Ever since I was a little girl I have been drawn to anything to do with witches, vampires, ghosts and ghouls. The Addams Family was my favourite television show (when I could catch it on re-runs). I watched the movie Beetlejuice so many times I could probably still recite the screenplay line by line. And there was nothing more fascinating to me than the Salem Witch Trials. By chance I found the book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare in my grade school library and from then on I was hooked. I could not get enough of this dark period of history.
It’s probably no surprise, with such an interest in all things dark and mysterious, why I became a mystery writer but not too far down on my bucket list was a visit to the legendary village itself, Salem, Massachusetts. The opportunity arose a few years ago and despite being a mom of two young(ish) kids I had little trouble convincing my family to come along for a five day adventure into the past.
So much of my introduction to Salem had been through history books that I was surprised to find it was no longer a quaint pastoral village trapped in the pages of time. I am not sure what I expected really. Today, despite a number of witch museums and historical attractions, Salem is an urban bedroom community to the bustling city of Boston. But don’t be fooled, first impressions aside, Salem is steeped in history that begs to be discovered.
Any visitor with an interest in the Witch Trials will have a hard time choosing which museum or attraction to visit. We were able to visit all but one. Each independently owned attraction held its own appeal but if a traveller had to choose just one, I would recommend “Cry Innocent,” a live re-enactment of the trial of Bridget Bishop, the red-wearing suffragette before her time who was the first person executed in the hysteria. Arrested in the street, re-enactors guide you to the Old Town Hall where the trial takes place.
The hidden gem has to be The House of the Seven Gables, immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer and unwilling descendent of the Salem Witch Trial judge, John Hathorne. Nathaniel despised his connection to the notorious judge so much he added an ‘w’ to his name as a means to distance himself (ahem… worked like a charm, I see). Somewhat altered to better resemble the home from the book, the historic house is an amazing museum and the tour is a must see. Nestled next to the water The House of the Seven Gables acts like an oasis from the urban feel of the rest of the village and makes any visitor feel transported.
The Witch House is the most popular attraction and the oldest surviving building from the Witch Trial era. Reportedly haunted, the building would have been an impressive structure in its day far exceeding the standard dwelling at the time but the neighbourhood that has sprung up around it is worth a slow stroll today. Inside, the rooms are all adorned as they would have been during the time when Judge Jonathon Corwin inhabited it. It was behind these walls accusations were made and trials began.
In the centre of Salem Village is a Witch Trial Memorial, where the names of all the innocent victims are forever etched in stone to recognize the injustice of their trials. And immediately behind is a centuries old cemetery filled with gnarly trees and simple headstones. Nathaniel Hawthorne (there’s that name again) would steal away with his bride-to-be, Sophie, while courting in order to have some alone time (ahem!).
A visit to the Friendship, a 1797 replica of the East Indianman sailing vessel of 18th century trading fame, is also a must. Operated by the National Park Service, the tour takes you on the ship and across the road to a spectacular early 19th century building, the U.S. Customs House where millions of dollars of imports were tallied and taxed. Nathaniel Hawthorne (again) worked here for a number of years and its believed this is where he was inspired to write The Scarlet Letter. The tour culminates at small shop reminiscent of general stores of old where visitors are able to buy sweets and bulk spices as villagers would have done during the port’s heyday. The best part of this tour is that it’s free.
When the sun goes down a walking tour is the best way to explore Salem. Who better knows the ins and outs of a place than the locals? Ghostly tales and murderous deeds abound in a place with over 400 years of history.
Though sometimes overlooked during times other than Halloween, Salem is a great place to visit. The buildings still hold much of the New England charm it became known for and despite a modern city sprouting up around it in the last hundred years visitors can still feel the ghosts of the past… if they are only willing to stand still and pay attention.
A journalist in her previous life, Tracy L. Ward is the author behind the Peter Ainsley Mystery series featuring Victorian morgue Surgeon Peter Ainsley and his highborn sister, Margaret Marshall. The first book in the series, Chorus of the Dead, was released in July 2012 and its sequel, Dead Silent, was published earlier this year. Tracy is finishing up the final details of her third installment and expects it to be available in the spring of 2014. She lives near Toronto with her husband, two kids and a dog named Watson.