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Channelling my inner witch in Salem, Massachusetts

We sat in the car beside each other and marvelled at the colours of the leaves along the hilled highway for ten hours, stopping only a few times to fuel up and use the rest room (and to eat a mediocre salad at a rest stop we were convinced was owned by McDonalds).

We were off to Salem, Massachusetts. A place with a heavy heart of history: The Salem Witch Trials. In the 1600’s the area was divided between the wealthy merchants of Salem Town and the farmers of Salem Village. Both Puritans, they were divided by status and, after a dark winter in 1692, a handful of young girls claimed they were afflicted by some of the villages and, thus, the fingers began to point. A hysteria was born out of personal fears, spread by mob mentality.

A woman’s voice filled our car with Margaret Atwood’s words: “A spirit is a part of you that doesn’t die when your body dies…”

We didn’t talk much when we were listening; our minds in a completely separate world yet still very present and focused on the road ahead. I’d never read any Atwood before and I wanted to like it, especially after seeing Brian talk so passionately with his two sisters about some of her stories; they were smiling and joking about things you’d only understand if you’d read her books too.  That was the kind of writer I wanted to be. One whose words were talked about between siblings.

I wondered to myself if as many thoughts whirled through Brian’s head as they did mine. I looked over to his snug face and calm demeanour. An infectious smile, permeating love and happiness and a confidence of both filled his side of the car and I melted into it. It’s all I want in life, to feel safe; to feel safe in a whirring car going however many miles per hour down a road in kin with other machines much bigger than ours. Our spirits, here in this tiny silver auto on the Massachusetts Turnpike listening to a book below a bright blue and white sky so close to the Halloween of 2014. Would we remember this moment in a similar way? I took Brian’s photo at a toll booth so I’d be sure to remember it perfectly.

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When we got to the address I’d scribbled down, my heart leapt. So fortunate I am to visit a place like this with such a wonderful person; it shouldn’t be any surprise to me that his family isn’t unlike himself. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Some of us spend lifetimes trying to disprove this for obvious reasons, but everyone I’d met of Brian’s extension has proved to maintain a long list of merits and I’m lucky to interact with them at all. The house was beautiful and big; I struggled to fit it into my frame, even standing across the street in my Halloween socks.

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The architecture in Massachusetts is beautiful.

We had a busy and beautiful dinner with their family and close friends. A new favourite dip has made its way into my recipe box: olive oil, fresh parmesan, and red pepper flakes (the ones you put on pizza), dipped with fresh baguette. It’s an indulgent treat.

We went for a drive on the bright morning before Salem; beautiful lighthouses, private schools, sloping roadways, and views from the 127 Beverly to Gloucester. My grandfather and father served in the Canadian Navy so my connection to anchors and to the water is tangible. I latch on to its mystery as a reflection of my relationship with these two men and also the other world that lives so differently from ours on land: the water, occupying over 70% of the planet. I never learned to swim, but I dream of exploring its depths one day.

After parking our car, we made our way through Museum Place Mall where the annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo was taking place. Brian bought a bright blue stone for my mother and we marveled at all the booths. One booth offered photos that would expose the colour of your aura. Another offered necklaces housing tiny books that fell open to expose a haunted story. Lots offered gems and stones and crystals. Most offered readings that would happen at the tables in the centre. Feathers, masks, and carvings, too.

When we stepped onto Essex Street, our ears met with the proclamation of Christ by a young boy whose friend or partner or brother held a sign that read: “Hell: not the end but the beginning for those who reject Jesus.” As we walked by them, the boy’s words muffled in my ears as my excitement to be there trumped his religious jargon. An older woman exited the store next to them and started yelling, “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah!” over the boy’s voice. Everyone on the street turned to see her stand in front of them and spout her own beliefs, trying to overpower his words. Neither listened to the other. All I could make out were the blah blahs. I was happy to witness this exchange.

My favourite stop was the Witch House, at 310 1/2 Essex Street. It was built in 1642 and restored in 1946.

I wanted to stand in front of it and pretend that it was Brian’s and mine’s first home and so we balanced a camera on our bag and pretended we were the proud owners of a bright black house.

What is true of the house is that it’s the only structure still standing in Salem that has direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials; Jonathan Corwin lived here for approximately 40 years. Corwin was a magistrate during the trials. It is rumoured that those charged as witches were brought the house, but I couldn’t find any proof. The house was also moved (I believe a few feet) when the streets were widened.

