Salem, Massachusetts is a place that’s full of history. It was the first British settlement on Massachusetts’ North Shore, and for a while it was second only to Boston in importance. On February 26, 1775, local citizens faced down Colonel Alexander Leslie’s Redcoats, one of the events that led up to the American Revolution. More than anything else, though, it’s remembered for the trials and executions of alleged witches in 1692 and 1693. The town does everything it can to remind visitors.
While I enjoy the place, the atmosphere of witch kitsch always bothers me. There are lots of authentic historical sites, but there are even more places that play on the cartoonish images of witches, black cats, and haunted houses. There’s a Frankenstein’s Castle and a statue of Samantha from the TV show Bewitched. They’re fun, but they seem oddly inappropriate for a town whose name stands for the superstitious persecution and execution of the innocent. Salem takes on a carnival atmosphere every October. Imagine Auschwitz doing the same.
Execution of the innocent
Compared to Europe’s witch hunts, Salem was in the minor leagues. Twenty alleged witches were executed in 1692 and 1693, and another five died in jail. All of them were innocent. There are no witches, in the sense of people who gain magical powers from the Devil. Twenty is twenty too many, but it’s small compared with the 40,000 or more who were killed in Germany between 1450 and 1750. Salem killed “witches” by the comparatively humane method of hanging, while German executioners burned them alive. (In spite of common belief, there were no witch burnings in America. One person was crushed to death by heavy weights.) The point of this comparison isn’t to excuse Salem, but to show how many lives were taken by witch mania. There was nothing funny or entertaining about it.
Today, Salem is a center for Wiccans and other New Age stuff. It stands to modern Salem’s credit that it accepts them, but it has nothing to do with what happened in the 17th century. The people killed in Salem weren’t dabbling in magic, trying to be one with the universe, or anything else mystical. They were ordinary residents whom someone flung false accusations at, and they were killed by a judicial system willing to go along.
The Puritans of Massachusetts believed the power of Satan was a present and physical danger. They were ready to see his influence everywhere. Anyone who declared such accusations were inherently absurd could be branded a heretic, maybe even a witch. It was safer to go along with the crowd or, at best, keep silent. In 1660, Boston had executed Mary Dyer for preaching Quaker doctrines and refusing exile.
Salem and German counterparts
Salem isn’t alone in making amusing images from past horrors. The town of Wernigerode, Germany and its neighbors occupy a similar position, though witch images aren’t as big a year-round presence as in Salem. The area is near the Brocken, the mountain where witches were supposed to have held their Sabbaths, and I’ve ridden the steam train to the summit. You can hike the Witches’ Trail and the Devil’s Trail.
You’ll see signs like “Hexlich Willkommen” (witchy welcome, playing on “Herzlich Willkommen,” heartfelt welcome). The region’s big night isn’t Halloween but the folk festival of Walpurgis Night, the last night of April. It must be just a need to make light of horrible deeds in the past.
A memorial sign in Wernigerode recalls the fifteen men and women who were executed there for witchcraft and consorting with the Devil, as well as an unspecified number who were tortured.
Keeping the memory
To Salem’s credit, the town has numerous historical sites reminding visitors of those the town’s ugly past. The touristy side may actually help to keep people from forgetting. Other sanctioned killing sprees aren’t always as well remembered. Just short of two centuries later, a mob in New Orleans murdered eleven Italians and Italian-Americans who had just been acquitted of the murder of the police chief. They suffered no legal consequences. That event isn’t nearly as well remembered as the executions in Salem.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun in Salem, but I wish visitors would ask themselves some difficult questions: Would I dare to stand up for justice in the face of mass hysteria? Would I be one of those yelling, “Always believe accusers”? Would I abandon friends when they’re the target of unsupported accusations?
The witch trials are one of the dark parts of American history, and we should remember them for that reason. They aren’t the only time waves of unfounded accusations have found the support of credulous crowds.
(A shorter version of this article appeared on Dreamwidth.)