The Making of Witch City

As tonight marks the beginning of the month-long “Haunted Happenings” in Salem, a true celebration, so it also begins my annual (and perennial) consternation over “Witch City”,  Salem as mecca for all things Halloween. City authorities, merchants, restaurant owners, and yes, even museum directors, will say that Haunted Happenings is not trading on Salem’s notoriety as the site of the nation’s most notorious witch trials but such a statement is impossible to defend: there is no other compelling reason why Salem, Massachusetts would evolve into the Halloween destination aside from its dark history. Even those who acknowledge the darkness and the connection victimize the accused “witches” yet again: they are of course well-intentioned, but those who seek to turn 1692 into a mere lesson about the necessities of toleration and social justice are distorting the historical reality, just like modern witches identifying with “ancestors”.

So opportunism reigns in Salem, but it has done so for a very long time. Even though the festivities have really intensified over the last 33 years (Haunted Happenings commenced as a one-day affair back in 1982), Witch City evolved over a long time and as a result of many forces and contributors, both deliberate and unintentional. Several people have written about this evolution before (and I’ve devoted quite a bit of time and space to it myself), so I’m going to constrain myself to a veritable laundry list of these factors, all appearing after about 1867, the year of the publication of the first serious study of the 1692 Trials, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. This book itself is influential, as is its abstract, along with the succession of guide books for Salem and the North Shore published from the 1870s until the first World War, “romantic” histories and fictional works featuring Salem issued in this same period, the bicentennial of the Trials in 1892 and everything it inspired, including the famous Daniel Low witch spoon and other witch wares, postcards, Salem’s own Tercentenary in 1926, branding (of goods, ships, trains, companies, public services, schools, neighborhoods), films and television shows, from Maid of Salem (1937) to Bewitched to Salem, The Crucible in all versions, The Salem Witch Museum, Salem’s Chamber of Commerce, and the initiation of Haunted Happenings, the arrival of Laurie Cabot, the “official” witch of Salem who “claimed” the victims of 1692 as fellow witches and the emergence of an influential and entrepreneurial Wiccan community, the Tercentenary of the Witch Trials in 1992, and the increasing national (global?) popularity of Halloween. In many ways, Witch City is a simple product of converging forces of supply and demand, with all that opportunism thrown in.

Witch City Collage 2

“Witch’s Parade”, n.d., Dionne Collection of Salem Images, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Ye Salem Witch Train

Boston & Maine RR “Ye Salem Witch” locomotive, operational 1937-53.


Two Salem Witches

Two “witches”, a century and a half apart: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869, New York Historical Society, and the “Adult Salem Witch” costume from Party City.

It is important to note that the long evolution of Witch City has been marked by resistance and criticism at nearly every phase of its escalation. She was probably just as ineffectual as I, but I share most of the sentiments of Caroline Howard King, a Salem native who returned to the city to write her memoir (When I Lived in Salem, 1822-66) just when witchcraft tourism was really heating up in the 1890s. She recalls being taken on the same route on which the “witches” were led to the gallows by her father when she was a child, and observes that it may be the influence of those early days which make it so impossible for me to look with toleration on the witch spoons and witch symbols which are so much sought after now. The whole witch episode seems to me a blot and disgrace upon the history of Salem, an awful tragedy to be regretted and mourned, instead of a thing to be gloried in and perpetuated, and I should be glad if Gallows Hill could be leveled and forgotten.

11 responses to “The Making of Witch City

  • JMCurley

    Nice, appropriate post as usual


  • Brian Bixby

    If there’s one consolation, the actual history has become all but irrelevant to Salem’s reputation, rather in the same way that “faith” and labor,” the two words on my home town’s official seal (devised at the end of the 19th century), refer to forms of human action conspicuously absent from most of the town’s actual life. I suspect that the words “the REAL story of what happened in Salem” now inevitably mean just the opposite.

    Hmmm . . . there’s a challenge: can one construct a version of Salem’s witch history even more preposterous than, say, the “Salem” TV series? I got as far as having Elizabeth Montgomery seduce Rev. George Burroughs, and then realized that, sadly, it’s still all too easy.


  • Peg

    I think most people first come to Salem for the witches but they return for the history.


  • Tom

    You say “those who seek to turn 1692 into a mere lesson about the necessities of toleration and social justice are distorting the historical reality,” but you never explain how.

    A “mere lesson”? What kind of condescending garbage is that? Please tell me how learning about mass hysteria and mob mentality is not relevant today. Please explain to me how you think witch hunts no longer happen and the Salem witch trials are something we should pretend never happened and sweep under the rug.


    • daseger

      I am certainly not an advocate for sweeping the Salem Witch Trials under the rug, Tom: I want to remember the Victims of 1692 as they WERE, and not make them into something that we can relate to today. And the fact is, they were not witches, nor aberrant in any way. So that’s what I mean by the lesson of toleration distorting the historical reality–it implies that they were. I’m a historian; that’s a historical perspective.


  • Michelle

    Huh, I find the “lesson of toleration” to be something a bit different. I don’t feel that the “toleration” implies that people should have tolerated them _as witches_ , because of course they weren’t, and were horrified and distraught at the very thought – but because they were singled out for legal harassment and condemnation by their other kinds of differences (mental illness, age, personal habits, grudges, etc). There seems to be good scholarship indicating that many of them had made enemies and were aberrant – not all of them, I know, and though I’m writing off the cuff I think that the hysteria actually slowed once accusers started to aim at people who were much more conventional and widely respected members of the community, not when it was confined to people on the fringes. I take away the message that we should be careful about demonizing – literally, in this case – people whose behaviors divert from the norm, not the message that we should tolerate religious diversity (because, as you rightly point out, that wasn’t the central issue in 1692).


    • daseger

      I think that is the general belief of the “Lesson advocates” (for want of a better term), Michelle, and there is no doubt that it is a very sound and beneficial one. I don’t mean to critique their work; I’m just very wary about using people and events in the past to suit present purposes. Any effort to comprehensively REMEMBER those people and events I’m all for.


  • Michelle

    Would love to have a lengthier discussion sometime on this “uses of history”. I tend to fall on the end of the spectrium that asks, why remember if there is no relevance or interest to present-day questions regarding human conditions? It seems to me that interpretation requires some application of a perspective with contemporary meaning in order to be more than a curiosity, and that activities like Salem represent trying to handle a difficult legacy with a sense of responsibility. Simply remembering seems to have no moral valence – where I think people generally do demand ways of understanding such horrific historic events Something for over coffee sometime1


    • daseger

      Absolutely. I have these discussions with my colleagues often. I’m definitely on the other end of the spectrum–the past is a foreign country and you’re never going to embrace it if you don’t “go native” end–Plus I think it is more interesting than the present!


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