The Witch City.

“Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-Engl. has had Exemples of their Existence and Operation.” -Cotton Mather, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, 1702.

One of the earliest settlements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was Salem. Originally spanning a large swath of the North Shore, Salem was home to Puritan settlers from England. The Puritans enforced their view of the Christian faith on anyone residing within the settlement; harsh punishments were meted out for public drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage. Games of chance and dramatic performances were banned, as were public festivities such as Christmas celebrations. The Puritans believed in the power of demons, as well as that of witches, and felt the evil influence of magic in the world around them (via Wikipedia).

In the winter of 1692, two young girls in Salem Village began to suffer from what was described as “epileptic fits.” They exhibited bizarre behaviors including screaming and throwing objects. Three local women were accused of causing the girls’ behavior and were arrested for witchcraft. The accusations quickly become more rampant, leading to over 150 individuals being arrested for the use of evil magic. The trials would result in deaths of twenty townspeople: 19 were hung on a hill overlooking the town, and one man, Giles Corey, would be pressed to death (having large stones laid atop him until he died) in an attempt to persuade him to confess his guilt. Many of those found guilty were sentenced based upon spectral evidence: people who claimed to have been attacked by witchcraft testified that they witnessed an apparition or spirit of the person who was harming them. Another man, George Burroughs, recited the Lord’s Prayer without mistake; this was an important test, as one of the beliefs regarding witches was that they would misspeak when attempting to voice the prayer. His flawless praying did not save him from the madness of the times, however, as the Reverend Cotton Mather, one of the intellectual forces supporting the trials, argued that Mr. Burroughs must be under the power of Satan himself to perform such a feat. Mr. Burroughs hung immediately thereafter. Finally, in 1693, a Superior Court in Salem found the remaining accused not guilty, and all who were imprisoned for witchcraft were set free (via Wikipedia).

On a beautiful Sunday in early fall, I set off for Salem, to explore this historic town and learn more about one of the more shameful episodes in Colonial American history.

Map of eastern Massachusetts. A pin is in Salem.
Located in the North Shore area of Massachusetts, Salem is approximately 16 miles northeast of Boston.
Traffic on Route 1A in Revere, MA.
A beautiful early October morning. The one downside to this trip was the drive itself. No highways run along the coast to Salem, so you are forced to take all local roads. The driving is slow- you will frequently be in stop-and-start traffic on roads that, theoretically, should be driven at 40-50 miles per hour.
2012 Honda Accord, parked atop a parking garage.
Arriving in the late morning, I found all the street parking already filled. I splurged for a garage spot for DH and began to explore the town.
Central Wharf, with building on it, in Salem.
The Central Wharf, which extends almost a half mile into the harbor. Salem was first a Native American trading post, then a fishing village, and then a major trading port in the 18th and 19th centuries. From its very beginning, Salem has survived because of the sea. In the center of this image is the Pedrick Store House, built in 1770, which was used to hold salt and other supplies for the cod fish trade. It is now part of a large park run by the National Park Service.
US Custom House in Salem.
Across the street from the Central Wharf is the U.S. Custom House, built in 1819. Now a part of the same park as the Central Wharf, the Custom House is a museum which shows how the government managed seafaring trade in the 19th century.
Large iron scale inside the Custom House.
The large iron scale would be used to weigh goods as they came off ships, in order to assess taxes and fair value.
View from the second floor of the Custom House.
From the second floor of the Custom House, officials could monitor the comings and goings at the port.
The House of Seven Gables. A garden is in the foreground.
One of the most famous buildings in Salem: the House of Seven Gables. Built in 1667 for Captain John Turner, the house was made by famous a distant relative of Captain Turner, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote a Gothic novel involving witchcraft and the supernatural. The setting for the story? This house.
Side view of the House. A lantern is in the foreground.
A gable is a triangular section of wall formed by the meeting of two sloped roofs.
View of Salem harbor.
View from the back of the House of Seven Gables.
Market and stores on Essex Street.
Salem is a tourist destination and bustling town with a vibrant arts scene. It also has a series of renowned restaurants.
Storefronts on Essex Street.
Salem markets its history relentlessly. Seemingly every other store is devoted to tourists, or in some way tries to connect to the town’s past. Witchcraft sells, apparently.

Before we shift to the Witch Trials, it is important to note two facts. The first is that witch trials are not solely an American phenomenon. Rather, the Puritans were carrying on a tradition that had already existed in Europe for almost two hundred years. Demons and witches were a constant preoccupation in Europe, especially after the 1487 publication of Malleus Maleficarum by theologians Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spenger. This book created a legal and religious framework to pursue the extermination of people proven to be witches. While 20 people died in the Salem Witch Trials, the European witch trials took the lives of an estimated 40,000-60,000 individuals. The second point is that while it is known as the Salem Witch Trials, many of the events took place in towns that today have different names. For instance, several of the accused lived in a town that is now called Danvers.  In the late 17th century, however, the entire area was known as Salem.

