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.
|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.
|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.