Winslow Myths and Interpretation-isms
By Jacob McAuliffe, 1699 Winslow House Docent, September 2014
The early history of Marshfield, Massachusetts is almost synonymous with the colonial history of its first family, the Winslows. And so it is not surprising that the local mythology of Marshfield is inextricably tied with the 1699 estate of Isaac Winslow, grandson of the pilgrim Edward Winslow. Today the Winslow House functions as one of the most remarkably preserved historic houses in New England. Since the 1920 restoration, the Careswell estate of the Winslow family has been overseen by a dedicated board, and recently, a series of directors. However, the task of actually relaying the history of the Winslow family to the public falls to a passionate corps of volunteers, ranging from undergraduate historians to local Marshfield docents. It is these volunteers who are responsible for the public image of the house, acting as liaisons between the past and the present. And in the nearly 100 year history of Winslow House preservation, these volunteers have brought various interpretations of local history into their tours.
The employee of a historic house, not unlike the author of a historic work, must interpret empirical fact in such a way as to provide a smooth and coherent narrative. However, the past does not lend itself easily to such a narrative. History is contingent, chaotic, and full of unproven lore that is nearly impossible to substantiate. For instance, it has been written that the giant linden rooted on the grounds of the Winslow House sprouted from the walking cane of Dr. Isaac Winslow. One can verify this neither historically nor scientifically, yet the tale remains.
Other tales are rooted in more verifiable history, the Winslow house tunnel, for example. The aforementioned Isaac and his cousin Joshua lived in two separate estates in Marshfield; the surviving Winslow House situated on the corner of modern day Careswell Street, and another estate down the road on Gotham Hill. Purportedly, a tunnel connected the two estates according to local myths and “old guide’s tales”. This interesting tale sparked real historical inquiry; reports of the tunnel have been mentioned in several local histories, and a collapsed bulkhead in the basement of the Careswell estate seemed to suggest some truth to it. In this instance however, history can definitely defer to science, as a 2004 archeological dig found no evidence of any large anomaly under the grounds.
Local mythology is thus suggested by even ostensibly reliable sources. In an article distributed by the Winslow House Association in 1996 an anonymous author describes a ‘hidden chamber’ on the second floor of the estate. The Mayflower Quarterly similarly mentioned that a “south-east room houses a cupboard which gives access to a secret passage to the attic.” The space is never mentioned in records of the Winslows living in the Careswell estate, and were it not for local tales, would have very little of historical interest.