26 September 2019:
Salem, Massachusetts, USA:
Witch City

By Corey Sandler

Salem, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, was one of the most significant seaports in Puritan American history.

It is an interesting small place worth exploring. And by the luck of the draw, the cruise terminal in Boston, about 18 miles southwest, is filled with three large ships on the day of our visit.

By 1790, Salem was the sixth largest city in the United States, and a world-famous seaport—particularly in the China Trade, sugar and molasses from the West Indies, and Sumatran pepper. From Salem codfish was exported to Europe and the West Indies. Salem ships also visited Africa, Russia, Japan, and Australia.

The trade moved on to Boston and New York, although a fair amount of the riches of trade can still be seen in Salem.

Riches…and witches.

Most of us will agree that witches exist only in fiction.

J.K. Rowling became a billionaire promoting the idea that witches and wizards are amongst us. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger and Hagrid and Weasley and Dumbledore.

But hundreds if not thousands of people were accused and many of them convicted of being witches in Europe, Asia, and later the American Colonies. The penalty was usually torture or death, or both.

The period of witch-hunts in Modern Europe and then Colonial North America took place from about 1450 to 1750, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. By some estimates, 35,000 to 100,000 people were executed, the vast majority of them in Europe.

Although Salem was only 18 miles from Boston, it was pretty isolated. As happens in many small towns, conflicts arose amongst small factions. And the most common sources of friction were money, religion, and sex.

The bottom line is that hundreds of people were accused, dozens were put on trial, and 20 people were executed; 19 by hanging and one by being pressed to death. Fourteen of the twenty were women.

The trials began in 1692, and were said to have arisen after some young girls were playing with what was called a “Venus glass”; we call that a mirror today.

Today Salem, Massachusetts is an attractive distant suburb of Boston. I am certain many of the 41,000 residents wished it was known for its harbor, its world-class art museum, or its historic buildings.

But instead Salem adopted a nickname that has proven hard to shed: Witch City. Police cars have witch logos. A public elementary school known as Witchcraft Heights, sits below Gallows Hill. The Salem High School athletic teams are called the Witches, and the school’s newspaper is the “Witches’ Brew.”

The city could just as easily lay claim to a title related to Fine Art or Architecture. The city is home to the House of Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and the amazing Peabody Essex Museum.

Oh, and also the Salem Witch Museum, which is—in my opinion—somewhere between Madame Tussaud’s or Disneyland, and a real museum. The museum is—and I am choosing my words carefully here—fact-based.

You might learn something. And there’s a gift shop.

Right in the heart of town is the Peabody Essex Museum, which dates to 1799 when the East India Marine Society was founded, by a group of Salem-based captains and supercargoes, representatives of ship owners.

The society’s charter required members to collect “natural and artificial curiosities” from beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. To be eligible they also had to circumnavigate the globe, and share navigational discoveries with other members.

In the two centuries since, the society’s collection merged with the former Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute, allowing a claim as the oldest continuously operating museum in the country.

The museum includes more than 1.8 million pieces.

The Peabody-Essex has one of the major collections of Asian art in the United States, dating from the time Salem ships traded with the Far East. It also has Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house outside China.

The museum’s maritime art collection is one of the finest in the world.

And it is about to become considerably larger, with a 40,000-square-foot addition due to open two days after our visit, on September 28.

All photos and text Copyright 2019 by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved. See more photos on my website at http://www.coreysandler.com


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