The Ghosts Of the Old Town Hall

One of the most hisoric and haunted buildings in Salem

To stand before the Old Town Hall in Salem, Massachusetts, is as surreal as an experience can get. To stand before one of the most infamous building in one of the most infamous cities in the world, could make the most stoic of all of the Joe Cools, feel uneasy. That unsettling sensation one gets when standing out front, only increases in the evening hours when the shadows from tree branches cast over on the Old Town Hall, painting dark images of eeriness.

The historic Town Hall, while haunting at time, is still a beautiful work of architecture, that pumps life into the heart of downtown Salem. For its beauty, the Old Town Hall has been featured in countless films, most notably, Hocus Pocus. It is also, quite the popular attraction for weddings and receptions.

Today, the Old Town Hall is still used as a public hall, the building hosts many community related events ranging from a farmers market and fund raisers to private parties and weddings. The life, love and celebrations held at the Old Town Hall year round ensures it's legacy and continuance in making history.

The hall's first floor operates as a museum, that accurately presents Salem's grim history. A history blanketed by the witch hysteria, yes, but also, so much more. There is a small entrance fee, a mere four dollars a person. And, honestly, what else can you do this day for four dollars? A cheap pack of smokes, a couple of things off the dollar menu at Mickey Dees? Maybe you should skip the cancer sticks and nuggets of diabetes, and instead learn the stories of years gone by. You may even encounter a spirit or two.

On the second floor of the Town Hall, you can even catch a reenactment play of the outlandish witch trials. Their play entitled Cry Innocent, takes place in the year of 1692 and follows a young woman named Bridget Bishop, who's been accused of being a witch. In the reenactment trial, visitors can watch the actors as they give historical testimonies and cross-examinations from the era with persuasive authenticity.

The Old Town Hall, is a symbol of both sides of Salem, the obligation to remember its dark past so that it is never repeated, while pushing forward to create a new and more positive imprint on lives for years to come.

The History of the Old Town Hall

The earliest still standing municipal building operating in Salem is the, you guessed it, the Old Town Hall (dating back to 1816-17). Constructed in the popular Federal Style, the building is as crucial to Salem's way of life today as it was two hundred years ago. The structure's second floor, known as the Great Hall, has always functioned as a public hall. Though, the Great Hall only housed the majority of the Town's offices till the year of 1837. The first floor of the Old Town Hall was designed from the get-go to serve as a public market. However, today the first floor is used for creativity, for the arts.

The Old Town Hall, and the square in which it sits, Derby Square, have been able to hold onto their shared legacy with the prominent Derby family. Derby Square is not the only namesake of the family, all around Salem you can find tributes to the Derbys: Derby Wharf, Derby Street and a couple of waterfront Derby houses.

The establishment of Derby Square and the Town Hall, were made possible by Benjamin Pickman Jr. and John Derby III. The duo, were of Salem's high society, they were also business partners and brothers-in-law. Pickman and Derby were the ones who offered the land to make the Square and Town Hall possible.

However, there was one condition in their offering of the land, land were a majestic mansion once stood. That condition, was the city must construct a proper civic building on the property. A building open both for the public and commercial sides of the city. Their offer was accepted, and thus the development of Derby Square commenced.

The civic building, which would house a town hall and a market house was heavily influenced by a man by the name of Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch, an early American architect, and Massachusetts native perfected the Federal Style, of which the creation of the Town Hall was based on. Salem born Samuel McIntire's artisanal trademarks also inspired the designing of the hall.

The actual builder of the Town Hall was Joshua Upham, who constructed the building for twelve thousand dollars. The building's market officially opened to the public on the 26th of November in the year1816. And, on July 8th of 1817, the second floor of the building was christened by President James Monroe. The hall went on to host many events, most notable were the receptions it held for General Lafayette and President Andrew Jackson.

The Town Hall had only operated in the building for two decades, when it moved its location to a newly constructed Greek Revival on Washington Street. From then on out, the building on Derby Square, became known as the Market House, and operated as such. The building remained a popular draw for its butchers and restaurant. Just outside of the Market House there were additional stands featuring freshly caught fish.

The Old Town Hall Reborn

Over the next century, many vendors left the Market House for more modern locations, by the year of 1907 the sole tenant was the Salem Beef Company who occupied the entire lower level of the building. The outdoor stalls continued to operate with success, but began to lose more and more customers through the 1920s.

The Market House's outdated features had virtually rendered it obsolete, thus spurring talks of demolition. That is until white knight and preservationist, Philip Horton Smith stepped in to save the day. Smith was a prominent architect of the era, and built many churches, schools and other public structures in the Massachusetts area.

