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Mary Gedney: A Seventeenth-Century Entrepreneur

Mar 21, 2024

What is the connection between Gedney House and the Salem witch trials? The answer lies in the recently-recovered story of innkeeper Mary Gedney.

Originally built in 1665 by shipwright Eleazer Gedney, Historic New England’s Gedney House in Salem, Massachusetts, is remarkable for its seventeenth-century architecture. A recent study into the early social history of those who lived in the house provided an interesting insight into seventeenth-century Salem. Eleazer’s second wife, Mary Patteshall, ran an inn out of Gedney House in 1692, and while it was not wholly uncommon for a woman to be an inn or tavern keeper during this time, Mary operated and expanded her business during a tumultuous time in the town’s history – the Salem witch trials.

Gedney House in Salem, Massachusetts, was originally built c. 1665. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of a timber frame structure from seventeenth-century Salem.

From widow to innkeeper

Born in London, England, in 1648 to Edmund and Martha Patteshall, Mary was the youngest of seven children. Her father and brother, Richard, relocated to Maine, where the Patteshall family established themselves as landowners and merchants in the 1660s. Mary likely moved to Maine following her mother’s death in 1667. Many prominent Salem families also had landholdings in Maine, and it is possible that the Patteshalls and Gedneys were acquainted because of this. Mary married prominent Salem shipwright Eleazer Gedney in 1678. Eleazer was a widower with four children from his previous marriage, and he and Mary had three more children together: Ebenezer, Edmund, and Martha. When Eleazer died in 1683, Mary was left with seven children to care for, three of whom were under the age of five. 

There were not many options for women in Mary’s position in the seventeenth century. One was to remarry, which would have required her to relinquish her property and wealth to a new husband. Mary went in a different direction. As a widow, she was legally entitled to a portion of her husband’s estate and by remaining unmarried, Mary retained a level of autonomy not available to married women at the time. To make ends meet, Mary first petitioned for a license to sell wine and liquor outside of her home, which was located close to the waterfront and on the highway to Marblehead, making it a prime location for passersby. In July 1692, Mary received approval to become an innholder, which allowed her to expand her business significantly by renting out rooms and selling food and drink inside her home.

Petition of Mary Gedney submitted to the Essex County Quarterly Court on March 24, 1689 or 1690. The petition requests a license to sell wine and liquor out of doors “to support my family.”

Mary Gedney and the Salem witch trials

Mary’s expansion of her business in 1692 is significant, because by the time her license was granted in July, six people had already been executed for witchcraft. Beginning in February 1692 and lasting through April 1693, trials and examinations of the accused were carried out in private and public places, including inns. Mary’s inn appears in documents submitted to the Salem courts for the use of her property for “entertainment of jurors and witnesses.” The town paid Mary £40 to use her inn. Exactly what happened at the tavern remains unknown, but its use makes Gedney House one of only two existing buildings in Salem with a direct connection to the trials.

Gedney House interior showing the original timber frame construction.

Mary never remarried and successfully maintained her business into the early eighteenth century. When she died in September 1716, her estate went to her surviving child, Martha, and son-in-law, James Ruck. Women’s lives in the seventeenth century were not recorded in the same way as men in their communities, so the record of Mary’s life and business gives a unique insight into the choices available to women during her time. 

By Abigail Stewart, Regional Site Administrator, North Shore

Mary Gedney’s story was recovered by Dr. Tricia Peone as part of Historic New England’s Recovering New England’s Voices initiative. Gedney House opens for the season on June 1, 2024.