Whether spectral or corporeal, historical or contemporary, Salem, Mass. is a town many associate with the word “witch,” and, of course, the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Legitimate or unmerited, Salem is a place that bares its anxious soul.
Since I was visiting Boston, I wanted to see if Salem lived up — or down to the hype.
Driving into this charming, though somewhat gritty New England town, I encountered the dour statue of town founder, Roger Conant standing near the green town common.
Conant, who began Salem in 1626, is adorned in full Puritan garb complete with severe black hat, unwelcoming face and long black flowing topcoat. He looks like the scariest witch one could ever find. Yet Conant represented the upstanding, God-fearing early settlers and his intolerant descendants were among those who tortured and killed some of their neighbors, believing them to be witches. This Conant statue stands, curiously, right near the entrance to the Salem Witch Museum. If this sounds discordant, it is.
The 17th-century pilgrims, who braved long, terrible ocean crossings to come to the Massachusetts coast had a rough time of things in their new hostile climate. They were afraid of nearly everything, including wild animals, native peoples, disease, storms, harsh winters and the very real threat of starvation. If God didn’t help them, then evil forces like witches must have been at work.
Fortunately, the courts of Salem created very proper English legal documents that left us a wealth of written details from those momentous times where hundreds were accused and 19 people publicly hanged for supposedly participating in witchcraft.
Walking around Salem, which is easy to do, I discovered many museums, some sobering and others a bit hokey — dedicated to the Witch Trials. The Dungeon Museum perhaps best demonstrates the human tragedy associated with this dark period. This small museum presents a brief stage play portraying the courtroom terrors the accused must have confronted. After the play, I went down to the re-created dungeons below. Besides being tortured, cold and made to sleep sitting up, accused prisoners also had to pay for everything, including their food, shackles, water, straw and clothing. Even if a prisoner was exonerated from all charges, the outstanding debts still had to be paid.
The hated Sheriff Corwin personally pocketed all of the jailhouse tariffs. (The real Salem Gaol, or jail still stands abandoned and forbidding, apparently haunted to this day). The museum depictions and reenactments can make visitors think about various examples of intolerance, persecution, collective insanity and repression that exist today.
Oddly, for a place renowned for the 1692 murderous “witch hunts,” show trials and killings (although the site of much of the anti-witch activity was in what is today the city of Danvers) the fact that a large number of practicing witches (or wiccans) have returned to Salem may seem surprising.
“We’ve been persecuted long enough,” said High-Priestess Laurie Cabot, “the official witch of Salem” and the most celebrated witch in town. She really does look the part in long black robe and scary makeup. Ever since her return to the city in 1970s, witches have been “coming out of the broom closet,” Cabot chuckled.
It is estimated that more than 2,500 neo-pagan witches live in and around Salem today. Cabot opened the first witch shop in America in 1970, and today many stores in town sell all sorts of potions, herbal cures, books, prayer tools, wands and various types of mystical clothing.
The many “witch” shops in Salem are interesting to visit, for both the variety of goods displayed and for the people running the show. Whether serious or sensational, there is no doubt that the “special effects” and “Bewitched” versions of witchcraft are cash cows in Salem. However, those truly interested in learning more about Wicca and witchcraft will be in the right place.
“Many come here because it is supposedly a place that works at learning from its past regarding issues of intolerance. Others come because some of the famous Wicca personalities are here and want to study with them,” said Jerrie Hilderbrand, another Wicca high priestess in Salem.
Halloween or the Festival of Samhain for Wiccans is by far Salem’s biggest holiday of the year. There are all kinds of parties, celebrations like the “Temple of Nine Wells Samhain Magick Circle,” eerie séances, magic shows, concerts, readings and other “haunted happenings” to experience throughout October leading up to the big night. Ask around and you might get invited to some of the spookier, more exclusive events. Salem gets crowded during late October, but the spirit of the city is most alive during the sliver between our world and the next. This otherworldly revolving door is said to be the thinnest on All Hallows Eve.
A different slice of Salem’s history is available by visiting the magnificent Turner House, or as it is commonly known, “The House of the Seven Gables,” after the fictional house in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Local hero Hawthorne may, or may not, have used this house as his model, but the Turner House (yes, it has seven gables) does provide a remarkable, well-preserved look at 17th-century American architecture. It is one of the most beautiful houses from the period, still standing.
Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, founded in 1799, is the oldest continually operating museum in America. PEM (as it is known as today) was founded by the East India Company to house and displays objects brought back by Salem’s great seafaring captains on their grand sailing ships, which circumnavigated the world in the 18th and 19th-centuries. Today, PEM holds more than 2.4 million works of art, including maritime art, New England arts and culture, vast stores of genealogical information, various collections of exquisite Asian art objects.
A short drive from Salem is the Rebecca Nurse House in Danvers. The austere, yet strangely compelling burgundy colored house and barn, built in 1678, stands amidst bucolic New England farm ground. In 1692, Rebecca Nurse, a wealthy, upstanding member of the church and community, was nonetheless accused of being a witch, excommunicated and eventually hanged. The historic site still evokes spooky, troubling feelings about this chilling part of American history where people could get so crazy as to kill their neighbors. It’s worth the short drive.
From pre-Revolutionary times up to perplexing witch-related issues of today, Salem perseveres. I encounter a man coming out of one of the Salem Witch museums with his young son.“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” said Tom Flynn from Williston Park, N.Y. Flynn said he enjoyed his visit, but when I asked about modern-day witches he replied, “There are no witches here. There’s no such thing.”
Myth and reality continue to intersect in this complicated little New England town.
Bob Ecker is freelance writer based in Napa.