HISTORIC SALEM & THE WITCH TRIALS by Norma Poindexter
History oozes down the streets of picturesque Salem, Massachusetts, a beautiful town snug next to Salem Sound on the north coast above Boston. Looking towards historic Salem while hiking on Misery Islands Nature Reserve in Salem Sound, we’re struck by its original Colonial architecture, blissful kayakers in the Sound, the gorgeous Breakheart Reservation park, charming, historical homes from the 1600’s, and a gorgeous, harbor landscape including the striking, tall clipper, Friendship. But Salem is best known for a dark moment in history when wild hysteria about suspected witchcraft went rampant and overtook the traditional town. The Salem Witch Trials, now known throughout the world, made this small town a common household name. While the 1692 trials take centerstage in Salem’s history and culture, Salem’s rich, dynamic colonial heritage wraps nicely around this cultural history, and amazingly, all of the historic sites and buildings from the 1600’s-1800’s still stand today for us to explore. For a deeper view of Salem, the trial motives, and the impact of that dark history, we’re launching into the background highlights of the Salem people, geography, and history up to and after the infamous witch hunt.
Situated in Salem where over two hundred people were accused, thirty found guilty, and nineteen wrongfully executed by brutal hangings, the Salem Witch Trials started with a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witch craft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. Who instigated these horrendous events? Several teenage girls, claiming to be possessed by the devil, accused the hanging victims of witchcraft, and the uncontrolled, witchcraft hysteria ensued. This cautionary tale of the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process make many historians consider the trials’ lasting effects highly influential on subsequent United States history. As a result of the trials, many believe theocracy was shattered. Let’s set the stage.
Founded in 1626, Salem’s a great, small city with a ton of historical significance: the infamous witch
trials, towering, ocean-going ships and expansive world trade (including the Salem East Indiaman
Friendship with ports of call to India, China, South America, the Caribbean, England, Germany, the
Mediterranean and Russia in 1797), the legendary heroes and landmarks of both the Revolutionary War
(1776) and War of 1812, and Salem’s world-famous literature. Where did this all begin? Laying ground
for thousands of Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Company arrived in 1628 with a charter issued by the
King of England, and the Puritan pioneers established The First Congregational Society. By 1650, Salem
established itself as a dominant, pre-revolutionary settlement: salted-cod trade with the West Indies
wildly flourished; the First Militia Muster formed, later critical to the American Revolution (1776); Old Burying Point Cemetery was assembled (all witch-hunt victims are buried here); infamous Fort Pickering
was erected, instrumental in both early Wars; and the vital Custom House (1649) marked Salem as a
center of worldwide trade. These landmarks stand today, alongside The House of Seven Gables, or the
Turner-Ingersoll Mansion (1668), one of the most famous historic homes in America (constructed by
relatives of Salem-born Nathaniel Hawthorne, who later scripted The House of Seven Gables in 1851),
and the infamous Witch House (1675), where Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over the Salem
Witch Trials, resided and conducted the preliminary questioning for the witch trials. More on that in a
Now for the heart-racing series of the United States’ historical events: political revolution kicked-off in 1774 when the original colonies’ Provincial Congress moved to Salem from Boston, and the first, explosive, armed resistance of the American Revolution broke out when the Salem militia and privateer Navy dramatically blocked British Lt. Colonel Leslie in Salem Sound. Brave Salem privateers captured and sunk 445 British vessels during the Revolutionary War, and after the war, Salem emerged as the sixth-largest city in the country, and richest per capita. The Old Courthouse was built in 1785 (replacing the torn-down Town House where the witchcraft accused were tried and condemned to death), and sea captains founded the preeminent Peabody Essex Museum in 1799, the oldest, continually-operated museum in the country (also housing the largest and most significant collection of Asian art in the US). Salem also can claim the still-standing, stunning Salem Athenaeum, one of the first libraries in the nation, founded in 1810. Leading to the War of 1812, The 10 th United States Congress in Salem, enacted The Embargo Act of 1807, the general trade embargo on all foreign nations. In the Salem Harbor, The War of 1812 with the British started with the vicious Battle of the Frigates supported by the small privateer U.S. Navy based in Salem, turning the tide for the new America. Completed in 1825, The East India Marine Hall (for people who actually navigated the seas beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn) sealed Salem’s leadership in global trade. And let’s not forget that in Salem, the famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne (the great-great-grandson of the Salem Witch Trials judge, John Hathorne) wrote and self-published his first novel, Fanshawe (1828) about his ancestors, The House of Seven Gables, and later, The Scarlet Letter. Wildly acclaimed worldwide, The Scarlet Letter wasn’t positively received in Salem, where residents didn’t approve of the city’s depiction. Hawthorne changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from his Witch Trial-connected ancestor.
And yet there’s more captivating Salem history. Alexander Graham Bell made the first public
demonstration of a long-distance phone conversation to the Boston Globe in Lyceum Hall in 1877.
Salem Lyceum, which many consider haunted, stands right over the orchard owned by the first executed
“witch”, Bridget Bishop. In 1938, the National Park Service designated the richly historic Salem
Waterfront a National Historic Site, and several architecturally-significant homes built by Samuel
McIntire from the wealth of Salem’s Old China Trade, made Chestnut Street a designated historic
district. The Witch Trial Memorial for the unfortunate victims finally fronts the Burying Point Cemetery,
and a Bewitched statue commemorates our beloved Samantha’s television character. The entire Salem
area is now a National Heritage Area, and finally recognized as the birthplace of the National Guard.