Researched & Written by Jen Ratliff.
The Grimshawe or Peabody House sits upon the corner of Old Burying Point cemetery at 53 Charter Street in downtown Salem. Present day, it looks much like its depiction in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret: A Romance.” In his book, Hawthorne described the area as “…the old graveyard about the house which cornered upon it; it made the street gloomy, so that people did not altogether like to pass along the high wooden fence that shut it in; and the old house itself, covering ground which else had been sown thickly with buried bodies, partook of its dreariness…”
Few know that centuries ago this house was once a grand display of Federal style architecture and a meeting place for great literary thinkers. In 1835 Dr. Nathaniel Peabody, a dentist, purchased the stately home for himself, his wife and their five children. It was in the home that Peabody’s youngest daughter Sophia met Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom she would later wed. Hawthorne, an author, had recently received praise for his work “Twice Told Tales” and was invited to the home by Sophia’s sister, Elizabeth.
The Peabody sisters were true Renaissance woman of their time. Elizabeth, the oldest, was very involved in the literary world, both as an author and a bookstore owner. Elizabeth’s bookstore on West Street in Boston served as a meeting place for authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was in her bookshop that the transcendentalist movement began to take shape and garnered a following. Elizabeth Peabody was also heavily involved in social reform and along with her sister Mary, opened the first kindergarten in America. The sisters had been profoundly inspired by the work of Friedrich Froebel in Germany.
Mary, the youngest of the Peabody’s wed Horace Mann, who is often referred to as the Father of Common School. The two actively advocated education reform. Mary penned a variety of books in her lifetime ranging from children’s books to cook books.
Sophia Peabody was often sick in her youth, suffering debilitating headaches and regularly needing the care of her sisters. Despite her weakness, she became a respected painter and author. Upon marrying Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia ceased painting and focused on raising the couple’s three children. After Nathaniel’s death, Sophia edited and published his notebooks, as well as her own journals and writings.
The Grimshawe House over went many renovations and additions during the 20th century and today greatly differs in appearance from the time of the Peabody’s residence. The original portico is now housed on the back exterior of the Phillip's Library on nearby Essex Street. The home is privately owned and there are currently no plans to restore it.