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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Salem: past and present

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Features

PHOTO BY Leah Finkelman/The Hoot

People in brightly colored costumes flooded the street. Vendors flaunted their wares for tourists to buy. Visitors posed smilingly for photographs. This, however, was not a circus or a county fair—it was Salem, Mass. A group of Brandeis American Studies students and professors visited Salem Sunday to see the sights and learn the history of the place.

Professor Dane Morrison, who teaches colonial and maritime history at Salem State University, conducted the tour of the town. In 2004, Morrison co-edited an anthology of essays titled, “Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory.” Morrison, through his detailed speeches, attempted to transfer his enthusiasm for Salem’s history to the students.

Morrison explained that Salem was founded in 1626 as a refuge for religious freedom—that is, the freedom to worship the Puritan way. The town gained infamy, however, when, in 1692, inhabitants began to accuse each other of witchcraft, resulting in a 16-month witch hunt that left 20 people dead.

This sordid past, however, is difficult to find in today’s Salem, more than 300 years later. The people of Salem today have chosen to celebrate their remarkable past rather than mourn it. In Salem, several shops are named for the witch trials, such as Dairy Witch Ice Cream, and others benefit from the people drawn to Salem by the possibility of witchcraft, such as The Magic Parlor. The town’s taxi service even utilizes this link to the past, naming itself Witch City Taxi.

“This is so American,” said Morrison. “It’s the essential tension between the world that was and what plays out here every October—historical preservation and capitalism.”

Vendors were selling all sorts of commodities, from carnival food to key chains to t-shirts with the words “when life hands you a broom, fly” written on them. Men dressed in black with disturbing face paint squired tourists around in Pedicabs, wheeled loveseats pulled by a man on a bicycle. One such man, wearing orange and black face paint, was attracting fares by calling, “Come ride with the creepy guy.”

Some tourists yielded to a man dressed as a wolf, who was charging $1 to take a photograph with a “witch.” The witch was a person dressed in a black robe and gigantic mask detailing the stereotypical witch’s face—a big nose, an ugly wart and stringy, gray hair. Tourists laughed as they took pictures with the witch, clearly not uneasy about the idea of witchcraft as the residents of Salem in the 1600s had been.

Although this consumerism is present all year-round it was worst Sunday, as it was the week before Halloween, Morrison explained; however, Morrison hopes to combat some of this frivolity in Salem with a film festival. He explained, “I want to have a human rights film festival in the spring to offset what happens here in October, to show the human cost of intolerance.”

Tourists even seemed to forget the tragedy that occurred in Salem in a place as solemn as the graveyard. The graveyard, placed in the center of the town, does not contain the graves of the “witches” executed 300 years ago—their bodies were dumped into a ditch that has still not been located. The graveyard, instead, inters the bodies of the other residents—the judges who condemned the witches, the children whom the witches were accused of tormenting and others.

Parents allowed their young children to run around in the graveyard pulling at headstones and sitting on them. A 10- or 11-year-old boy even kicked the intricate headstone of Simon Bradstreet, a man who became the governor of Salem in 1679.

But one Salem resident who never forgot the tragedy of his town was Nathaniel Hawthorne, the iconic American author who wrote “The Scarlet Letter.” Hawthorne felt an intense guilt for what happened in Salem despite the fact that he was born more than 100 years later. He changed his name, adding the “w,” in order to separate himself from his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, who was one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.

In 1830, when Hawthorne’s neighbor, Captain John White, was murdered, he was falsely suspected, arrested and jailed. “Most people would have been saying, ‘it wasn’t me, I didn’t do this’—even if they had—but not Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Morrison said. Hawthorne sat in jail, repeating, “I deserve this, I deserve this,” as he ruminated on the past and his great-great-grandfather’s actions.

Morrison explained that in the course of Hawthorne’s life, “the mythology of Salem became more real to Hawthorne than the place itself.”

Similarly, the spectacle of the event seems to be more real to tourists today than the actual event. For example, there were two reenactors, dressed in garish clothing that would have been more at home at a Renaissance Fair than Salem, causing a ruckus in the street. The male reenactor had the female by the arm and seemed to be dragging her down the street, shouting that she was a witch and needed to submit to a medical examination to prove so.

At one point, she broke away but, before she could get very far, the man yelled out to the amused crowd, “Somebody stop her! Don’t let her get away!” A tourist reached out and grabbed her as everyone else looked on, laughing.

While this type of display is crude, it is these types of displays that keep Salem running. “Salem wouldn’t be Salem without it,” said Morrison. “We couldn’t afford the Peabody Museum and the upkeep [without it].” The buildings and roads in Salem are kept in good condition and the graveyard’s grass stays mowed with the money that tourists pour into the town.

One of the most controversial sites in Salem is the statue that was erected in 2005 of Elizabeth Montgomery, the actress who played the witch Samantha Stephens in the television sitcom “Bewitched.” Many people felt that this statue of a fictional character would trivialize the history of Salem and of those who died there while others felt that the statue was the perfect way to connect the past to the present and make Salem’s history more accessible to today’s people.

Morrison put it best when, commenting on the rampant consumerism in Salem today, he said, “It is pretty tawdry but, on the other hand, at least victims get some acknowledgement.”