The Samuel Pickman House, 1681, Salem Massachusetts.
I was dusting the bookshelf around Halloween when it caught my eye. About eight years ago I carved a jack-o-lantern, which managed to spend the winter in the corner of the front porch, and in the process became mummified. Since then I’ve dutifully carried it around with me, and there, just below it, getting a little attention from the feather duster was Witchcraft at Salem, by Chadwick Hansen.
Chadwick is one of those names ideally suited for writing about matters of the occult. If he had been from the midwest, he’d most certainly have grown up as Chad, or had a very difficult childhood indeed. But here was someone who managed to reach adulthood with his Chadwick intact, and here was the book, which has sat unread on countless bookshelves of mine since I first brought it home, all those years ago.
The due date slip on the inside read September 13, 1978, which meant I checked it out from the high school library at the beginning of my senior year, and somehow managed to escape with it.
Now I’m no virgin to the history of Salem and the witch hunt. I’ve seen many films,Â documentaries, read many books on the subject, just not that particular book. So I pulled it out and left it sitting around for a few days, to see if it managed to draw me in.
Reading any book purporting to reveal the truth about an incident which took place 318 years ago, and that dealt with such issues as the supernatural, children and their strange behavior and of course, Satan himself, must be read with a grain of salt, or sulphur perhaps. And flipping through its pages, I was struck not by the author’s theories, but by wondering about the mystique of Salem itself.
Mystery clings to the name like a woolen cloak – black and impenetrable. It’s quite often the first reference we have of witchcraft, taught to us in elementary school. There is oppression, people wrongly tried and imprisoned, not to mention violent, public death. And of course, puritans and their strange hats with the buckles. What was up with that?
So finding myself living just three hours or so from Salem, and after a few weeks of turning over the book in my head, I decided to go have a look at the place myself. Why not peek beneath the cloak and see what was there?
* * * * *
It was after midnight when I packed the car and lit out – a winding route I had planned, with stops in Lexington and Concord, and a desire to be at Plymouth by sunrise. The remnant of a tropical storm was blowing in, and my little VW Beetle was blown all over the road as I drove along the coast of Long Island and Connecticut. Soon enough however, I was on the New England Thruway, and before long in darkness, something not frequently seen on Long Island.
The wind kicked up leaves from where they were scattered beside the highway, swirling them upwards until they took on the shapes of animals and people, rushing into the road before dissipating in a whirlwind or scattering as I burst through them. It was the imagination kicking into high gear, as I was headed back in time, in search of magic and history.
A visit to Plimoth Plantation (Plimoth being the old-world spelling) outside Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a good appetizer to whet your appetite for Salem. A restored 17th century Puritan village, it gives a feel for the roots of life in early Salem, as well as Salem Village. You frequently hear references to Salem Village in films and books about the witchcraft hysteria of 1692, and people tend to think the two places are the same. Which isn’t the case, and as it turns out, this played an important role in how events turned out.
Salem and Salem Village were starting to separate in 1692. Salem was growing as a center of trade due to its great harbor, and folks there were already feeling and acting metropolitan in a 17th century sort of way, whilst Salem Village, a bit inland and to the north, remained mainly agricultural, the people’s expressions a bit more dour. There was a schism on the religious front as well, with two clans competing for control of the pulpit and of the town of Salem Village.
Into this fractious mess came Samuel Parris to Salem Village, who took over as minister of the church in 1688. Parris was a former planter and by all accounts, strict, egotistical and a tad bit greedy. He brought with him his wife, Elizabeth, six year old daughter Betty, niece Abagail Williams and a slave, Tituba, who was purchased in Barbados. Educated in Harvard and perhaps used to an easier way of life in nearby Boston, he began to complain almost right away. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that he was settling into a hornet’s nest, but almost immediately some of the villagers were threatening to withhold paying taxes for his salary, as well as refusing to bring cordwood to heat the parsonage for the winter. Talk about a chilly reception, and one that Samuel didn’t take lightly. Not only did he see conspiracies, which might not have been paranoia as people were certainly out to get him, but he also began to see the hand of the devil at work in Salem Village.
