Sailors in Salem

Posted on January 6, 2021

photo shows an old fashioned ship through a window covered with raindrops

 

Salem, Massachusetts: Not Just Witches

 

When you think of Salem, what comes to mind? Witch trials, haunted graveyards, a great place to visit for Halloween? What about sailors and pirates? How about illegal brothels, shanghaied young men turned sailors, and underground tunnels? If you aren’t familiar with any of these in regards to Salem, Massachusetts, don’t fret; this article will cover sailors in Salem and much more!

 

After the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials, illegal activity in Salem began to thrive. The town moved from its Puritan roots and began to cater to the many vices of the seamen and merchants that started to arrive on its shores. Sailors in Salem truly had a town made perfect for them. Now known as the Derby Street Historic District, the area became a mecca for prostitution, alcohol, and gambling. Across the way from The House of Seven Gables, a tavern known as ‘In A Pig’s Eye,’ now known as Mercy Tavern, attended to all needs of sailors and captains of the passing ships, stopping into the flourishing seaport for a night’s rest or a quick drink. Brothels quickly became the business of the time, and tunnels were even built from Derby Wharf to the brothels to allow sea captains to discretely enter the brothels, kidnapping young men frequented them, and forced them to join the ship’s crew. The entirety of the waterfront area is teeming with spirits from Salem’s maritime past, including apparitions of sailors not older than 18 and eerie disembodied voices of captains gone by.

 

Secrets Under Salem’s Streets

 

photo shows a large brick building, known as the custom house right near the water's edge.
The Custom House on Salem’s coastline. Wikimedia Commons.

 

In 1762, the Derby Wharf quickly became one of the busiest in Salem. It was created by Elias Hasket Derby Sr. Soon after he passed away in 1799, he left the wharf to his son of the same name. Derby Jr. was accustomed to a luxury lifestyle thanks to his successful father. He was a member of the Salem Maritime Society, whose main prerogative was to collect expensive artifacts from all over the world. Derby Jr. soon realized that by smuggling these valuable objects, he would be able to continue living in the lap of luxury. To smuggle his goods, he would need to build massive tunnels from the wharf into town, where his shipments would be delivered unnoticed.

 

Late one night, he devised a clever plan. He announced that he would begin to ‘beautify’ the park that is now known as the Salem Common Historic District, which was mainly a marshy swampland at that time. He wanted to create parks and walking trails that would allow tourism and bring more money into the harbor. This project also helped him to hide that he was digging tunnels around Salem. To conceal his enormous brick purchase, which was intended for use in the tunnels, he also ordered the construction of several brick homes around the area. These homes included fireplaces in the basements, which would serve as an entrance to the underground wharf tunnels. A sort of prohibition-style operation, if you would. Once the tunnels were in place, sailors in Salem could transport the goods they had acquired – or even stolen – in secrecy. Rare items such as precious metals, crowns, jewels, and even ‘magical’ goods began to find their way through Derby Jr’s Labyrinth. This secrecy brought rise to another not-so-positive side effect.

 

Missing Mercy Men

 

Photo is black and white, and shows a group of 15 sailors on a ship standing together.
A group of sailors, similar to those that frequented the brothels in 1790 Salem. Library of Congress.

 

When Mercy Tavern was a busy brothel, its reputation was one of disgust. Not only because of the affairs happening inside, but many of the young men who visited the brothel never came out. Sea captains knew of the tunnels and used them to their advantage… they would order their deckhands to go into the brothel through tunnels and kidnap healthy men they encountered inside. These men would then be forced into service aboard the ships. New crew members were always in demand, as sailors of the time were often malnourished, diseased, and mistreated. Seen as disposable and easily replaced, when sailors became so sickly that they perished, many were cast out to sea, left adrift on an endless ocean, their captains and crewmates onto the next healthy, sometimes unwilling young man.

 

Spirits In A Pig’s Eye

 

photo is a colorful illustration showing the mercy tavern, with pigs flying all around it.
An illustration of the haunted Mercy Tavern, formerly known as In A Pig’s Eye. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Mercy Tavern, formerly known as In A Pig’s Eye, is said by plenty to be haunted by the sailors’ spirits that once visited the establishment. Sightings of young sailors have been reported in the restaurant’s bar area. The Mercy Tavern staff also report hearing disembodied voices when the building itself is empty of all customers. With it’s close proximity to the seashore, Mercy Tavern is a hotspot for paranormal activity, as the waterfront is said to be one of the most haunted spots in Salem. Visitors and residents alike have witnessed ghostly pirates emerge from the water, walk onto the shore, and vanish soon after. Employees of the tavern hear voices from the tunnels and report shouting and arguing from beneath the floorboards. Strange, since most of the tunnels have been blocked, if not filled in for safety purposes… even stranger, in 2010 a retired professor and his associate ventured into one of these tunnels, finding an antique bank, a grocery store, murals, elevators, and empty shafts where people used to live. Were people living underground in late 1700 Salem? What was the purpose of town-like amenities in tunnels that were supposedly only used for transport?

 

Researching Salem’s Secret Underground

 

Extensive research on Salem’s underground tunnels, unfortunately, doesn’t bring up much information. It’s as if the tunnels are just as secretive as they were in the 1790s, hiding the wrongdoings that occurred in years past. We encourage you to do your own online investigation, however.

 

A Spirit-Ridden Seaside Town

 

It’s no surprise that a city like Salem was home to such history. Being a seaside town, it was a hotspot for sailors and all of the stereotypical activities that come along with such a wayward lifestyle. The darkness that followed the Salem Witch Trials endured well into the years beyond it. The sadness, grief, and anger that arose after the trials ended created a perfect environment for hauntings, and it’s apparent that not only are the spirits of the Salem Witch Trials still roaming in the city, but also the spirits left behind from the bustling wharf, the sailors stolen, captains lost at sea, and women abused in the city’s many brothels. It’s encouraged that when studying Salem, your research goes beyond just witches. While that’s a heavy part of Salem’s history, more stories deserve to be told.

 

Sources Cited:

https://salem.wickedlocal.com/news/20170419/new-era-for-in-pigs-eye

https://ghostcitytours.com/salem/haunted-places/mercy-tavern/

https://www.salem.org/salem-history/

https://www.kptv.com/news/two-historians-explore-salems-underground-system-piece-by-piece/article_040d2628-a5ae-554d-80cb-b1bcab90c185.html

https://spookeats.com/2018/12/17/massachusetts-mercy-tavern/

Featured Image Courtesy of Snappy Goat