Recently, a beloved errand lent me the chance to walk for a spell in the city of my birth–Salem, Massachusetts.
It’s an uncommon city whose spirit now twists around the singular error of its life. In what has to be one of the world’s weirdest successful marketing strategies, Salem embraces her infamous past as the setting of the witch hysteria that saw 19 people hanged, one pressed, and dozens of others imprisoned. Premier among the many witch-themed tourist attractions is the Witch Museum, where life-sized figures depict the stories of 1692. There’s also the Witch House, which markets itself as the only standing structure with direct ties to the witch trials, as it was the home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the magistrates at the time.
Then there’s the Witch Dungeon, which re-creates the cramped and creepy cells of the old gaol (razed in 1957) where the accused were confined, some for years. Prisoners had to pay for their own chains, and the condemned even had to cover the hangman’s fee. They also had to pay for their food, which legend says frequently included lobster–live, unpegged lobster, which the prisoner somehow had to catch, kill, and crack open in order to consume uncooked.
But there are wheels within wheels in the Witch City, and fires within fires, and much more than witch history. There’s the House of Seven Gables, which inspired the gothic novel of the same name by Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne.
For even more weight, the Peabody Essex Museum houses nearly two million works of art and culture, currently including four Faberge eggs.
Salem’s proud past as home of one of the continent’s most lucrative ports continues to haunt the raw, earthy, sometimes decrepit coastline that nonetheless still lures those of us who love the water, though the ships and boats one sees today are more likely to be for pleasure than profit.
But the seafood–like the lobster caprese salad at the Waterfront Hotel’s Regatta Pub–is far superior to the offerings of the old gaol.
Witches and writers, seafarers and seafood-eaters, we are what we always were in Salem.