Unholy Mass, Vol. 002: Winter Island
Salem, MA 01970
We’ve gone from the ship to the city.
If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need a history lesson on Salem. The city has become a hotbed for everything ghoul-adjacent in the Bay State-- some of it genuine, some of it opportunist. In the month or so leading up to Halloween, downtown Salem is in a state of constant celebration. It’s almost impossible to take a step without running into witch merch or Nathaniel Hawthorne references.
But to the northeast of the city, just a five-minute drive from downtown, rests Winter Island. Home to the centuries-old Fort Pickering, and an eerie nineteenth-century lighthouse, this small peninsula hosts some of Salem’s most unsettling haunts, tucked away from the bustle of the crowds.
Truth Be Told
So what’s so creepy about Winter Island? I’m glad you asked.
First and foremost, we need to establish just how far back this goes. Between 1772 and 1821, Winter Island was home to Execution Hill. And no, this isn’t that spot behind the CVS where the witches were hanged. Execution Hill is the highest peak of Winter Island, where four public executions were held-- rapist Bryan Sheehan in 1772, murderer Isaac Coombs in 1786, and murderer Henry Blackburn 1796. Finally, a teenager by the name of Stephen Clark was executed for… arson. Though many protested against this final execution, it still happened, and was attended by thousands of on-lookers. Save for that last one, these are some spirits I’d prefer not to run into in the dead of night.
You may also ask about that seemingly derelict lighthouse just outside the fort, separated from shore by numerous jagged rocks. There is nothing necessarily malicious about this lighthouse, only the story of John Harris, Jr. Harris was the keeper of the light for nearly thirty-eight years, between 1881 and 1919. He was only absent from the lighthouse five nights during that time, and not a single ship wrecked during his tenure. Though he and his family moved away from Winter Island and into downtown at the end of his tenure, he deeply missed his past life. Some say that in death, Harris was able to return to Winter Island, and watches over his beacon to this day.
As the twentieth century raged on, Winter Island couldn’t keep its name out of the news. While the US Coast Guard laid claim to the area, establishing a new air station complete with barracks, hangar, and seaplane ramps, most of the attention was on UFOs spotted over the area. The most notorious of these instances was one image captured by Shell Alpert in July 1952, showing four bright discs in formation over the area, which gained national attention. While some dismissed it as an obvious over-exposure hoax, it has since been deemed unexplainable by Project Blue Book.
Yes, yes, I hear you. “But is it haunted?” you ask. Look, it’s not my place to blow up another ghost’s haunt, alright? But if you really want to know, just ask these maintenance workers what they saw at the abandoned barracks in 2011.
Travel & Eats
Salem isn’t massive, so finding your way out to Winter Island is pretty simple. From there, it’s just a matter of what area you want to explore. There’s plenty to see and do in Salem, so even if you’re not there for Winter Island, you’ll be entertained.
There’s also a plethora of food options available, but your trusty guide Mouth Breather has never been done wrong by Gulu-Gulu Cafe. Get the Max and Cheese. I can’t eat since the incident, so enjoy it on my behalf.
Yes, we’ll certainly be back to delve into some more infamous horrors of Salem’s past. But it was great to delve into a part of the city that doesn’t get as much attention. Did we catch a glimpse of any ghouls? No, but there was something in the air that told us we didn’t want to stick around past dark. If you’re brave enough to venture out after the streetlights come on, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find what you’re searching for.
Just make sure you have an escape plan.
All photos by Hockomock Press’ own The Gobbler.