At some point in my research, I knew I would have to visit Salem, the most famous, and more importantly, the most accessible site of witch trials in the United States. Salem’s history is a curious dichotomy of shame requiring long-term reparations, and current source of cultural and ‘new age’ interest. In visiting this location, I wanted to observe the strange balance they made between historical claims of witchcraft on innocents, and their thriving community as a Mecca for witches and wiccans alike, as well as how much of that balance depended on restitution of peace and community, and how much was sourced from more economic interests.
Salem is the site of a long series of accusations and witch trials that progressed from February 1692 through May 1693 and resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocents by hangings, pressing, or life imprisonment in wretched conditions, extending beyond the end of the trials themselves. This scarred the community for generations, and changed viewpoints on witchcraft and the legal process globally. It is the marker by which the town is recognized, an unfortunate legacy that they have carried like Jacob Marley’s weights, but simultaneously part of a cultivated mystique that roused my interest predictably. I wanted to walk the streets and peel back the layers of history, understanding distance and location as pertinent to the very essence of the conflict. The honors college gave me the opportunity to do so.
Heading out to Salem was an adventure, my first Amtrak train trip that required that I was out of the house at 3 to catch the subway to Penn Station, and embark on the real journey at bleary hours of the morning. The streets were empty at that hour, with low winds and orange streetlights that cast familiar grounds in shades of Halloween, and the rattle of my luggage on the ground reflected off the houses and buildings, loud and leaving me self-conscious for the disruption. It was an unusually warm spring when I left, though I was also prepared for rain. Before the sun, though, was the thin chill coming in from the ocean, cutting through my sweater. All this, and it felt almost unreal as I set out. Soon enough, it became even more fantastic. Two men had a fist-fight on my subway train. Blood was spilled. I clutched my luggage a little tighter to me, aware that there were only three or four dead-eyed travelers, and that I was closest in the path of the hurricane. The witching hour has been commonly misrepresented as midnight, the time when magic and witchcraft was most active and undisturbed, but historically, it has always been between three and four in the morning, and in retrospect, I could see how the cold, the fatigue, the darkness, the imperative of the work, all before the dawn, could render the common in supernatural light.
Train trip is vastly different from airfare, and short of having someone drive me down on a drawling, meandering trip down the coast, this would give me the best look at the lay of the land and the surroundings. One can get so disconnected from the travel when flying high above, when the ground below becomes big asymmetrical patches of farmland and city, rivers and lakes. The train was a silver ribbon streaming along the off-white coastline, sunlight glinting through low clouds against the distant-and-present sea. The sun was also constantly in my sleep-deprived eyes. There was no comfortable position. River-weeds, cattails, salt-water vegetation lined close to the tracks and brushed the train. There were little inlets of water. Off-coloured farm machinery, distressed borderland, and abandoned buildings set the tone for the adventure. As we headed further and further south, leisure boating and golf-courses bled out for hand-hewn rock walls and ancient constructs. The woods were ever-present, old, filled with stories, and they were beautiful. I grew up in woodlands, but on the west coast. The trees here were different, and the river was different, the colour and density of the woods were different, and I was still venturing out into that liminal time of winter and spring, where the horizon was dominated by white, greys, browns, oranges, no blues and greens. I characterized the land where I grew up as friendly, as living, but this coast felt older, tired, steeped in a history and awareness versus the comparative youngness of the west. And this went beyond development, beyond what Man touched. I had the sense that I was venturing into a place that had a consciousness of its own.
My trip took me out there in mid-March, a cold time off tourist-season. Salem revolves around tourist culture in many aspects, most prominently food and historical tours, and I arrived about a week or two too early for many of their venues to be open. That was fine by my standards, as I wanted to make a deeper study of the area than the flashy touristy places. There was one significant downside to such an early travel: because the town structured itself around tourism and seafood seasons, several museums, walking tours, and shuttles were closed to public. Their owners were out somewhere warmer, perhaps, or operating a secondary business that would allow them to remain solvent. The open-air play of the witch trials wouldn’t begin again for another month; the trolley service was shuttered in the off-season; the Witch’s Dungeon Museum and other locations were closed or operating on very limited schedules. These schedules weren’t made available online in many cases, or still displayed their October peak hours, so I revised my visit accordingly. I actually appreciated being able to walk the narrow sidewalks in relative silence, observing and committing to memory what the town looked in the absence of mobs of tourists and Halloween decorations festooning every surface. I could take a moment to ask a few questions of the guides and shop owners: ‘What’s it like to live here? What does Salem offer you?’
I expected, and received at first some distrust for being a nosy outsider, and they probably saw dozens a day on peak hours with the same questions about ‘real magic’, with big, concrete ideas about what Salem ‘ought to be’ sourced from all the stereotypes and simplifications found in Hollywood. But there were also those who warmed up to an interest in talking to me, a nonjudgmental observer who really wanted to learn from them. They welcomed me to their town, recommended people for me to talk to, places for me to eat, venues beyond the tourist attractions to really dig into the community. I arrived at the tail end of restaurant week, for example, and if I wasn’t so allergic to seafood, I had five or six locations right on the waterfront to tempt my palate. The staff at the information center marked up my map with everything Salem had to offer in the off-season, directing me to the best facts-based overviews and the routes to fit all this into a weekend. The hostesses and waitresses at the hotel where I supped took pity on the young thing dining alone and checked up often. Historians launched into animated discussions of small elements on display at the ‘Witch House’, eager to help inform another academic. These people were the heart of Salem, and while it’s many months after that short visit that I finally began to put these impressions down, they left me with the strongest lingering fondness for the town, a culture of people who appreciated their past without living in its shadow, and made a living community.
