I’ll admit it, the first time I saw the sign announcing that I had arrived in Salem, I got chills up my spine.
The Salem witch hunt was a real-life horror story, and usually the first one we learn as school children. If you grew up in the sixties, there’s a good chance that mood was further colored by seeing the episodes of Bewitched, where Samantha attends a Witches Convention in Salem.
So Salem is cursed with a haunting reputation, one that they now play up significantly for the tourists. Haunted Halloween which runs the entire month of October draws nearly a quarter of a million people to Salem, with a street scene that’s part new age, part party till you drop.
If you visit Salem during any other month of the year, you’re likely to find a somewhat busy Boston suburb of around 26,000 people, blessed with architectural gems, historic attractions, modern day witches and psychics galore, and of course, a plethora of sites and attractions devoted to the Salem witch hunts. The red line on the downtown sidewalks trace the established route of official sites relating to the Salem witch trials, but along the way, a fair amount of kitsch has made it onto the trail. The sad truth is that there are very few sites still in Salem with direct ties to the witch hunts.
There’s the most famous, The Witch House, home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges who participated in the Salem Witch trials, and which might also have hosted some of the testing of victims to see if they were indeed, witches. The Burying Point Cemetery has a few graves of people who had ties to the events of 1692. And it’s believed that Gallows Hill was the site of the hangings, though if you want to see the most likely location, pull in behind Walgreens at the foot of the Gallows Hill and look up at Proctor’s Ledge above you, rather than the official site on top of the hill. The accused were kept in the original jail, which is now the site of GTE, the location of the trials is now the middle of Essex Street, a lovely pedestrian street full of life in the evenings. The spot where Giles Corey was pressed to death by an increasingly heavy pile of stones for failing to confess was someplace behind what is now the Old Salem Jail, likely in what became the Howard Street Burial Ground, and at night still retains a good bit of the creepiness you expect from Salem.
Probably no single man exemplifies Salem like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Born to a sea captain who died of yellow fever while at sea, his birthplace is still there, adjacent to the House of Seven Gables, the inspiration for his most popular novel, which also dealt with the Salem witch hunts. In fact, his grandfather was one of the judges, the only one not to expect regrets for his actions, and it’s believed that it was to escape from his family legacy that he added a W to his last name. The House of Seven Gables, also known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion is a treasure of first period architecture, the oldest remaining mansion in the United States, and is furnished with items from the families which lived there in the years after Hawthorne visited his cousin, Susanna Ingersoll beneath those gables.
Salem has a long history with the sea, and that history is one of the main reasons many people visit Salem. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is nine acres of seafront, civic buildings which once administered the maritime trade, homes bought with the riches of the east, stores and shops where those riches were stored, and a replica of an 18th century merchant ship. To see what these riches could buy, take a walking tour of the McIntyre Historic District, where mansions line the streets, built with riches obtained when Salem was a busier port than either Boston or New York City.
Some time after Samantha Stevens put Salem back on the map on Bewitched, Laurie Cabot, owner of Crow Haven Corner at the time, a small shop catering to the witch trade, started promoting modern day witchcraft in Salem, which has blossomed over the years. Whether you’re a pagan, wiccan or garden variety witch, there are a bevy of shops to suit your needs, including Ms. Cabot’s new store, The Cat, The Crow, and The Crown, at 63R Pickering Wharf, as well as the original Crow Haven Corner, now under the management of Miss. Lorelei. Or if you’re looking to find out what fate befalls you, you have a bewitching choice of psychics to read your palm, tarot or tea leaves.
There’s still a dark undercurrent flowing beneath Salem, which no matter how loud the celebration, or how much tinsel is draped over the town, it can’t escape. There is just enough first period architecture in Salem that acts as a constant reminder of a much darker past, when fear held sway and paranoia and madness sent 21 people to horrible, needless deaths. But that’s just one of many lessons to be learned from one of America’s oldest seaports.
Articles on Salem and environs from A Gothic Curiosity CabinetSalem Witch Hunt Sites: Touring Marblehead & Essex County with The Physick Book Of Deliverance DaneCry Innocent: Salem witch attraction brings the witch hunts and trials to lifeA History of the House of the Seven Gables, also known as the Turner-Ingersoll MansionThe Salem Inn: Hauntingly lovely in Witch City, MASalem, Massachusetts: The Historical Record and a Salem TravelogueA warlock’s curse? The ghosts of Salem’s Howard Street Burying GroundThe Devil in Old Salem: Proctor’s Ledge, the real Gallow’s Hill?Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel HawthorneNewbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts: Early American history and historical attractions from the colonial era in an enchanted New England landscapeNewbury Massachusetts and the Pierce Tomb: Dancing with the dead on Old Burial HillThe Screeching Lady of Lovis Cove: Marblehead, MassachusettsTry these links for guided tours in SalemSalem Night Tour Ghost TourSpellbound ToursDerby Square ToursSalem TrolleySalem Witch WalkPlaces to visit to learn more about the Salem witch hunts:Salem Witch MuseumThe Witch HouseWitch Dungeon MuseumCry Innocent Where to see the best in Salem architecture:McIntyre Historic DistrictSalem Maritime National Historic SiteHamilton HallThe House of Seven GablesSalem Haunted HotelsSalem InnHawthorne Hotel