Salem has been packed with tourists from late spring and all summer, despite the odd hot/wet weather: I’m very happy for all of our shops and restaurants after the challenges of the pandemic but getting a bit annoyed by what I’m hearing in the streets from the increasingly-unavoidable tour guides in my path and in my neighborhood. I live near downtown Salem so I should expect to be right in the heart of it all, but actually walking tours in our neighborhood are a relatively new phenomenon. I think about three years ago I first noticed them, and I was glad to see them, because I assumed that people were interested in all of the things that brought me to Salem: architecture, a very layered and diverse heritage, some great stories about very interesting people. The tours have really escalated this year, both in terms of frequency and the amount of people, and while several of them do seem to be featuring all of these things, most are definitely not. So while I’m still glad to see them in my neighborhood, I really wish I didn’t have to hear them. Clearly there is a spectrum of walking tours offered in Salem, and I don’t want to share the wealth of detail until I’ve done my due diligence, but every day I am amazed to hear just how many buildings are haunted in Salem, where our tragic history has ensured that ghosts are all around us.
This is a big and important topic. Walking tours must represent a large percentage of Salem’s tourism economy if the people on the streets are any indication. Their popularity is a natural evolution for a city that deems itself “historic” but has no credible historical museum to offer its visitors. I have a lot a questions and a lot to learn: I pitched articles to two periodicals, one academic and one popular, a month ago and both were accepted, so I’m going to be walking and digging around over the next few months. Just to see the lay of the land, I started with the visitor reviews on the tourism sites, and two things popped out for me: the concern with authenticity (of place) and credibility (of interpreter) among the tourists who left reviews. Let me start out by saying that the overwhelming majority of reviews left by Salem tourists are positive: I hope this is the same for our beleaguered restaurants! People seem to want stories, the spookier the better, and the Salem tour guides are giving them what they want. But even in the very positive reviews, there are lots of comments about sites: parking lots, intersections, modern buildings which are the sites of structures associated with the Witch Trials which are no longer there. There’s a marked disappointment among reviewers that they can’t see authentic historic sites, which explains the popularity of the Witch House and the Old Burying Point on Charter Street. It also explains why tour guides are bringing tourists to Hamilton Hall, right next door to where I live, which is a beautiful, authentic historic site with a very rich history. BUT (again, with exceptions), once they bring these tourists to the Hall, they simply tell a generic tale about the Witch Trials in front of it, even though it was not built until more than a century after they occurred. Believe me, I’ve been out in my garden and I can’t avoid these presentations: I hear the “Back to back and breast to breast, they are dancing their souls to hell” speech from the minister of the South Church which once stood across the street and then it is straight into the witch trials. This is a building rich in African-American history due to the long residence and activism of the Remond family: there is presently a (free!) exhibition on slavery and enfranchisement and this past weekend I watched as several tour groups refrained from even entering the building, with its doors wide open. And these tours don’t even walk down Chestnut Street to explore its wonders: they turn around and go back downtown! Slight exaggeration here, but this is akin to taking a few steps down the Champs-Élysées and no further. I’m always tempted to run out there and say “keep going!” but so far I have refrained; however, I did buy this sign at an antique show about a month ago and and hung it on my front fence.
Now the status and issue of “certified historians”. Apparently all public guides are licensed by the City of Salem (along with auctioneers, junk collectors, drainlayers, and “transient photographers” among other contractors). I think this must be fundamentally a safety issue, but it’s not entirely so with guides as they must take and pass an examination on Salem history. So the City is authorizing and credentialling not only practice, but also content. This is clearly apparent to tourists: they seem to praise guides for their storytelling abilities first and foremost but they also point out that they are “certified”. I have several questions about this process, because now we’re in the terrain not just of my neighborhood, but of my discipline, and my profession. Do all public guides take this examination–even those who drop in by bus for an afternoon or work for out-of-town strictly-haunted tours? How does administration and enforcement work? And why, in a city that references diversity and inclusion as often as possible in nearly all of its public communications and stated priorities, is the test for its “history” guides based on texts which are dramatically dated and reflective of “scholarship” limited to the dashing deeds of old white men? One of the texts which guides “study” was first published in 1880! There is no mention in the Visitors’ Guide to Salem or Chronicles of Old Salem to the Remonds, to Charlotte Forten (or any notable women, of any color, with the exception of Caroline Emmerton, of course) to Salem’s active abolitionist and reform movements, to the vast majority of Salem’s artists and authors, and to the succession of immigrants whose efforts and cultures have shaped the city over time. Frances Diane Robotti’s Chronicles of Old Salem (1948), attempts to offer up some global context for Salem’s dynamic commerce with the observation that “under Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal, Portuguese mariners reach the Gulf of Guinea and discover—and import to Portugal—the true Negro, thus initiating the modern African slave trade” but fails to mention the Desire, which left Salem in 1637 carrying Native American captives and returned months later with the first enslaved Africans brought to the northern English colonies. This dated “content” is reflective of the lack of seriousness with which the City approaches the interpretation of Salem history; indeed everyone I ask about this examination seems to think it’s just a big joke. So I ask: why does it exist?
Salem “history” in 1880—and today.
Appendix: This is an ongoing project for me so I’ll be posting more, but I wanted to add an appendix to this particular post about licensing and certification. Salem clearly has licensing but not certification—that ridiculous test can’t possibly credential, despite tourists’ perceptions. Two cities which have more evolved systems are Charleston and Savannah, both of which got rid of their mandatory certifications, but instituted (and encourage) voluntary ones. Court cases, referencing the First Amendment, influenced both decisions: Charleston seems reluctant but Savannah is extremely enthusiastic about its voluntary certification process and has produced a stellar manual which you can access here. Charleston has a comprehensive manual too, but you’ve got pay for it. Compare the Savannah manual to the Salem “study materials”! The Savannah system and materials were developed at the initiative of the tour guides themselves: this could certainly happen in Salem too as local, professional guides are clearly concerned about quality control. I just don’t know how you keep the ghost tours out with a voluntary system, or whether you would want to, as they are clearly popular (well I would want to, because I can’t get out of their way).