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The Salem Secret Tunnel Myth Exposed! H.P. Lovecraft, Pirates, and the Truth

You may have overheard some of this story as you walked by a nighttime ghost tour group. Beneath the bustling city streets there exists a secret labyrinth, a series of ghost filled secret tunnels built by pirates, tunnels that lead from the waterfront to the basements of the city’s most prominent homes, tunnels so nefarious that the old timers have been sworn under the penalty of death to never admit exist. Or perhaps read the stories on one of the many, many questionable Salem sites online. It is intriguing, filled with murder and mystery, and still rooted in the real world enough to be believable. Plenty of other old cities have well documented, previously hidden tunnels, so why not Salem, right? It seems like a perfect fit. A hidden world of nefarious activity hidden right beneath our feet! That does feel very Salem-y. The problem is that the tunnels are largely a myth. As you read this please keep in mind that the next few paragraphs are the legend of the tunnels, the true story is after.

The legend of the tunnels goes that during the days of Salem’s maritime prominence, when merchants sending ships to sea were making gigantic fortunes, some of them, including the Derby family, conspired to get around paying their import duties at the customs house by constructing tunnels that led from where the ships came in at the wharves to various locations in the downtown area. Merchants used them to sneak massive boatloads of undocumented goods into the new American economy and make themselves even richer. After a while the ship captains expanded the tunnels’ use and they became what today would be referred to as a human trafficking pipeline. Agents working for the ships would hang around the downtown bars waiting until they found a good mark. They would get their victim good and drunk, talking up how much money could be made joining on with a merchant ship. Once the new recruit’s guard was down they would strike, knocking him out, stuff him down a tunnel entrance, then drag the unconscious or disoriented and struggling conscript the mile or so from the tavern to the ship. Once they emerged from the tunnels they would be tied up and hidden in the hold of the ship until it was far enough out at sea that they could not escape. They were now part of the crew like it or not.

As Salem’s maritime dominance faded, the tunnels were used less and less by the unscrupulous seafarers but they were not forgotten entirely. Savvy escapees from the Old Salem Jail spent many cold nights hiding in them, and criminals would use the tunnel network as a location to bring their victims for muggings and worse. It was unlikely anyone above on the city streets would hear the screams from below. It was a dumping ground for murdered bodies and a safehouse for hidden treasure. A positive use for the tunnels was that they provided shelter for slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad, so it was not all bad.

Over the years the tunnels fell out of use. There were less and less merchant vessels and there was heightened security. Tunnels collapsed and were never repaired. As the city grew and new construction revealed tunnel entrances, they were promptly sealed up. City workers were sworn to secrecy if they ever found one. But to this day in some downtown Salem basements, particularly around Derby Square and near Pickering Wharf, one can still find remnants of the tunnels. On rare occasions spectral screams and crying from the murdered victims can be heard emanating from below. There is a ghost city beneath Salem!

That is the legend anyway. As much fun as the tunnel story is there is no truth to it the way it is usually presented. It must be admitted that a few small passageways exist in downtown Salem that could count as tunnels, maintenance tunnels and underground walkways that connect one adjacent building to another. These passages are documented in architectural histories history and have no connection to the waterfront or to the Derby family. An easy way to debunk the concept of illicit tunnels is to consider the logistics of building miles and miles of tunnels under the cover of night with only technology available in the late 1700s and early 1800s and keeping it under wraps. It could have been done, at great expense and effort certainly, but it would have been such a production every living soul in Salem would have been aware something was going on. Certainly Derby could afford to pay off all his construction crews and any suspicious locals, but what about the custom house officials who enforced the taxes and duties? Surely they would have been aware of the tremendous digging effort happening right below their feet and directly across from them at the water. They would have to be paid off too if they were to ignore the tunnels. If Derby was already giving them money to ignore the tunnel construction it would have made much more sense for him to simply pay them off to turn a blind eye to a few extra crates coming off the ships! Pay off a couple of people in the right places, that is how illicit commerce was done back then as it is today. It would have been so much easier for some of the richest people in the country at the time to makes some bribes than to turn Salem into a human sized ant hill!

Some of the tunnel tales are drawn from misunderstanding of old fashioned architecture. Walking around Salem you are bound to see a number of small, street level doors, mostly boarded up and bricked in. These are nothing more than doors that would open to basements of commercial buildings so goods could be loaded in easily. They are not hidden at all so it is ridiculous that some guides point them out as “secret” tunnel entrances! From time to time a resident, generally someone who has just moved from another part of the country to Salem, will be doing work on their basement and discover filled-in arches in the walls. After hearing the tunnel stories they will in good faith assume they have just found a secret passageway. For the most part these are nothing more than nooks for produce to be stored in so it would stay cool during our nasty hot summer months. Unfortunately, when excavated, they go nowhere. I bet there are some hidden rooms still out there to be discovered (my old apartment in a 1706 house had one), but they are rooms, not tunnels. Worth documenting for sure, and you might find some cool antiques if you are lucky enough, but do not expect a magic trip beneath the main streets of Salem!

Another piece of the tunnel puzzle stems from the fact that sometimes people will attempt to research the Salem Tunnels online. Upon entering “Salem Tunnels” into their search engine they are presented with newspaper articles including one titled “Historians explore tunnels beneath Salem” which do prove the existence of underground smuggling tunnels beneath the city of Salem. SALEM, OREGON! Depending on where they live and what their previous searches have been the algorithm makes the Salem, Oregon tunnel newspaper article appear before the Salem, Massachusetts webpages do! For a person doing a quick search who has Salem, Massachusetts on their mind it can be very easy to miss the O word. It sounds funny but the confusion between the two Salems is something I experience with some regularity. Several times a year I get concerned calls a few minutes before the Spellbound Tour is scheduled to begin. They are waiting for a guide who has not arrived. The problem is they are waiting in Salem, Oregon!

