It was an interesting weekend in Salem, full of events, exuberance and achievements, as well as a bit of contradiction, from my perspective. Salem’s Trials, the symposium that my department organized in collaboration with the Essex National Heritage Area and Salem Award Foundation for the 325th anniversary of the Trials, was on Saturday and then the Foundation’s 25th Anniversary was on Sunday: I came away happy and optimistic from the first event, convinced we had remembered and honored the victims of 1692 in the best possible way, and a bit confused by the second. It was certainly festive and forward-looking, focused on an array of six-word memoirs on the theme of inclusion as well as the recognition of two (extraordinary!) “rising leaders” newly-graduated from Salem High School and Salem Academy, but also on the contributions of the owner of the Salem Witch Museum–who happens to be a major beneficiary of the cumulative tragedy that is the Salem Witch Trials. One day I was sitting on a panel titled “The Making of Witch City” (filmed by C-Span) in which we discussed the unfortunate exploitation of the “witches” of Salem, the next I was observing a very public expression of gratitude offered up to the driver of Haunted Happenings! It was a bit surreal for me but I think I was the only one: one savvy Salem insider observed that he pays for shit in response to my bewilderment. Ah well, the memoirs did look lovely, shimmering in the sun on a beautiful, breezy day.
Like everything, it’s about perspective: ultimately the Salem Award Foundation, whose full name is the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice, is more focused on the present than the past and needs the resources, network, and flexibility to achieve its goals and mission: I have the luxury of being able to remain laser-focused on the past and the victims. That’s just what we did on Saturday morning, but in the afternoon we shifted to a more layered discussion of how these victims have been remembered, driven as much by the symposium attendees (including several descendants of victims of 1682 who recorded their “testimonies”) as presenters. The keynote address by geographer Ken Foote, “Salem Witchcraft in Landscape and Memory”, was particularly resonant for me. Dr. Foote laid out the full spectrum of “marking” sites of tragedy, from sanctification to obliteration, and viewed Salem in this context. He noted that when he first came to Salem in 1984, no one could really tell him where the victims of 1692 were executed, and now there is not only the 1992 tricentennial Witch Trials Memorial but a new memorial on the site of the recently-confirmed execution site at Proctor’s Ledge (now scheduled to be dedicated on July 19). As I was listening to him, the question that kept running through my mind was: what if the sacredness of a site is challenged–or not even recognized? as that seems to be what happens to the downtown Witch Trials Memorial every October when Haunted Happenings is in full swing and it is transformed into a convenient place to eat fried dough. It seems like contradictory commemoration will remain in force in Salem until the sanctification of that site can be realized, and I don’t know if that will (can) ever happen.
Just one weekend in Salem: The Salem Award Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Celebration and Salem’s Trials Symposium. Below, the Witch Trials Memorial off Charter Street, yesterday: for much less contemplative times, click here.