Typical Tourist: Salem, Massachusetts
When I say Salem, Massachusetts, you automatically think of the Witch Trials in 1692. It’s ok. I do too. Well, I did before this past trip. I wish I had the space and the capacity to give you a full rundown of the nuance and complicated timeline of that year or so, but I don’t. However, never fear, because there are so many great resources out there. My favorite is the History Unobscured podcast, which we listened to throughout our drive up and back. It’s a bit of a commitment, but it’s worth it for the depth and perspective that Aaron Mahnke offers.
I’m hesitant to try to summarize too much, but I do want to highlight the fact that Salem in 1692 was a place of fear and hardship, even before the accusations began. Cold weather, required religious piety, and the tumult of the local government all could have played a role. Massachusetts was also close to the edge of the settled, Northern frontier at the time and King William’s War was raging close by.
King William’s War is also sometimes grouped in as one of the Native American Wars. I don’t want to minimize the feelings that the fear of violence can induce, but I do want to be clear regarding context. These wars were instigated by European colonial powers over their disputes regarding rights to Native American land. The Witch Trials of 1692 are not that far removed from the group that landed in Plymouth in 1620. While the typical American historical narrative acts like the history of that territory magically starts with the Pilgrims and Puritans, there were a myriad of unique and diverse tribes across Massachusetts and greater New England who were there first. (Most sources note the Naumkeag Tribe as the first inhabitants of what we specifically now call Salem.)
Now that we’ve had our mini-history lesson for the day, we’re ready to travel to Salem!
The Corwin House (aka The Witch House)
There are seemingly a million Witch Trial attractions that you can visit in Salem, all with varying levels of kitsch. Our goal was to try to pick one museum that would give us a good historical perspective and still satisfy the need for some witch history. Originally I was a little skeptical of The Corwin House, but, after visiting, I feel confident recommending it. Home of trial Judge Jonathan Corwin, this house is supposedly the last standing structure with actual ties to the witch hysteria.
We did the self-guided option which took 30-40 minutes to walk both floors and read everything. There aren’t a ton of artifacts, but considering that they date back to the late 1600s, take your time to really see them. The house also has some nice explanatory panels that help visitors make connections to current day. (Appropriate for all ages, but we did see a very bored little girl sitting the bench in the kitchen with her mom.)
The House of the Seven Gables
While not directly tied to the Witch Trials, I still think The House of the Seven Gables is the coolest museum in Salem. A little pricey at $16 a person, you do get two house tours included plus the beautiful gardens. If the name of the home sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the famous Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. At one point the home was owned by a cousin and he did take inspiration for the novel, even though he never actually saw it with all seven gables. Bought and renovated by a Hawthorne fan in the early 1900s, the house is a mixture of original to when the family lived there and some changes have been made to help it match the book. While I am usually opposed to changing the set-up of historical homes, climbing the secret staircase from the novel overshadowed any hesitations.
The museum now also owns the Nathaniel Hawthorne birthplace, which they moved from downtown Salem. Learn about his own family ties to the Witch Trials plus his literary career. Although the house is self-guided with a docent present to answer questions, they could use slightly better signage about their artifacts. I almost missed the fact that they have Hawthorne’s original desk in the corner – it looked more like a dresser to my modern eyes. Still, I’m always charmed by a story that involved moving a house to save it. There is also a children’s area on site where kids can learn about the nautical history of Salem and seafaring in general.
Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie
I’ll be honest and say that I cannot resist a place that is listed as ‘America’s oldest’ anything. So when we walked out of the parking lot of the House of the Seven Gables and saw Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie which, ingenuously, plasters ‘America’s Oldest Candy Company’ on its sign, I had to walk in. Pair that with a charming saleswoman handing out free samples and I want to now send everyone here. Have a few free samples of their oldest candies, Gibraltors and Black Jacks. Or go for a more modern option have some fudge. (Normally I find fudge off-putting because it makes my teeth hurt, but no teeth were harmed in my sampling of their peanut butter fudge offering.
Recommended to us by the staff at the Seven Gables, and in walking distance of the museum and the aforementioned candy store, Mercy’s is a funky, little spot that made me feel like a local. (Even though everyone kept asking where we were visiting from…) Dedicated to community and sustainability, Mercy’s is one of those places where I felt good about spending money. They have a menu that I would describe as typical fare with a twist. Make sure to get one of their special dipping sauces for their freshly made French fries.
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
While I am skeptical of many of the witch themed attractions in town, I do feel like you should stop and pay homage to those who died due the accusations. A large square memorial with inscriptions of each of the 19 victims, this is something of a quick stop, but a good reminder. (The website lists the stones with inscription as ‘benches’. I’m not sure that I would sit on one, but apparently you can.
The only true witch in Salem is within walking distance of the memorial for those who were accused. Immortalized in bronze is Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens, the famous nose-wrinkling witch from Bewitched. Placed because the show apparently filmed a season in Salem, take this with both the levity and skepticism that it deserves due to the tragic history down the street. (Some places suggest that it is good luck to rub Samantha’s nose.)
Salem Art Gallery (at The Satanic Temple)
I was hesitant to put this on the list, but we did visit and it may be of interest to our future visitors. Originally I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. To me, art by Satanists means gratuitous violence, sex, or other disturbing themes. However, that wasn’t what we found. Well, not totally. If I’m being honest, I think that shock value is part of the currency that the Temple uses to attract visitors. After all, how many Satanic Temples do you get to visit? (I honestly don’t know, so maybe there are a ton out there willing to accept visitors.) The Salem Temple also has the distinction of being the headquarters of the movement. If you just read their seven principles, they sound more like a list of reasonable non-religious proverbs than anything else. The kid at the desk was happy to answer my questions about what goes on and explained that their gatherings are more like meetings than worship ceremonies and they believe in autonomy rather than blind faith.
The art is something of a different story. While they may claim to be non-religious rather than anti-religious, there is some stereotypically devilish works. There is also a library that talks about the history of the movement, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, and other informational pieces.The big draw is certainly the life-size statue of Baphomet (a pagan idol) that was offered to the Oklahoma State House to sit next to their newly installed Ten Commandments themed statue. Their offer caused the removal of the Ten Commandments in OK and Baphomet is currently housed in Salem until it finds its intended home among other religious memorials on public property. (Their words, not mine.) While my Judeo-Christian upbringing gave me some angst about being in the Satanic Temple, everyone there was pleasant and welcoming. My only complaint is that we were there between art installations, so $12 entrance fee to an only semi-full exhibit was disappointing.
Located on the water, Notch must be incredible in the summer. February, not so much. With an offering of low ABV, German and Czech beers, this place appeals to a specific type of beer drinker – which is not me. However, their space is nice and just because it isn’t my taste, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth visiting. Also, they have a skee ball machine, which is awesome and worth noting.
Gesturing at a 1835 parable encouraging temperance, Deacon Giles was supposedly a scheming businessman who unknowingly hired demons. Apparently based on a real person, the author was convicted of libel, which seems to have made the story more popular. Tucked away in a more residential area, the Speakeasy Lab (which is much better name than simply ‘Tasting Room’) is full of board games and really unique cocktail options. The décor and theme fits with the overall Salem vibe, but it also feels like a modern distillery. With a plethora of events throughout the week and a towering stack of board games, I wish we lived closer so we could come here more often.
Have you ever been to Salem? Is there anything I should add to the list?