The Land of Witches and Pirates
by Sudha Chandrasekaran
Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts - ‘The Land of Witches and Pirates’
Salem, Massachusetts is home to a world of enchantment, elegance and culture found rarely elsewhere. Located in Essex County in the US, this small village in Massachusetts through the ages turned into a small city. I should say that I am fortunate enough to have had the most unique and wonderful experience of ‘witches and witchcrafts’ during my stay in Boston for six months. It is a bewitching seaport, built on a picturesque harbour. Salem is located 16 miles north of Boston and is a convenient 30- minute drive ride from Boston. This town is always referred to as Salem, Massachusetts, as there are three Salems in the US!
A short note on the witch history of Salem: In 1692, Salem served as the site for the worst case of mass hysteria in American history. It started with the ravings of 4 young girls. Fears of the Devil interfering with the souls of these poor little girls caused otherwise normal human beings to badly overreact. This tragedy was the cause for the imprisonment of several hundred innocent victims. By the time the infamous Salem Witch Trials were over, 19 men and women had been hanged to death on Gallows Hill. So, Salem is synonymous with witches.
The coastal city of Salem has many things to offer – a divergent cultured population, a splendid maritime heritage and, a spectacular display of extraordinary architecture and awesome stories that happened during nearly three centuries. Three hundred years later, many of the historic sights in Salem are still preserved for generations to come.
So hop on your broomstick and let us take a trip to the “witch city” of Salem!
This is one town where “being scared” is considered “fun!” Year-round, Salem takes advantage of its wicked past, serving up a variety of attractions that retell the history for which the town is best known. The best way to see Salem is to take a fun and fascinating one hour trolley tour of Salem.
Salem’s most visited museum, the imposing stone Romanesque building housing the famous Salem Witch Museum, presents one of the most tragic and emotional events in American history-The Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692. We witnessed the web of lies of the Salem Witch hunts of 1692. My adrenaline rushed as I entered the museum. There is this compelling retelling of the accusations, hysteria, trials and executions of 1692 through life-size dioramas, lighting and narration-. I stood transfixed there! Its 30-minute multimedia presentation concisely summarizes the events and makes a good introduction to the event. But when the lights go down, it might be bit frightening for younger children but serves as a terrific orientation and introduction to Salem’s blemished history. We also saw the wonderful new exhibit- “Witches: Evolving Perceptions” which gave us a look at this mysterious and often misunderstood religion. It delves into the conventional witch, details of witchcraft during the 17th century, contemporary witchcraft and the witch hunt phenomenon. The contemporary perceptions of witchcraft are that it is a pantheistic (pantheism: toleration of worship of all Gods) religion that includes reverence for nature, belief in the rights of others and pride in one’s own spirituality. Those who practice witchcraft focus on the good and positive in life and in the spirit and entirely reject any connection with the devil. Modern day witches neither wear black hats, nor do they have green faces. Most of all they do not ride on broomsticks!
If the excitement about witches is not enough, include the Witch Dungeon Museum on your tour! It is an exciting and unique experience and the mood is set from the moment you enter the Museum. The stories of 1692 are told through a historically accurate live re- enactment, followed by a guided tour downstairs where you will walk through the forest, meet Tituba in Reverend Parris’ kitchen, visit Old Salem Village and view 15 life size scenes depicting these stories. Something interesting happened here. I was intently watching the reenactment when there was an urgent call from our home to return immediately. We half heartedly left the auditorium, after having witnessed the scene for about half an hour. The girl at the counter, who issued tickets, graciously gave us a full reimbursement of the amount and told us to come again another day to enjoy the show! Travel, no doubt educates people about the positive side of human nature!
Get weaned off witches and it is now transition time to Salem’s sea-shaped past at the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers. We met many
of the characters from Salem’s past, realistically recreated in wax, and heard another retelling of the witch hysteria story via a multimedia presentation.
New England Pirate museum was also on our agenda. We were led by a guide dressed like a pirate. On the whole, it was less creepy and more fun than the Witch Museum. The guided walking tour of the museum explores authentic pirate artifacts and the history of infamous legends. The history of New England sea-robbers is enacted alive at the Pirate Museum. You will not only mingle with these swashbucklers of old, but you will become part of their world as you walk the dockside village and board their ship. It is a wonderful experience which is permanently etched in my memory.
Another must see attraction is the display of several opulent artifacts brought from around the globe to Salem, at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), which was founded in 1799. We entered the Huang family ancestral home to gain a rare perspective on Chinese art, architecture, and culture. This is the first house brought in its entirety from China to the United States and allows visitors to have a good picture of an average Chinese family’s home. A sense of pride engulfed me as I entered the Indian gallery. I was overwhelmed on seeing the display of our famous monument there. Yes, a miniature of Taj Mahal was displayed in the Indian gallery. One thing that seemed out of place was an empty rice bag with the picture of Taj Mahal printed on it, as it was the brand name of that rice
Salem is a small foot friendly city with most of its attractions within walking distance of each other. We find a line of shops in the streets selling souvenirs and items for modern witches. Ironically, although none of the people who were executed ever admitted to being a witch, in modern time Salem has become a Mecca for many people who actually do claim to be witches. Everywhere we went, there were people dressed in black or other fancy robes that looked as though they were ready for Halloween party, except that this is their daily garb. I soon discovered they did not appreciate being watched either and so decided it was prudent to mind my own business. Many sidewalks are still paved with old bricks and we had to watch our step because most of them are uneven. We never felt tired of wandering the narrow and twisting streets, admiring the quaintness and beauty of the 17th, 18th and 19th century homes and buildings. We captured the picture of a life size statue of “Samantha Stevens,” portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1960s television show Bewitched, and arguably America’s most famous witch!
We chanced upon The Salem cemetery, which is the 2nd oldest cemetery in the country. This cemetery holds the final resting places for many of the ‘Witch Trial’ participants. Even though the tombstones are worn from time, they are still legible. At the cemetery we saw a very strange-looking tree –gallows tree, which would have probably been the hanging tree!
Salem, the “Halloween Capital of America” gets wild during Halloween time, which falls on October 31st of every year. It is believed that at this time of year the departed ones come whispering from strange places and their spirits mingle with us. The Witches of Salem honour this time with Festival of the Dead that explores death’s horrendous customs, bizarre rituals and unorthodox histories. The city’s month-long Halloween celebration, Haunted Happenings, includes parades, parties, tours, and a ceremony on the big day. Whether you are seeking the changing leaves and cooler weather of autumn in New England or the ghosts and goblins that Halloween is known for, you will find it all in Salem in October.
As such, many of the witch-oriented attractions in Salem seek to enlighten as well as frighten, which makes it an ideal outing for everybody. The pointed hat witch icon has even made its way onto the masthead of the local newspaper; the badge of its police; and the logos of several business establishments. It is estimated that Salem is home to 2,500 modern-day witches, or practitioners of Wicca. I have a memento of the pointed –hat witch riding on a broom stick on my fridge!! The modern touristy city of Salem is more than satisfied and happy to earn foreign exchange by cashing in on its macabre heritage. So, come to Salem, not to reflect upon the nation’s tragic past, but indeed, to “escape” that past by experiencing a “timeless” and happy fiction. ***