Residents of Salem have long noticed that our city’s Halloween festivities are not confined to October, hence “Septoberween,” a phrase I’ve heard once or twice. It’s been crowded for some time though—all summer, late spring—people are coming for a general goth spookiness, I think, rather than just for Halloween. Of course, none of it is connected to Salem, or the Salem witch trials, because they were not witches but try telling that to a bridal party wearing little witch hats in July. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to Salem’s dark tourism, but it does seem as if something needs to change in its overall management (I’ve given up on messaging). Whatever happens, if anything at all, will be the result of a top-down decision rather than any impetus from mere residents. After last Halloween season, when weekend crowds of a million people pushed around downtown, I decided that I had experienced my last Salem October: my husband and I are packing up the cats and moving to Maine for a month. Fortunately we have a big family house in York Harbor, which my parents generally vacate for a cozier condo nearby, so I’m going home. I think this is a good solution for my Halloween angst, but we’ll see: I’ll still be commuting to Salem several times a week! Since I’m getting out of town, I thought I would push up my annual little advice to visitors post a bit, especially as I’ve received a lot of email queries over the summer. This is hardly an exhaustive list: if you want that I suggest Destination Salem (truly the master list of events and a very dynamic site, but skip the “History” sections which are dreadful), or Things To Do in Salem or the dedicated Haunted Happenings site. I am no booster, as regular readers of this blog know, so the most important assertion I can make here is that there is only one museum in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), and the best advice I can give is to avoid all the other venues calling themselves museums if you are seeking authentic objects and/or professional curation based on the most recent scholarship. If you are coming to Salem because you want to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, the PEM offers a lot, but not the whole story: that’s not its mission. However, in the past five years or so, the PEM has really engaged with the Trials, and this year is offering an exhibition entitled The Salem Witch Trials. Recovering Justice. I popped in yesterday and found it very accessible and continuous with its previous exhibitions’ focus on authentic documents and objects.
Given the focus is on recovering justice, I think it would have been nice to exhibit some of the restitution requests (+transcriptions) submitted by victims and victims’ families that are referenced above: these statements by those related to the “Sufferers in the time of the Witchcraft” are very compelling and can amplify the judicial tragedy. The struggle to clear the names of those who were not included in the 1711 Reversal of Attainder could have been given more attention as well—it extended all the way up the 21st century! The exhibition does include the most recent attempt at restitution: the successful campaign of North Andover middle-school students to exonerate Elizabeth Johnson, who confessed to practicing witchcraft and was condemned to death but obtained a reprieve but no reversal. Similar heroic efforts happened in the 1950s when Ann Pudeator “and certain other persons” were legally exonerated, and again in 2001 when those “certain other persons” were named in a formal resolution. The Recovering Justice exhibit invites its onlookers to dig deeper in both primary and secondary sources, and also to visit other galleries in the PEM: the month of October gets its own “chapter” in Salem Stories and related objects and images can also be found in On this Ground: Being and Belonging in America.
News clippings from exoneration efforts in the past (which also offer interesting insights into the commercialization of the Witch Trials in Salem), further reading in the Recovering Justice exhibition (including my colleague Tad Baker’s definitive book), October in Salem Stories and portrait of Witch Trial judge Samuel Sewall by John Smibert, 1733, in On this Ground gallery.
The PEM has a Trials “collection focus” page
on its website with FAQs and also offers an audio self-guided “Salem Witch Trials Walk,” but if you want a more personal and narrative experience, you might want to take a walking tour, of which Salem has many.
