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The Tragedy of the 1-5-0

The date: July 4th, Independence Day. The time: 1:45 p.m. The place: Salem, MA, home of the Salem witch trials and, more importantly for literary enthusiasts, of Nathaniel Hawthorne, great-grandson of the infamous Judge Nathaniel Hathorne who in 1600-something presided over the trials where all those poor girls and a few women and men were found guilty of being witches, and who dropped the "w" in the family name "Hawthorne" because he was always dropping things. It would be over 100 years before his scrivening, goody-two-shoes great grandson, a fastidious soul and a nonbeliever in witchcraft, put the "w" back in. It is here, at the House of the Seven Gables Historic Area, that the 1:45 p.m. guided tour of not only the House of the Seven Gables itself, but also Hawthorne (the writer's) birth home, is already under way. The 1:50 p.m. tour, now known as the infamous 1-5-0, would begin in just five minutes.

At the appointed time Abigail Brinkman, guide of the 1-5-0, called her group of 15 men, women and children to order in a sort of foyer attached to the house. She was, perhaps, a little apprehensive. All week, thanks to the July 4th holiday, the Boston-Salem area was thronged with tourists, and the Seven Gables business was running at top capacity. Gettin' 'em in and gettin' 'em out, was how she had come to view her ordinarily academic and slow-paced job. Were things getting a little out of hand? Having conducted tours all morning, she knew that her 1:50 group had stood in long lines for tickets and paid through the nose for them. Some had spent the night on the grass just outside the building to be sure of getting inside, as though this were a Creed concert. Now, on the verge of viewing the interior of building that had inspired the immortal Hawthorne to write one of his most famous works, the fans were practically giddy with anticipation. Athirst for knowledge of the man who wrote so well on Puritanical Good and Evil, and keen fans of history for its own sake, they were no longer to be held back. Abigail took a deep, underpaid breath and led the 1-5-0 from the foyer directly into the kitchen to start the tour.

Looking back and piecing together the tales of the survivors, it is easy to see that catastrophe might have been averted early on had Abigail peeked beyond the door and into the kitchen, the first stop on the tour, to see if the better-starred 1:45 p.m. tour group had already vacated the room. Alas, Abigail did not peek, and some members of the 1:45 were still there, in particular a Mrs. Kimberly Tosh, who in the words of Johnetta Willimas, intrepid guide of the 1:45, "had a lot of questions about the iron cookware of the 1800s that held us up." When Abigail led the members of the 1-5-0 into the kitchen and they stood cheek-by-jowl with Johnetta Williams, Mrs. Potter, and Mrs. Potter's husband and teenage son, Harry and Harry Jr., the room was, for about thirty seconds, overcrowded. Harry Jr., later identified by the contents of his wallet, was overheard to say, "It's like a mosh pit in here."

Harry Jr. was not the only victim that day. Not more than some number of minutes later, on being advised by Abigail to ascend a narrow, twisting servants' stairway that ascended from the first floor up to the attic, and that may have been a hiding place for fugitive slaves during the Civil War, the members of the 1-5-0 started gamely to push their overweight and badly-out-of-shape bodies up what had come to be known as The Devil's Backbone Staircase. Their grunts were heartrending. Furthermore, a Mrs. Connie Ranting, very badly out of condition, refused to climb such a dangerous structure without a Sherpa guide. Abigail instructed her to proceed at her own pace to the living room and await her at the foot of main staircase there. This staircase, much less steep and not twisting at all, was the alternative route to the attic for total porpoises. But by the time Abigail saw the rest of the group up the more harrowing stairway and made her way to the living room to assist Mrs. Ranting, the tourist was nowhere to be found. Nor was she ever seen alive again. At least not in Salem.

