Salem: America's Spellbinding Seaport City Where You Come Face-to-Face with History
By Karen Rubin
We were expecting hokus pokus. What we got during our recent visit to Salem, Massachusetts, was a stirring history lesson, one that resonates today. The 1692 Witch Trials for which Salem has only relatively recently become infamous (the city had all but forgotten that part of its history), gives Salem a unique dimension. But Salem also brings other aspects of American history to life in a way that will enthrall young and old alike. This is not just textbook history; you actually look into the faces of the people whose stories are being told-through the wax figures; the portraits, furnishings and artifacts in the historic homes and museums; and the costumed interpreters who further bring the struggles of the early settlers to life.
We soon became immersed in the history of the Salem Witch Trials-a subject with which we were only slightly familiar before-but we found Salem's other aspects, its importance as a Colonial seaport and its rich cultural heritage, for example, equally compelling. The visit to the House of Seven Gables, which so inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne (who also was a living link to the Witch Trials), the Salem 1630 Pioneer Village with costumed interpreters, and the Peabody-Essex Museum, which started with a contest for the "most interesting" items that the ship captains could find to bring back, make Salem a world-class destination and a microcosm of America.
Salem is a city of ironies and of profound significance to how America came to be what it is. The Witch hysteria-a period of 13 months during which 19 people were hanged, one man crushed to death and hundreds were imprisoned in horrible conditions--contributed to America's insistence on "separation of church and state," and also the fundamental right of "innocent until proven guilty." It also has contemporary significance because of the episodes throughout history of similar "witchhunts," such as during the McCarthy Anti-Communist trials.
The irony of Salem is that while all 19 people who were hanged for witchcraft were not witches (but two who admitted to practicing witchcraft were not hanged because the magistrates feared they would be haunted), in modern times, Salem has become a kind of a hub for the true practitioners of Wicca, by some estimates, 3,000 people in the city. You can even visit the Official Witch of Salem, Laurie Cabot, in her shop on Pickering Wharf. You can also visit the Salem Witch Village (really an attraction and not a "village"), which is organized by practitioners of Wicca; they provide an unsensationalized explanation of the Wicca faith, which goes back probably to the beginning of human history (think of the Clan of the Cave Bear's healer) and in contemporary terms, is more akin to New Age healing and nothing to do with Black Arts. Meanwhile, the Puritans certainly lost their political power after this event and have pretty much faded away.
Because of its association with witches, though, Salem has become best identified with Halloween, and for many years, now, has offered a nearly month-long Haunted Happenings festival which climaxes on Oct. 31. The annual Witches Ball, held in the Hawthorne Hotel, is sold out five years in advance. However, as we found, Salem is much more than witchcraft, and its special attractions-particularly the House of Seven Gables, immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, the 1630 Pioneer Village, and the Peabody-Essex Museum-make this a very special and significant destination, year-round.
Indeed, the close-proximity of Salem to Boston (about the distance of Great Neck to midtown Manhattan) and accessibility by commuter rail to North Station (30 minutes, $2.50 adults, $1.25/child), makes Salem a great place to stay and still visit Boston just about any time but October (Salem books up for October by March); during October, you are better off staying in Boston and traveling to Salem for the Haunted Happenings (www.hauntedhappenings.org).
But there are many festivals and special events throughout the year: antiques in November, Holiday Happenings throughout December, and, for the holidays, Annual Christmas in Salem Historic House Tours (978-745-0799). All told, this city of 40,000 people welcomes some 900,000 visitors a year.
Salem, known as an important Colonial seaport, had pretty much buried this part of its history and it only resurfaced around 1970, when the television show "Bewitched" did a couple of segments here, sparking renewed interest in this part of Salem's past. An entrepreneur took over a former Church which had been converted to a car museum and opened the Salem Witch Museum in 1971. There are now eight attractions which deal with the Witch trials.
More recently, awareness of Salem's association with witches has come from shows such as "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and the movie "Hokus Pokus" (which was filmed in Salem). Now the Harry Potter craze is sparking new interest and many of the gift shops have Harry Potter paraphernalia.
If you only do one of these Witch-oriented attractions, the Salem Witch Museum, one of the most visited museums in Massachusetts, was the first and still is the best. The narration is done extremely well, and you see wax-models of the various scenes. A new exhibit, "Witches, Evolving Perceptions," explains the history of witchcraft-really the Wicca faith-and also puts the Salem Witch Trials into perspective. Sadly, the practice of casting a wide net of guilt-by-association, triggered by ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping, does seem to come up throughout history, including the McCarthy Anti-Communist sweep. (Open Daily, year-round; $6/adults, $5.50/seniors, $4/child 6-14, www.salemwitchmuseum.com).
