Salem: Place, Myth and Memory

"Salem as Crime Scene," in Salem: Place, Myth and Memory, edited by Nancy Schultz and Dane Morrison, Salem State College. (Northeastern University Press, April 2004.)



My latest essay “Salem as Crime Scene” appears in the anthology Salem: Place, Myth and Memory, edited by Nancy Schultz and Dane Morrison of Salem State College. (Northeastern University Press, publisher.) The collection includes over a dozen different perspectives on what makes Salem unique, and the nature of its role in the American experience.

“Salem as Crime Scene” looks at this town from a mystery writer’s point of view. It covers a multitude of crimes throughout its history - some notorious, some obscure, some poignant, some bizarre. But at the heart of each there is a story that is uniquely Salem. The essay wrestles with the question: Why do so many writers exploit this setting for their stories? Is murder more sinister when committed here? Why do real crimes here seem to resonate with Salem’s dark past?

Excerpts from Salem as Crime Scene

[from the 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White:]

The house on the corner, a magnificent brick building at 128 Essex, was commissioned in 1804 by John Gardner. This house is considered to be one of Salem architect Samuel McIntyre’s finest Federalist style homes. From the Corinthian columns framing the front door to the “reclining figure of Plenty with her cornucopia and attendant cherub” carved on an upstairs mantel, the site is an architectural treasure. It also happens to be one of Salem’s most notorious crime scenes.

Atrocious Assassination

The painful duty devolves upon us of announcing, that in our peaceful town, which we had hitherto believed to be secure from the midnight assassin, and those crimes of the deepest die which have occasionally stained the annals of European nations, and of some parts of our own country, a MURDER has been perpetrated so horrible and atrocious, that we should in vain search the records of crime in any country for a case exceeding it in enormity.

-- Salem Gazette, 9 April, 1830

[from the 1941 murder of Frances Cochran:]

At one point in the investigation, Salem police rounded up a group of middle-aged men who called themselves the Triggers. Apparently this was a loose association of local gentlemen who hung around the woods off Swampscott Road to spy on couples having sex. Sometimes called the Creepers or Ghosters, they would often meet later to compare observations. Many of them had been going down there for years, lurking around the area as early as the 1920’s.

A 1941 police report entitled “Triggers, Ghosters and Creepers Night at the Salem Police Station” documented the interviews and included details of the activities in the woods during the period when Frances was missing. The Triggers knew the area intimately. One man was a draughtsman and drew police a detailed map of the paths, terrain, and “good observation posts.”

The men insisted they were doing nobody any harm by their peeping Tom activities. They explained they would “rather do that than hang around Lynn and go into a barroom and drink and cause people trouble.” The Triggers also happily provided the investigators with details of their past observations. “Saw one guy with a cow once. Trying to make connections.” The police took it all down. Although they had seen all sorts of things down off Swampscott Road, none of the Triggers had seen Frances Cochran, dead or alive.