The core ‘attraction’ to Salem comes from its most infamous historical event, the Salem Witch Trials. In the clinical sense, the witch trials presented a fascinating example of mob madness, in the same sense as the dancing plagues that hit Europe. In the realistic sense, these trials were responsible for the deaths, imprisonment, social ostracization, or exile for dozens, and disruption of society for the rest. In the pop culture sense, however, Salem has attained an indelible association with witchcraft. That association hasn’t been helped by repeated use of the site in various witchy television series and movies: Bewitched, a television show about a mischievous housewife and full-time witch, and Hocus Pocus, a Disney movie about dangerous witches summoned by improperly handling a magical artifact, both filmed on-location, instilling new generations with new reasons to associate the town with magic and superstition. Their city seal features a cartoonish witch in profile, aloft by broomstick; its mascot the same. Paranorman, a stop-motion animated feature by Laika, again made use of beautiful setting and local witchcraft for a heartwarming tale about connecting with people and appreciating differences. Salem and witchcraft are inexorably tied, and the usage of witchery easily given a home in friendly Salem. Oftentimes, the topic in media returns to the witch trials, an easy conflation of location and event, somber in one breath and exultantly witchy the next.
I wondered what the appeal was for all these masses of tourists flooding into Salem. Were they drawn in by the curiosity of killing nearly two dozen colonists for a ‘make believe’ crime, born of pretense, hysteria, frustrations, and jealousies bubbling up to the surface of a deeply religious town? Was it the soap opera-esque breakdown of the events? The Hollywood mythology now entrenched in the town of real witches amidst the fallen, and centuries-long curses against their persecutors? The distillation of the events down to a concise allegorical episode for any kind of mob persecution against any group of people, like The Crucible’s timely association with the McCarthy investigations as a new form of ‘witch hunt’? The word ‘witch’ alone, divorced of bloody history for a more banal and distinctly New Englander presentation of colonial life and seemingly structured witchcraft? These were the rubes buying little bags of plastic glitter and shirts that said ‘Salem: An Awesome Place to Hang’, festooned with nooses aplenty. What did Salem offer for them? What did Salem mean?
My own interest was academic, but even if I didn’t have the opportunity to incorporate this into my research as a key example of extended, directed, malicious mob mentality in action, I would’ve found a reason to visit and do exactly as I did. I was, and am, a Titanic ‘buff’ — I can’t claim the title of historian or researcher, but I collected every book and every documentary I could get my hands on, and I visited the exhibition no less than four times — but beyond the immense loss of humanity in a tragic and unanticipated accident, the sinking carries a mythology embroidered with enticing facts: the largest ship in the world, sinking on its maiden voyage, indiscriminate in the loss of a broad cross-section of class. I can admit to myself that I wouldn’t be so fascinated with it if it hadn’t sunk, and was merely just a Guinness Book of World’s Records trivia piece, but I can buttress that with the certainty that I focused on mechanics over gross mortality. The death is, of course, the largest component of the tragedy, and what distinguishes it from the wanton destruction of reality show explosives testings or monster car rallies. When I entered reproductions of the grand hall, or saw the twisted, rusted, salt-eaten remnants of grandeur reduced to nothingness by the amoral force of the ocean, I felt connection, and a deep, keening sadness that could take my whole being in a sense of empathy for the loss, for what could have been, for the modern equivalent of a Tower of Babel, testament to mankind’s shipbuilding prowess and taste for refinement reduced in a few short hours to the world’s largest coffin. I wasn’t hit with that full-body sense of a loss I could not even call my own when I finally exited the train station and confronted the realities of Salem, but I think I need more time to process exactly what Salem meant for me.
The Salem I met with that warm, windy day was fractured into different eras, all meshing together uneasily. A new cupcake shop and a sprinkle of Dunkin Donuts, a rare Starbucks, all on cobbled streets with architecture ranging from Colonial to Victorian. A thick red line painted on the sidewalks, chipped and faded, indicated the route to find the museums and help centers. I passed a modern-looking strip mall en route to the visitor’s center, filled with small town hair stylists, martial arts teachers, baking instructors, and a small cinema. Less than 100 feet away, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the ‘new’ stone structure built in 1833 to replace the original 1733 wood building. Grave markers from the early days filled the yard ringing either side of the entryway. The chapel itself was built overtop a portion of the original graveyard, and incorporated some gravestones into its walls. Such was the way with the rest of the town: ancient history hedged up on all sides by the constructs of future generations. Somewhat hilariously, whenever I encountered more modern architecture, it was 1950s or 1970s designs, either chunky, ugly cinderblock buildings with no aesthetic appeal, or charmingly dated remnants of very individual and opinionated architecture. This isn’t the Salem Hollywood wants to present. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Everything I’d been presented with before suggested that it was a land frozen in time, and I think I gained a greater affection for the town knowing that it was a living, breathing, changing place, owning its past, but moving evermore forward. The dated architecture always 30-60 years out of date underscored it into a kind of sluggish, stilted growth, like time flowed just a little slower out here, like old habits were hard to change, and things were built for purpose, not for continuous search of the new. Compared to Boston, a locale that had segregated its historical architecture to patches, a locale that had built up tall, sleek skyscrapers, modern, oh so modern, Salem almost felt like home.
In spots, there was definitely a collegiate hipster feel, something I felt they really carried off well. Juice bars, expensive gnosh with even more expensive avocado, handmade pizza, secondhand vintage clothes stores, no lack of bicyclists circling through the city. I walked through more urban neighborhoods, tight multi-level apartment complexes trying to pass as townhouses, and that felt the most modern of all, with chain-link hoops set up over garages, telephone poles covered with rusted staples and signs, barber shops and photo galleries, a world of difference from the eclectic mix of architecture behind me. Through all that, you could see the Maritime Historic Sites with massive anchors propped up on dry land; Ye Olde Pepper Company, the oldest candy store in America; and Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, a historic face that opened into a slick and classy interior.