Painting "Witches at Their Incantations."
Witches at Their Incantations, painted in 1646 by Italian artist Salvator Rosa. This horrific scene depicts the popular view of witches in the 14th-17th centuries. This painting now hangs in the National Gallery in London. I saw it when my Mom and I traveled to England several years ago. The painting is even more striking in person.
Stone memorials to those who perished as witches in the trials.
Beside the town cemetery are twenty stone markers, which commemorate the individuals who perished during the trials. The marker in the foreground is for Bridget Bishop, who was hanged on June 10, 1692 at the age of 59. What led to accusations against her? Perhaps it was that she wore a red tunic, as opposed to the black worn by other Puritans, and she was rumored to operate a tavern in her home. She was the first person hung.
Stone marker for Rebecca Nurse.
Rebecca Nurse was the oldest person hung, at age 71. No proof of witchcraft was brought forward, and she was convicted solely by spectral evidence. During the trial, Rebecca, who was hard of hearing, was unable to hear several critical questions. Her inability to answer was considered evidence of her guilt.
The Salem Witch Museum.
What looks like a church is actually the Salem Witch Museum. The story of the witch trials are told through a series of narrated dioramas within the museum. To be honest, at first I was disappointed in the low tech approach, but after a few moments I quickly became engrossed in the story. More telling, perhaps, were the scores of little kids in the museum who sat wordlessly, watching the story of the trials unfold. No computer graphics, no interactive features with an app on your smart phone… this museum is old school, and it works surprisingly well. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm, and is $12 for adults, $10.50 for senior citizens, and children ages 6-14 can enter for $9.00.
The Witch House.
The Witch House. Built around 1620, this is the only building in Salem with a direct tie to the trials. It was bought by Jonathan Corwin in 1675, who would later be one of the judges at the Witch Trials.
Memorial near Proctor's Ledge.
For over three centuries, the belief was that the hangings took place on Gallows Hill, which is now a public park. Two years ago, however, archaeologists discovered that the hangings occurred on Proctor’s Ledge, another hill in the town. This memorial to the victims is about a mile away from the tourist-filled commercial center of town. When I arrived, there were only three people there. Owing to its location in a residential neighborhood, the town does not actively advertise this spot, leaving it to the most dedicated explorers.
Rocky outcropping on Proctor's Ledge, surrounded by trees.
I hiked into the nearby woods and came across the rocky outcropping where the hangings occurred in 1692. It abuts a series of homes, so I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. The victims would have been hung from trees, and they were initially buried here (as witches, they were not entitled to proper burials). The families of the victims would later come at night, remove the bodies, and rebury them near their homes.
Road to the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
Before heading home, I detoured to nearby Danvers, about four miles away from Salem, to stop by the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, where the Nurse family lived.
Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
Although the Rebecca Nurse Homestead was built in 1700, it uses portions of the prior home, built in 1630, in its structure. Rebecca Nurse, who was hung at age 71, had her remains brought to this property by her family, although the grave is unmarked.

Although the Rebecca Nurse Homestead was closed for visitors by the time I arrived, the grounds were open, so I took some time to walk around and think about everything I had seen today. When you move past the commercialism, the countless tourists, and the stores trying to sell any little trinket with the word “witch” on it, what remains is a sad moment in our history. Over a hundred and fifty people were accused during the hysteria of the witch trials, and twenty of them gave their lives to this horror. Years later, at least one of the witnesses gave a confession that should startle no one. Ann Putnam, who accused 62 people of witchcraft, gave a statement in her church admitting that she had lied in her accusations, emphasizing her role in the wrongful sentencing of Rebecca Nurse, and asking forgiveness… forgiveness which the surviving victims and the families of those who perished gave her.

Thank you for coming along on this special post. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative. I would strongly encourage you to visit Salem, but to try to avoid the tourist elements, and learn the story of the Salem Witch Trials for what they truly were… the result of fear, ignorance, and the scapegoating of innocent victims. While the story occurred in 1692, it is a tale unfolds over and over again throughout history.

‘Til next time.



7 thoughts on “The Witch City.

  1. Very good stuff, Tim, and a perfect topic as we get into the witch & jack-o-lantern season! I’m amazed that some of those structures from the 1600s still stand so strongly today. Also glad you weren’t afraid to trek a little off the beaten path to discover some little-known facts and locations about the stories. There are a ton of people wandering around on that main street! Where did you dine on this trip?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tyson! I stopped for lunch at Scratch Kitchen, a cafe that gets all of its ingredients from local farms. Eggs, home fries, toast-it hit the spot. They even made my coffee fresh on a French press.


  2. Some of our relatives lived in Danvers… hmmmm… 🙂 Anyway, we enjoyed what little true exploring we did of the town back then. You always take those interesting further steps into the story. Great photos as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

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