC 32 - 0246

Hawthorne letter 2 - EIHC 32 - 0247
(Image of part of Hawthorne’s letter describing Folly Hill, reprinted in Ezra D. Hines, “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36).

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Sources

Ebel, John E. “Massachusetts Historical Society: The Cape Ann Earthquake of November 1755.” Massachusetts Historial Society, November 2005. http://www.masshist.org/object-of-the-month/objects/the-cape-ann-earthquake-of-november-1755-2005-11-01.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Browne’s Folly.” In The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 12:131–35. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1878. https://books.google.com/books?id=Dx5EAAAAYAAJ&dq=hawthorne+Browne%27s+folly&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

Hines, Ezra D. “Brown Hill and Some History Connected With It.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 32 (1896): 201–36.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

‘Witches’ and Revolutionaries at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead

(In the Danvers Herald May 21, 2019)

Rebecca Nurse House - Dan Gagnon
(The Rebecca Nurse House, Author’s Photo)

Tucked away behind the trees along Pine Street is the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, which was involved in many currents of American history and contains two of the oldest buildings in Danvers. Isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods, this island of colonial life is visited by several thousand visitors each year from all corners of the world.

Although most closely associated with the 1692 witch trials during which Rebecca Nurse was falsely accused of witchcraft and hanged, the 300-acre farm was first settled in 1636. Townsend Bishop, a respected magistrate and wealthy merchant, received the first grant to the farm but did not live there long. In 1645 he was accused of not bringing his child forth to be baptized into the Puritan church.

Bishop was accused of being a Baptist, a new sect that believed that only consenting adults should be baptized, not infants. This new religious group was much-loathed by the Puritans – the only religious group allowed to practice in Massachusetts at that time – and Bishop was run out of town for his heretical beliefs. Today some of Bishop’s fine household goods are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Subsequent residents of the Homestead were the Endicott Family, whose ancestral mansion abutted the farm and stood where the CVS on Endicott Street is today. These farmers were the family of Massachusetts’ first resident governor, John Endicott, whose house on Endicott Street served as the governor’s office until a law was passed that required the governor to live in Boston. The Endicott House was set to be torn down in the 1980s, and was moved to the Nurse Homestead to save it from demolition.

In 1678, Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis purchased the farm and moved onto the property with several of their grown children. Their children married soon afterwards, and the Nurse family hosted a double wedding in October, 1678 when two of their daughters married local men on the same day. In the following years, the Nurses deeded parcels of the farm to their children, dividing it between four households. The house of their daughter and son-in-law, Rebecca and Thomas Preston, still stands on Ash Street.

Nurse Homestead farm map
(The outline of the original 300-acre Nurse Farm overlaid on a contemporary map. The Nurse House is the red marker, the Nurse cemetery is the yellow, and the current or former sites of her children’s homes are the blue. For full map of the Sites in the Life of Rebecca Nurse, see: https://spectersofsalemvillage.com/map-life-of-rebecca-nurse/)

Fourteen years after moving to Salem Village (the area that is now Danvers), Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft. Her chief accusers were Mrs. Ann Putnam and her daughter Ann Putnam Jr. who lived just south of Hathorne Hill. Nurse allegedly sent her “specter” – a ghostly form of herself – to attack Ann Jr. and several other people in the Village.

While living at the Homestead, Francis Nurse organized a legal defense of his accused wife and collected signatures from neighbors attesting to Rebecca’s innocence. This evidence was presented to the court at her trial in June, 1692, and it persuaded the jury to find her not guilty – the only person to receive such a verdict during the witch-hunt.

But, immediately after the foreman announced this verdict, the accusers in the courtroom began yelling, rolling around, and screaming that Nurse was once again hurting them with witchcraft. This outcry, along with pressure from the judges, persuaded the jury to redeliberate. They left the courtroom again, and then returned to ask her more questions. Because she was elderly, ill, and hard of hearing Nurse either did not answer their questions, or did not answer them sufficiently which led the jury to find her guilty.

Her family petitioned the governor for a reprieve to delay her execution until they could appeal the case, which he granted. However, someone identified only as a “Salem gentleman” lobbied the governor to revoke his reprieve, and Nurse was hanged on July 19, 1692. It is believed that she was reburied in the family cemetery on the farm after her execution. In 1885, her descendants built a memorial to her in the cemetery – the first memorial to an accused witch anywhere in the United States.

