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Then & Now: 53 Charter St. — Pretty Grim

This historic home (which is in need of a little work) has a storied history.

You've probably walked by this house dozens of times.

Perhaps you spotted this house with overgrown foliage while you were visiting the . Maybe you've spotted it as you've driven down Charter Street from Hawthorne Boulevard to get onto Washington Street while avoiding the Derby Street lights and you've wondered — what is the story behind the little, and somewhat spooky-looking house at 53 Charter St.?

The photo from a glass negative taken between 1900 and 1910 shows the notable historic house built between 1770 and 1820.

It is one of the houses in Salem noteworthy from both a historical, architectural perspective as well as a historical, literary perspective.

As architecture, it represents another good example of the Federal period with its distinctive lines. From the literary perspective, the house, known as both the Peabody House and the Grimshawe House, is noteworthy as the home of the Peabody Family. It sits adjacent to the Burying Point, Salem’s oldest cemetery, dating back to 1637.

It was here that Dr. Nathaniel Peabody had his dental practice and lived with his wife and five children. The Peabody family had previously lived in Salem when the children were young and were neighbors of the Hawthorne family on Union Street.

When they moved here in 1835, their oldest child, Elizabeth was already well known in Boston education and literary circles from her teaching at the Temple School in Boston and her friendship with William Ellery Channing, the noted Boston clergyman and essayist.

Elizabeth had already published her first book in 1835 about the innovative Temple School she started with Bronson Alcott and was very active in the Boston literary scene with such friends as Emerson and Thoreau. Her younger sister Mary had also taught with Elizabeth while the youngest daughter Sophia was studying art.

Ever mindful of literary talent, she invited Nathaniel Hawthorne and his sisters to visit at this house. It was during this visit in 1837 that Nathaniel Hawthorne met Sophia, whom he would later wed. Elizabeth was also the reason her other sister Mary met her future husband, Horace Mann, the great educator and Congressman.

While Elizabeth never married, she went on to become the first woman publisher in America, owner of the bookstore and foreign library at 13 West St. in Boston, which was home to the Transcendentalist movement. She also wrote for and published the Dial magazine as well some of the writings of Thoreau and Hawthorne.

Fascinated by the innovative teaching of the German educator Froebel, Elizabeth with her sister, Mary, opened the first kindergarten in America. Elizabeth wrote and gave lectures on kindergarten education and saw them spread across the country thanks to her efforts.

While she is best known for her advocacy of public education and kindergarten education, Elizabeth was truly a Renaissance person who was involved in a variety of pursuits throughout her life. She consistently championed social action movements, including those dedicated to anti-slavery, Native American rights and women’s suffrage. Wherever she felt there was injustice, she spoke out.

Her sisters also left lasting legacies in literature and the arts. The three sisters were truly remarkable women. While the Peabody family only lived in this house for some five years before moving to Boston, this was a memorable time.

Years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne would immortalize the house in his posthumously published novel, Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret. When describing the grim Dr. Grimshawe’s home that was overlaid in dust and cobwebs, Hawthorne went on to describe the house in these partial quotes:

“The old grave yard about the house which cornered upon it; it made the street gloomy, so that people did not altogether like to pass along the high wooden fence that shut it in; and the old house itself, covering ground which else had been sown thickly with buried bodies, partook of its dreariness…”

“The house itself, moreover, except for the convenience of its position, close to the seldom disturbed cemetery, was hardly worthy to be haunted. As I remember it (and, for aught I know, it still exists in the same guise) it did not appear to be an ancient structure, nor one that could ever have been the abode of a very wealthy or prominent family – a three-story wooden house perhaps a century old, low studded, with a square front, standing right upon the street, and a small enclosed porch, containing the main entrance affording a glimpse up and down the street through an oval window on each side, its characteristic was a decent respectability, not sinking below the boundary of the genteel.”

When we look at the modern picture of this house, we see that rather than a fitting tribute to the Peabody sisters with a library or social service agency, such as the Elizabeth Peabody House in Somerville, the house more closely mirrors the grim imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel, Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret.

I would hazard the thought that Hawthorne would prefer the house be remembered as the Peabody House and be a fitting tribute to the Peabody sisters of Salem and only incidentally be recalled as a setting for his novel. It’s grim reality of being in need of restoration and re-purposing calls out to some Peabody-like activists to step forward and rescue the building.

Be sure to the check our photos to see the house as it was.

Judy Maker July 07, 2012 at 07:26 PM
I am new to this site and was lead here by a mutual interest in 54 Charter Street...I have both "The Peabody Sisters of Salem" by Louise Tharp and "The Peabody Sisters" by Megan Marshall which I am currently reading...I love how one (person or historical place) leads to another and I find it all very fascinating...I have enjoyed all of your comments and will continue to check out this site...
Judy Maker July 07, 2012 at 07:27 PM
see above
David Phynque October 03, 2012 at 03:04 AM
I'm not sure if there are any of you who are still paying attention to this post, but I thought I'd share with you all the information I have about this home. I've been in contact with the current owner, Mr. and Mrs. Peabody's daughter, because I will most likely be staying there while trying to do as much for the building as I can. Mr. and Mrs. Peabody have since passed away and the house is unfortunately unoccupied becuase the daughter has a home in another town. She has been in contact with professionals in the field of historic restoration, and she would very much like to restore the building accurately for the time period in which it was built and to it's original design. She does not want to modernize it, she would like it to resemble it's initial construction, but all of these processes are very costly and, unfortunately, there are not a lot of funds currently to do all of the major restorations that need to be done. Do not worry though, the house is not forgotten or abandoned or purposely being left to decay, they have every intention of bringing it back to its previous glory! I hope this helps some of you.
Jerome Curley October 03, 2012 at 03:38 AM
Dear David, Thanks for the update. Hopefully there are some Historic Preservation grants available for such a worthwhile project. I'm sure the specialists can help with identifying monies. It certainly would be a boon to Salem's history. Good luck with your work there.
Rob Caverly-Paxton April 29, 2013 at 10:48 PM
I too hope people are still referencing this fine article and its many comments. It's odd that both this house and the print shop structure in Boston have survived from Elizabeth Peabody's time. It would be wonderful if someone could begin doing grant work that might lead to an historic society's or women's group becoming interested in helping the current owner with her restoration plans. Establishing the house as a memorial to Elizabeth Peabody would be terrific. As for the West Street property in Boston, a simple marker and designation as an historic building would help its preservation, before renovations in the booming Downtown district overtake it. I will continue to follow this great article in the hope that some more interest in these properties is be discovered. Sincerely, Rob Caverly-Paxton Wakefield, MA An Admirer of Salem

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