One million visitors come to Salem, Massachusetts annually, mainly for one reason—witches.
I admit it. The first time I came to Salem in 2000, my friends and I were drawn by the salacious stories of the Salem Witch Trials famously held here in 1692. We visited the Witch Museum. We checked out the spooky wares for sale in the tourist shops. It wasn’t until fifteen years later on my next trip that I discovered the rest of Salem’s history and found myself looking in the mirror at early Americans who traveled the globe to bring back their discoveries to one of early America’s powerhouse cities.
The tale of Salem begins in the year 1626 with roughly thirty settlers led by a man named Roger Conant. The group consisted mainly of Puritan fishermen who had left England for religious freedom. The Puritans were Protestants who felt that the Church of England wasn’t quite “pure” enough of Catholicism for their liking. But just because they were forming their own homeland didn’t necessarily mean any other faiths would be welcome. In fact, they were met with suspicion.
By June of 1692, one accusation released a tidal wave of hysteria across the town. The spark was an accusation of witchcraft by three young girls displaying highly unusual symptoms that couldn’t be explained by disease. It wasn’t the first case of witchcraft and is today hypothesized as having been the result of a family feud. Regardless, three women were tried, convicted, and hanged at Proctor’s Ledge for the crime of practicing witchcraft. In this highly-religious society, nothing was more terrifying of those who appeared or were rumored to be possessed by the Devil. Nine more women and seven men followed in the footsteps of the initially accused and one died in prison. 150 men, women, and children would also stand accused, but were not convicted. By September, the drama had largely played out.
Though the court of Massachusetts later officially overturned those deadly verdicts, it was hardly of any use to the dearly departed.
Transcripts of the trials were largely based on the presumption of guilt and a great deal of hearsay from the villagers. Judge Jonathon Hathorne, later known as the “Hanging Judge” pursued the following line of questioning with Rebecca Bishop:
Bishop, I am no witch
Hathorne, Why if you have not wrote in the book, yet tell me how far you have gone?
Bishop, I have no familiarity with the devil.
Hathorne, How is it then, that your appearance doth hurt these?
Bishop, I am innocent.
Hathorne, Why you seem to act witchcraft before us by the motion of your body which seems to have influence upon the afflicted.
Bishop, I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.
Hathorne, How do you know then that you are not a witch?
Bishop, I do not know what you say.
Hathorne, How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is?
Bishop, I am clear…
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial to the twenty people who died after being branded as witches was constructed and dedicated to those now widely-acknowledged as innocent in 1992. Three hundred years after their deaths, the voices of the accused call out to us from etched granite near Salem’s Cemetery. I couldn’t help but be saddened reading their desperate pleas from beyond the grave.
“I am innocent”
“I am wronged”
“Oh Lord help me. I am wholly innocent of such wickedness”
“I can deny it to my dying”
Though police and city employees today wear an insignia on their uniforms which includes a witch on a broomstick and you can stroll the grounds of Witchcraft Heights Elementary School, there is more to see here than the story of some very unjustly treated women. You can also walk through the Chestnut Street District which is home to the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century domestic structures in the United States. You can tour the House of Seven Gables, where Nathaniel Hawthorne—a distant relative of the hanging judge—wrote one of his most well-known works and is today a strikingly-well restored and fascinating museum.
Of course you should also visit the bookshop where I was lucky enough to have a book signing on Salem’s main pedestrian street, Wicked Good Books. And you cannot miss the PEM, Peabody Essex Museum, America’s oldest continuously operating museum since 1799 which holds fascinating artifacts brought from around the world by sea captains and intrepid voyagers in the early days of oceanic exploration.
To summarize, what we have here are a number of women and men who were grievously and fatally wronged by America’s infant justice system. More specifically, a group of male patriarchs who were hell-bent on preserving the “purity” of their community by alleviating it from the presence of those they deemed undesirable. Men who thought it their right and indeed their destiny to brand these innocent men and women with charges they could not fight.
It’s worth noting that three hundred years after the fact, it is not the wealth of the 6th largest city in the colonies that is remembered. Nor is it the many treasures of early American culture and history that can be found here. It is one of the greatest witch hunts of all time that is first and foremost on our minds. One has to wonder if the year 2016 won’t be remembered for exactly the same reason.
Click to Check out my full Salem photo album