The most interesting and in my opinion the most likely explanation of the “Salem Tunnels” legend is the H.P. Lovecraft connection. While Lovecraft mostly stayed home in Rhode Island he did venture to Salem on at least two occasions. He was a massive fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne and an amateur Witch Trials scholar and was compelled to make the pilgrimage. One of the sites he visited was The Charter Street Cemetery where cruel Witch Trials judge, Judge Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great Grandfather) is buried. The letters Lovecraft wrote about his Salem visit are amusing. He unabashedly gushes over every little artifact and location with the slightest Hawthorne connection. Think of the Salem influencers on Instagram today. This guy was obsessed! Lovecraft in the Old Burying Point must have been like an Elvis fan on their first visit to Graceland!

In the center of Charter Street is a gnarled old tree that, through the years according to local lore, has been struck by lightning more times than should be possible. In the recent past before the city started locking the cemetery up at night, some of our local witches would sneak in and perform their rituals at the tree because it was and still is believed to be a powerful natural energy site. Curiously right at the base of the tree sits a tombstone with inscription “HERE LYES INTERRD THE BODY OF MR CALEB PICKMAN WHO DIED JUNE 4th. 1737. (BEING
STRUK WITH LIGHTNING)AGED 22 YEARS.” The name Pickman stuck with Lovecraft. His best story on unspeakable horror was written after his Salem trip: “Pickman’s Model”.

Today Lovecraft’s reputation is rightfully tarnished because of his horrendously racist beliefs and miserable attitude. It is unfortunate that he has been revealed as a bigot because his stories are so well crafted. “Pickman’s Model” takes place in the 1920s, the narrator of the story is art historian researching what he calls morbid art. He becomes fascinated by the artist Richard Upton (Upton, another famous Salem name!) who has produced a work titled Ghoul Feeding. Ghoul Feeding is recognized as a work of great talent, yet it is so disturbing it has caused Pickman to be ostracized by the entirety of the Boston art community. Pickman is descended from a Salem family who were involved with the Witch Trials. Pickman explains that in 1692 his “four-times-great grandmother” was convicted as a witch in Salem and was hanged at “Gallows Hill, with Cotton Mather looking sanctimoniously on.” While Pickman is decrying Cotton Mather, he speaks of a house presumably in Salem that Mather refused to enter due to its malignant energy. The house had secret tunnels leading from the basement to… somewhere sinister. Pickman is obsessed with the idea of tunnels under Boston built by wicked sea captains now being used as a hunting ground by demonic manimals. His paintings depict ghoulish monstrosities erupting from under the streets and dragging people beneath to their deaths. Of course, spoiler alert for a story that is nearly a hundred years old, the art is based on what he has actually experienced!

While the story is set in Boston, the North End specifically, near Cotton Mather’s final resting place in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the Salem connection is too strong to ignore. Lovecraft had recently been to Salem, and Salem was on his mind. He had done his research on the Witch Hysteria and did it well. Lovecraft’s Pickman implies that Boston is not unique for having tunnels and that it was common in port cities. “Out of ten surviving houses built before 1700 and not moved since I’ll wager that in eight I can shew you something queer in the cellar. There’s hardly a month that you don’t read of workmen finding bricked-up arches and wells leading nowhere in this or that old place as it comes down—you could see one near Henchman Street from the elevated last year. There were witches and what their spells summoned; pirates and what they brought in from the sea; smugglers; privateers- ” Although he was speaking of Boston in that passage it is nearly word for word what I have heard from Salem tunnel adherents.

When the tunnel myth started to proliferate in Salem, Lovecraft was having a major cultural moment. Previously staple literature for horror and science fiction aficionados and intellectual goth kids by 2010, he had become mainstream. There was a surge of renewed interest in his literature and debate over his terrible personal politics. “Lovecraftian” became a buzzword for a certain style of cosmic horror. Lovecraft was edgy and now accessible. Even Scooby Doo was doing Lovecraft-themed episodes. His most famous creation, the ancient evil elder god Cthulhu, had become a t shirt and tattoo mainstay.

The Witch City has always been a place popular among fans of the macabre, people who like what Pickman described as “the night-spirit of antique horror”. Salem is a Lovecraft-loving town. Nearly every night on the Spellbound Tour when I noticed people dressed in a certain style I will bring up “Pickman’s Model” as we pass the Pickman House and it never fails to elicit an enthusiastic response. Visitors and locals alike who may have never read “Pickman’s Model” do know at least two important details about the narrative; Salem, and tunnels. It connects. The tunnels were very easily transposed from Lovecraft’s version of Boston to our historic Salem. The honeycomb of tunnels that crisscross Salem from the wharves to the Town Hall is a fiction based on history filtered through the mind of a horror writer, embraced by earnest folks looking for an entertaining conspiracy and repeated back to them by generally well meaning guides.

In popular imagination the few real, minor service tunnels in Salem merged with the true smuggling tunnels of olde Boston and with the sordid tunnels of “deviltry and morbidity” from “Pickman’s Model”. That is my opinion anyway. If anyone cares to prove me wrong by bringing me down into the pirate caves and showing me a Ghoul Feeding I am all for it and will fully embrace the lore. A final note on “Pickman’s Model”, for all of Lovecraft’s faults I must embrace his opinion of Cotton Mather. Mather “was afraid somebody might succeed in kicking free of this accursed cage of monotony—I wish someone had laid a spell on him or sucked his blood in the night!”

By Dr. Vitka

Invaluable editing done by Natalie Zarrelli, check out her website

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