Whether spectral or corporeal, historical or contemporary – Salem, Massachusetts is a town many associate with the word “Witch,” and of course the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Legitimate or unmerited, I had heard that Salem is a place that bares its anxious soul. Since I was visiting nearby Boston, I wanted to see if Salem lived up – or down to the hype.
After driving up into this charming, though somewhat gritty New England town, I encountered the dour statue of town founder, Roger Conant standing near the green 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 English settlers who braved long, terrible ocean crossings to come to the Massachusetts coast had a very rough time of things in their new hostile climate. They were afraid of nearly everything including wild animals, Native peoples, (Indians) 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. (2 dogs were also hanged as witches)
Walking around Salem, (easy walking) I discovered many museums, some sobering and others a bit hokey – dedicated to the Witch Trials. The Witch Dungeon Museum perhaps best demonstrates the very 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 museum depictions and reenactments made think about the intolerance, persecution, collective insanity and repression in our world today.
Oddly, for a place renowned for the 1692 murderous “witch hunts,” show trials and killings, 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.” the most celebrated witch in town. She really does look the part in long black robe and scary make up. Ever since her return to the city in 1970’s, witches have been “coming out of the broom closet,” chuckled Cabot. 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 pretty 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.
I took a short drive over to the Rebecca Nurse House, another important witch-trial-era related site located in Danvers, a community a few miles west of Salem. 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. Walking around the historic site still, really made me think about this chilling part of American history where people could get so crazy as to kill their neighbors.
Halloween or the Festival of Samhain for Wiccans – is by far Salem’s biggest holiday of the year. The city is filled with parties, celebrations like the “Temple of Nine Wells Samhain Magick Circle,” eerie séances, magic shows, concerts, readings and other “haunted happenings” throughout October leading up to the big night.
Later that day, I encountered 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, New York. Flynn enjoyed his visit, but when I asked about modern day witches he said, “There are no witches here, there’s no such thing.” Myth and reality continue to intersect, in this complicated little New England town.
c. Bob Ecker 2011