There were signs all over the place that attested to a modern understanding of the outside, and further, to their tourist appeal. Different placards with different fonts and different years and different aesthetic sensibilities dotted every location of note, offering a few paragraphs of information on the construction and its history, or how far away some exciting location was from where the tourist might presently be standing. Stern governmental signs were posted at all the graveyards in bright red all-caps sans serif font: ‘PLACE OF RESPECT. NO ADMITTANCE AFTER DUSK. STAY ON PATHS. PLEASE KEEP OFF STONES AND GRAVES WALLS AND TREES. NO STONE RUBBING ALLOWED. REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY. – City of Salem Cemetery Commission.’ The old graves I encountered in my hometown didn’t have nearly such stern edicts in place, but the increased attention given to these graveyards warranted the exhausted, exasperated tones to absolutely not do these things. Later on, I’d see tourists flaunting these rules, children climbing on the stonework or middle-aged women with fanny packs posing for photographs in the place of the dead.
It should be noted that this Salem was technically considered ‘the city’, and the location where the accused lived and worked purportedly was the nearby Danvers (northwest of Salem), which was not readily accessible by train. The Visitor’s Center and other historical centers depicted Danvers as a town so horrified by their association to the witch trials that they changed their name to ‘Danvers’ after one of their founding settlers, but their home site and wikipedia pages rather tellingly omit this from mention. Danvers still has Rebecca Nurse’s home, one of the victims of the witch trials; as well as the family home of one of her accusers, Sarah Holten. For its part, Salem did more to draw attention to the Pioneer Village, a reconstruction of the kind of settlement the citizens of Salem would have lived in at the time of the trials (though intended as a 1630s-era construction; it is implicit that in the course of 60 years, a good 1-2 generations, they would have built up slightly sturdier and more permanent structures). This is not to be confused with the actual dig sites, which they could only show through a documentary at the Visitor’s Center. The locations of those villagers’ homes were reduced to pits, impressions, the remaining brickwork of chimneys and cellars. Most of it had been consumed by the forest.
I referred to a map and research pamphlet written by the Salem historian Marilynne K. Roach for an understanding of exactly how built up Salem (city) was compared to my present understanding. (I’m not reproducing it here, but it’s well-drawn.) The image that emerges is one of greater distance and isolation than the compact town I wandered. Certainly, I made my way up and down to all of the sights with ease. I traversed the city three or for times in circuit, once just getting lost on the way to the visitor’s center from the train station. But each of these locations on my map were cushioned with incidentals: bars, coffee shops, bookstores, insurance providers. At the time of the witch trials, these locations were separated out, given ‘breathable distance’. Houses lined a few broad streets, The colourful map shown below makes it out to be a friendly distance, with all the hopefulness of a young town, but truthfully, these sites weren’t plotted out with any particular planning, and that map was drawn up as representative of a slightly later time. The sepia map shows a bit of the topography that I wasn’t able to explore, large hills and cliffs ringing the town, the forest on three sides, the harbor stretching out to the south, and a sense of both insularity and isolation in turn. I noticed also that wetland and river area had been filled in sometime over the 300 year stretch between Roach’s maps. The site of the North River now housed very flat and even ground to support the commuter rail. The South River became part of a more complex network of streets, all newly built. The commons were built around at the time because they were swampy wetlands; when I visited, it was a pleasant park just coming into bloom.
Frights and Sights
Salem is a site crammed with museums, waxworks, and galleries. I know I’d definitely be interested in returning to see their art galleries and science museums, like SciWorks, with endowments from seafaring days, to large, friendly parks, to a massive planetarium, to projects for encouraging children to pursue their love of science. The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) caught my eye with large, attractive advertisements for Chinese pottery (what history did Salem have with the Chinese? No one taught me about Salem beyond the trials), but had more overt interest with an outdoors installation called ‘Stickworks’ by Patrick Dougherty, strange nests made of local materials. In the context of the area, my brain could only refer to them as ‘witch houses’, and as spooky as they were in daylight, their inherent thrill of wrongness only increased in the dark.
These attractions were only incidental to my journey, and the ‘Stickworks’ a strange overlap between something innocently artistic and the suppositions that the area had already imposed in my mind. I was there for the witchly history, from kitsch to the earnest true believers to the apologetic historians. I got the sense very early on that one of the largest frustrations with locals responding to tourists and to ‘attraction’-owners was the sense of exploitation of the dead, taking a tragedy and turning it into something over-the-top, unrealistic, and even offensive at times. Tourists responded well to the witch-kitsch, but many of these sites and souvenirs seemed divorced from the understanding of mob hysteria and the deaths of ~22+ of their own friends and neighbors. Morbid doesn’t sell to tourists, unless coupled with a sense of very black humor, like the Addams Family, or painted in lurid, sensationalist tones, and it was unfortunately undeniable that a few sites chose to take that path. Additionally, I found it difficult at times to connect the solemn, historical, fact-driven understanding of the witch trials as a sobering lesson and black mark on the town’s history with the attraction-owners who wanted to push a ‘witches are good and also real’ narrative. That uncomfortable dynamic extended further: sometimes it was in the same location or across the street that the exhibit could transition from respectful and realistic to witch-friendly. One museum detailed out Salem’s history through its piratic days; included some promotion for Nathaniel Hawthorne, considered to be their most famous resident; and capped it off with a coupon for a museum of witchcraft nearby. This museum in turn displayed a companion diorama walkthrough detailing what a witch was and wasn’t, indicating a variety of different witches and local legends, and finishing the walkthrough with a lucky rub to a plastic dragon, and a venture through a gift shop stocked with incense, runestones, pewter pentagrams, magic wands, plastic gemstones, and bags of glitter, all to inspire children with a sense of their own inherent magic. Some of these items were truly schlocky, intended for the gullible tourists. Others, indicated by the price and labeling, seemed the real deal. I found it difficult to reconcile this with Salem’s narrative.