The narration and the presentation at the Salem Witch Museum is excellent, in the style of the time. "The hand of authority is heavy upon them," the narrator intones, referring to the young girls that initially triggered the events, "They dare not express themselves except in hysteria." (Open until 7 p.m. in July and August, $6/adults, $4/child 6-14, $5.50/senior).
The true horror of that terrible time becomes vivid visiting The Witch Dungeon. Though the actual dungeon, which was situated nearby, had been destroyed in the 1950s, this one is a faithful re-creation. The visit here begins with a short reenactment of a trial, based on the original transcript of 1692; the actress on the day we visited, Catherine Trefrey, turned out to be a direct descendent of Giles Corey. He was the 80-year old man who was crushed to death by the magistrate to force him to render a plea; he refused, in order to prevent the Sheriff from confiscating his property (interestingly, Ms. Trefrey only learned the connection to her famous relative 15 years ago when she became interested in geneology).
We walk downstairs to a dungeon, where hundreds of people were confined in cramped dark cells, some for five years, well after the Witch hysteria was ended. But the prisoners had to pay for their own food, the chains that bound them, and for those who were sent to the gallows, even the hangman's fee; because their property was confiscated when they were accused, many could not repay their debts, so they literally rotted in jail (Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April through November, www.witchdungeon.com).
Unfortunately, our visit to Salem came too late to see "Cry Innocent," an acclaimed re-enactment put on by Gordon College at the Old Town Hall, which pits the people versus Bridget Bishop. You become the Puritan grand jury, cross-examine the witness and decide the verdict. (Presented Friday through Tuesday but only during summer, Old Town Hall, Derby Square, 978-927-2300 x 4747, $6/adult, $4/child 5-12; $5/seniors.
The Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers is also very respectful of the history and the personal tragedies associated with the Witch hysteria, through wax displays that put you face-to-face with the key players. We found the displays about the seafarers, including America's first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, quite interesting. There is also a hands-on activity area that children will enjoy, where they can pose as a pirate, try gravestone rubbing, and tying knots (Open daily year-round; 800-298-2929, www.salemwaxmuseum.com; $5.50/adult, $3/child, $5/senior.
Just outside is the Old Burying Point Cemetery, one of the oldest in the country. It is fascinating to walk through and read the inscriptions and also to see the change in gravestone art. Those who were hanged for witchcraft would not have been be buried here, though; their remains were thrown into the ground near Gallows Hill; occasionally, a relative would steal the body to give a proper burial.
At the Salem Witch Village, you can meet contemporary practitioners of Wicca. Just under 10 percent of Salem's population (about 3,000 people) practice Wicca, which is an earth-based religion worshipping Mother Earth and Father Sky. They were healers and midwives. Some of what have become the major symbols of a witch were explained, such as the cauldron which was an everyday tool (for household); and the broom, which was used to sweep away negative energy. (open daily year round, July, August and October with extended hours; $5.50/adult, $3/child, $5senior.
On my next visit, I will definitely join the Salem Witch Village Ghostly Tour, a walking tour that includes authentic spellcasting by practicing witches and a candlelit walking tour through historic Salem (departs from the Witches Temple at the Salem Witch Village, and returns for light refreshments and discussion; offered nightly, sundown, about 8:15 p.m. in summer only; advance ticket purchase is recommended, 978-740-9229, www.salemwitchvillage.com).
The dramatically named Witch House is actually the only home still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Witch Trials of 1692. Built in the 1670s, it was the home of Jonathan Corwin, a magistrate during the Witch trials (whose nephew was the Sheriff George Corwin, who profited by confiscating the accused's property). The house acquired its name because it was speculated that some of the accused were examined here. Guides are dressed in period clothing. The house is very informative in terms of the lifestyle of the time, and also the source of such popular expressions as "the tables have turned," and "pop goes the weasel."
A new attraction, Witch History Museum, located on the pedestrian mall on Essex Street, tells the stories of 1692 through narration and displays which are lifesized and at eye-view (a combination ticket is available with the Witch Dungeon Museum and Pirate Museum; open daily April through November, 978-741-7770).
In all, there are eight attractions that retell the tragic events of the Salem Witch Trials 1692, each taking between 30-60 minutes to visit, and you walk from one to the other, almost like the attractions of a theme park, albeit in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction mode (several offer combination tickets). To their credit, they present these events in a serious rather than sensationalized tone (though there are two attractions which are played purely for thrills, Salem's Museum of Myths & Monsters which uses live actors and high-tech animation, and Boris Karloff's Witch Mansion, a 3-d "haunted" attraction, both at Pickering Wharf). It was interesting that each had a slightly different telling of the story, so you are able to piece together the details.
