Inscription: John Proctor. Hanged. August 10, 1692. At the 1692-1992 memorial site in Salem — which is not the execution site and not the victims’ burial place.
The last time that I walked through the Salem witch trials memorial adjacent to the Charter Street cemetery, I saw that someone had left a rolled-up paper at John Proctor’s memorial bench.1)No one ever seems to sit on the benches, perhaps because they usually hold offerings of one sort or another. Was it a petition? An announcement of an upcoming workshop on Tarot reading? Maybe Proctor, a prosperous farmer before he and his wife were accused, would have been interested in a farm-auction flier.
Obviously, I did not pull out the paper and read it. Doing that might have been good journalism but poor manners. Even though the memorial is not a cemetery, I feel that cemetery etiquette applies. But if it was a missive addressed to Proctor, that could mean that someone now considers him to be among the Mighty Dead.
In a turn of events that would have mystified [accused witch] Ann Foster, it is easy to buy a broomstick in Salem, home to a large Wiccan community. Hotels are booking now for next Halloween.
We have been talking for decades — since Margaret Murray’s time — about reclaiming the word witch from its satanic and evil-doing associations.2)I am fully aware that some people, however, want to keep them. We could do that without dragging in John and Elizabeth Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, Ann Foster, and the other 150 or so people who were charged in 1692, of whom 19 were executed.
But we have dragged them in. We are (apparently) treating them as honored ancestors, the Mighty Dead, sometimes defined as “those practitioners of our religion who are on the Other Side now, but who still take great interest in the activities of Witches on this side of the Veil.”
Wiccan writer Christopher Penczack equates the Mighty Dead with the Secret Chiefs or Hidden Company that various occult groups invoke. Yet at least in their 17th-century lives, those Puritan colonists would have been horrified to think of themselves as “practitioners of our religion,” wouldn’t they?
We like to say, “What is remembered, lives,” but are we really remembering the Rev. Samuel Parris, Tituba, Judge Hathorne, Rebeca Nurse, and all of them as they were?
Or are we just performing civil religion with robes and incense, “[expressing] the implicit religious values of a nation, as expressed through public rituals, symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, or national cemeteries)”?3)“Civil Religion,” Wikipedia. Is leaving flowers and pretty stones and coins and costume jewelry at the Salem witch-trial memorial merely expressing our admiration for the First Amendment?
Somehow I think that it is more than that. Parallel and occultly linked to the transformation of maritime Salem and manufacturing Salem into “Witch City” has been the transformation of the accused Christians of 1692 into “witches” whose deaths — eventually — produced a Witch-friendly little city today. It’s not conventionally rational, but it is what it is. And we are thanking them for that transformation.
Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.
The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.
Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.
A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.
There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.
Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.
But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.2)Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.
The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.3)Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.
Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.
But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)
It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.
Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.
“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!
“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”
Essex Street mall, with construction workers from the Peabody Essex Museum expansion walking to the job site.
What Bourbon Street is to New Orleans’ French Quarter, Essex Street is to Salem, Mass. When it’s party time (October), this is where the party happens. Otherwise, it is the chief tourist-commercial street, whether you want the Peabody Essex Museum, Christian Day’s witch shop, or The Witch House, which was actually the upscale home of one of the 1692 trial judges.
Witch Tees, a large-ish T-shirt shop, is on the pedestrian mall too. I went in and asked if they had any Miskatonic University shirts or hats. “No,” she said, “Just Harvard.” The straight and unaffected way she spoke made me wonder if she took “Miskatonic University” to be a real school somewhere in New England, instead of a fictional school right there in Salem — or rather in Arkham, Mass., if you accept the idea that H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham is based on Salem.
One hundred fifty years after the famous witchcraft trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne turned to them for inspiration — and because they haunted his imagination — and put Salem back on track to being the “Witch City” that it is today.
Another century on, H. P. Lovecraft, who is usually identified with his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, also connected with Hawthorne and Salem. While Lovecraft is usually placed in a lineage with Edgar Allan Poe, Dan Harms, university librarian, scholar of esotericism, and author of The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, has this to say:
Even though Hawthorne died over a quarter century before Lovecraft’s birth, Lovecraft found considerable inspiration and commonality with the Salem author. At the age of seven, Lovecraft read Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, both introductions to Classical mythology, that would lead Lovecraft to a fascination with Greek and Rome and their gods that may have been one of the inspirations for his own uncaring “gods.” The two men also shared a love of New England history and geography that drove their creativity. For example, Hawthorne met his wife Sophia Peabody at her father’s house on Salem’s Charter Street; the building stood next to the Burying Ground, which served as the inspiration for Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable.” The witch trials were of special fascination to both men, with the plots for both Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” finding their roots in Salem. Lovecraft lacked Hawthorne’s ancestral connection to the witch trials, however, and although the most famous of both authors’ works are steeped in weird influences seeping down from the past, Lovecraft’s stories partake of cosmic dimensions that Hawthorne leaves untouched.
