"Browne's Folly"

Produced by David Widger. HTML version by Al Haines.



By Nathaniel Hawthorne


The Wayside, August 28, 1860.

MY DEAR COUSIN:--I should be very glad to write a story, as you request, for the benefit of the Essex Institute, or for any other purpose that might be deemed desirable by my native townspeople. But it is now many years since the epoch of the "Twice-Told Tales," and the "Mosses from an Old Manse"; and my mind seems to have lost the plan and measure of those little narratives, in which it was once so unprofitably fertile. I can write no story, therefore; but (rather than be entirely wanting to the occasion) I will endeavor to describe a spot near Salem, on which it was once my purpose to locate such a dreamy fiction as you now demand of me.

It is no other than that conspicuous hill (I really know not whether it lies in Salem, Danvers, or Beverly) which used in my younger days to be known by the name of "Brown's Folly." This eminence is a long ridge rising out of the level country around, like a whale's back out of a calm sea, with the head and tail beneath the surface. Along its base ran a green and seldom-trodden lane, with which I was very familiar in my boyhood; and there was a little brook, which I remember to have dammed up till its overflow made a mimic ocean. When I last looked for this tiny streamlet, which was still rippling freshly through my memory, I found it strangely shrunken; a mere ditch indeed, and almost a dry one. But the green lane was still there, precisely as I remembered it; two wheel-tracks, and the beaten path of the horses' feet, and grassy strips between; the whole overshadowed by tall locust-trees, and the prevalent barberry-bushes, which are rooted so fondly into the recollections of every Essex man.

From this lane there is a steep ascent up the side of the hill, the ridge of which affords two views of very wide extent and variety. On one side is the ocean, and Salem and Beverly on its shores; on the other a rural scene, almost perfectly level, so that each man's metes and bounds can be traced out as on a map. The beholder takes in at a glance the estates on which different families have long been situated, and the houses where they have dwelt, and cherished their various interests, intermarrying, agreeing together, or quarrelling, going to live, annexing little bits of real estate, acting out their petty parts in life, and sleeping quietly under the sod at last. A man's individual affairs look not so very important, when we can climb high enough to get the idea of a complicated neighborhood.

But what made the hill particularly interesting to me, were the traces of an old and long-vanished edifice, midway on the curving ridge, and at its highest point. A pre-revolutionary magnate, the representative of a famous old Salem family, had here built himself a pleasure house, on a scale of magnificence, which, combined with its airy site and difficult approach, obtained for it and for the entire hill on which it stood, the traditionary title of "Browne's Folly." Whether a folly or no, the house was certainly an unfortunate one. While still in its glory, it was so tremendously shaken by the earthquake of 1755 that the owner dared no longer reside in it; and practically acknowledging that its ambitious site rendered it indeed a Folly, he proceeded to locate it on--humbler ground. The great house actually took up its march along the declining ridge of the bill, and came safely to the bottom, where it stood till within the memory of men now alive.

The proprietor, meanwhile, had adhered to the Royalist side, and fled to England during the Revolution. The mansion was left under the care of Richard Derby (an ancestor of the present Derby family), who had a claim to the Browne property through his wife, but seems to have held the premises precisely as the refugee left them, for a long term of years, in the expectation of his eventual return. The house remained, with all its furniture in its spacious rooms and chambers, ready for the exile's occupancy, as soon as he should reappear. As time went on, however, it began to be neglected, and was accessible to whatever vagrant, or idle school-boy, or berrying party might choose to enter through its ill-secured windows.

But there was one closet in the house, which everybody was afraid to enter, it being supposed that an evil spirit--perhaps a domestic Demon of the Browne family--was confined in it. One day, three or four score years ago, some school-boys happened to be playing in the deserted chambers, and took it into their heads to develop the secrets of this mysterious closet. With great difficulty and tremor they succeeded in forcing the door. As it flew open, there was a vision of people in garments of antique magnificence,--gentlemen in curled wigs and tarnished gold-lace, and ladies in brocade and quaint head-dresses, rushing tumultuously forth and tumbling upon the floor. The urchins took to their heels, in huge dismay, but crept back, after a while, and discovered that the apparition was composed of a mighty pile of family portraits. I had the story, the better part of a hundred years afterwards, from the very school-boy who pried open the closet door.

After standing many years at the foot of the hill, the house was again removed in three portions, and was fashioned into three separate dwellings, which, for aught I know, are yet extant in Danvers.

The ancient site of this proud mansion may still be traced (or could have been ten years ago) upon the summit of the hill. It consisted of two spacious wings, connected by an intermediate hall of entrance, which fronted lengthwise upon the ridge. Two shallow and grass-grown cavities remain, of what were once the deep and richly stored cellars under the two wings; and between them is the outline of the connecting hall, about as deep as a plough furrow, and somewhat greener than the surrounding sod. The two cellars are still deep enough to shelter a visitor from the fresh breezes that haunt the summit of the hill; and barberry-hushes clustering within them offer the harsh acidity of their fruits, instead of the rich wines which the colonial magnate was wont to store there for his guests. There I have sometimes sat and tried to rebuild, in my imagination, the stately house, or to fancy what a splendid show it must have made even so far off as in the streets of Salem, when the old proprietor illuminated his many windows to celebrate the King's birthday.

I have quite forgotten what story I once purposed writing about "Brown's Folly," and I freely offer the theme and site to any of my young townsmen, who may be addicted with the same tendency towards fanciful narratives which haunted me in my youth and long afterwards.

Truly yours,


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