Friday, October 19, 2007

Salem Massachusetts: City of Witches

The lady at the Nathaniel Hawthorne birthplace said that on Halloween in Salem there will probably be 60,000 people. When Halloween falls on a weekend, there are over 100,000. Salem has embraced its spooky heritage of witches, hangings, hauntings, possessions, and resin statues of horror movie villains. Salem has found its niche.

Salem has also found a way to control the weather! Our week in Massachusetts so far has been sunny and brisk, but during our stay in Salem it was overcast, chill, and in the evening the fog rolled in off the ocean in such a deliberate way that you could actually see tendrils of fog floating up through the old graveyard. Spooky.

Salem is mostly a cute old New England town with narrow streets still laced with cobblestones, little shops and restaurants and those wooden signs with gold letters hanging from cast iron hinges.

But of course, in 1692 and 1693 dozens of women and men were imprisoned as witches, and 19 of them were put to executed. More died in prison and under torture. When you get down to the actual facts of what happened, you find this: Political upheaval in England and local changes in the theocracy created an atmosphere of unrest and instability. Several local children got sick, probably with a disease that we could explain now but they couldn't explain then. Increasing population forced the colonists farther out into the wilderness, making farming more dangerous and stressing people out. People went a little nutty and started blaming every problem in their lives on women, particularly those were were a little isolated, a little different, not so connected to the community core.

The Salem Witch Trials are as good an argument as any you can find for the separation of church and state. Since 1693, all of the accused have been proclaimed innocent, and apologies have been given. So, why does Salem now call itself the Witch City, when the trials were a horrible, embarrassing mistake and an awful blot on our history? Because it looks good on a t-shirt!

It also looks good on a cycling jersey:

Now I will stop pretending that I didn't love Salem, because Dan and I are total Halloween junkies, and having a whole town devoted to pumpkin carving, ghost spotting, drippy red lettering, and pointy hats, was a Halloween junky's delight.

In the old town hall, we watched a reenactment of an actual witch trial, from the transcripts of the accusation of Bridget Bishop. Abigail Hobbs, another convicted witch, was a witness. Benny was very concerned that it was all real, but at the end when we (the grand jury) were asked to vote on whether there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, he voted that there was.

Here's Benny looking solemn outside the house of one of the judges. This is the only actual remaining building that was involved with the witch trials.

On to brighter things!

We ate at Rockafella's, a converted bank. The vault door was open and could be examined at length -- there were lots and lots of gears including a bevel gear and some long thing with teeth on it that Benny said was a worm gear but it wasn't. Since I didn't know what it actually was, I didn't correct him.

The best part of the day for me was not the clam chowdah, but the trip to the original "House of the Seven Gables" and the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Here I am by the birthplace:

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The House of the Seven Gables, begins like this:

Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon House; and an elm-tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon Elm.

The inspiration for the house in the novel is a real house in Salem, whose 19th century inhabitants (relatives of his) entertained the young Hawthorne often, and suggested that he write a book about the house as it would have been in its original form. It's since been restored to be more like the book than it actually was, with Hepzibah's store on the street side, and also a hidden staircase that goes up through the chimney. Seeing Hawthorne's house and the "Pyncheon" house was amazing for me. It almost made me cry, for reasons I can't completely articulate. Apparently it also made me forget to take a picture with the mobile phone, so all my pictures of the house are on my camera still. If you click the link, you can see it and read about it. Because of course, it is so completely fascinating!

We walked back to the car through the dark, saw a black cat, bought t-shirts with witches on them, and went home completely happy.


  1. Well I must say that you found much more there than I did!

    We went in late March/early April and saw Hawthorne's statue, a small museum of witch stuff, the commons and cemetery and that was it...we were so disappointed having come all the way from California!

    Now you have made me want to go back LOL But during fall, maybe even Halloween!

  2. This midwesterner has never been to the east coast but you certainly make it look appealing!

  3. Anonymous12:47 PM

    First I would like to say, I am glad you enjoyed our lovely city by the sea.

    In response to Shawna's comments, if you ever have the opportunity to return to Salem, please do! There are so many wonderful things to see and do. Such as walking along the small streets viewing houses some 400 years old. Visiting the House of Seven Gables, the Witch Musuem, the Friendship, Salem Willows, the Peabody Essex Musuem is great. Not to mention the best seafood anywhere. Granted Salem is on the quiet side during March and April, but the summer through early November the sidewalks are full of people enjoying our New England weather. Hope you can get to return and see Salem as it should be seen.

  4. Hi,
    This is the owner of Rockafellas... I just wanted to say thank you for the review please come back and visit thanx,
    Dave+Kevin of ROCKAFELLAS