During the winter of 1692, Betty, now ten years old, began exhibiting strange symptoms. It’s worth noting here that in Salem Village in 1692, when your daughter begins acting strangely you can’t just pop over to the doctor’s office to see a specialist. “Prithee Doc, I’d like you to take a look at my daughter. Well she’s behaving in a way that I’d call distinctly odd, you know, contortions, writhing on the ground, spouting gibberish. We’ve been eating a lot of moldy bread of late, not sure if it could be that or perhaps possessed by Satan. Could you have a look at her?”
Instead, you were in essence in the wilderness, just a handful of people nearby, with a doctor sorely lacking in formal training, and death always close at hand. In fact, only about 70 miles away, the Indian wars raged, and people were afraid. Scalping was not a pleasant way of dying. There’s no way of knowing what was happening with Betty – it could have been epilepsy, boredom, cabin fever, stress, guilt, delusions, psychosis, moldy bread or as many started to suspect, the effects of witchcraft on the young girl.
Cotton Mather had recently prosecuted a case of witchcraft in Boston and written the book Memorable Providences about the affair, and it was noticed that Betty was exhibiting many of the same symptoms. Soon three of Betty’s friends were showing the same odd tendencies, and the village doctor made the suggestion that witchcraft might be behind it. A neighbor, trying to be helpful, came up with a plan to have one of the minister’s slaves bake a rye cake with the urine of the afflicted victims and to feed it to a dog, which would then show who the witch was. This scheme backfired, though not it seems because dogs tend to shy away from urine-baked rye bread, but rather as it was seen as witchcraft to fight witchcraft, which was a puritan no-no. The number of afflicted girls rose to seven, they began to name names, including Tituba as the source and one of the darkest annals of American history had begun.
You don’t get the sense of isolation in Salem town today that would have been prevalent to its Puritan forefathers and foremothers. Coming in on I-95 at a creeping pace with its unending stream of traffic, into the smaller villages and their cramped streets, I never even knew when I had arrived in Salem proper. It was only when I saw the Witch House which stands near my destination that I realized for certain I was in Salem, and I pulled into the driveway at the Salem Inn and shut off the motor.
My interest in Salem began when I was a little boy, like a lot of people of my generation, from the television series Bewitched. Samantha, Darrin and Endora came to Salem for a few memorable episodes, which stuck with me always. And it seems that the same is true for Salem itself. Downtown one finds a bronze statue of Sam on her broomstick, and I counted two stores in short order which seemed to be cashing in on the Bewitched connection. I’ve been told that in the 1970s, Salem became like a poor man’s Disneyland version of a witchcraft theme park, which greatly ignored the historical facts and sought to capitalize on the more sensational aspects of witchery. Which many people were fine with. After all, the accused were from other villages for the most part, and in the end were found to have nothing to do with witchcraft anyway. What Salem became was a place of execution.
Over time, Salem developed a sense of taste, and with the help, or perhaps the insistence of a rapidly growing population of Wiccans, pagans and modern-day witches, it sought less to capitalize on the stereotype of old world witchcraft and more on new age magic, Wicca and Salem’s deep history. And there’s plenty of history, and hauntings in Salem, with or without witches. The hotel where Samantha Stevens stayed in Bewitched, the Hawthorne, is supposed to be home to its own ghost, and not just the haunted bed warmer featured in the show. In the end though, I went with the Salem Inn, which not only has a ghost of its own, but reasonable rates, fireplaces in the rooms, a 19th century ambiance and is walking distance to any place I might want to go.
