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Salem At Peace

June 2024
5min read

So many of the places we’ve visited during the course of writing this column appear to be, as we try not to say very often, “frozen in time.” That is, the town or city achieved one summary moment, then the river of history or the tributary that washed its shores changed course or silted in. What is left for the traveler is one nearly perfect American Pompeii.

By contrast, Salem, Massachusetts, was shaped by two extraordinary epochs: its witch trials, lasting barely more than a year, and its three decades of maritime glory. In Salem’s compact center a line of red paint on the sidewalk—the 1.3-mile Heritage Walking Trail—leads the visitor past the major sights of both times. The scuffed red line sometimes stops abruptly halfway down one side of a street, then skips across to the other side, drawing you into the eaved darkness of a house where witches were questioned in 1692 and then bringing you, blinking in brilliant October sun, along a broad avenue to the waterfront. Here, during the late 170Os, sailing ships set off in search of trade to every corner of the world, returning with silk and spices, yes, but also, as one writer put it, “new experiences, wonder and enlightenment.”

It was, of course, the fine sheltered harbor that attracted the colonists to Salem in 1626, and it was the Naumkeag Indians who helped them survive their first harsh winter there. Three years later the little community, which took its name from that of the helpful tribe, was appointed by King Charles I to be the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Reverend Francis Higginson, newly arrived from England, persuaded the town fathers to substitute the name Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace.” Through pronunciation and spelling evolution this became Salem. In 1632 the capital was moved fifteen miles south to Boston, but Salem continued to flourish as its people drew their livings from the sea, from the fertile inland, and from the timber that enabled them to make an early start as skilled shipbuilders.


From this promising start of virtue and hard work Salem was derailed in January 1692 by the accusations against its so-called witches and the bizarre trials that culminated in twenty-four deaths. Nineteen men and women died by hanging, one by being pressed to death with stones, and four while languishing in prison. The three young girls who started it all lived in Salem Village, now a part of neighboring Danvers, but it was here in the city that the crimes were judged and the punishments carried out, and it is Salem that is forever associated with witchcraft’s legacy of shame, fascination, and unease. The epithet “witchhunt” has seemed to resonate especially in modern times, sounding from the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s down to yesterday’s headlines.

As much as the people of Salem may have wished to wash away their year of darkness, in time it brought tourism as well as opprobrium. In 1891 a souvenir store called Daniel Low, which still stands in the heart of town, produced a silver spoon topped by a witch riding a broomstick and bearing the legend “Salem 1692.” Low also applied the design to tongs, bookmarks and watch fobs. During the bicentennial year, meetings were held at the local historical society, the Essex Institute. At one session, the Salem Evening News reported, “the Rev. Charles B. Rice of Danvers in an emphatic manner refuted statements made by some writers that there was anything about the craze that made it a Salem production. The delusion prevailed throughout the world. He made his address quite amusing at intervals.” In 1893 the local directory listed a Witch City Bottling Works as well as a Witch City House. Salem’s nickname was established. These days the emblem used on police cars and sanitation trucks is that familiar witch on a broomstick.

All through 1992 the tercentenary of the trials is being marked in Salem with a full calender of special events, many of which are designed to set the story in the light of contemporary historical and psychological thinking. Souvenir coffee mugs no doubt will proliferate, but we are also meant to draw lessons about Human Rights, Tolerance, Civil Liberties, and Due Process—headings in the official information kit. Along with seminars and lectures, there are tours of sites connected to the trials, dramatizations of the burningly vivid testimony, and exhibits.

The red-painted Heritage Trail streaks past the 1642 Witch House, home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who is supposed to have cross-examined several of the accused. He did so, we learn on a tour, in his bedroom, which offered a degree of privacy, since the victims were usually forced to partially undress as the judges looked for “witch marks”: boils or open wounds where the devil had entered. A tour of the Witch House is a brisk fifteen-minute affair with a rote narration; the main concern seems to be clearing the few rooms on display for the next group.

A more satisfyingly spooky experience is offered at the Witch Museum, housed in an 1840s castlelike church. In the pitch-black, visitors are surrounded by sound-and-light vignettes, where life-size figures are eerily lit and the accompanying narrative is based on original trial testimony. Families carry babies into the circular theater, and not surprisingly, they howl. The most authentic trial material is on display at the Essex Institute.

If witches and their meaning for the modern world pall, the other, brighter Salem inhabits many of the same streets walked by the bedeviled citizens of 1692. The red line leads to the waterfront and maritime Salem, whose motto, “To the farthest port of the Rich East,” reflects the late-eighteenth-century years when sea trade made this the sixth-largest city in America. Today the National Park Service operates most of the handsome buildings that face Derby Street, across from the windy, grassy reaches where fifty wharves once stood. Several buildings are open to the public, including the Customs House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as a surveyor, and Salem’s oldest brick house, dating from 1762, the home for twenty years of Elias Hasket Derby, known as America’s first millionaire.

The son of Richard Derby, a sea captain whose fortunes were built on an extraordinarily successful career during the Revolution as an owner of privateers and letters of marque (ships authorized to capture enemy vessels and their goods), Elias carried his father’s acumen many steps farther.

“He was the one who took the early chances,” I read in the excellent Park Service handbook. “He was an innovator, the first Salem merchant to use a supercargo, or seagoing business agent, on a voyage.… He developed a centralized world trade network and a system for consigning his cargoes to a foreign house.…” His mansion, with its clean lines and richly restrained furnishings, speaks of a man who was eager not only to help wrest his home country from imperial rule but to take every advantage of the new world he had helped create. “Many gathered around him, many imitated his enterprises, & many shared in their success,” said the Reverend William Bentley, Derby’s eulogist.

As much as the people of Salem may have wished to wash away their year of darkness, in time it brought tourism as well as opprobrium.

At the height of the trade, from 1790 to 1807, Derby’s wharf would have held fourteen warehouses, while the fifty other wharves would have been similarly crowded with ships tied up, cargoes being loaded on and off, crews setting sail, and others disembarking with a little money to spend in the shops that lined Derby Street. Where that raucous life once thronged, there is only the tourist now to wander the half-mile-long Derby wharf, cleared of all but the occasional sea gull and the low-growing cornflower, clover, and bachelor’s button that sprout from the grass. It may look unfinished, but this is a massive work of restoration, brought back from a crumbling wreck by the Park Service in 1938. There are further plans to erect a typical warehouse along the wharf and perhaps to have a replica trading vessel tied up to it. But in its present whispering immensity, the wharf might better remain furnished solely with one’s own imaginings.

—Carla Davidson 

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