Random Notes from Salem, Mass. (April 14, 2009)
This weekend is the infamous Boston Tea Party swing event, and while I put the finishing touches on the next Old Timer essay entry, I thought I’d share this travel essay-ette from our trip to 2009’s event, which first premiered in the Jam Cellar newsletter in April, 2009.
The last time we were at Boston Tea Party Swings, I found out that Salem– the Salem –was only a few miles outside of Danvers, where the Boston Tea Party is held (no, not in Boston). When we flew in this year, we made sure we came in a day early so we could visit the site of the famous witch trials in the 1600s.
Our first stop was the Official Salem Witch Museum, which we had to find amongst a handful of tourist traps such as the Witch Dungeon Museum and the Witch History Museum.
The Museum, which is housed in an old cathedral, was composed of two parts. For the first part, we were herded into a dark theater haunted by foreboding ambient music. In the darkness, one could make out the vague shadows of frozen human-like figures and large scenery, which filled Kate with the irrational fear that we were about to see a Chuck E Cheese’s concert. Suddenly, a booming British voice began telling the story of the Salem Witch trials, and scenes around us lit up with frozen wax statues in Puritan surroundings.
If you don’t know the story of the Salem Witch Trials, it’s this: A group of young, repressed and bored Puritan girls often visited a black servant named Tituba, who showed them how to do African magic. When confronted about it, the girls, showing the inherent evil in high school girls that every guy remembers all too well, started naming people in town who were “witches.” Soon, everyone around town was calling each other a witch in order to get their property, settle a fight, or get rid of individual thinkers. And here’s the thing: out of all the people that died, Tituba was not one of them. Because she confessed. The ones who died were only those who didn’t confess; they thought they were innocent, and refused to confess to a lie, even if it meant their death. So, it’s not only a story of one of our weakest moments of character, it’s also, in a strange way, the story of some of our strongest moments. During the trails, 19 people were hung, and one man was crushed to death by placing stones on him. None were burned.
The museum used a British voice to give the narrative proper weight and majesty, as if all things old and dramatic have to have a British person announce them. However, here, perhaps for the first time in history, a British voice actually has the potential to take some of the drama out of a historical situation. After all, the British and their European neighbors killed thousands of accused witches throughout history, whereas America’s worst situation involved only twenty.
The second part of the museum was an exhibit called “The Witch Throughout History,” and was comprised of a large time line of witchcraft history, and three display cases showing different ideas of a witch. Our tour guide would stand next to a display case and say “This is the medicine woman of an early American village. She would often be consulted for medical purposes because of her fine knowledge of herbs and balms. Though many practiced pagan spells and magic, she was often trusted with many jobs around the village, including birthing babies.” Then the lady would push a button next to the display, and we’d hear an old hag’s voice say. “I am the medicine woman of an early American village. I am often consulted for medical purposes because of my fine knowledge of herbs and balms. Though many of my kind practice pagan spells and magic, I am often trusted with many jobs around the village; For instance, I just delivered a baby.”
The middle display was the Wicked Witch of the West, and the final display was a “modern” witch couple; complete with a Renaissance fair velvet cloak, leather Legolas boots, and large, tacky Celtic jewelry. I imagined real Witches would look at it the same way we would of a display case marked “Lindy Hoppers” with people in banana-yellow zoot suits holding martinis and wearing piano-key ties.
After having just learned about a psychologically horrific time in human history, what better way to calm yourself than by spending a few moments of silence in the gift shop, where you could buy almost anything Korea produces involving witches, including a sign that says “Witch parking; all others will be toad.”
This brings me to perhaps the most unsettling part of our tour of Salem; the exploitation of the witch trials for tourism. To an outsider, it looks like the entire town has based its identity on the shallowest stereotypes of witchcraft, as if the whole city is a giant year-round Halloween and new-age store. None of which really had anything to do with that moment of mass hysteria, greed, close-mindedness, and evil self-righteousness at the dawn of American history. To pretend it does seems itself all of those things, not to mention just plain cheap and tacky.
It also made me a little cautious of the thousands of “witches” that do live in Salem. They walk around, long flowing hair, black clothing, and, according to a local, spend full-mooned summer nights hanging around naked in the trees. Witches around Stone Hinge, I can understand. The place is home to thousands of years of Druid worship. But all Salem has going for it is that it was once the home to bored and self-absorbed teenagers and obsessive adults who used religion to excuse acting on their darkest thoughts. So, what does that say about the “witches” it draws?
That night, our ghost tour guide, dressed in black revolutionary garb, wove six of us through graveyards and illegal back alleys while another tour, with seventy or eighty people and a corporate ghost tour guide with a cordless microphone, wondered on the main street off in the distance.