In fact, just around the corner from the Salem Inn, one finds the Ropes Mansion, dating from the 17th century, on Essex Street. It was originally the home of Judge Nathanial Ropes, a friend of several of our founding fathers until he chose the wrong side in the American Revolution. The house was stoned by an angry mob, which threatened to bring the whole place down and give the hapless judge a thorough boxing of the ears, until it became known that the Tory judge was already gasping out his final breaths inside. Abigail Ropes later burned to death in her bedroom there, screaming her lungs out, which neighbors report can still be heard on occasion. Other manifestations, more or less poltergeist-type occurrences, have been reported as well. And there is a photo of the good judge still lingering in his mansion, which can be seen in the book “New England’s Ghostly Haunts” by Robert Ellis Cahill.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, he of the Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables fame, and no stranger to penning a creepy tale or two himself, relates a story based in the Salem Athenaeum Library, just across the street and a couple houses down from the Ropes Mansion. Hawthorne used to stop in at the library on a daily basis for a bit of reading, and though conversation was scarce, the regulars all knew each other and would typically at least greet one another. He had read about the death of one of the circle, a Reverend Harris, and Hawthorne was shocked to see the good Reverend in his usual place that afternoon, Hawthorne saw him there five days in a row, during which time the apparition spent his time staring holes into Hawthorne, who never bothered asking any of the others if they saw him, too.
The Salem Inn consists of three historical properties, and I was lodged in the main building, the Captain West House, once owned by a prominent Salem seaman. There is little mention of the ghost there, though it’s possible to get the room which is known to be most active. I didn’t get that room. I also didn’t get there in time to get a parking place on the street, so I had to park a block or so away in the hotel’s parking lot, behind the Curwen House. Which I didn’t mind a bit, as it was a nice night, breezy and cool, and the storm was promising to hold off for a few more hours.
As my stated intention of coming here was to take photos of Salem, and the following day promised to be a washout for that, I decided taking photos of Salem at night would not only be my best bet, but appropriate. By this point I had been up for most of the past thirty-six hours, so I retired to bedlam for a short nap. I went with the most inexpensive room in the inn, and found it nicer still than many I’ve stayed in for a much higher price. The only drawback is that the bathroom is not only not in the room, but through another door, into another hallway, and inexplicably, hotter than the fire of Hades itself. Still, it’s an old house, and I chalked it up as quaint, and was thankful I didn’t have to share it with anyone else.
As my head hit the pillow and I fell into that odd realm between being awake and being asleep, I found myself listening to a conversation between a man and a woman, debating what they were going to do that day. Now I’m no stranger to the effects of sleep deprivation, and I soon realized that the conversation wasn’t taking place outside of my head, though I’ll be damned if I could figure out why my mind was playing back this particular conversation between two people whom I didn’t seem to know or remember. My eyes opened and darted around the room, and I was reminded of a line from a Tom Waits song about hotels … you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here. Not seeing a couple in 19th century garb in the room, and no longer hearing the conversation, I proceeded to nap.
It’s possible the witch hunt around Salem might have ended before it began, if not for Tituba deciding that she was likely going to be made into a scapegoat and deciding to name names. According to others, her confession was urged along by a beating administered by the good Rev. Parris. Either way, she talked, and once she got going she proved to be an able storyteller. The other two women named by the girls were Sarah Good, a local beggar who never fit into Salem society, and Sarah Osborne, who was old, crabby, known to have sex with her indentured servant and most scandalous of all, not a church-goer. Both fit the stereotypical image of witches. The girls’ stories were so similar that either what they were describing was true – which was what the authorities believed, or they had worked out their stories together beforehand, which was perhaps more likely. When Tituba backed up their stories, and told her own about being accosted by a tall man from Boston, who sometimes appeared as a dog, sometimes a hog, and told her to sign his book and do his work, the officials in charge of the interrogations – Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the great-great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne – threw themselves into the proceedings with gusto. Hathorne, it should be noted, is one of the few who never repented of his actions during this time; such was his belief that what he was doing was God’s work. His grandson we might believe didn’t feel quite as certain, as he added a W to Hawthorne so that people might not know they were related.
With Tituba spilling her guts and beginning her long stint in jail (she escaped the gallows and was eventually sold and left Salem), there was now no denying that the devil was afoot in Salem Village. The girls widened their net of accusations, adding Martha Corey, Dorothy Good and Rebecca Nurse, all from Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton of nearby Ipswich. These accusations greatly troubled the village as they were well-known and respected, church-going women. The girls developed a new technique, where they appeared to be seeing and being attacked by the specters of the accused even in the room where the proceedings were taking place. “Look where Goodwife Cloyce sits on the beam suckling her yellow bird between her fingers,” one of the girls shouted out during a hearing, throwing the room into pandemonium. Even Dorothy Good’s four year old daughter was hauled in for being a witch, interrogated and seemingly implicated herself and her mother, then ended up spending eight months in jail, eventually coming out more or less (and considerably more by all accounts), insane.
