Salem, Massachusetts: which witches?
A rambling by Tom Knapp, June 2000

Historians don't really know if there were any real witches in Salem, Mass., in 1692. But anyone who spends more than a few minutes in that quaint, coastal New England town today can tell you one thing for sure: there's witchery afoot in Salem now.

No matter how Salem might try to promote its historical importance as an early American colony, its thriving maritime trade, its architectural landmarks, its literary legacy or its various cultural treasures, one chapter in its past will always stand out in the public consciousness. The trials.

Early in 1692, several young girls threw a series of fits, which they claimed were caused by witches. Suspicion spread quickly, accusations mounted and soon the Salem dungeons were packed with accused witches awaiting trial. In an odd revearsal of justice, those people who confessed their guilt and incriminated others would escape death; only those who proclaimed their innocence were tortured and killed.

By autumn, 19 people had been hanged and one was crushed to death for his refusal to plead.

Modern Salem commemorates and celebrates its rich witch tradition in many diverse ways. For instance, those lucky enough to visit the town in October tell of festivities rivaling February in New Orleans. Monuments have been erected to memorialize the victims of those trials. And modern witches adhering to the Wiccan and other neo-pagan crafts have flocked to the area, adding atmosphere as they walk through the town, flowing black clothes swirling in the breeze.

And, for the casual tourist year-round, Salem offers a broad selection of witchy attractions. Universally pricey -- most cost from $4.95 to $8 for adults, for experiences usually lasting under 30 minutes -- they vary widely in quality, and the facts vary widely sometimes as well.

Where were convicted witches hanged? Officially, no one knows which of Salem's surrounding hills was once called Gallows Hill, site of the infamous executions, yet one museum displays a photograph of the hill and at least one shop sells "authentic" fragments from the actual gallows tree.

It would be easy to spend days exploring them all. Probably the best lurks behind the foreboding facade of the Witch Museum. The show takes place primarily in a darkened auditorium, where a taped presentation narrates the events of the witch trials as wax scenes and characters are dramatically illuminated. The figures are roughly shaped, some are almost abstract, but they're eerily effective as the hysteria unfolds around you. As a postscript, there is a small exhibit on evolving perceptions of witches, from ancient Celtic wisewomen to the green-faced crone of Oz and modern practitioners of Wicca.

The Witch History Museum offers a brief live presentation (beside an unexplained display of dancing Indians), then heads into the basement for a series of wax scenes telling the same basic tale.

Another top spot is the Witch Dungeon Museum, which re-enacts a witch trial using court transcripts before taking visitors down into a dark, damp recreation of the Salem dungeons (the originals were demolished in the 1950s by New England Telephone), complete with crowded communal cells, "luxury" cells with blankets and cots for wealthier inmates, coffin cells too small to sit or lie down for the very poor, and torture chambers, where examiners used thumbscrews, whips and racks to encourage confessions.

The Salem Wax Museum opens with the figure of Jacob Crowninshield, who brought the first elephant to America, before introducing a bevy of settlers and seamen, pirates and Puritans -- and an assortment of oddities. "Lusty" Bridget Bishop, the first woman accused of witchcraft in Salem, inexplicably has a man's head. Elizabeth Procter, being told her husband has been hanged, wears a gleeful smile. Several of the figures have odd proportions, and there are cheap plastic rats scattered throughout the scenes. Downstairs, there's a hands-on room for kids to crayon, make gravestone rubbings and tie knots.

And then there's the Salem Witch Village, which purports to tell the history of witchcraft as a religion. Staffed entirely by real witches, it presents an iffy account of history and pseudo-mythology, plus a healthy dose of indignation over the treatment of witches past and present. (The witch on a broomstick who serves as Salem's official emblem is, we're told, degrading, but that doesn't stop them from selling numerous variations of the symbol in their gift shop. On one visit, my guide glossed over details of Salem's history with the oft-repeated phrase "I don't know much about that," erroneously told patrons that "written language hadn't been invented yet in the Middle Ages" and railed at the group for stealing the pagan Yule tree for use in a Christian holiday.)

For the stricter historians, there is the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, where one of the victims lived, beside a replica of the original Salem Village Meetinghouse. The Witch House on Essex Street was the home of magistrate Jonathan Corwin, one of the trial judges, and is the sole remaining structure actually tied to the trials. The infamous hanging judge John Hathorne (an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed the spelling of his family name from shame) rests in a grave at the Old Burying Point along Charter Street. The Peabody Essex Museum contains many court transcripts and other artifacts from the trials, and the Danvers Archival Center houses numerous documents on witchcraft.

Of course, a trip to Salem wouldn't be complete without visiting at least a few of the bevy of pagan specialty shops and "haunted" attractions competing with the museums and historical sites for attention. Certainly it would be easy to build an entire trip around the witchcraft theme for a variety of fun, sobering and educational experiences.

If witches aren't your focus, or if you've seen all the museums and are all witched out, there's still plenty to see and do in Salem.

Salem is a town of broad divisions, with stately old churches competing with pagan specialty shops for attention within blocks of the coastline and a rich maritime heritage. Salem boasts a mix of historical sites, museums and shops, plus a scattering of pubs, seafood eateries and pizzaries. A brick-lined pedestrian mall links the downtown historic and commercial districts. There are also many convenient trolley and bus stops (the latter marked with a broom-riding crone painted on the pavement).

The sightseer has plenty to see, from the art and artifacts at the Peabody Essex Museum to the Pirate Museum down near the docks. Central Salem stands around the well-manicured lawn of Salem Commons on Washington Square. Looming larger than life, between the gothic-looking Salem Witch Museum and Sweet Scoops Homemade Ice Cream & Yogurt, is a statue which, at first glance, appears to be a witch. Don't let the peaked hat and flowing robes fool you -- it's Roger Conant, the "first settler of Salem, 1626."

It's also easy to forget about the historical and cultural sites and get lost staring at the gorgeous New England architecture, which is just about everywhere you look in this active, thriving town.

Not to be missed is the Salem Beer Works, a Derby Street microbrewery with a host of tasty, colorfully named beers (such as Witch City Red and Black Bat Stout) and fine meals. Be sure to visit Ye Olde Pepper Companie, America's oldest candy company, which has been selling lemon and peppermint Gibralters since 1806 and is conveniently located near Hawthorne's famous House of Seven Gables. The Cat, the Crow & the Crown is run by Salem's "official witch," Laurie Cabot. Besides the knickknacks, crystals and jewelry, you can sometimes find Cabot herself giving tarot readings in the curtained back room.

On a recent visit, I was walking through the quiet Salem streets on a damp and misty night. There was little pedestrian traffic in the center of town and it was easy to lose myself in time ... until the sound of a distant car alarm shattered the old-time illusion. But the atmosphere was quickly restored by the appearance of one of the town's modern witches, long hair dyed black, black clothes swirling before she disappeared down a side street. I stopped for a frothy pint of Guinness in a nearby tavern, where a middle-aged and toothless man tried spreading the word of Jesus to fellow patrons as a rockabilly band prepared for a gig in the corner.

Witches aside, Salem is a town of many parts.

[ by Tom Knapp ]