The macabre and grotesque has always fascinated me. Though it often draws the concerned looks of parents, I can’t help but assign my students strange and gruesome stories to read. Even my twelve year-olds learn that the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella included the two stepsisters cutting off their toes, desperately shoving their mutilated feet into blood soaked slippers. So, while on a recent trip to Boston, my eccentric curiosity led me on a weekend trip to nearby Salem to explore its dark history.
The small New England town of Salem lies in northern Massachusetts, fifteen miles from Boston. Today, it is a popular destination for tourists seeking to escape the bustle of its metropolitan neighbor. But, the chance to see the New England countryside is not the only draw to Salem. People flock to the small town to visit the sights and memorials to one of the most dark and tragic chapters in early American history—the Salem Witch Trials.
Between February of 1692 and May of 1693, almost one-hundred years before America became an independent country, the colonial town of Salem executed twenty people accused and found by trial to be guilty of witchcraft. The trials started when a group of pre-teen girls began exhibiting strange behavior—screaming, throwing things around the room, crawling under furniture, and yelling strange words—claiming that three towns-women were forcing them to do these things through black magic. One of the accused, a slave from Barbados named Tituba, admitted to telling the young girls stories about fortune telling and magic. Soon, other women and men from the town became objects of the girls accusations.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony convened a special court in Salem to address the accusations. The Lieutenant Governor, William Stoughton, came to Salem to serve as the chief magistrate in the witchcraft trials. The court issued over one hundred arrest warrants, almost twenty percent of the entire population of Salem.
The courts primary evidence against those accused of witchcraft came from the testimony of the pre-teen girls. During the trial, whenever someone accused of witchcraft would enter into the courtroom, the group of girls now numbering over twenty would immediately fall to the floor in “fits” of shaking and moaning. The judge would then employ the infamous “touch test,” a test he learned from a 16th century German witch hunting manual entitled the “Hammer Against the Witches,” whereby the accused would touch one of the girls on the arm. If her fit stopped, the accused was obviously a witch.
When this did not convince him, the girls would claim that they were visited and tormented by accused during the night. When those on trial defended themselves claiming that they were unable to do so because they were in the presence of others, or in one case locked in jail, the girls claimed that the “spectral images” of the accused had left their bodies and had done the evil deeds. In many cases, the judge was convinced on this sparse evidence that the accused person was guilty of witchcraft. The sentence for the crime was death by hanging.
The first victim of the Salem Witch Trials was Bridget Bishop, “hung until dead” in June of 1692. She was followed by eighteen others for a total of nineteen executions. The twentieth victim of the Salem Witch Trials was a man named Giles Corey. Corey was restrained between two large rocks and “pressed until death” when the executioners stacked stone after stone on top of him. As the girls’ behavior and the accusations and executions grew the court began to grow skeptical of the charges. When the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s wife was accused of witchcraft, the Governor stepped in and called a halt to the trials. All convicted prisoners awaiting execution were pardoned. In 1709, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formally reversed many of the judgments of the court. Yet, it was not until 2001, over three hundred years later, when the state of Massachusetts formally pardoned all those convicted of witch craft by the Salem Witch Trials.
Today, Salem’s main attractions are the sites associated with the Salem Witch Trials. Beginning at its visitor center, the witch trail leads tourists to the Burying Point Cemetery—the second oldest cemetery in the United States—where the graves of both victims and judges of the trials can be found—and the nearby Witch Trial memorial. After visiting the cemetery and memorial, visitors to Salem make their way to the “Witch House,” the only remaining structure associated with the trials in the town.
After visiting the actual sites associated with the trials, the Salem Witch Trial Museum offers a re-enactment of the events of the trials as well as a brief history of witches. Before leaving Salem, visitors can walk its streets which celebrate all witches from the TV series Bewitched to The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter. Though, the town Salem now presents an interesting and lighthearted depiction of witches, the real events of the Salem Witch Trials that draw visitors to its streets make Salem one of the spookiest places in the world.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Memorial Plaque