During the proceedings, when John Proctor objected to his wife, Elizabeth, being accused, he also was accused and arrested. Martha Corey, had voiced skepticism of the girls’ charges, and found herself arrested and accused as well. Within a week, five more were taken into custody and hauled before the magistrates, and finally a few prisoners started getting the idea that if they confessed and named others, they might escape the gallows. The proceedings moved from the meetinghouse of Salem Village to Salem proper, raising the stakes, as the officiating judges now acted under the auspices of the governor, who named an official court to prosecute those languishing in jail. On May 10, Sarah Osborn, one of the first three accused, died in jail of more or less natural causes. By the time the court convened, there were 62 people imprisoned and awaiting trial. Then came June and total madness.
Salem is an amazing town at night. For those wanting nightlife, there seems to be a good share of that, even in November when the zaniness that is Halloween in Salem is packed away for another year. Fine dining abounds: Salem appears to have kicked off its puritanical roots and spirits flow freely into glasses all over town. But for me, the real joy was stealing through the shadows, taking photos of Salem and looking at the architecture of four centuries which has borne witness to the history of this unique little town.
Concrete gives way to cobblestones and back again. Across the street from the Old Burying Ground is a massive gas station/convenience store. Salem is no time capsule. The past and present draw breaths from the same air.
I tagged along with a walking ghost tour for a bit, then wandered away, the whole time, the streets and sidewalks of Salem carrying me on, towards the harbor. Once there, it was easy enough to follow the signs to perhaps the most famous landmark in Salem – the House of the Seven Gables.
I confess to never reading the book until I began planning my trip (okay, I downloaded it from Audible.com and listened to it). The story is complete fiction from the imagination of Nathaniel Hawthorne, though the house was in existence during his day, despite being greatly different from the way you see it now. Known officially as the Turner House or Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, the house was built in 1668 for Captain John Turner. By the end of the 17th century, it had acquired the gables for which it is famous. But by the time of Hawthorne, in the 19th century, the house had been modernized, several of the gables removed, and he based the appearance of the house in the book to stories told of its history by his cousin, Sarah Ingersoll, when he used to visit the house as a child.
Facing Salem Harbor, the sounds of chains clinking against the masts of boats in the breeze, the house almost fades into the darkness of the nighttime sky. I looked out over the garden where Phoebe and Holgrave held their talks, and then wandered to the street and down the sidewalk. There you find the window of the store run by Hepzibah, which of course isn’t original to the house, but a concession to the tourists. There the silence was almost complete, and in the dark one can almost get the feel of Salem in 1692. If you close your eyes you can almost smell the heat coming off the wood that June, when the world seemed to be turning upside down.
Once the trials got underway, things moved quickly. It wasn’t uncommon to be interrogated and tried in the same day. You didn’t have the right to an attorney, though you did have the right to ask questions of your accusers. Of course that might just get you in deeper, as your accusers might very well fall into drooling and fits just at the sight of you, and the most unfortunate were the ones who professed their innocence.
Though on the surface there seemed to be due process, the presumption was one of guilt, which allowed the magistrates and judges to dispense of many of the legal niceties, which as a testament to puritanical efficiency sped things up quite a bit. To have a person arrested, all you needed to do was tell one of the magistrates that the person was a witch. The magistrates then signed a warrant for your arrest, and you were hauled in before them. They listened to the testimony against you, determined in all likelihood that you were indeed a witch, and had you sent to jail to await trial and conviction. And to add insult to injury, you had to pay for the privilege of being held in subhuman conditions. Even the rats ate better than the accused.
In jail they might try to get a confession against you, and carry out physical examinations, looking for the tell-tale signs of guilt. One was searching your body for the witches’ teat, which could be something as simple as a mole or freckle, thought to be a source of nourishment for the devil. Torture, as carried out in Europe, wasn’t practiced as such in Salem, with the exception of pricking the body in search of these witches’ teats, which no doubt could be quite painful. Though it could accurately be said that for a puritan woman to be exposed before her jailers and have her body searched thoroughly, would be a form of torture. Instead, the torture was more of coercion, intimidating the accused to confess and name others, that being their only hope of escaping the hangman’s noose.