Furthermore, Salem’s history with popular culture included films, television, and comics that outright stated several of the accused to truly be witches deserving of their mortal punishments. Hocus Pocus, one of the most famous fictional Salem narratives to grace television, suggested that the three antagonistic witches had only been prevented from their bid to enthral the town by lawful and rightful execution in the witch trials. Paranorman flitted back and forth between the innocent use of magical powers and moralizing about bullying and acceptance, and the very real nature of the witch’s curse and powers used against the community that hurt her. Jack Chick, a supremely radical fundamentalist Christian cartoonist, proclaimed that the accusers themselves were secretly the real witches, fulfilled by a pact with Satan to take the town by the throat and destroy the true and innocent Christians. (A noted point of hypocrisy came in his decrying of the trials by Old Testament standards as Salem’s lack of Christian love, from a man who wrote polemic propaganda pieces against Jews, Catholics, Muslims, socialists, drug users, homosexuals, and harlots.) Regardless of the narrative’s slant, these pop culture pieces voiced credence to the widespread beliefs that real witches existed, were tried, and were executed in Salem. Why would they let people think that?
Just to try to get a sense for this disparity, I tried to contact as many magic shop owners as were available over the weekend, seeking an even-handed counterpoint. I wanted to understand why these people who professed themselves to be magical, connected to magical forces present in the earth, or witches, wizards, warlocks, wiccans would be drawn to Salem, a place with a history of being very unkind to innocents merely believed to be witches. For every retailer that gave me five minutes of time to voice their views, another two or three shied away from the discussion. Those who did speak to me were pleasant and earnest, either looking to make a strong impression or build reputation. Those who refused seemed to think I was a hard-line skeptic seeking some tidbit to use to tear into them. I recognized that I was a third-party intruding on certain delicate tensions already present in the town. What I did find was not quite so shocking as inevitable: Salem revitalized their tourism in the 1970s to bolster their economy, and the public made it apparent that they were hungry for simple, kitschy, Hollywood-style witchcraft depicted all throughout the town; Salem capitulated accordingly. Each and every witch who made their way to Salem was drawn in by an assortment of factors: the ‘energy’ of the area, the beautifully preserved architecture, sympathy for the innocents lost to anti-witch sentiments, a desire to represent their view of witchcraft and magic, an effort to seek out fellow-minded individuals in community, or even just the sweet, sweet tourism cash. As they developed a sensible and economic counterpoint to the movie magic witches, they drew in ‘pilgrims’ from across the country, eager to meet with a variety of different paths and viewpoints, and to come in contact with the community that formed between them. For the most part, this sounded mutually beneficial and supportive, both communities helping drive the tourism industry that’s the backbone of Salem’s economy. A Broadly article written only a few weeks before I arrived actually suggested that the town eagerly embraced witchcraft for their own, though the quote left the actual claim ambiguous: reclaim witchcraft from the negative past, return to potential pagan roots, open their hearts to magic. I had to keep in mind, however, that descendants of the unjustly accused still lived in Salem or surrounding areas, or visited to place flowers at the memorial. I could see the economic justification, and I could appreciate the ability to practice a non-harmful religion or lifestyle, but I wasn’t certain if I was entirely comfortable with the overlap between the real witches earnestly promoting their brand, and an attempt to keep the memory and respect of the dead at the forefront of the consciousness.
One stop I felt addressed the issue well was Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, which gave tourists exactly what they wanted and were expecting, and kept a respectful distance from the tragedies that put the town on the map. It made no excuses for what it was and who it was aimed for, and I felt if directed appropriately, it could probably draw out the kinds of tourists who approached the town on the basis of the Hollywood perceptions they held, rather than an understanding of the history, an enjoyable experience without tainting the memories of the dead. This venue was chock full of horror movie ephemera, specializing in the masks and mock-ups of monster make-up, dioramas of horror movie settings, signed photographs, and important historical pieces. For a geek like me, who grew up with these things as my fond childhood memories, this was an amazing treat, and a great find, and I have more enthusiasm for it in retrospect. At the time, I felt so downtrodden and disappointed with the wild pendulum of representation that I approached this attraction suspiciously, holding my breath in case I was to be disappointed again with a lurid depiction of town witchcraft as a direct tie to these monster masterworks. I held myself off from being able to truly enjoy this as a tourist moment because this didn’t specifically tie to my research (Salem and the witch trials), and because I was so afraid of a heartless cash-in. I came out of it feeling that I’d engaged in something delightful but tangential, spent time in something that didn’t directly tie back in to the research trip, and if only it was located somewhere else that didn’t seem so callously touristy… I bristled at how it dared situate itself in ‘witch city central’, and at the presentation of the place, with skulls and coffins festooning its exterior. Now with time to peer over these recollections, I’m less judgmental of the location, and more appreciative of the depth of effort, interest, and engagement that this venue provided. It’s the kind of place I could see myself running, tightly dedicated to one specific segment of the monster-loving community and presenting a well-curated and comprehensive collection.
