Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Visit to Salem, Massachusetts

by Paula Gail Benson

This summer, following a business trip to Boston, I took a bus tour to visit Salem, Massachusetts. I went for historical and literary reasons, but I have to admit, I had my doubts.

A few years ago, I remember reading a short story by Toni Kelner about a young woman with a shop in Salem that catered to the “witch trade.” From that story and other accounts I had heard of modern Salem, I expected to find an entertainment venue for Halloween enthusiasts.

Certainly, that element was there. During my lunch in a downtown mall, I sat across from a Witch Pix, a costume and photography studio (https://www.witchpixofsalem.com/) that allowed customers to dress up and create their own magical fantasies. I watched as three young women were robed and posed before a screen that provided various backdrops. They seemed to have a lovely time.
Castle Rock
View across bay
I was fortunate that my tour began from Boston and our driver had steeped himself in details about the area. He drove us up the coast, driving through Marblehead and stopping at Castle Rock, where we could gaze at the rocky shore line. While he told us stories of movies filmed in the area (like Hocus Pocus and Grown Ups 2), he also spoke about the history and people who had lived there. He had done some research into documents recently discovered from the time period of the witch trials and gave us that perspective. Also, he provided us with background about author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had lived and worked in Salem.

Salem Custom House
One of our first stops was at the Custom House overlooking the bay. Hawthorne served as a clerk there. Looking out over the water reminded me of how dependent the population must have been on shipping and how isolated it must have become during the winter. The Salem Regional Visitor Center emphasized the maritime history with displays and dioramas.

A short walk from the Visitor Center, I found the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It is a square of land surrounded by a granite wall. At the entrance. A sign lists the convicted persons’ names and protests. It also contains the Elie Wiesel quotation, “Only if we remember will we be worthy of redemption.” The area is in the center of town, but very solemn and bordered by a cemetery. Along the inside of the granite wall, there is a bench ledge for each condemned person with the person’s name and date of execution or death engraved. Some of the benches had flowers or coins placed on them. In this quiet sanctuary, I found the true spirit of what had occurred during the trials and been learned from them.
Entrance to Salem Witch Trials Memorial

Benches in Memorial
Until that bus trip, I did not know the connection that Nathaniel Hawthorne had to the witch trials. His great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was the only judge who never repented of his involvement with the trials. Nathaniel added the “w” to his last name to distinguish himself from his ancestor.

At the end of the day, we viewed the House of Seven Gables, the inspiration for Hawthorne’s book of the same title. Susanna Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s second cousin, inherited the house and encouraged his writing during the time he worked at the Custom House. Hawthorne’s novel was patterned somewhat upon his family history and his experiences in visiting the house. Later, when the house was purchased by others and ultimately became a settlement house for immigrant families, it was maintained by allowing visitors to tour the place they had read about in the novel.
House of Seven Gables
 So, to some extent, I found what I expected in Salem, a city dependent upon the tourist trade. What made it interesting was that history also had been preserved and recognized.

As Halloween approaches, I hope to watch the films Hocus Pocus and The Crucible. But, I’ll see them with new eyes from having visited a place where the historical events occurred.

Have you had a visit that made a place unforgettable for you?


  1. Fascinating. Although I lived not far from Massachusetts for a while and traveled around the Boston area, I never made it to Salem for the reasons you mentioned. Massachusetts never ceases to amaze me for the way she has managed to preserve her history while sharing it with those who wish to see it. Williamsburg--at least the last time I visited--maintained the same precarious balance. Hard to do but once done worth the trip.

    Great pictures. Looks like a lovely day.

  2. One of my high school friends lives in Salem and while researching Boston for False Bottom (Seamus McCree #6 & currently 50,000 words into the first draft) we stayed there several days. My friend and his wife always schedule vacation during Halloween week because the city is overrun with tourists and parties.

    ~ Jim

  3. Why did you want to visit, Paula? The injustice? Background for a story? The literary history?

  4. I know Boston well, but haven't been to Salem. Good overview!

  5. I know of another place you visited: FENWAY PARK!!!

  6. Kait, I agree. Everywhere I traveled in the Boston area, I was impressed by how the people knew and wanted to share and preserve the history.

    Jim, if I have the chance to return, I hope to be able to stay in the area and see the sights more leisurely. Congratulations on the new Seamus. Looking forward to reading it!

    Elaine, I went for a number of reasons. In high school, I read the book The Peabodys of Salem, about three amazing women who had been influential in arts and education. Also, I had read the history about the witch trials and seen Arthur Miller's The Crucible. I wanted to see how the actual place compared with what I had imagined from my readings. More than anything, I wanted to get a sense of the place and perhaps a better understanding of why the witch trials occurred. The bonus was getting to see The House of Seven Gables, a place that had captivated my aunt's imagination.

  7. Margaret, I was glad to be able to make several side trips. I'll tell you about Plymouth next month!

    Carla, you taught me that Fenway Park was the absolute must visit on a trip to Boston. I was glad to cheer the Red Sox to victory!

  8. Such fun! Tara and a friend of hers were just in Salem a couple of weeks ago--hitting many of the same points, I think!!

  9. Hi Paula -
    I visited Salem when I was about eight years old and in love with the story, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (based on the trials). I'll never forget the House of the Seven Gables, especially the secret staircase. Made quite an impression on me - the mysterious house, the precariousness of life in the early colonies, and of course, all those witches!
    And next time, take a side trip to CT to visit me :)

  10. Art, it really is a wonderful place to visit. There's the spooky and the puzzle of the witch trials, but it also has the maritime history and the literary traditions. I heard wonderful things about the Peabody Museum and wish I'd had time to tour it. Ask Tara if she discovered Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie directly across the street from the House of Seven Gables. It's supposed to be the oldest candy company in America and has many delicious items for sale!

  11. Shari, I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond, too! And, you're right about the secret staircase and the attic room at the top. Like you, I wondered how it would be to spend a night in that spare room in the cold winter.

    I definitely want to return and I will include CT on my journey!

  12. I love visiting New England. I visited Salem and some of the places you mentioned, and I remember touring The House of Seven Gables.

  13. Me, too, Gloria. I truly enjoyed seeing the House of the Seven Gables.

  14. I remember visiting Salem in 1983. You can almost feel vibrations from the past there. But I loved New England.