By Erin Crowell
October settles over the New England coast, bathing its small towns in
warm colors of red, orange and gold. I chase the foliage by car,
taking a 2,500 mile road trip out East through New York, Vermont and
down along the shores of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
With Halloween fast approaching, a stop in Salem, Massachusetts seems
appropriate. So I plug the address into the GPS on my
dashboardMargaret, as Ive named itand let her even, monotone voice
guide me to the coastal town famous for the witch trials of 1692.
Located just north of Boston, Salem is home of the 20 men and women
who were tried and punished by death on suspicions of witchcraft near
the close of the 17th century.
When picturing Salema place of rich U.S. colonial historyI envision
a small town buried in maple trees, a single main road leading
visitors to a town square and a sign that reads, Salem, site of the
1692 witch trials. May thy souls rest in peace.
From there, travelers would be directed via free pamphlet to a handful
of rickety houses, museums and shops, manned by one grey haired and
adorable local whose great, great grandmothers godmother was one of
the tried victims.
Imagine my surprise.
After exiting the commuter-ingested Highway 128 into gridlocked Salem,
it takes me another 20 minutes to enter the downtown area.
Its a constant play on words in this town: Monster Mini Golf, Witch
Ice Cream, Wicked Dry Cleaners. Scary is a business and everyones
looking to make bank.
Since I dont have an exact destination, Margaret leaves me wandering
aimlessly, looking for any sign of the real Salem. While the
attractions are many, the authenticity is few and far between.
An illustrated map directs me to the following amenities: The Salem
Witch House, Salem Witch Museum, The Witch Dungeon Museum, The Witch
History Museum, World of Witches Museum, Spellbound Museum, The New
England Pirate Museum, Pioneer Village, The Salem Trolley, Count
Orloks Nightmare Gallery, Nightmare Factory, the Wax Museum, Haunted
Village and a slew of other must-see exhibits claiming to provide
total access to the history of Salem and the historic events of 1692
for a minimal fee.
Its getting dark, so I look for shelter instead.
Throwing away the plan of staying in the capacity-filled state park
campground, I relegate myself to a Motel 6one of the only places that
accepts dogsin the quiet town of Danvers, located just minutes away
from bustling Salem.
Its a Wednesday and every week the Danvers running club hosts a
community 5k fun run.
What the heck? I decide.
The group of 30 some runners, including myself, takes off in the dark
through the neighborhood streets, finishing at a local
landscape/gardening business where theres a small hot potluck and
cold beer for everyone.
You came all the way from Michigan for this? asks the enthusiastic
Brad between sips. What are you doing all the way out here?
I tell several of them I wanted to see Salem. Its almost Halloween, right?
Oh, youre actually in the town where things went down, says Aaron.
Danvers is really where its at.
THE REAL SALEM
The unassuming town of Danvers, Massachusetts (then known as Salem
Village) has little to no witch advertising no psychic palm readers
or wicked ice cream parlors. If they exist, its quiet and off the
Aaron tells me briefly about Rebecca Nurse, the oldest woman to be
hung during the 1692 trials. The 80-year-old womans homestead is
located directly behind the building we stand in actually, Aaron
notes hes related to Nurse in some distant way.
Nearby is the family burial ground, including the grave of victim
George Jacobs, one of just a handful of men accused of witchcraft
during the trials.
Aaron tells me he most admires Giles Corey, also of Salem Village, who
after being accused of witchcraft was sentenced to stone pressing -- a
torture technique where a board is placed on the victims chest and
stones are added, suffocating the person to death.
Lay more! Corey had defiantly declared.
Danvers was the location of the original Salem Village Meeting House
where many of the witch examinations took place. Today, one of the
only real linkages Salem has to the trials (besides its few residents
who were accused; and Gallow Hill, the location of their hanging) is
the house of witch trial Judge Jonathan Corwin.
Salem Village became independent from Salem in 1752, dividing into the
regions of Peabody, Danvers and Beverly and while old Salem Village
wanted to mend and be forgotten as the place where such ghastly events
took place, Salem embraced it.
When Salem wanted all the recognition and notoriety, Danvers was
like, Here, you can have it, says T.R, another fun run member.
They saw an opportunity and ran with it its pretty ridiculous how
much of a tourist trap that place is.
RELIGION & PARANOIA UNLEASHED
Rumor has it the accusations of witchcraft were started when a young
Cuban servant girl had shared with others her knowledge of voodoo. A
sickness took hold of several young girls in the community and many
Christian followers saw it as a takeover by the devil fueled more so
by then popular Memorable Providences, a book written by Cotton
Mather, who claimed to have witnessed witchcraft in Boston.
Rev. Samuel Parris was considered a pivotal character in the trials,
providing names of Satans workers to be tried. He was described as
self-serving with knee-jerk reactionary behavior ready to throw
accusations at anyone who did not follow his parish.
While the witch hysteria only lasted a year, it was a time of much
paranoia and accusation between family and neighbors, enemies and
friends, where over 120 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 were
killed for that belief.
If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent,
said victim Elizabeth Howe.
Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear! For my life now lies in
your hands, cried Rebecca Nurse.
If it be possible no more innocent blood be shed I am clear of this
sin! said Mary Easty.
Had the victims known about their infamy before their demise, would
they have been proud or ashamed of us? Has the Salem Witch Trials of
1692 served as an example of what paranoia can do to a community? To a
nation? What have we gained from the events of 1692 besides a haunting
tale for our children at Halloween or a place to buy some quirky witch
In a 2008 Salem News article, Tom Dalton writes, This old city, some
say, is locked in an eternal wrestling match with itself. Is this the
historic seaport of art and culture, or the Witch City of psychics
and ghost tours?
The city rejected a request by a paranormal research team from Rhode
Island to conduct a ghost hunt in the Witch House (Jonathan Corwins
house), saying it would be in bad taste to allow ghost hunters to
go inside an historic, 17th-century house that is tied to such an
important and tragic event.
We have to have respect for the gravity of the injustice that
occurred in 1692, said Park and Recreation Commission board member
Yet, Salems police patrol cars bear the image of a witch and children
are sent to Witchcraft Heights School.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of Salem is how such a tragic past could
create a positive future a sense of pride and profit. After all,
tourism is the number one import for Salem, providing substantial
profit to small businesses and the town itself (The Witch House made a
$175,000 profit that year).
The next morning I wake early and drive to the homestead of Rebecca
Nurse. The early sun casts shadows through the empty grounds and over
the dew-saturated grass. Its quiet here, and somewhere in that
quietwhile scanning the old buildings and crosshatched fencea wave
of sorrow and respect sweeps through me.
This is Salem, I think to myself.