A few historical locations maintained a sense of reverence for the dead, like Judge Corwin’s house, painted a severe dark grey with few windows, its back facing onto the street. That walkthrough was replete with historic furnishings, all listed from Elizabeth Corwin’s meticulous record-keeping, and gave a sense of what the lifestyle was like for those who could afford this measure of living. Large hearths, a more centralized fireplace, the importance of the cauldron, the necessity of the broom; all were common features of the household that took darker aspects in the eyes of the credulous. The house arrayed itself with exotic dried spices and all the tools needed to prepare meals. Upstairs, replicas of the carding machine, the spindle, and the loom, large machines which I found difficult to believe would clutter up such valuable space. (The house docents informed me this was so.) These acquisitions were not native to the house, but set pieces indicative of how the house might have been populated, in its time. Most intriguingly, they displayed items unearthed from the walls, the floorboards, and the hearthstone, superstitious affectations to promote blessings, good health, and fair fortunes for the occupants of the house. Settlers commonly hid poppets and old shoes in these locations, and from the doll on display, I found that a ‘poppet’ could be as simple as a scrap of cloth gathered over some stuffing, knotted around one end like the shape of a head, and split at the bottom, like legs. No facial expressions required on these little dolls to satisfy their classification, and indeed, they offered a genderless representation simplified to the most essential shape of personhood. It would be startlingly easy to lose a needle or pin in this incredibly lazy pincushion, then promptly forget about it. Beyond the historic worth of this home’s presentation, the Corwin house underscored two essential points: first, that these homes were inherently female domains, with signs of women’s labour present everywhere, and with the signs of witchcraft deeply tied to these tools, and second, that superstitions and even generalized forms of magic, like burying a doll to bring protection to the house, were common to the settlers from all paths of life, including Judge Corwin’s family.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and the graveyards constituted two very important visits on my list. Salem had three large graveyards in its vicinity, two within the town, a third slightly outside the parameters of the free maps supplied. My focus dominantly lay with the Burying Point, now called the Charter St. Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the city, and located immediately next to the memorial. I returned multiple times throughout my visit, both as a way to orient myself, and out of respect. Most (but not quite all) of the dead did not have the opportunity to be given gravestones or proper burial. They were treated as less than criminal, and there are few accounts and fewer clues as to where they were interred. In the year before I visited, I read articles suggesting that the hill where the innocents were hanged had been identified with near-certainty. At the time I visited, it hadn’t been examined for signs of interment on-premises, though the ground would have been fairly rocky and difficult to bury the dead in. The graveyards held their persecutors, their judges, their executioners, and their families, separated from them by the circumstances of their ignoble demise. The memorial acted as a way to finally give them some kind of recognition. During my visit, each stone outcropping held a small flower, all different varieties. A few elderly locals sat in quiet contemplation just outside the perimeter of the memorial, offering their respect. The first sign I saw of misbehaviour on such somber ground came from the rambunctious children who followed a walking tour I took. I wasn’t sure if they were simply too young to understand, or just uncaring, but their parents didn’t bother to correct the behaviour. The largest signs of disrespect came from outside the community, with time and distance blunting the human horror to something abstract and commercialized.
The Ghost Tour
I rounded out my trip with an old-fashioned ghost tour, through Haunted Footsteps Walking Tour, done by the Salem Historical Tours company. Ghost tours are a wonderful way to learn about the local history of a town. The best ones are essentially local historians, who know about the architecture and culture of the place. They’re often teachers or anthropologists who have the opportunity to share the most ghoulish or garish parts of their town with guests. My ghost tour, led by Nick, offered a cross-section of Salem culture and outsider’s interactions with it. There were the tales of non-natives who showed up to become sheriffs and instill their sense of authority, only to meet with horrible fates, potentially at the hands of a centuries-old curse voiced by no less than Giles Corey. There were the tales of forbidden inter-class romances and morbid demises in the Prohibition-era tunnels. There were the stories of entrepreneurial souls looking to make some money off the old-town charm by turning historical sites into bed-and-breakfasts, only to be confronted with spirits arising in protest against this. The common underlying theme seemed to be a sense of injustice, and the more I thought about this, the more it seemed true. Salem’s best stories were stories of wrongs unrighted, a ghost of regret hanging over decisions and moments evermore, from the moment the witch trials went into effect to the day I dropped by. Ghosts and ancient curses followed suit as a way to voice that injustice, or to prevent or warn against future injustice, fighting the court of the ordinary with supernatural forces.
I wished I had the juxtaposition by daylight, although the night tour afforded us free reign of the streets. The pairing of the ordinary and the banal with the fantastic was another common theme. The front door to the boy’s home in Hocus Pocus was the entryway to one of the most haunted houses in Salem, according to local lore. The sheriff’s house, soon to be a chic b&b, but for the malingering presence of something unseen, right down the street from a 7-11, a laundromat, and a doughnut shop. The site of Giles Corey’s pressing, once an empty field on Howard Street, now held another small, scattered cemetery and neat townhouses; the street itself now a back-alley street for the houses around it, a peaceful little church just bordering beyond that. A night time journey also had a more obvious means of artificially enhancing the spookiness of the tour. The mind can trick the eye in the dark, and the silence can amplify a host of other noises from nocturnal animals to the winds whipping through the trees.
I tried to tape my ghost tours whenever possible, ‘possible’ including the permission of the tour guide. My other audio recordings along this trip included a raucous sing-along at one of the oldest bars in America, a quiet narration of my safe trip home from that sing-along, and the incidental music played to an empty dining room as I ate alone in the Hawthorne Hotel. For the purpose of preserving the experience of the ghost tours for future guests, I will not attach complete recordings of the tours, but listening to them again to recount details, I’m struck with the incredible breadth of detail in the recording, from the crunch of gravel and leaves beneath my feet to the sound of jean and polyester, the sound of my winter coat, the distant sound of cars between our tour and our destinations, fading off to cool silence as the town vacated through nightfall. Listening to it to transcribe my impressions, I’m immediately catapulted back into the visceral memory, and I’m there again on the dark cobbled streets of Witch City.
