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Salem Witch Bureau

Salem Witch Bureau Oak and white pine with maple and walnut moldings
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

In his will, General William H. Sumner described this chest of drawers as "the Witch Bureau, from the middle drawer of which one of the Witches jumped out who was hung on Gallows Hill, in Salem." (FN 1) Chests with three to five drawers have been popular since the mid-seventeenth century, providing flexible and portable storage. (FN 2) This chest of drawers is similar in design and construction to a number of chests made in eastern Massachusetts, some of which are attributed to the Symonds workshop of Salem.

The distinctive upper front molding of the chest is cut with diagonal lines, and the band below has gauged notches. The lower molding extends around the sides. Applied paired spindles are turned in columnar lengths appropriate to the varying drawer sizes, and are ebonized. The top couple of drawers and the middle large drawer have panel designs symmetric about central pairs of spindles, while the other drawers have three panels. All the drawer panels are edged with red molding in bold geometric patterns.

The drawers hang on runners that are rabbeted into the stiles. The drawer fronts are rabbeted to accept the sides and bottoms. Double-pegged mortise-and-tenon joints link the stiles and rails. The sides of the chest are formed of four regular panels. The back has two horizontal panels with beveled edges.

With a single exception, the brass teardrop pulls with star-shaped plates appear to be original. The top of the chest has been replaced. Ball feet probably originally supported the chest.

Chests of similar design arc identified with eastern Massachusetts. Such chests have geometric patterned front panels, four-paneled sides, and distinctive upper moldings, cut with diagonal slashes above a band of gauged notches. They generally have ball feet and corbels. (FN 3) The Salem Witch Bureau is included in a group of six chests thought to have been made in Salem, possibly in the Symonds workshop. Attributes frequently common to chests in this group include paired split spindles, a 2—3—2—3 configuration of panels per drawer level, and the same distinctive molding. (FN 4)

John Symonds (bef. 1595—1671) was a joiner from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, who immigrated to Salem, where he set up a shop. He trained his sons James (1633—1714) and Samuel (1638—1722) and a number of other apprentices. (FN 5) It is possible that one of the sons or apprentices made this fine chest.

The Historical Society's furniture collection includes several other seventeenth-century pieces, notably the Paine family cupboard from Essex County, a turner's chair from the Byles family, and a caned side chair from the Winthrop family. (FN 6)

Sources for Further Reading

1. Sumner, William H. Will of William H. Sumner of West Roxbury. Boston: J.H. Eastburn's Press, 1861, p. 31.

2. Ward, Gerald W.R. American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1988, p. 123.

3. Randall, Richard H. American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1965, p. 32.

4. Ward, Gerald W.R. American Case Furniture in the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1988, p. 131.

5. Fairbanks, Jonathan L., and Robert F. Trent. New England Begins: The Seventheenth Century. 3 vols. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982, 2:526; Forman 1971, p. 30.

6. Kane, Patricia E. "Furniture owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society." The Magazine Antiques 109. (1976), pp. 960-969.