Your case then moved to the grand jury, and if they decided you were a witch, you moved to the official Court of Oyer and Terminer, where you were tried, convicted by a jury of your peers, death warrant signed and taken away for hanging. Notice I didn’t say might be convicted? Twenty-six prisoners appeared before the court, and all were found guilty. The luckier ones languished in jail until the madness had passed, although five people died in captivity awaiting trial. Of those convicted, nineteen found the noose about their neck.
Think about it for a moment. You’re a god-fearing woman of puritan upbringing, who has never run afoul of the law, never done anything to be ashamed of. And suddenly you are accused of witchcraft, tried, convicted and facing hanging, all on the testimony of a handful of children who claim to have seen you flying around the courtroom while you stood on in helpless amazement. People whom you’ve considered life-long friends are looking at you with fear and hatred in their eyes, and you realize in horror that in a few days they will be standing there watching as you are publicly hauled up gallows hill in a rickety cart, noose placed around your neck, and cheering as your feet are kicked out from under you and you fall to your death. With friends like that, one doesn’t need Satan getting involved to demonstrate the presence of evil.
On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was the first to be hung, on the lower slopes of Gallows Hill. Bridget Bishop had been married twice before taking on her third husband, when the witch craze began. She was known to have a fiery temper and contentious working relationship with her husbands, was mistress of two taverns and thought to be a bit of a floozy in the manner of her dress. At times, it was whispered, she wore a bit of colored cloth even. So it came as no surprise to the people of Salem Village that she would be suckling the devil in her spare moments.
Indictments were read against Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Procter, John Procter, Martha Carrier, Sarah Wildes, and Dorcas Hoar. Of those, Good, Howe, Martin and Sarah Wildes, along with Rebecca Nurse, were tried, found guilty and then executed on July 19, 1692.
Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Procter were carted up Gallows Hill on August 19, 1692. George Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer without missing a word – a feat supposedly impossible for a witch, and for a moment it appeared that he might escape the noose. Unfortunately, the infamous Cotton Mathers, who was in attendance, reminded the gathered crowd that Burroughs had been found guilty, and that was that. Mathers appeared to give warning early on, stating that people should be wary of conviction by spectral evidence alone. Evidently though, he decided it was good enough, at least for poor Burroughs. Mathers went on to write Wonders of the Invisible World, based on the records of the trials.
People often wonder how the mania spread so quickly, though the answers are pretty simple. The first to be accused were those who fit the bill, unmarried women who weren’t popular in the village, and of course Tituba who was from the Caribbean, already known to be the home of many strange and mystical practices. Then it became those whom the accusers had it out for – those who cast doubt on the sincerity of the girls, for instance. And then there were those who doubted the existence of witchcraft, who eventually were drug in as well. Once accused, your only way out was to name names, so you had to come up with a list of others to accuse. And if you’re going to make an accusation that might send someone to the gallows, it makes sense that you’ll choose someone you have a grudge against, or at least has already been named.
And of course there was pure greed. Many of those accused had valuable property, and a conviction and execution meant that their land and belongings became property of the state, and in some cases, that very property had recently been contested by the accusers against the accused. Puritan families were known to be quite fertile, and each generation produced a healthy number of children. To provide for those children after your death, you had to leave enough land so that each might scrape out a living from its crops. Which meant that your holdings had to grow with each generation, often encroaching upon your neighbor’s property, while your neighbor was quite likely trying to do the same thing. All this led to friction between neighbors, and all it took to bring a neighbor’s property onto the market was to make an accusation of witchcraft against them, and let the judicial system take its course.
The majority of the accused were unmarried women or widows, and at the time, if they had no heir on their death, their property reverted to the previous owner, or to the Massachusetts colony, whereupon it went for sale.