The ghost tour revealed another aspect of the Salem witch trials not strongly represented by the other museums and exhibits: the issue of money and nepotism in the witch trials. Most strikingly, the direct connection between Judge Corwin and Sheriff George Corwin, the judge’s nephew, who was only 26 when he was made sheriff, and who abused his position by freely beating lawbreakers, miscreants, and those he didn’t like with the use of a thick cane, by torturing the accused in the trials, and by leaving conditions in the jail such that at least five unofficial victims were credited as dying by ‘exposure’ in their cells. This was the same sheriff who pressed Giles Corey to death and reportedly forced the dying man’s protruding tongue back into his mouth with the use of the same cane. The combination of a young, violent police chief and his incredibly stern uncle effectively fast-tracked dozens of accused for trial and imprisonment and presented a biased, singlehanded force. There were no advocates, no opportunities for the accused to speak in their defence, only to confess and ‘repent’, give up others, or maintain their innocence and be considered guilty by omission.
The wealthiest colonists were also disproportionately accused. A married couple, Mary and Philip English, were individually accused of witchcraft within a week of each other. They were the wealthiest of the Salemites, to the point of owning several other houses, businesses, and warehouses, and renting out to their neighbors. Even then, and even with the aid of high ranking politicians in the area, they narrowly escaped the fate of their fellow accused by fleeing to New York, leaving behind everything. When they did return, their possessions had been picked and pillaged, with land seized or damaged, and only fractional restitution awarded to them. Others were not so lucky. Widowed women managing their own households, and those who had inherited the wealth of their progenitors were accused, and their assets seized: convicted or confessed witches were not allowed to pass their property along to their family. The oft-mentioned Mr. Corey stood to lose the legacy he’d left for his children with the accusations leveled against his wife and himself, and his stubborn denial to speak for or against himself gave him the only loophole he had to provide for his family, which led into his torturous and unusual demise. This didn’t stop Sheriff Corwin from extorting his surviving family members in the years after the trials. We know this because they wrote to the crown in a lawsuit complaining about this behaviour, among others. The privileged position the Corwin family held ensured that none of the lawsuits carried out by the remaining accused or by surviving family actually came through to fruition. Though Sheriff Corwin claimed to have passed the money along to the Crown, careful accounting has proved this a lie. The judges and prosecutors profited off the witch trials to the best of their abilities, insult to injury in the long, slow-healing scar on the town’s history.
The ghost tour also reaffirmed that Salem is, and remains, an insular, family town. On the surface, that seems at odds with all the descriptions of witches coming in from all over the globe to make this little community their new home. But the local history is also a living history for its residents. Homes remain within the same families for up to seven generations, like the Ropes Mansion, and kept in use. Some of the churches served the same congregation from generation to generation, mingling names in marriage, burying children with their parents. Other sites, like the first church in Salem, were taken by the passage of time, rebuilt twice or thrice to more lasting forms. The town’s old roots are celebrated, cherished, remembered, and memorialized because its citizens have close connection to those events, and the descendants of accusers, victims, and prosecution alike have remained, building up goodwill again, making restitution, and making peace. (A prominent descendant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, contributed back significantly to the cultural framework of the community, but could not do so without some alteration of his last name, so great was the shame of association with Judge Hathorne and his role in the witch trials. It was as great a shame to descendants of accusers as it was grief and burden to those of the accused.) Of course, with three centuries of time, the population of descendants is large and well-spread. Among its noted members are actor Tom Felton of the Harry Potter franchise; Sarah Jessica Parker of Hocus Pocus fame; Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; and even George W. Bush. It seems like everyone with a long enough family tree in America had some tie to this small population. What differentiates these more illustrious descendants from the Salem locals has more to do with the mark they made on the town and their willingness to maintain those roots, whether out of justice, responsibility to their community, or a sense for continuing the long ties and traditions. Their stories are bereft of ‘spookiness’ without the direct and continued association with the town.
But that’s not to say that was all the ghost tour had to offer! In a more recent tale, the tour guide introduced us to an urban legend of a sea captain’s mistress embroiled in a love triangle, then accidentally entombed, still alive, in the long, maze-like tunnels running out from the sea. This complex tunnel system allowed for the smuggling of various products (it seemed largely alcoholic in purpose) from ship to shore without having to pay tariffs or submit to inspections. In the tale, one branch of the tunnel system ran up to the church, where we were presently standing, and the minister aided in the disposal of her unconscious-but-believed-dead body, going so far as to hide her body in the walls of an incomplete tunnel with hideous shades of the Cask of Amontillado; in this case, when the two prongs of the love triangle and the minister discover that she is still alive, but cannot find the location where they bricked her up, they deliberately walk off and leave her to her death, with a pact to never tell of her fate. Clearly, someone talked, for the tale to reach my ears that evening, and the guide was quick to add that the priest had provided written confession of his part in the morbid tale, before committing himself to the justice of a Higher Power as quickly as possible. Tales like this reaffirm a veil of secrecy over this town, riddled with secrets like tunnels lurking just under the surface.
