who is haunting this historic building?
318 Essex Street. White. Stark. Colonial. A symmetrical, two-storied house with pedimented gables. Look familiar? You may recognize the Ropes Mansion from Disney’s cult classic Hocus Pocus! Yet this eighteenth-century home is more than a “movie mansion.” In fact, the Ropes Mansion is much spookier off-screen. It’s been mobbed, modernized, and reutilized. (Yes – mobbed.) One inhabitant succumbed to smallpox; a later inhabitant caught fire.
Ominous, right? That’s just the beginning.
Today the Ropes Mansion is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, but we suspect that there are still a few phantoms calling the Ropes Mansion home… Who are they, though?
Better yet, what do they want?
The Ropes Mansion was built by Samuel Bernard in the later 1720s. Unfortunately, we know little about Samuel Bernard: Bernard was a merchant who moved to Salem from Deerfield, Massachusetts. He led a prosperous life in Salem Village, marrying and remarrying on four separate occasions.
The marriages of the Ropes Mansion are even more mysterious than the merchant.
Bernard’s first wife, Mary, died while the couple lived in Deerfield. Rachel, Bernard’s second wife, died in Salem Village in 1743. Bernard remarried to Elizabeth Williams, who died in 1753. Bernard’s fourth wife, Catharine, also lived with Bernard in the Ropes Mansion until Bernard’s death in 1762. (They say that the fourth time’s the charm, right?)
It can be assumed that Rachel and Elizabeth perished on the property, though there are no accounts of their paranormal activity. Shy, perhaps?
In 1768, Judge Nathaniel Ropes purchased the house from the nephew of Samuel Bernard. Ropes was a wealthy though unpopular attorney and Harvard graduate, who, despite his disrepute, held an impressive career. Ropes represented Salem in the colonial legislature and later served on the Governor’s Council. Ropes was even a judge for the Inferior Court of Common Pleas; by 1772, Ropes was appointed to the Superior Court of Judicature. An impressive appointment, as the Superior Court of Judicature was the highest court of the colony.
Yet Ropes was a Loyalist, which had become more disfavorable to Salem Village after tax controversies. Judges had been paid by the elected representatives of the General Court, making them partial to colonial interests. The British therefore proposed that the Crown provide their salaries directly. Colonists, infuriated that the Crown would further impose themselves upon colonial life, demanded that Judges reject their royal salaries.
Indeed, the colonists declared that any one of them who shall accept of, and depend upon the Pleasure of the Crown for his Support, independent of the Grants and Acts of the General Assembly, will discover to the World that he has not a due Sense of the Importance of an Impartial Administration of Justice, that he is an enemy to the Constitution, and has it in his Heart to promote the Establishment of an arbitrary Government in the Province.
Ropes agreed to deny the salary, yet still held Loyalist views. The colonists were infuriated… They attacked the Ropes Mansion in March 1774.
The Ropes Mansion was mobbed as colonists threw mud, stone, and sticks at the windows. The Colonists demanded that Ropes renounce his allegiance to the British Crown. Ropes never had the chance, however – he died the day after. He was 47 years-of-age.
Ropes had smallpox at the time of the attack. He succumbed to the disease the following day. Although it’s uncertain if the mob caused his death, the Ropes family felt that the disturbances of the attack hastened his infection.
Nathaniel Ropes wasn’t the only one with smallpox, however. At the time of his death, Salem Village was overcome with the epidemic. Yet public resources were either scarce or overpriced, inciting a Marblehead crowd to set fire to a smallpox hospital. Their anger was an understandable though misplaced reaction to a public health crisis. Historian Andrew M. Wehrman detailed the account in the Boston Globe, writing that, on the surface, such an attack might seem inhuman, or at best ignorant. But the act was the calculated result of long-simmering anger over the cost and politics of smallpox inoculations in one of the largest and most prosperous towns in the Colonies.
Tensions were high; smallpox diagnosis higher. Yet the majority of Salemites couldn’t afford the inoculation. Those who could afford the vaccine were suspected of infecting Salem Village. Salem voted to cease inoculation at their hospitals, with the Felt’s Annals stating that there was “great excitement here against inoculation for smallpox.”
The accessibility of the smallpox vaccine may have even contributed to the attack on Nathaniel Ropes: if Ropes had been inoculated, as he could afford, he may have spread the infection to those less fortunate. That’s what the mob may have thought, at least.