Giles Corey, knowing that if he plead guilty he would lose his lands, that if he plead not guilty he would be hung and lose his lands, and being eighty years old and wanting to see his children get his land at his death, refused to enter a plea. The punishment for refusing to plea was peine forte et dure, where the person has a piece of wood placed over their naked body – in Giles’ case a door – and then rocks piled on top until they either entered a plea or died. As the end neared, his tongue began to protrude from his mouth, at which point the Sheriff forced it back in with the tip of his cane. Gilesâ€™ wife Martha had questioned the accusations of the girls, and found herself accused and arrested. When Giles protested, he found himself accused. After several hours of what can only be called torture under an ever-increasing pile of rocks, Giles died, three days before his wife was hanged. His death played a large part in turning public opinion against the trials and executions, and finally, reason began to take hold again.
One thing I’ve noticed about wandering historical towns … at night it is easier to lose the 21st century. Granted, old fashioned street lamps help with that, as does having areas shut off from traffic. But the way the darkness shrouds things like power lines, trash, cars – the way that the corners and crevices soak up the night, it’s much easier to be transported back. And Salem works this way. For one interested in the history of American architecture, Salem is a dream come true, with almost four hundred years of styles on display. One could walk the streets seemingly forever, and I found myself still taking Salem photos- approaching midnight – the witching hour and I’d forgotten to eat.
When it comes to dining out, I’m a reasonably cheap date. I had it in my head that the ideal dinner in a New England seaport, or at least for one on a budget like myself, would be fish and chips. And I found a pub just off Washington Square called the Old Spot which looked to be the place for that. It would have been, it being fashioned after an English pub, if I hadn’t been too late for dinner and was forced to order from the late-night menu. I went with the deluxe cheeseburger, which didn’t sound too exciting. Okay, so I’m searching for the perfect bacon cheeseburger, and something called Deluxe Cheeseburger sounded way too generic. But it was actually quite good – not approaching the culinary heights of the grass-fed beef cheeseburger and fries fried in duck fat at the Annabel Lee Tavern in Baltimore, but quite tasty all the same. At the moment I was starving, so it was beyond that even.
Leaving the Old Spot I made a valuable discovery, especially considering my circuitous route getting there. Essex Street, for a good chunk of the downtown historical district, is a pedestrian mall, with a few short but highly interesting blocks of shops. Many of the more popular shops and attractions are along or just off Essex, so it makes a great artery for exploring the town. In no time I found myself across the street from Samantha Stevens and the Bewitched statue again, just down from the hotel.
There was quite a bit of controversy over the statue when it was installed in 2005. When Elizabeth Montgomery, cast and crew rolled into town to film several episodes, October 7, 1970 was declared Bewitched Day. Paid for and installed by the TV network “TV Land,” the statue is seen as insensitive by some, and good fun by others. Standing almost eight feet tall and cast of bronze, it does draw its share of tourists, snapping photos of each other in front of it.
I can see the reasons for being against the statue. But then again, as a little boy I dreamt of growing up to become Darrin Stevens, living the life of an advertising executive with a witch for a wife. And I did manage to become an art director, and from the show developed a strong interest in what happened in Salem, as well as a great empathy for both the victims, and the accused as well. Some say all publicity is good publicity, and I don’t buy that for a minute. But tacky as it was, Bewitched, at least in my case, has had a positive influence on the way I’ve perceived Salem for all these years. It sparked the imagination, and that I believe is, always a good thing. Still I had to smile at what was one of my earliest inspirations and role models for what domestic life must be like as an adult. No wonder so many of my generation turned out weird.
And so back to the hotel after sitting outside the Witch House for a bit. It strikes me as ironic, really. Despite the histrionic name of the house, no witches ever lived there. In fact, it was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which during his tenure sent 19 people to the gallows for witchcraft, all of whom had pleaded innocent. That the house bears such a name today must have the ashes of Judge Corwin swirling over in his grave.
Finally I made my way to my room, to light the Duraflame log in the fireplace and curl up with a book on New England ghosts until sleep overtook me.