325 Nurse Monument Wreath
(The Rebecca Nurse Monument at the conclusion of the commemoration of the 325th anniversary of her execution, July 19, 2017. The Danvers Alarm List Company lobbied Gov. Baker to declare that day “Rebecca Nurse Day” in Massachusetts, and hosted a memorial event featuring a lecture and a service at the monument to mark the occasion).

Nurse’s descendants lived on the farm for another century, and her great-grandson, also named Francis, lived on the farm during the mid-1700s. He was a sergeant in the militia, and served on the first board of selectmen of Danvers when it became an independent town. He was living at the Homestead on April 19, 1775, when around 9am he heard the bells of the First Church ringing frantically. He grabbed his gun, and ran for the training field on Centre Street. The British had left Boston, and were advancing on Lexington and Concord.

The Danvers Militia frantically traversed 16 miles of dirt roads and paths to cut off the British retreat to Boston. The Danvers men intercepted the British troops at Menotomy (present-day Arlington, Mass.) in a brutal fight involving hand-to-hand combat at the Jason Russell House. Nurse survived, but seven Danvers men did not. Sergeant Francis Nurse lived five more years, before he was laid to rest in the family cemetery.

The Homestead continued to be a private farm up until 1907 when it was put up for sale, and it was feared that the farm would be entirely divided up and the house demolished. Danvers resident Sarah E. Hunt raised money to purchase and preserve the property as a non-profit museum. It was owned by this local group for two decades, until it was sold to a larger museum organization. This organization put the property up for sale in 1981, and it was again feared that the property would be lost. The Danvers Alarm List Company, the group of Danvers Revolutionary War reenactors, purchased the property so that it could remain a non-profit museum.

Nurse House Map Clemens
(Plan of the Nurse Homestead by William J. Clemens, courtesy of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Museum. NOTE: Hours listed in the drawing are not current museum hours)

Today the Nurse Homestead shares the history of Danvers with thousands of local, out-of-town, and international visitors each year. It is the only home of a victim of the 1692 Witch-Hunt preserved and open to the public.

 


Sources:

Danvers, Town of. Report of the Committee Appointed to Revise the Soldiers’ Record. Danvers, Mass.: Town of Danvers, 1895.

Danvers Alarm List Company. “Timeline | The Rebecca Nurse Homestead.” Accessed May 24, 2019. http://www.rebeccanurse.org/timeline/.

Gagnon, Daniel A. “Sites in the Life of Rebecca Nurse.” 2018. https://spectersofsalemvillage.com/map-life-of-rebecca-nurse/.

Hoover, Lois Payne. Towne Family: William Towne and Joanna Blessing, Salem, Massachusetts, 1635. Baltimore, MD: Otter Bay Books, 2010.

Perley, Sidney. “Endecott Land, Salem Village, in 1700.” In Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, 4:99–120. Danvers, Mass.: Danvers Historical Society, 1916.

Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Salem, Town of. Town Records of Salem, Massachusetts. 3 vols. Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1868. https://ia801600.us.archive.org/30/items/townrecordsofsal00sale/townrecordsofsal00sale.pdf.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1854. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/inu.30000041586334.

Suffolk County (Mass.). Suffolk Deeds. 14 vols. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1880.

Tapley, Harriet S. Chronicles of Danvers (Old Salem Village), Massachusetts, 1632-1923. Danvers, Mass.: The Danvers Historical Society, 1923.

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. Mineola, New York: Dover, 2000.

Zollo, Richard P. From Muskets to Missiles: Danvers in Five Wars. Danvers, Mass.: R.P. Zollo, 2001.

 

Online Historical Resources for Danvers and Salem Village History

Just added to the menu above is a page entitled “Online Historical Resources” (https://spectersofsalemvillage.com/online-historical-resources/).  This page features primary and secondary sources relating to Danvers, Salem Village, and 1692 history. These sources are all available online through the links under each bibliographical entry.

More sources, especially from the 19th and 20th century, will be continually added. Additionally, suggestions are always welcome!