Over sixty years later, more tragedy came to Ropes Mansion. And in 1839, Abigail Ropes met her tragic ending. Legend has it that Nathaniel’s wife, Abigail, burnt to death in her dress while in the Ropes Mansion. Yet the legend of Abigail Ropes is inaccurate: Abigail did catch fire in the house, yet Abigail was Nathaniel’s daughter – not Nathaniel’s wife. Abigail’s dress had ignited from the mansion’s fireplace; her petticoats went up in flames.
Portraits in Public Buildings in Salem memorialized her death, establishing that “[Abigail] died unmarried from burns received when carrying coals from one room to another.” Abigail’s official obituary was more telling: Abigail, reported the Salem Gazette, succumbed to “a distressing illness of three weeks caused by her clothes accidentally taking fire.”
Although it’s uncertain if Abigail died then or thereafter, “Nabby” allegedly haunts the Ropes Mansion. Reports of her apparition proliferate the history of the house, though we’ll let you see for yourself.
Tragedy struck the Ropes Mansion in August 2009: the Ropes Mansion caught fire. The plaster ceilings were destroyed, as were the carpets and wallpaper. Yet the employees of the Ropes Mansion swiftly responded, saving the majority of the home’s artifacts! Cause? Some suspected a heat gun that had been used in an exterior renovation. Others suspect the ghost of Abigail Ropes...
Yet this hadn’t been the first time that the Ropes Mansion was ablaze. The 1891 History of the Putnam Family in England and America recounted how the home had been set alight:
Recently it has been moved back [from the street] and is now the residence of the Misses Ropes who have kept the old house externally nearly as it was but the interior unfortunately was recently damaged by fire.
Is the Ropes Mansion predisposed to fire – or phantoms?
Superstition says that the Ropes Mansion is unquestionably haunted. Visitors to the Ropes Mansion claim that they can hear the sounds of Abigail’s agonized screams... Some say that they can even see her ghost. Others say that Nathaniel Ropes haunts the house alongside her.
Do Rachael and Elizabeth Bernard revisit the home, as well? Do their spirits linger about this eighteenth-century establishment?
Rick and Georgette Stafford, former caretakers of the mansion, claim to have caught Nathaniel Ropes on film. The image was taken during an insurance appraisal, and reveals two hands of a man seated on a couch. It’s a ghastly snap of an otherwise unseen specter.
Robert Cahill published the photo in Ghostly Haunts, writing that, “Here the judge sits for a spell on the front hall couch. After all, if you were wandering around this mansion for over 200 years, you’d want to sit for awhile, wouldn’t you?”
It isn’t unusual for spirits to lash out during renovations. In fact, it’s almost expected.
It’s then no surprise that Abigail may have disagreed with remodelings of the Ropes Mansion. The 2009 fire has even been attributed to Abigail. An appropriate “bite back” from a woman set aflame?
There are accounts that the mansion’s garden is likewise haunted. Visitors claim to feel the icy touch of an unseen spirit – or hear the whispers of a disembodied voice. Is this Abigail Ropes, or perhaps the garden’s longtime keeper, Andy Bye? Bye was employed at the Ropes Mansion in 1931, and oversaw the garden until 1994. His employment ended only upon his death. Perhaps Bye can account for the mysterious tapping felt by garden-goers?
You might recognize the home’s grandeur from Disney’s Hocus Pocus. The opulence of the eighteenth century home was an impressive backdrop for the film’s Halloween party.
We can see why this stunning though spooky property was picked!
Although the Ropes Mansion has been renovated and even relocated, the exterior of the two-story home matches its 1894 reconstruction: the Georgian property was then remodeled in the “Colonial Revival” style, with the most significant renovations occurring to the property’s interior. Colonial aspects were introduced alongside modernized appliances. (Fun Fact: The “Colonial Revival” may have been a reaction to the centennial of the Revolution.) The doorway was likewise replaced with a three-dimensional design by Asher Benjamin.
In 1907, the Ropes Mansion was gifted to the Trustees of the Ropes Memorial for public benefit, who added a large garden to the property in 1912. Although the Ropes Mansion is closed during winter months, the garden is open year-round.
The Ropes Mansion is a must-see for Halloween aficionados! If you’re into cult classics, this is one tour stop that you’re not gonna wanna miss.
Those sensitive to the supernatural should also “stop by for a spell.” Perhaps you’ll meet Nathaniel and Abigail Ropes? Maybe Samuel Bernard’s mysterious spouses…?
Do let us know if you witness any paranormal activity!
You can find the Ropes Mansion at 318 Essex Street! Located in the McIntyre Historic District, the Ropes Mansion is operated by the Peabody Essex Museum. Self-guided tours are offered free of charge on Saturdays and Sundays.