In September of 1692, eight more convicted witches were hung on Gallows Hill in Salem. Then in January of 1693, something unusual happened. All five of the first cases of the year were found not guilty. Grand juries were still in session, bringing in indictments in some cases, but of the next sixteen cases brought to trial, only three were found guilty. Though sentenced to death, the governor of Massachusetts ordered pardons for them. In February, five more people were tried, and all were found not guilty. From that point on, the few cases remaining all were acquitted, and the nightmare was at an end.
There are many causes put forward for why the trials and executions finally stopped. The horrific deaths of well-liked citizens is one, for how easy could it be to watch people you’ve known all your life suffer torture and death whilst declaring their innocence, and nothing but the word of a handful of young girls to point to their guilt?
Also, the well-educated in Boston, just a short distance away, found the whole affair outrageous, and began to pressure the politicians, Governor Phips especially, to put an end to it. And then the wife of the governor was accused herself, which helped lead Phips to make the ruling that spectral evidence no longer be allowed. Without that, the cases crumbled into dust.
By 1695 the public backlash had begun against the trials and executions. There was a fast day held in 1696, at which several of those involved in the trials publicly asked for forgiveness. Even Cotton Mathers’ father came out against the proceedings that his son had helped to fuel. In Salem Village, one of the victims, a pious woman who had been excommunicated before her hanging, had the excommunication reversed, though of course the hanging remained intact. In 1706, Anne Putnam, one of the accusers publicly asked for forgiveness. She claimed that she had been deluded by Satan into bearing false witness against innocent people. By 1711, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a bill throwing out the convictions against many of those found guilty, and authorized compensation for the families. But it wasn’t till over 200 years later, in 1957 that the last six people to have been found guilty were pronounced innocent by the General Court.
It’s safe to say that in 1692, there were no witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Or at least not the kind that the witch hunts were trying to root out. The same can’t be said for today. It’s estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 practicing witches and pagans living in there, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more vibrant Wiccan community anywhere. Halloween in Salem is a madhouse, part solemn ritual, part bacchanal celebration, and perhaps more than a part or two kitsch.
The heart of the modern witchcraft tradition in Salem could be said to be Laurie Cabot, known as the Official Witch of Salem by decree of the governor. A noted author, speaker and frequently appearing on television, she started not only a school for witchcraft, but two organizations dedicated to dispelling myths and offering protection to witches.
Born in Oklahoma in 1933, she came east as a teenager, settling around Boston. After seeing the Bewitched episodes featuring Salem, she opened the first witch shop there, Crow Haven Corner, as tourism piqued by interest in the show began to take off. The store was successful, though she eventually sold it and started a new one on Pickering Wharf – The Cat, The Crow, and The Crown. Today, an untold number of the witches of Salem owe their training and inspiration to Ms. Cabot.
And so with Saturday came the rain. Not just a drizzle, but at times a downpour, at times a torrent, and I was thankful I had gotten most of my Salem photos the night before. I nipped into the dining room of the Salem Inn for a continental breakfast which was actually worth waking up for, and then back to the room to pack. I hesitated and hated to leave, but there were no vacancies for the night, and I couldn’t bear the thought of staying in Salem without my fireplace, so I headed to the car, getting soaked in the process. I sat for a bit, listening to the sound of the rain on the roof, wondering what to do next. I knew there were still a few more Salem photos to get, I was already wet, so what the hell, back out I went, and lurched down Essex Street, now much colder and inhospitable than the night before, feeling more like the Salem of The House of Seven Gables, with its storm from the East which goes on in the book for days.
The rain lightened for a few minutes and I got a few more of the photos I needed, then set about picking up something for my little boy, as well as something tacky for myself. I had hopes of getting down to The Cat, The Crow and the Crown, but with that thought came the rain again, and I found myself rethinking my plan, considered heading back to the car and out of Salem, when I noticed I was almost directly in front of Crow Haven Corner. I had checked out the website prior to my trip and knew there was still a connection to Laurie Cabot, if only in the woman who owns it claiming Ms. Cabot as her inspiration, so I ducked inside, happy to be out of the rain for the moment.
I wandered around the shop, dripping all over the place and I have to admit, found the place pretty impressive. True, there was the kitsch, but also some quality stuff in there, not just for the practice of witchcraft, but gifts and home decor as well. Had not poverty been weighing heavily upon me, I could have been weighed down with parcels upon leaving.
