Salem: A town of hauntings, history and Hawthorne

Click here to see more of Salem and hear from Mayor Driscoll.

When it comes to Halloween, Salem has no shame. The town hawks itself to visitors, representing itself as the place to go to for anything that has a passing resemblance to witchcraft.

Never mind the fact that the Salem Witch Trials has little to do with Halloween and modern day Wiccans.
   
Thankfully, Salem has enough history to go around for those who want to experience the soul of the town without being assaulted by Halloween kitsch.
   
One of the ways Salem is trying to attract visitors beyond the Halloween season is through the use of its Haunted Passport. The Passport offers discounts at a number of places, and its use extends all the way to April 30.
   
Kimberley Driscoll, in her second year as mayor of Salem, worked with a media firm to develop the Passport after last year’s Halloween.
  
“One thing that became really clear was that we needed more management of Halloween. It’s kind of a free-for-all,” Driscoll said. “As a result of that, we get bombed here, there’s 75,000 people here on just Halloween night.”
   
She added that it was a serious public safety concern, with crowds “literally body to body to body,” but also noted that the Passport offered “some ways that the city might...recoup some revenue during Halloween.”
   
The problem with Halloween in Salem is that the camp and kitsch overpowers the reason why Salem became so prominent in the first place – namely the Witch Trials. Walking by a store with a picture of a sultry witch leaning forward on a broomstick – her exposed bottom sticking out – is likely not the way Cotton Mather remembered the Witch Trials.
   
The trials were a stunning testament to paranoia, greed and the brutality of the mob. In Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum argued that tension within the community and factionalism contributed to the ferocity of the trials.
   
For those who wish to reflect on the tragedy of that period, there is a poignant memorial to the deceased in Salem on the corner of Charter and Liberty streets. The names of those killed are etched on stone benches, lining a small rectangular plot near a cemetery.
   
Near the memorial is the Peabody Essex Museum, which is an excellent museum, although the benefits afforded by the Haunted Passport is rather paltry – a two-for-one admission deal (which does not include admission to the special exhibit or the Chinese House, the star attraction). The Chinese House is a largely intact structure that shows several generations of Chinese life in its rooms.
   
“The Peabody Essex Museum also possesses an outstanding collection of New England architecture,” said Colette Randall, Public Relations Associate with the Peabody Essex Museum.

She added that the PEM includes not just the artifacts within, but also buildings throughout Salem. “The collection includes more than twenty pre–Civil War buildings, and four buildings – the Peirce-Nichols House, John Ward House, Gardner-Pingree House, and East India Marine Hall – are designated as national historic landmark buildings, the highest distinction awarded to a building in the United States,” said Randall.

The Peabody is several blocks from Salem Harbor, and houses exhibits from Salem's maritime heyday.
  
Salem's classic New England maritime history is something that the Haunted Passport seeks to exploit. Maggi Smith-Dalton, president of the Salem History Society, specializes in 19th century history and has much to study in Salem.
    
“The 19th and 20th century was when America became America,” said Smith-Dalton.
   
She illustrated this point by showing a building on Essex and Washington Streets, the Daniel Low and Co. building.
   
Those souvenir spoons that are sold everywhere? Popularized in Salem, by Daniel Low. Smith-Dalton said that the first spoons had a little witch motif on them, and really launched the popularity of the souvenir spoon.
   
Another post-witch hot spot is historic Derby Square, named after America’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby. The Old Town Hall in the middle of the square used to be Derby’s mansion. Smith-Dalton said that after he moved out, he gave the building to the town of Salem. Brick and cobblestone surround the area; old buildings give the square and Essex Street an 18th century feel. It’s very easy to imagine what life looked like all those years ago.

Derby Square is just off Essex Street, which is a cobblestoned pathway that cleaves the town, leading from the Old City Hall to Salem Common. There, visitors can find an amalgam of non-witchcraft related stores and restaurants (which range from Thai to Japanese to Cajun). The Derby Square Bookstore is fun to go into, mostly because there are no shelves. Books are stacked upon books. It's not unusual to see a pile of books start from the ground and end up towering over your head.

No fewer than three piles were toppled over (not by me!) during the fifteen minutes I spent there.

Essex Street runs parallel to Salem Harbor.

Much of Salem’s history beyond the Witch Trials originated at the harbor. It accounted for Salem’s growth as a town, making it second only to Boston in New England, according to Smith-Dalton.
   
“The 19th century was America in ferment,” said Smith-Dalton. American culture and literature, she said, developed a sense of identity that was distinctly American, which separated itself from its English and European forefathers.
   
Nathaniel Hawthorne was part of creating that identity. Visitors can go to the Customs House, which is right by the harbor, and imagine Hawthorne pacing around the outside of the building. The Scarlet Letter features the Customs House, as well. Visitors can also visit the House of the Seven Gables (taken from the novel of the same name). Hawthorne spent quite a bit of time at Concord.
   
All of this is within walking distance from the commuter rail stop – the Hawthorne-related sites, the Peabody Essex Museum, Derby Square and the monument to the murdered at the Witch Trials.
   
“There’s just so much more to Salem," said Mayor Driscoll,  "than just the witch stuff and Halloween.”

City:
Salem

City Founded:
1626

City Population:
40,407

Commuter Rail Stop:
Salem,  Newburyport/Rockport Line

Departs from:
North Station

Zone:
3

Fare:
$5.25

Tidbit:
Salem was once known by the Indians as Naumkeag, or Eel Land

 


Links

Salem History Society

Gulu Gulu Cafe

Haunted Passport

Peabody Essex Museum

House of Seven Gables

Salem Visitor's Guide