Two lots down from our new home (ahem, the Witch House) is Allison’s house. If you’ve seen Hocus Pocus, you’ll get my drift. We checked out as many locations as we could including the park Max biked through which was too dark to take decent photos of.

We wandered over to the cemetery where many of those involved in naming and killing the witches were buried. A giant white sign with red font greets you at either entrance, listing the rules of the ground:

“Place of respect, No admittance after dusk (6PM), Stay on paths, Please keep off stones and tombs, walls and trees, No stone rubbing allowed, Report suspicious activity.”

We later learned that a week prior to our visit a man entered the cemetery and started digging up ground. He’d gotten to the top of a mausoleum when authorities stopped him. The people stood around and watched, thinking it was a show. This is a problem for me in place like this. I wonder what I would have done.

What happened when you were charged with being a witch in 1692 was that you had the choice to plead guilty or not guilty. If you plead guilty, you were not only sentenced and imprisoned but you were forced to point the finger at fellow witches. If you plead not guilty, you were often found guilty anyway – unless you had money. Witchcraft had gone on for hundreds of years prior in Europe, where they would “swim a witch,” and then England, where it was common place to hang guilty witches. Thus, in New England, this is how they punished witches: by hanging.

Reasons for being a witch? Red hair. Red clothing. Red. Red signified the devil. Left-handed people were witches. Neighbours were witches. If a child took ill, they’d blame the neighbour: witch! If cheese spoiled, they’d blame the neighbour: witch! If you spoke your mind, drank freely, or laughed loudly… witch!

My favourite story takes place where Turner’s Seafood is now (43 Church Street). Bridget Bishop, the first woman to be charged and hanged for being a witch, used to live on this plot of land. She had an apple orchard here. Ten years before the trials in 1692 she was charged for being a witch but plead not guilty and was pardoned. She continued on as she was, wearing scarlet red, marrying twice, bickering openly in public with her husband and, you guessed it, drinking as freely as she pleased. It is rumoured that guests of Turner’s will often be surfing through the menu trying to find the delicious baked apple dessert they’re smelling from the kitchen. But there isn’t anything apple on the menu.

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Years of research, spiritual investment, and personal interest have brought me to this place sort of haphazardly. Brian and I explored the kitschy and touristy parts, the quiet and solemn parts. The new parts. The old parts. It’s important to discover and learn and see every part, because it shapes the present and gives us footing to forge into the future.

The saddest and hardest and heaviest part of being in Salem, for me, was the Witch Trials Memorial. It’s a pocket of land beside the local cemetery where many who encouraged in the hangings are buried.

A Puritan grave sight, separated by walls of ignorance, dedicated “to the enduring lessons of human rights and tolerance learned from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692,” reads the plaque.

Along with the dedication is a salute to the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice, an award that recognizes those who alleviate discrimination. For a town that represents the idea of the witch, a halloween-town, a setting for a Disney movie, a pop-culture symbol, and history of fuel for thousands of stories, that they would embrace this history and pull from the dirt the recognition that fingers were pointed out of fear — what a noble town.

I stood above each stone placed for every victim of 1692; the black locust trees planted there as reflections of the ones at the gallows. Sarah Wildes’ stone with a bunch of marigolds and a note: “Sarah Wildes from your Main Relatives.” They weren’t stories to me anymore. They were people. They were living, breathing, believing people with ideas and goals and apple orchards.

Salem is quiet place with lots of character. Here is our map of recommended stops. We did the town in no hurry from about 1pm to midnight, and this included an amazing walking tour by Hocus Pocus Tours (very highly recommend). A big thank you to their intelligent and engaging tour guides who answered all my questions about the town, its geography, and reception year round.

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My history was a little off, but the excitement around my pretending to live here made my heart swell.

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3 thoughts on “Channelling my inner witch in Salem, Massachusetts

  1. Beautifully written. And you can have the Witch House, but the empty house overlooking the cemetery is mine! Sophia Peabody lived in that house when Nathaniel Hawthorne was ‘courting’ her. It’s owned by the parks department, but they’ve never done anything with it. I can’t understand why. Again, loved reading this.

  2. Happy you enjoyed our city! Someone posted your blog entry on FB and, after reading it, I re-posted on my FB. Halloween is a great time of year to visit Salem, but so is the Summer and the Maritime Festival… you should consider coming back 🙂

  3. Very nicely written. Very entertaining, but just wanted to point out that the Witch Memorial is just that, a memorial. The accused are not buried there.

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