We stopped at last at the Old Burying Ground, cleared out in the dark. Our guide had a ghost story for us here too, detailing why stone walls and iron bars separated graveyard from the active life outside. It was a kitschy tale, and I wasn’t certain how much of it sourced from genuine superstitions, and how much was embroidered for our benefit. It didn’t matter to me. We stood in the bounds of the Witch Trials Memorial, gazing over that wall that kept the dead in their place, and I was reminded of the barriers that prevented the accused from being laid to rest with their families even after their suffering. Of the nineteen hanged and one pressed, a mere three have tales of their families risking their lives and livelihoods to give them proper burial. We don’t know where the others are. Those same superstitions that kept the dead in their cemeteries also indicated specific burial rituals with strong repercussions for failing to follow through, but simultaneously denied these burial rites to criminals, pagans, and witches. Ironically, the martyred dead were said to return with a vengeance if not laid to rest properly, and if Salem’s shame would not recriminate their fallen with new accusations of monstrosity from beyond the grave, then economic vampire that preyed on the lifeblood of their history eagerly scared up a few dead settlers as vengeful ghosts to fright and delight. Beyond those walls, their accusers and their neighbors enjoyed their rightful eternal rest, before us, the accused denied the same. Even three hundred years on, it was a community ‘divided’ by an old stone wall and acts that could never be taken back. My tour group peppered the night with bright flashes from their phones and cameras, hoping to catch spectral orbs over the gravestones. I took another moment of silence, observing. Here, our tour ended. Just as well. I had seen enough.
ADDENDUM: They’ve recently confirmed the site of the hangings as a location ‘behind the Walgreens and up a hill’. It is covered in undergrowth and unsuitable to tour at the moment, but I would love to return when they clear it up and install a memorial.
My departure from Salem back to Boston and my cozy, modernized hotel (once an old ironworks, now a place for fashionable millennials to quickly access pubs, museums, and hockey games) was thrilling and terrifying in turn, and I can only laugh about it with the padding of time to dull the chill of fear. Salem abides by very small town conventions for closing time, especially for a Christian community, and I found that even chain stores that stayed open to 9 pm in larger cities would close at 4 or 5 pm in Salem. The ghost tour was a night adventure, and it seemed to be the last storefront open by nightfall. We were released back into the dark: no trolley, no car-fare, no Uber, no buses available at this hour.
The temperature had also dropped steeply, and while I had a Merino wool cardigan, a scarf, and a big winter jacket on, I hadn’t prepared for the freak blizzard that was coming in and hitting the Boston/Salem area hard. It had gone from a mid-60s day with coat and scarf crammed into backpack and cardigan worn about the hips to a -10 to -15 night, windchill effectively pushing it even lower, and the most abrupt change had only occurred in a 2 hour stretch, from about the time the walking tour had started to when we were released. Several of the members had dropped off early, unable to take the temperature changes or wanting to get back on the road before the snows started. I was alone and directionless in a sleeping city, trying to find my way home.
An important point of note is the way the train tracks are structured around Salem. Salem is not the final destination for that route, but the tracks narrow to a single line for a long stretch on either side. I had been accustomed to New York railways, where this only occurred at the very end of a route, and where there were always two tracks at every station. This was the norm for every part of my journey thus far except this location. When I arrived in Salem, I hadn’t seen the other track, and finding it was a curiosity that gave way to the more pertinent examination of the town. Now, when there was no one around to help, I wandered all over the train station, trying desperately to find the other track. There was one cab driver heading out onto a lonely stretch of road that became country highway. I begged him for directions to the track heading into Boston, standing 100 feet from the stairs down to the very thing I sought. He directed me back down, so back down I went, and headed over to the vacant parking garage, lit eerily with big orange-yellow industrial lights. I echoed again, but my mind didn’t parallel this to the beginning of my journey. I found only the stretch of road leading cars to the parking garage, no tracks. Google Maps and Find My Friend were no help either. I was trying to get help from family members to find the way out of here, with battery low on phone and no internet to run the checks myself. Find My Friend indicated the parking garage, Google Maps didn’t. It was a new construction that stymied the family members, and further convoluted the navigation efforts.
There’s a series of 911 calls I’d heard several years ago, regarding two teenagers who froze to death after taking a single dose of methamphetamine and getting extremely lost. Their minds instituted a certain logic that rallied against everything around them, and they sent emergency responders to locations almost 100 miles off from their location. Retrospective gives me that very strong comparison, or the other creepy, heartbreaking tales I read about missing persons. If anything bad had happened that night, those few witnesses would have said that this strange young woman was wandering around begging for directions to a place she was right in front of, leaving it over and over again and searching very intently for something they didn’t understand. At the time, I was only alarmed that I was in a strange area where anyone sufficiently strong enough could overpower me, where there were few cameras around to catch the act. I was terrified of the bad outsider, not realising that my own actions were putting me in a fair bit of danger, and not realising that my particular pattern of thinking had already begun to be affected by wandering in the brutal cold.
Writing this now from a position of warmth in what feels like a summer that will never end, I can more sweetly assure readers that I did get back to the hotel safely, and from there back to New York. But the journey was fraught with all those little issues that pile up one after another. After a certain hour, on the weekends, the train schedule back into Boston stutters to an hourly appearance, and then stops completely through the coldest part of the night, with the last train out at about 11:30. I can’t quite recall if it was so drastic that I’d miss the last train out, more likely I found myself on the second to last train, a 10:40-ish that was slightly delayed (from an estimate of 10:30). I encountered an incredibly gracious Amtrak worker who assisted me through the search for the tracks and the purchase of a ticket through my phone, all machines mysteriously non-functional. And I remained within the parking vestibule, a concrete enclosure with no heating, just lights, slabs of damp concrete for benches, and cameras, staying out of the hard winds, until the train finally limped into the station and took me with it.