Salem is not just witches, it also has a connection with pirates-Blackbeard, Captain Kidd. The New England Pirate Museum was surprisingly excellent (avoiding gratuitous gore and glamour), using the same technique of walking through displays, which are extremely well done, with fascinating historical information (did you know that Lord Bellamont, who became Governor of New York, was Capt. Kidd's partner? That pirates raised their pirate flag--not necessarily a skull and crossbones--to inflict fear and lower morale? That the pirate John Fillmore's great grandson became 13th president, Millard Fillmore?). There is also a small museum of artifacts, including some from the Whydah, a pirate ship which sunk off of Cape Cod. This was very engaging (Open daily May through October, weekends in November, $6/adult, $4/child, $5/senior, 978-741-2901, www.piratemuseum.com).
We were amazed how many places we could visit in a day. On our first day, we visited the Witch History Museum, the Salem Wax Museum, the Old Burial Ground, the Salem Witch Village, the New England Pirate Museum, the House of Seven Gables, and finally, the Salem Witch Museum (which in summer is open until 7 p.m.), before strolling down Essex, through the pedestrian mall, to the Salem Inn where we were staying.
But Salem is far more than witches and pirates as we would learn.
Salem was different than I imagined. It is more like a miniature Boston, where the main sites are dispersed, though there are two main centers which are walking distance apart (and linked by a marvelous Salem Trolley): Pickering Wharf where most of the sites related to Salem's seaport history are located, and Essex Street, where many of the Witch Trials-related sites are located. Indeed, Salem proved so much more interesting than the Witch Trials aspect, alone: its importance as a major seaport, the wealth that produced, resulting in a rich cultural legacy, added so much dimension. It is the city of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem's most prominent merchant and believed to be America's first millionaire; Nathaniel Bowditch, who revolutionized marine navigation; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, America's first great romantic novelist.
We thoroughly enjoyed the narration on the Salem Trolley, which was both informative as well as entertaining, though many people use it for transportation to visit the various attractions, with unlimited on/off privileges all day until 5 p.m. ($10/adults; $5/child 5-12; $9/seniors; family of two adults and children, $25; operates daily April-October, weekends March, November; Trolley Christmas Carol in December).
One of the most fascinating of Salem's many attractions, one worth making the trip for alone, is the House of Seven Gables, New England's oldest mansion. Built in 1668 for John Turner III, a sea captain, it provides an extraordinary link to Colonial times. After 100 years in the Turner family, it was acquired by the Ingersoll family, relatives of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Walking through its interesting configuration of rooms, up a secret passage to an attic, you can imagine how it inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne, when he would visit his cousin Susan Ingersoll, in the 1800s. Hawthorne, who changed the spelling of his name out of shame for his great grandfather, Jonathan Hathorne, the hanging judge of the Witch Trials, used the house as a link to that time. The guided tour is very engaging, and the mansion is phenomenal. (In October, the book is reenacted and there are candlelight tours.)
While visiting the House of Seven Gables, you can also visit Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace (1750), a relatively modest structure, which was moved to the site; as well as the Retire Beckett House (1655), the Hooper-Hathaway House (1682) and a Counting House (1830). (Open daily, year-round; adults, $8, Children 6-17, $5; under 6 free; group tickets and combination ticket with Salem 1630 Pioneer Village, $14 & $10, www.7gables.org, 978-744-0991, 54 Turner Street).
It is amazing to realize that only 38 years separate the House of Seven Gables from the Salem 1630 Pioneer Village, a recreation of the original 17th century settlement situated in a lovely park, just outside the historic district. You have to drive a short distance (actually biking distance), but the Pioneer Village is well worth it. New England's oldest Living History Museum, the buildings were left over from a 1930 movie set and it has been operated as a museum on and off since then. It is currently operated for the city by the House of Seven Gables. There are costumed interpreters who explain how the early Salem pioneers lived. You can wander around and meet the blacksmith, visit the small one room structure of Roger Conant, the founder of Salem, the Governor's Faire House (where it housed not only the Governor, but the clergy men and their families who were his cabinet. It is very engaging for adults and children alike (open mid-April through Thanksgiving, Mon-Sat.).
Back on Essex Street in the historic district, we wandered into the Peabody Essex Museum which proved to be a world-class museum. It is distinguished as the repository of 200 years of art and culture rooted in Colonial New England and is a marvelous reflection of how the region engaged the world over that time through the merchant ships that sailed from here. The original collection was created by a kind of contest among the sea captains to return with the most interesting artifact they could find. In one room, the size of a ball room with varnished floors and picture windows, and the carved figureheads from the great ships and portraits of the sea captains, you can see many of these artifacts, then touch a computer screen to find out about them. There are also world class special exhibits.