The first stop was a mansion where a man named Dr. White was beat to death with a lead pipe in order for a relative to gain his inheritance. The pipe, along with a piece of rope, a candlestick, a revolver, and a few other things found around the mansion, were part of the evidence. The murder inspired an idea for a board game to the Parker Brothers, who were from Salem. The police often get calls from people who see an old man wondering around on the second floor.
(Author’s note-a little internet research reveals that Clue was actually invented by a wealthy British person who used to play a live-action game called “murder” with his friends in their large mansions. Parker Brothers did buy it, though, and they personally did come from Salem. I can’t find anything to back up the claim that a famous murder with a lead pipe happened in Salem, though. Reality, 1, Ghost Tour, 0.)
The next stop was a garden in the courtyard of an old Episcopal church. It belonged to a landowner named Phillip English who owned a large section of Salem. When the witch trials happened, he knew that, being an Anglican and a wealthy land owner in the middle of a Puritan farming community, he was a large target for neighbors. He left with his family in the middle of the night, hoping to come back after the trials had ceased. However, the act of running away, of course, made everyone suspect him of being a witch, and they seized his property. When he came back, he demanded it all back, but was only given a small plot of land; an old graveyard. To stick it to his Puritan oppressors, he moved out all the tombstones and built an Anglican church there, in the heart of Salem. Today, the church is known for strange noises and creating anxiety in people who are in it alone. (From the churches website, it seems like this is all pretty much true. Point for Ghost Tour.)
The next stop was the town’s abandoned prison, where numerous ghost sitings occur, and where some sort of lighting trick made it appear there was a candle in the second story building. We all saw it. True, we couldn’t figure out how that lighting trick could be, but at least the guide acknowledged that there was probably a trick involved. (No points awarded.)
The two most effective ghost stories were the last two of the evening. The first was about Giles Corey, the one man crushed to death in the witch trials. By the law of the land, he was not allowed to be tried unless he pleaded either guilty or innocent, which he refused do. They solved this problem by putting him on a slab of rock, throwing a large wooden table top on him, and adding rocks onto his chest until he confessed. For three days, his only words were “More weight.” When he finally died, since he had not confessed, his lands could still pass onto his heirs.
We stood in front of the yard it happened in, a yard where people often report seeing an old man wandering around, particularly before a tragic event, most notably the great Salem Fire of 1914. He is also associated with a curse on the Sheriffs of Salem, many of which have died around middle age or have to leave office from chest problems. (Though I could not find real information on the sheriff curse, it is a popular enough legend. The Corey stuff is well documented. Another point for ghost tour.)
The final ghost story of the evening came from an event that happened to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote “The Scarlett Letter” and himself was born in Salem. Our guide told the story this way: young Nathaniel often visited a private library open only to the town’s academics, one of which was a retired priest. Nathaniel often saw the priest, but never talked to him, until one day, he looked over at the priest, who was covered in blood, grabbing at his stomach, and screaming. Nathaniel went to get help, only to find the priest had died earlier that day due to stomach complications.
This is a great, chilling Sixth-Sense “Big Finish” story to a ghost tour, and everyone was pleasantly terrified. But the real story, though less exciting, is actually more interesting to me. Nathaniel DID apparently have an encounter with a ghost he later wrote about, and the ghost was indeed that of a priest in the aforementioned private library. There was never the bloody, creepy incident, though….Nathaniel just apparently kept seeing the priest in the library after the priest had died. In Nathaniel’s recount, “The Ghost of Dr. Harris,” most of the story focuses on how awkward it was sharing a library with a ghost. He laughs at how the apparition was always reading the Boston Newspaper, apparently not content with moving on from this dimension. He also mentions how the ghost soon began to look at him, as if he had something to say. Nathaniel, however, thought the joke was on the ghost, because Nathaniel was incredibly shy and talking wasn’t allowed in the library, anyway. Nathaniel saw the ghost over the years, and never mentioned it to the many old men who visited the library who sat next to (or on) the ghost. Nathaniel’s relative comfort with the apparition has a comical creepiness , and serves as a reminder that the humans we meet everyday can have the potential to be just as strange as ghosts. (Reality, 2, Ghost Tour, 2)
After spending forty bucks on cabs to get from the Boston Party Hotel, twenty bucks on tour tickets, and a day searching for the dark side of Salem, we huddled together for warmth under the rain as our tour guide gave his final speech: “I always want to make sure to mention that the witch hangings themselves didn’t happen anywhere near here. The actual Historic Salem town is in Danvers.”
Where The Boston Tea Party hotel is.
Touche’, Ghost Tour.