Salem, Massachusetts is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously, at least at first glance. Despite the dark history it is saddled with, modern Salem doesn’t have a problem poking a bit of fun at its nefarious past. As you walk around, there are the bumper stickers and you might even find a shop or two that will sell you a cape and broom (pardon the blurry broom image, I got excited). This is a place that welcomes Halloween year round, but underneath all the costumes and face paint is a city that has somehow been able to transition from a place of fear to somewhere that is a joy to spend a sunny afternoon.
Founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company on the site of an Indian trading center in 1629, it was settled by Puritans who had fled Europe amid religious persecution. Once they settled in the New World they were not interested in blending with other faiths and retained their structure via very strict rules and harsh punishments for breaking them. In 1692, upon the accusations of several young girls, a period of insanity began that would last almost a year. During that time twenty people would be put to death for witchcraft. To this day Salem is haunted by this occurrence despite the fact that most of the participants actually lived in nearby Danvers.
There are reminders of the past all around. The Old Town Hall, built in 1816, is a nice place to sit and watch the world go by as you munch on a sandwich and soak up the early spring sunshine. Oh, and you can grab that sandwich at nearby Red’s Sandwich Shop, located in a building dating to 1698. It was once home to the London Coffee House, home of the Salem branch of the Sons of Liberty during the Revolutionary War.
This is an infinitely walkable city. Notice the tiny details here and there – hand-painted toy soldiers in a shop window, squaring off for a fight; used books stacked sky high, just waiting to be pilfered through; colorful wreaths hung on boldly painted, quintessentially New England doors. Quaint, brick-paved sidewalks, darting between buildings that are centuries old. Walking along you can almost feel the ghosts strolling beside you, just waiting to see what you think about their town.
Walk by the Corwin House, the only building still standing that has a connection to the witch trials. Also referred to as the Witch House, the Corwin House stands on Essex Street and was once the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, a local magistrate called upon to investigate the claims of demonic activity that launched the witch trials. He served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the body that ultimately sent 19 people to their deaths.
Head down to the waterfront and tour the famous House of the Seven Gables. Climb the extremely narrow hidden staircase behind a fireplace that leads to the second level for a little adventure. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited his cousin, who lived in the house, quite frequently when he worked at the nearby Customs House. The house dates to the 1660’s and was once the home of a merchant and ship owner, but it was Hawthorne who made it famous when he immortalized it in his House of the Seven Gables. In the same complex are other architectural examples of early Salem, the oldest of which is the Retire Beckett house which dates to 1655.
Of course, no visit to Salem would be complete without two stops – the Salem Witch Trials Memorial and the Old Burying Point Cemetery. These two spots are located near one another. The cemetery is the second oldest in the country and the oldest in Salem. Begun in 1637, several names connected to the witch trials can be found on tombstones throughout the cemetery. And if you love funerary art, this is the place to be. Wonderfully carved stones mark centuries old graves. There are some amazing stories to uncover in the lives of those buried here, including Captain Richard More, passenger on the Mayflower, several Revolutionary War veterans, and even one man who died in 1737 from a lightening strike.
Adjacent to the cemetery is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. A stone wall encloses a grassy area. Twenty granite slabs, each with a victim of the witch trials engraved on it, jut out from the wall. As you walk around, you can see where flowers have been left by other visitors. It is a very quiet, somber place despite the fact that no one is buried here. The names are familiar – Giles Corey, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse…their protests of innocence are carved across the stone threshold into the park. This is a place full of symbolism. The trees are locusts, chosen because they are the last to bloom and the first to loose their leaves. The site was chosen to be next to the cemetery as a symbol of how society stood as a mute witness to the events that unfolded all those years ago.
It is clear the hysteria will never be forgotten. Nor should it be.
“If it was the last moment I was to live,
God knows I am innocent… – Elizabeth Howe, 1692
All photos by the author.