What I loved about the Peabody Essex is that it is very much representative of this place and its connections to the World; the focus on maritime life and art, Native American art, American Decorative Arts, and art from Asia, Africa, Pacific. The museum is currently undergoing a $65 million expansion, which will create new galleries, parks, an atrium and the Chinese house. Allocate a couple of hours to wander around. Kids (and adults) will enjoy the interactive exhibits. (Open year-round; $10/adults, $8/seniors, students 17 and over; children 16 and under free; house tours only, $6; 800-745-4054, www.pem.org.)
The Peabody Essex also organizes visits to historic houses. Indeed, Salem is a city in which you can see 300 years of architectural treasures, such as the homes along Chestnut Street where you can visit the Stephen Phillip Memorial Trust house on days when the flag is out; the Ropes Mansion, and other historic homes. As you walk about, you can also see the Customs House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked (he was fired, probably for writing "The Scarlet Letter" while on the job); the Derby House, 1762, the oldest brick house and the Narbonne House, a middle-class dwelling that was continuously occupied for 300 years, and the Bowditch House, where Nathaniel Bowditch lived from 1811 to 1823 (not open to the public).
Salem's rich seafaring legacy is also vividly preserved at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where there is a replica of the Friendship, a merchant ship launched in 1797, and you can see shipwrights working, and walk down Derby Wharf to a lighthouse (978-740-1660, www.nps.gov/sama).
We had a chance to experience Salem's maritime tradition on a late afternoon "Attitude Adjustment" Cruise on Sun Line Cruises, which depart from the Salem Willows Park. The passengers get to choose the destination on this delightful 1 ½-hour, marvelously scenic voyage to nearby islands (there is an open bar on this particular cruise, and music). During the day, there is a Gold Coast Mansion Tour ($9/A, $6/C), Lighthouse tours ($11/A, $7/C), and sunset cruises ($10/A, $7/C), all very modestly priced and just the right length of time. The cruises only operate from late June through Labor Day. (978-741-1900, www.sunlinecruises.com).
Winding up at the Salem Willows Park for the evening was a great choice. There are arcades that will delight children, snack shops, and that evening, we were able to enjoy a lovely band concert. We returned the next day to play tennis on the public courts there.
There are many different interesting ways to experience Salem: Spellbound Tours offers a Vampire and Ghost Hunt, where you join a leading ghost hunter and paranormal investigator for a nightly search for the "living dead" (978-745-0138, www.spellboundtours.com). Mass Hysteria Haunted Hearse Tours lets you explore a netherworld of paranormal activity ina luxurious hearse accommodating up to 10 guests; day and evening tours available (877-4-HEARSE).
The Salem Inn: At Home in History
The Salem Inn was a perfect accommodation to make us feel part of the Salem experience. Located in the heart of the historic district (diagonally across from the Witch House and a half a block from the Ropes Mansion), it is comprised of three historic and architecturally significant period buildings. The Inn's 39 units offer a diverse assortment of rooms to suit various style travelers, from standard queen and king-bedded guest rooms, to luxury honeymoon suites, with fireplace and double Jacuzzi, as well as oversized luxury family suites, with kitchen, to make you feel right at home.
The original Inn building, the Captain West Houses, comprises three four-story Federal brick townhouses along Summer Street, built by sea captain Nathaniel West in 1834. The buildings have been restored and meticulously maintained to preserve the period and architectural detail by innkeepers Diane and Richard Pabich (she was a dynamic Boston real estate developer with a Master's degree in Mathematics; he was a software engineer for Raytheon and worked on the Patriot Missile's software).
The Captain West House was built in the Federal era in 1834, and serves as the venue for Inn guests' complimentary continental breakfast (served in a delightful room in the cellar, or in the courtyard), and Cuvee, the Inn's new on-site restaurant. Children are always welcome and the inn is pet friendly. The Captain West House also offers several spacious family suites with private bath and kitchenette, that sleep 4 ($189) and one that sleeps six ($229) (rates from $139 to $285)
Our accommodation was in The Peabody House, just two doors down from the Captain West Houses, the home built for John P. Peabody, purveyor of Ladies Furnishings, in 1874. The Peabody House also offers four family suites with private bath and kitchenette, that sleep 4 (from $189) and a honeymoon suite with a four-poster king-sized bed, kitchenette and double Jacuzzi (from $195). Guests may make also use of a lovely sitting area/living room.
The Curwen House on Essex Street, a handsome 1854 Italianate Revival wood frame structure built by James B. Curwen and his brother Capt. Samuel R. Curwen, offers a guest room with queen bed ($159) and a honeymoon suite with queen canopy bed and double Jacuzzi ($185).
The suites are ideal for families as well as for business travelers, who are in easy reach of the commuter rail to Boston, Rockport and Gloucester on the tip of Cape Ann.
In addition to a lovely breakfast, the Inn also offers free on-site parking (which is a significant advantge in Salem).