As it was I fell into conversation with Miss Molly, witch in training, who specializes in Tarot readings, combining psychic ability and mediumship. She asked what I was doing in Salem, I explained the website and the articles, which led to a conversation about our own personal experiences with ghosts – we both saw them as children, both of our grandmothers saw ghosts once, both grandmothers died at the same age, and it never even struck me that perhaps her psychic abilities were more keen then I gave her credit for, perhaps she’s just really good at the whole business of selling psychic services, or perhaps she’s my spiritual twin.
She then introduced me to the owner, Miss Lorelei, the High Priestess at the store, as well as the pooch Chico, who rules the roost and is a favorite of Ms. Cabot, having attended most of her classes with Miss Lorelei. Together, Miss Molly and Miss Lorelei explained to me a bit about the Wiccan path they’ve chosen, which, contrary to the dark reputation of witchcraft, is really quite innocent and oddly pure. It echoed something I had read on Laurie Cabot’s MySpace page – after all, what self respecting witch doesn’t have a MySpace page? “Witchcraft is a holistic path centered on a working philosophy, it teaches us that we are responsible for ourselves first, then we can help others who might stumble on this day and return the favor by preventing us from stumbling the next. It is an endless cycle of care and assistance,” she wrote, which is as good an explanation for what witchcraft is in Salem that I’ve yet heard.
And of course this was echoed by the two ladies in Crow Haven Corner, who told me of the Witches’ Rede, which comes down to if it does no harm, do as you will. This is tempered with the three-fold law, that whatever you do, good or ill, comes back to you three times over. So be good for goodnessâ€™ sakes.
After they helped me pick out something sufficiently creepy for my little boy, I was on my way, splashing up Essex Street and back to my car. I drove north to Danvers, which used to be known as Salem Village, having finally broken away from the town of Salem. Parking my car at the church, just across the road from where the original once stood, which bore witness to the earliest hearings of the unfortunate, I started down the road. Passing Ingersoll’s Tavern or Ordinary, where the original hearings were supposed to be held, until a crowd too large for the space showed up, and which according to legend was the place where many of the first victims faced their examinations, I continue on until I came upon an old cart path which led between two modern houses into a small wooded area. There, amongst the rain-soaked leaves, were the foundations of the parsonage of Salem Village, the house where the first girls became afflicted, and where folklore has it that Tituba taught them the secrets of divination. I went down the steps into what I suppose would have been the basement, and noticed there on the ground, three carnations – an offering or memorial someone left, though for whom I’m not sure. I’ve stood in many places which might be called creepy, many places which might still contain a residual power or memory, but seldom have I stood in a place which left me with such a sense of sadness and history. Something powerful and incredible and terribly black once sprung from the spot on which I stood, and I believe you can feel it in the very foundations of that house.
I pondered the three-fold law, and wondered if it was true, or just a way of keeping those who sought power in check. Witchcraft and Wicca are nature religions, and nature tends to be neutral when it comes to good and evil. Is the cat that plays with the mouse before tearing it to pieces evil in inflicting its torture? Or is it just exercising its nature?
At any rate, evil seems to be in short supply in Salem these days. That couldn’t be said in 1692, when evil certainly walked the streets of Salem and Salem Village. It didn’t fly through the air on broomsticks as was supposed at the time. Rather, it lay in the hearts of men and women who were willing to believe the worst of people on the basis of hearsay and gossip. It manifested itself in the search for power and wealth, in the deaths and confiscation of lands belonging to the hapless victims of their persecution. It grew in hearts made cold by intolerance, and in an inability to accept those who were different from the rest of their society.
It would be easy enough, though all too general to be wholly true, to say that the witch hunts and persecutions were made possible by men’s desire for power. I’m sure in the halls of government and other places where people of that ilk still ply their trade, that remains true today. In Salem however, that power is tempered by those who seek a different kind of power, which seeks to harm no one. The witches of Salem today might not fly on broomsticks, nor are they in league with the devil. But they, and the town they call home, remain bewitching still.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them