When Abigail joined the remaining fourteen, or perhaps it was thirteen-no one knows the actual number at this point-of her 1:50 group in the attic, she confronted a battered, frightened party. It wasn't that the attic, especially after such an arduous climb, was so stifling, although that contributed to the sense of doom that by now everyone shared. The attic was like an air-conditioned wooden room that hung in the air twenty feet above the ground. With fourteen or fifteen people in it, counting Abigail, there was hardly space to walk around, and virtually no place to sit. What was worse, however, was the sense of panic that Abigail herself unwittingly spread among the hapless members of her group. For it was here that she casually let slip the information that the House of the Seven Gables did not stand at its original site, but had been moved years ago about a quarter mile seaward to join the Hawthorne birth house and form the so-called House of the Seven Gables Historical Site, this for the sole purpose of drawing tourists to one blockbuster area. It was Hawthorne-meets-glitzy-showbiz in the extreme.

Worse than that, Abigail broke the news that the House of the Seven Gables itself, the very structure they were standing in, was a rank reconstruction, containing of the original house not much more than the square-foot section of the front door that in fact was on display in a glass case there in the attic. In short, she gave out that the whole place was an elaborate fraud, like Abe Lincoln's birth cabin and Pocahontas's Playmate physique, and not much more authentic than the Magic Kingdom. Not only that, but it was doubtful Hawthorne had so much as spent a night in the place, the real place, that is, the one his cousin had owned a quarter mile inland. Hearing these terrible words issue from the mouth of their very own trusted guide caused many to turn deathly pale and to tremble. One Helen Forester, later identified by her dental records, said, "I feel swindled to death!"

Nor did disaster end there for the 1-5-0. As the survivors at long last exited the House of the Seven Gables and began the arduous trek along the coast to the Hawthorne birth house twenty feet away, it must have seemed to them that they were saved. But in the house where Hawthorne was born and lived until he turned four, they were on their own, Abigail's job having ended when they departed the House of the Seven Gables. Now they would make it or not by their own cunning and wits, for the tour of the birth house was self-guided with only period-dressed employees posted here and there and pretending to do period things to aid in emergencies. This, as it turned out, would not be enough for the crew of the already dispirited 1-5-0.

Catastrophe struck almost immediately in the birth house when Ms. Phyllis Potts actually reached out and touched the historical bed in the master bedroom that was reachable just over a low rope. Lord knows what she had already touched in the House of the Seven Gables, but now here she was at it again. Site employee Sarah Madison, who was pretending to be sitting and sewing the way women did in bedrooms back then, their own and other people's, saw her do it.

Madison thought fast. She knew the Hawthorne birth house was like a hurtling jetliner; if she took too long to react to the crisis inside, she and everyone else would pay the ultimate price. "Oh ma'am, oh ma'am," she exclaimed, "you can't touch that, ma'am!"

With the unmitigated gall that had made her what she was, a pest, Ms. Potts replied, "I just wanted to see what it was filled with. I paid good money for this tour."

"Please just look, ma'am," Sarah responded with what, under the circumstances, one can only call amazing sang-froid, "and I'll be happy to answer your questions." But it was too late to save the situation, and Ms. Potts may have asked for her money back or even perished. Nothing is known as to her actual fate.

What shook the world, however, and will forevermore cause people to mention the 1-5-0 in the same breath as the Titanic, the Hindenburg, and the opening of EuroDisney, were the events that occurred in the gift shop just outside the birth house. When the shattered remnants of Abigail's 1:50 p.m. tour finally made it to the gift shop, the last stop in the site unless you wanted to hang around and soak up the replicated atmosphere, they were greeted by the portentous words of Samantha Korn, store proprietress. She told them the last thing they wanted or expected to hear in their weakened condition, that there remained only two or three House of the Seven Gables T-shirts in X-Large and Large, but plenty in the medium and small sizes that, of course, no one but the children who didn't want them could wear. While outside children and women innocently played croquet, while men gazed carefree into the bay, the alarmed remaining members of the 1-5-0 converged in a mad rush of death upon the T-shirt racks to grab the bigger shirts.

"I told them the large sizes were back-ordered," sobbed Samantha, but her words were to no avail in averting doom, and when the dust had settled, several more tourists were gone. Since that fateful day, Samantha has quit her job in the House of the Seven Gables gift shop and gone to work for the amphibious Duck Tour of Salem Harbor, which she describes as "a whole lot safer."

There the misfortunes of the 1-5-0 ended, with scarcely a soul left to tell the tale. Let us learn from their tribulations and always practice "Safe Hawthorneing" as the Salemites now say.

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