The quality spectrum seems very wide: you could take a tour with someone who has studied early American history for years and has the credentials to prove it, or you could be led around by someone who (literally) just got off the bus. I get asked for recommendations quite often and I am hesitant to offer any, because I just haven’t taken many tours. I am curious about a couple of things, however, and I’ve been working on a longer piece on Salem tourism for a while (now interrupted by the Salem’s Centuries
project) so I intend to take more tours in the future. Having just watched
them, I’m particularly interested in how tour guides use the physical space of Salem, where so few structures tied to the Trials exist, and also in what kind of context is presented: local, regional, Anglo, global? When you read reviews on Tripadvisor or Google, tourists often comment on authenticity
(“all we saw were parking lots”: a paraphrase of a common complaint) or lack thereof: I’m curious how guides compensate for/use the relatively modern streetscape of Salem (the PEM must have noticed the authenticity issue too, as it has used that word in all press materials relating to its exhibitions). So with these questions in mind, I did take a walking tour this past weekend, with Krystina Yeager, a student in the Salem State MA program who was in my Renaissance grad course last spring. Krystina operates a tour
called the Historian’s Guide to Salem
and produces a podcast as well, and I chose her tour because I was impressed with her work in class but also thought her perspective on the Salem trials might be similar to mine, as she has been more focused on English witchcraft. We set off on a hot Sunday afternoon at a vigorous pace of walking and talking, and I was really glad that the tour group wasn’t too big–maybe 12 or so when the city allows groups of 40. If you’re a mere pedestrian on the streets of Salem you literally cannot get out of the way of such big groups. Krystina had me at the very beginning of her tour when she uttered the name “Martin Luther” as the Reformation is undeniably the biggest factor in instigating and intensifying fears and accusations of witchcraft in early modern Europe. She presented a comparative context throughout while still focusing on the very personal stories and suffering of each and every victim of 1692. It was a very source-based tour: standing before a parking lot and the new building on the site of the former Salem jail, she described conditions within using the detailed restitution requests I referenced above. So that’s how you rise above the parking lot—with some pretty vivid testimony! Krystina explained the Protestant demonization of magic, the power vacuum that gave rise to the odd legal “system” put in place during the Trials, and the character of Giles Corey as close as we could get to the site of his torture–and much more. We wound up at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial downtown, a site that seems both authentic and modern at the same time and certainly an appropriate place to end the story of the “Sufferers in the time of the Witchcraft.” I was exhausted! This tour seemed to echo the whirlwind pace of the Trials themselves over the months of 1692 in its intensity, and I recommend it enthusiastically.
Krystina Yeager explaining Puritan theology and disdain of counter-magic in the courtyard of the First Church and the horrors of the Salem gaol in 1692 in a rather less inspirational spot: clearly tour guides have to be conjurers! Our ending point at the Witch Trials Memorial overlooked by the 17th Century Pickman House, which is now the Welcome Center for both the Memorial and the adjoining Charter Street Cemetery.
And speaking of authenticity, as I have throughout this post, I really can’t recommend the adjoining sites overseen by the Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center enough, and its establishment was a City initiative, in collaboration with the PEM. A decade ago, both the Witch Trials Memorial and the adjoining Charter Street Cemetery, otherwise known as the “Old Burying Ground,” were being completely overrun by tourists: the walls of the former and graves of the latter were actually endangered by abuse. I don’t even like to think or write about it, if you want to “go” there, read this post, which I typed with my hands shaking. The City stepped up, restored the cemetery and opened an orientation center in the adjoining Samuel Pickman House owned by PEM. Welcome Center staff monitor both the cemetery and the Memorial, and every time I go there, even last Septoberween, there is an air of respect and stewardship for these sacred places. I saw Amber Shannon, another Salem State History grad who works at the Welcome Center, on my way out, keeping her eyes on both the cemetery and the Memorial and clearly steeling herself for the crowds to come. I think everyone in Salem was doing that, this first weekend in September.
Amber Shannon of the Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center and Rory Raven of Salem on Foot Tours, the first Sunday in September, (relative) calm before the storm. I haven’t been fortunate enough to take one of Rory’s tours, but when I heard him speak at an event he made an impression, and so when some family members visited a couple of years ago I signed them right up. They raved, and so I would certainly recommend his tour as well, especially if you’re interested in a more general tour of Salem and not just the Witch Trials. As I’ve been ranting about here for years now, there’s so much more to Salem!