Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Entering Salem

     Last fall, when the wind was just starting to cool down, and the leaves were just short days from beginning to curl up and die, I made it to Salem, Massachusetts. Upon hearing the word-- Salem-- images are insantly conjured up out of the fall leaves, of one of the darker chapters in the history of the land and communitites we now know as America.

Artist's rendering of Tituba telling tales to the Salem girls

     From February 1692 through May 1693, in the community of Salem Village, 19 people were hanged, 1 pressed to death, as many as 13 people died in prison and at least 3 dogs were killed at the hands of a government fueled by hysteria began by young girls. Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, aged 9 to 12, began to have fits and go into agitated states. The girls would go on to accuse residents in and around Salem Village of engaging in the practice of witchcraft, which either directly or indirectly caused the girls' hysterical afflictions, so they said. The images of what happened because of these girls-- women and men being hanged for crimes of the occult with no physical evidence-- have exploded on the legacy of American popular culture, and been reinvented and used throughout the years as a cultural touchstone of injustice and the evils Americans-- and humans, the world over-- can inflict on each other. The words "Salem," "witchcraft," hangings" and "witch trials" all come together to create the Salem experience known to the world-- for better, worse and indifferent; for truth, and for myth.

     The truth of Salem, the real experience of what happens on the grounds of the village, are less well known. And may never be possibly known. However, to try and gain an understanding of the horror that occured there-- the deadly witchhunt launched by an ignorant, fearful and hysterical community-- to try and grasp that understanding, you have to go to Salem, and see and read and question and experience all you can. 

      At long last, I was able to travel to Salem, with some friends. 
     Salem, Massachusetts is a beautiful place. The kind of beautiful place that only increases with the vibrancy of late summer, and fall. Seated on the water, the city now known as Salem is a melting stew-- which may or may not be contained in a cauldron-- of all the histories, tragedies and beauties the land has experienced. 

     You come into the city and it looks like any other New England town. Sloping hills, winding streets. A more modern, flat and sprawling cemetery greets you before you come into Salem proper-- a hint at things to come. When the Salem Visitors' Center comes into view, you see Saint Peter's Episcopal Church-- founded in 1733, with Sunday services currently at 8AM and 10AM each week-- and see the old stone church still standing, with gravestones standing in a small rock patch, feneced in, on either side of the church's doors-- stones going back to the time of the witch trials. In Salem, the veil between the past and the present, spaces where lie hundreds of years, is so thin you often cannot see it.

     When you go to Salem, go to the National Parks Service's Salem Visitors Center. The eager staff have information you will need to make the most of your hours there. A government service, the Parks' employees cannot promote one attraction over another-- so the overview they give you, much detailed, gives you every option you will need to decide between the tourist attractions, museums, historical sites, attractions and all that is unique to Salem-- both related to the trials and not (and many places somewhere in between.) So much lies in the Visitor's Center alone-- a mapping of the attractions pertainig to the witch trials, to famous resident Nathaniel Hawthorne (who, in some different ways, is related to the happenings of the trials), to the maritime history of this place on the water. Taking it all in, we quickly decided that our first stop would be one of many, and a first stop many make: The Salem Witch Museum. While leaving the Visitor's Center, I noticed these gorgeous glass orbs hanging by a display of ships-- and made a note to come back to look at them. I would soon come to learn what those orbs were, as we walked the streets of Salem.

     Up next: our experience of the Salem Witch Musuem.