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Witch City – Salem, Massachusetts

This material courtesy of Pamela Pare

In 1626 Roger Conant and the first settlers arrived in this country with strong hopes of religious freedom. They named their new home Salem, a word related to the Hebrew word shalom and the Arabic word salaam, both meaning peace. Only 66 years later, March 1692 would mark the beginning of 14 months of shame for a parish in Salem Town, Massachusetts, then known as Salem Village. The strange, unexplained behavior of two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, set to motion an era of hysteria that ended in the death of twenty four people accused of witchcraft. The Salem Witch Trials and persecutions only lasted fourteen months but town believers were convinced that subsequent years of struggle were retribution for the sins of their forefathers. Years of problems; famines and crop failures, the fall of the Salem shipping industry, the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and the decline of the tanning industry were all believed to be Salem’s condemnation for the witch trials. Not until 1850 did public interest start to pique favorably toward the historic town. The mystery of Salem, captured in the acclaimed novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, fed on Salem’s history of witchcraft and strict Puritan values. Soon popular city folklore added to mystery by laying claim to various hauntings: the House of the Seven Gables, the Old Town Hall, the Customs House, and by a vengeful ghost, Giles Corey, a man who had been pressed to death during those infamous witch trials.

In 1890, dry goods merchant Daniel Low, recognizing a good sales pitch successfully sold witch-stamped spoons as souvenirs of the “City of Witches.” This began the use of witchcraft as a commodity. In 1957 the Massachusetts Legislature exonerated many of the accused Salem witches and in 2001 both the accused and the convicted witches were finally cleared of all charges. This act finally allowed the townspeople of Salem to move forward. Commercialism took firm hold in 1970 when the television comedy Bewitched filmed several episodes in Salem. This publicity was a giant boost to Salem’s economy.

It took more than 280 years before the curse of the witch hysteria of 1692 would be lifted. The city of Salem is now known as a city of serious historical significance as well as one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Demonstrating Salem’s positive attitude; Police cars display witch logos, school teams call themselves “The Witches”, and Gallows Hill, where many convicted witches were hanged is now used as a public park. In 1981 the city added an official “Haunted Happenings” celebration during the October tourist season. The yearly celebration has become a great success as thousands watch the massive fireworks display that kicks off the festivities on Halloween night. The event turned a $200,000 profit for the city in 2007. The Salem witches’ story regularly brings curious visitors from all over the world, a sign that perhaps even history has finally forgiven the black deeds of 1692.