When I could contact the family who tried to help me get out of Salem, I expressed my fears, uncertainties, gratitude, fatigue, and chill. I sent photos of how red my hands had become, jammed in the pockets of the winter jacket, and the inability to Facetime just covered the embarrassing tear-streaks over reddened cheeks as I tried to make my voice normal for them. I spoke more of the cold and the quick turn of the weather than the real life horror scenario I’d just run through. Only when relief was certain did I allow myself to unravel the tight knot of terror and feel my way through to relief. I compartmentalized it, taking the new lesson of the unusual train service and schedule into notes, putting the fears of that long stretch of cold, dark, empty night away, and continuing on to do the research I dedicated the trip to. I don’t think I mentioned any of this to my friends, or if I did, I minimized it as much as possible. I pushed myself to explore outside my comfort zone by making the travel to the places I was studying, my first in a series of solo escapades with no ingrained understanding of the maps, routes, or locations, and while this was a fairly unfortunate event, I didn’t want it to characterize the entire trip, or unduly concern my loved ones. I felt that bringing it up as mistake, naivety, or stupidity would only close off opportunities for myself, so that chapter of the journey was concluded and never referred to again ‘til now. I completed my research the next day to the best of Salem’s availability quickly and confidently, no return to the events of the night before, and left with plenty of daylight to make my train back home.
In leaving the Boston-Salem area, I fled an unexpected nor’easter that swept in about as quickly as the train could depart. Later, Amtrak informed me that this unseasonal dump of snow around the first day of spring would impact the trains following mine, with ensuing delays and cancellations, and my family simplified this to the more dramatic ‘leaving on the last train out of the area’. I could comment how the warm welcome became a cold shoulder, with weather as transitory and tempestuous as human moods, or how it seemed to follow from my exhaustion and depletion as I traveled and explored, an explosive and almost violent end to the adventure, but mostly I considered how strange and almost mystic the abrupt turn could seem, even for those seasoned to the land. Both Boston and Salem were situated on large bodies of water with easy access to the ocean, which would only intensify any incoming storms, but this particular one didn’t give meteorologists much in the way of advance warning. The weather scooped from pleasant and balmy spring, as it had been for most of the winter, down to a true chill, and for those isolated from large community and resources, or ignorant of the science of the stormfronts, it could pass almost like the will of man. I had a taste of the power and whims of fickle Nature out there, and gained a greater understanding of how a small community could begin to point fingers if their sense of normalcy was easily shattered.
My experience of uncertainty and fear was brief and largely psychologically built, but life in the colonies was filled with uncertainties and fears of that nature in day-to-day life. These could include insecurities about health of the self or young children, where mortality from sicknesses was much higher than today; insecurities about crops or catches leading to food insecurity or commercial insecurity; insecurities about the weather impacting home and property; insecurities about wild animals and other dangers of the wilderness surrounding them; and even insecurities in soulcraft, where Satan was real, his effects visible, devils prominent, and salvation uncertain and subject to rescindment. In the short period of time I dealt with that fear, my mind leapt to the illogical fears of a threat from without seeking to prey on an unaccompanied and lost young college student, merely because I’d heard stories told by other people about such kidnappings or murders. In a world without cell phones, fast trains, GPS tracking, streetlights, or workers mandated to work shifts throughout the night, in a world where wolves and freak storms and Satan were the largest threats to account for, I could easily see my fears shifting to that particular expression of them, and my awareness of details accommodating those beliefs, so that each sound of owls in flight or of small animals making their way through the undergrowth would confirm those primal fears.
In the uncertain world, religion and witchcraft are two paralleling ways for humans to impose some sense of order on Nature’s chaos. If God were responsible for both the negative and the positive, then the imposition of a willpower on these effects suggested punishment or reward. From this, punishment must occur in response to some human act, suggesting human responsibility for freak nature. And likewise, the continuation of good would be perceived as human influence for the community through prayer or sacrifice to their God. But when bad things happen to good people, there are two responses: first, externally communicated, that the receptor must have deserved it in some way, for hypocrisy or concealed evil deeds, excepting the case of Job; or that the misfortune must have come from a source of evil. Although God is depicted as stronger than Satan in Christian theology, Satan is still given a similar power to inflict evil on humanity, sometimes being able to administer the punishment to evildoers (alternately depicted as being incited to evil by Satan, or originating the evil in their own hearts), and sometimes given freedom to harm the good. To parallel the perceived human involvement in these greater powers, and the dichotomy between good-power and evil-power, humans equally believed they could receive power or compel the evil power toward a subject through similar petitioning. Witchcraft was, and is, seen as a way for humans to tap into that power over their surroundings and give themselves some degree of security in their uncertain environ. In the Christian-centric community, witchcraft was considered a pagan antithetical to good Christian living, and directly associated with the infliction of evil. As uncomfortable as the thought of witches living amidst them must be, surely it offered the tiny Christian community some relief to be able to name and vanquish the source of their fears. That the accusations grew to roughly 200 strong, a good third of their community jailed or held under house arrest, is a testament to the extent of those fears and how radically the accusations spun out of control.
I believe that Salem offered self-identifying witches the chance to humanize their people in response to the stigma of the Salem Witch Trials, a chance to offer healing and forgiveness for the other kind of slight, the assumption that people deserved to die for their religious practices in any form, whether perceived to be allied with the Devil, or against their own village, or otherwise. There’s even a beauty in witches and Christians living side-by-side, and the descendants of accusers returning with a display of genuine Christian love for their new neighbors. That’s part of what I took from the town. The opportunity to make amends, to build up instead of breaking down. It’s disappointing that this message was obscured by that Hollywood glamour so ever-present, a potent combination of tourist money, and the opportunity to put themselves out for another landmark. For Salem, this was sweet temptation, and it was all too easy for cinematic glories to lure the town into its thrall. They signed their name in the black book for money, fame, influence, and the soul of the town hides behind an over-decorated, almost-Disneyfied, fictionally palatable veneer, and I think the balance might have more to do with Mammon than anything else. At least in this regard, they’ve found a kind of ‘peace’, and maybe that’s enough.