The Barnacle is famous in the old-timey harbor town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, for reasons well beyond its food.
Yes, of course, its decadent lobster bisque, sizzling crab cakes, and zesty fried fish tacos are exactly the sort of hearty seafood fare Marblehead’s glut of ocean views will make its visitors crave. “Ah, that hits the spot” is probably the second most uttered phrase in the joint… Beaten out only by proclamations of “Look at that view!” Many restaurants in Marblehead are right on the water, but The Barnacle really leans into the concept, situating itself directly over the water. When storms come through, the restaurant is notable for being in the Splash Zone, front row. Its seats face its patrons directly out over the tempestuous harbor and Lovis Cove.
But this brings us to the third reason The Barnacle is well known… the legend of Marblehead’s Screaming Woman. It was a story I was completely, eerily unaware of until the second or third time I sat down to enjoy a meal there (this time, an open-face fried haddock sandwich.)
“You know,” my dad said conspiratorially, jabbing a finger in the direction of the jagged rocks that surrounded the little shore off the side of the restaurant. “They call that the Screaming Woman Cove.” He smiled when I gaped at him, having achieved his goal of spicing up a food-induced lull in conversation.
I prodded him on, not liking the assumptions my mind was leaping to at the mention of a Screaming Woman. He and my mom went on to explain in tandem to my incredulous cousin and me one of apparently many of Marblehead’s hushed ghost stories. Marblehead is not like its loud and boisterous neighbor Salem, which embraces and commodifies its haunted past. No, Marblehead, with its stately homes and historic yacht clubs, is dignified and mannerly. Ghosts? What ghosts?
Well, ghosts that shriek into the night, apparently.
In the 17th century, pirates had ventured north from the Caribbean to roam the choppy New England shores, pillaging without mercy. In a raid, they captured a wealthy and bejeweled woman and brought her aboard, taking all of her jewelry save for the emerald ring they could not prize off her finger. They held her captive as they approached the small fishing village of Marblehead, and as they grew nearer she managed to escape and miraculously swim to shore. The miracle did not last, for they caught up with her and trapped her on Lovis Cove. They chopped off her finger to finally take possession of the ring, and then stabbed her to death. She screamed for mercy, for savior. The pirates did not listen, of course, and neither did the hiding Marbleheaders. For that injustice, her spirit remains on those shores, screaming each year on the anniversary of her brutal murder.
I had a hard time reconciling pirates with this tranquil town I had grown up visiting. There is evidence of sea-faring at every turn, from nautically-themed decorations to literal, actual boats on every street corner, but the folk here are of a gentler sort. How could you not be, when constantly surrounded by such natural beauty and old American grace?
The Old Town of Marblehead is centered around its beautiful harbor which is filled to the rim with boats mid-summer. There is a waiting list for moorings on this harbor that yachters will spend more than a decade on. The positioning of the moorings has to be meticulously calculated to ensure that the many boats of different lengths don’t get blown into each other while at rest. An accident like that might just make a pirate out of a day-sailor yet.
Some of the best panoramic views of the harbor can be found at Crocker Park, a rocky lump of a hill next door to the relatively down-to-earth Boston Yacht Club. This park is a highlight for wild little kids who are drawn to its exposed climbing rocks like magnets. As a young tike, these rocks looked like mountains to me. Their magic has faded a little, and I now know to turn around and appreciate the view.
Crocker Park is also home to Herreshoff Castle, evidence that the excesses of the Roaring 20s reached even this restrained New England town. This castle enchanted me from a young age. My parents often dreamed of moving closer to Marblehead, and I often urged them that if they were going to do so, it should be to this strange, majestic house. Alas, it is now a Bed and Breakfast, and a bucket list item for me to spend a night there.
Follow the shoreline out of town towards Boston, a 40 minute drive, and you will pass Revere Beach, New England’s bawdiest, and a juxtaposition if there ever was one. Along the way you will find Kell’s Kreme, the best soft serve around (and I’m not just saying that because we share a name).
The magic of Marblehead may be subtler than its neighbors, but its beauty is not. Every time I go back for a sail or a simple stroll, I am taken away all over again by the colorful little houses with their historical markers, the shops adorned with campy lobster claws and anchors, and the breathtaking views of the sea dotted by ships. Hopefully, now that I know what I know, I won’t be taken away in a more literal sense by the spirits who like it there, too.