Smith's plan for the building's redesign was funded by one of the stimulus programs activated to counteract the Great Depression. The stalls and restaurant on the first floor were removed, and the space was converted into mostly offices for city use. The Market House name was also removed, replaced by the moniker, the Old Town Hall. While the indoor market no longer exists, a farmers market continues to operate out front.

In Recent Years

In the seceding years, The Old Town Hall, was home to the boring, like offices and storage, to the exciting such as fairs and stage productions. In 2008, Gordon College began managing the building, and established their award winning play on the second floor, along with their museum, depicting Salem's history on the first floor.

You can also still visit the farmers market at the Old Town Hall, every Thursday. So, while the building on Derby Square's history has gone up and down over the years, it's amazingly still vital two hundreds years after its inception.

The Ghosts of the Old Town Hall

The Old Town Hall is said to be one of the most haunted buildings in all of Salem, but aside from a couple of fires that occurred nothing tragic happened at the building, nothing known to the public at least.

The Tunnels Below

Could the hauntings have anything to do with the city's infamous smuggler's tunnels? Maybe. A little known secret about the Old Town Hall is that it at one time had an entrance to the tunnels. These tunnels ran three miles, and were passageways for sin. The tunnels under the downtown district of Salem allowed "gentlemen" to travel in secret to brothels, move slaves and conceal murders.

Sometime ago, the Town Hall's entrance to the tunnels was sealed up with cement. But, why? Well, it's without little question these tunnels are haunted. Perhaps, those in charge of the building was trying to keep the lost souls of smugglers, pirates and most unsavory of all, politicians from entering in. It appears those in charge acted too late, as it is believed that many of the ghosts of these men now haunt the Old Town Hall.

Those who run the Old Town Hall today, are adamant that the building is not haunted, but visitors and former staff from throughout the years say different. People who have provided photographic evidence proving the building is haunted, have even been dismissed by management, and promptly asked to leave.

But, management's denials of the hauntings at the Old Town Hall, does little in swaying the ghostly inhabitants from acting out. During events at the Town Hall, the lights have been known to suddenly turn off and on with rapid consistency.

The Poltergeist

Some believe the paranormal activity at the Old Town Hall is more dire than flickering lights, some believe the energy trapped inside the building's walls is a poltergeist. And, a nasty one at that. Reportedly, at night, loud noises emanate seemingly from nowhere, while objects suddenly get thrown about. The physical disturbances not only occur at night, objects in the museum have been seen moving around at their own will during business hours.

Others, have also seen ghostly images appear in the windows of the building during the evening. Pictures of these shadowy figures have been captured time and time again by both long time residents of Salem and visitors on walking tours. The multitude of ghost sightings at the Old Town Hall are hard to ignore. Yet, the mystery of just who these spirits were, is a different story altogether. It is a question that may never be answered.

While paranormal experiences are in no short supply, both in and around the building, no harm has come of the ghostly actions as of yet.

Ghostly Encounter

There is no doubt of the haunted activity at the Old Town Hall, with reports of paranormal ongoings taking place since the building's construction. One of these occurrences was witnessed by Barbara Gambichler and her daughter in the year of 2007: "My daughter ( age 22 years old), felt the presence of something when we went to see the reenactment of Bridget Bishop (who died during the Witch Trials), in The Old Town Hall."

Barbara then went on to talk about the four ghosts who haunt the Old Town Hall, in particular, the ghosts who roam around on Front Street, which is located behind the hall: "I've been to Salem three times, and on some nights these four ghosts are active. One is a woman who is not friendly, wearing a brown dress, probably from the late 1700's or 1800's. My 22 year old daughter had a physical encounter with the woman in the brown dress, in the afternoon, forgetting I warned her about Front street."

The mysteriousness of these four ghosts who lurk just outside of the Old Town Hall, continue to be of interest to Barbara: "My girlfriend and I have seen and felt the presence, but no physical contact. On every tour we took, I asked the same question to each tour guide, no one has the history of these four ghosts."

Visiting the Old Town Hall

Old Town Hall, has been located at 32 Derby Square for two centuries, built on land donated by the Derby family. It has been a focal point, a touchstone for the people of Salem since its establishment.

For years people would gather at the Town Hall's Market House, as it was a place not just where to get produce, fish and meat, but a place where townsfolk could catch up with friends and family. Today, when people rush through superstores just as fast as they possibly can, it's nice to know that the Old Town Hall offers an alternative with their community oriented farmers market, even if only on Thursdays.

But, remember when you are visiting the Old Town Hall, whether you're there for the farmers market, the museum or a performance of Cry Innocent, you should keep a watchful eye as you very well may encounter a bit of paranormal history.

A fun footnote fact, this is the location used in Hocus Pocus for the party Max and Dani's parent went to, you know the party scene where the Sanderson Sisters put a spell on the parents of Salem, to dance, dance until they die.

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