We fully admit we were drawn to Salem by its sordid past.
However, we were horrified to find that tourist trap economics trumped the unseemly historical facts.
There are plenty of wonderful nonfictional sites in the beautiful seaside town, including the famous House of Seven Gables that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of (go there — the hidden passage alone is worth the price of admission!)…
…and the old cemetery where several Mayflower passengers and many of the participants in the witch trails are laid to rest. Nearby, there is a memorial to the victims of the trials.
The Salem Witch Museum, housed in a church built and used in the 1700s, is one of the few museums in town that actually embraces a factual account with minimal sensationalism.
The bulk of the attractions run toward more Halloween-style stereotypes.
The wholesale killing of dozens of innocent men, women and children has mutated into an excuse for throwing up goofy Frankenstein and Dracula “museums,” wizard schools, ghost tours, bizarre street theater and a cheesy statue of Samantha from Bewitched.
Salem, Massachusetts and witches are nearly synonymous but, in reality, it is highly doubtful there was any broom-flying, cauldron-stirring, pointy-hat-wearing witchcraft actually going on back in 1692.
The Puritan: Roger Conant, Salem’s Founder
It seems a few young girls began to act strangely that year. Whether they were sick, drugged by fungus-tainted grain, or just looking for attention — we’ll never know.
The Puritan minds of the late seventeenth century figured that the convulsions they suffered could only be caused by witchcraft. Time to round up the usual suspects.
On March 1st, a beggar woman, a slave girl and a lady who dared not regularly attend church services were hauled in and charged as witches. These three accused others and before long no one was beyond suspicion.
Within a few months, sixty-two people had been arrested. By summer, the God-fearing folks of Salem were hanging folks on no more evidence than a few accusations, coerced confessions, and the good old “touch test.”
By the time September rolled around, twenty people had been put to death. Many more died while in prison awaiting their trials.
When eighty-year-old Giles Corey was arrested, he refused to enter a plea — as a protest against the court’s methods. Rather than hang Mr. Corey for daring to point out that the sanctimonious kangaroo court had run amuck, the pious Puritans decided to go with torture.
Rocks were stacked on the octogenarian until he couldn’t breathe. Giles, being a true bad ass, survived for two days.
He never entered a plea.
Perhaps old Giles Corey didn’t die in vain. By October, a few voices of opposition had begun to question the proceedings. By month’s end, the Governor had prohibited further arrests and dissolved the court.
On closer inspection, the real reason for the hysteria and brutality in Salem likely stemmed from a religious squabble between rival factions in the church, and political pettifoggery between neighboring villages.
What better solution is there to solving differences than to hang people as witches?
Altogether overshadowed by its infamous witch-related history is the fact that Salem was once one of North America’s main seaports.
The colony’s early trade developed into huge business, mostly with the Far East.
Thankfully, the old harbor is being preserved by the National Parks Service as the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Many of the buildings are being refurbished and informative signs provide a guide while strolling along the gorgeous bay.
Directly across from the harbor we noticed a liquor store with a name that was a nod to Salem’s old seafaring days — The Bung Hole.
Our only previous experience with the term “bung hole” had been as a slang term for the termination of the alimentary system, you know, the pooper, A-hole, bum, gluteus maximus, OK, OK…. butt.
But, it turns out the term actually refers to the hole in the booze barrels that the ships used to haul, which is plugged with a stopper called a “bung,” hence, the bung hole.
This fine establishment seemed intent on educating the startled tourists with clever pictorial explanations, showing pictures of barrels and ships. But their jig was up when we discovered the T-shirts with “I Got It in the Bung Hole” emblazoned across the chest!
Though there is no evidence that real witches were conjuring up spells way back when, the modern variety have fully embraced Salem and are Wicca-ing away throughout the town.
Dare we say it has become the Wicca Mecca? Sorry about that.
On one hand, this proves the progress of tolerance made in Salem, but let’s hope it doesn’t detract from actual history and overshadow the real lesson to be learned from the Puritan mindset of the 1690’s…
…don’t ever let it happen again.
David & Veronica,