Arkham’s most notable characteristics are its gambrel roofs and the dark legends that have surrounded the city for centuries. The disappearance of children (presumably murdered in ritual sacrifices) at May Eve and other “bad doings” are accepted as a part of life for the poorer citizens of the city.
Lovecraft, however, showed less interest in witchcraft than in ancestral curses, ancient god-like creatures, and — as a result of too much contact with those two —insanity.
The fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. . . . The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now.
In our reality, the Salem State U. bookstore sells only its branded apparel (Go Vikings!). So if I want that cap or shirt to show my allegiance to Miskatonic’s ivy-covered halls, I will have to shop online at one of the competing “Miskatonic University” stores (Go Squids!), perhaps this one or this one or that one.
Proctor’s Ledge from the Walgreens parking lot, filtered by Dreamscope.
Once there was a dirt road, the “Boston road,” that ran beside a pond on the way out of Salem. (Now it is called Boston Street.) Then there came a railroad, and a shoe factory, and today a Walgreens drugstore with the actual witch execution site in back, next to the drive-up prescription window.
Why did no one know that?
When the last person who remembered the executions of 1692 was gone — and with no one interested in building a memorial to a shameful episode — memory of the site was lost. People knew that they took place “over there” (gesturing to the southwest), and the most notable geographic feature over there became known as Gallows Hill. As Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University puts it,
The executions on Gallows Hill were the climax of one of the most famous events in American history, but the hangings themselves are poorly documented. The precise location and events of the executions have been, until this point, generally lost to history. Tradition has simply placed it broadly on Gallows Hill, which covers many acres of land. In the 17th century Gallows Hill was common land located just outside the boundary of the city of Salem, then defined by a protective palisade (a fortified wall)
With the site identified, Baker said, descendants of the accused witches contacted him from all around the country, offering contributions toward a memorial. But Salem’s mayor, Kimberly Driscoll, stepped forward and said that building the memorial was the city’s responsibility. Here is the city’s news release. (They did accept donations but funded it mostly through a state Community Preservation Act grant.)
The Proctor’s Ledge rock outcropping is in the wedge-shaped parcel between Proctor, Pope, and Boston streets. There are houses on Proctor and Pope, and much of the site is in residents’ back yards. The pink line is the crest of the ledge, roughly, and the blue dot the memorial site. North is at the top.
The memorial on Pope Street. Very simple, with kind of a “Park & Rec” low-maintenance touch. “Hey, George, do we will have some of those granite blocks left over from the XYZ project?”
As for me, I liked the view from the Walgreens better, and I left a little tribute (an antique British shilling) there under a stone.1)If archaeologists ever find it, they might attribute it to a Victorian-era visitor. The contrast between the stark rock outcropping where “witches” died and the tidy Walgreens drive-up lane is just another Salem thing. You cannot easily make them mesh, any more than you can mesh those nineteen people and today’s Pagan Witches. (Well, I can think of one way, and I will try to deal with it later.)
The name “Gallows Hill” is wrong too. For one thing, as Marilynn Roach points out, the sheriff’s and constables’ expense records and requests for reimbursement survive, in minute details. And nowhere is there something like “X shillings for dressed timber and labour for building of ye gallows.”
There are no oaks on Proctor’s Ledge today (mostly locust), but in 1692 apparently there was a big oak tree with sturdy, spreading branches. No cost, just bring a ladder. Hence the sapling oak in the memorial??
Archaeologists crawled all over Proctor’s Ledge and used ground-penetrating radar, but they found nothing: no bones, no remnants of any structure. There had been a report of bodies dumped in crevices in the rocks, but if so, their families or somebody recovered them.
(This looks like a bootleg copy, but I wanted this scene. Sorry about the quality.)
Three Sovereigns for Sarah, a three-part PBS documentary, is well-done, using authentic trial testimony in spots. Vanessa Redgrave, playing accused witch Sarah Cloyse, just dominates it — although she has some competition from the young actresses playing the “afflicted” girls. 1)Sarah Cloyce is depicted . . . differently . . . by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am coming to that.
A historical consultant told Ocker, “We had a lot more power on the production than historians usually have on commercial things.” They were even able to nix Alexander Scourby’s casting as a judge, because Scourby would not shave his beard, which was historically inappropriate. Clean-shaven Patrick McGoohan replaced him.
The church meeting house where the Rev. Samuel Parrish holds forth was built for the movie, and like all 17th-century buildings, included recessed fluorescent lighting. OK, that’s a joke. But compared to the moody available-light shooting in The VVitch, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is lit like a TV soap opera, giving a sort of “witchcraft under the microscope” vibe.
On the plus side, it gives you the feel of what happened. And guess what — no one is hung for being an herbalist or a healer. That is romantic mush that started in the 1960s and 1970s. It may make you feel good, but it is not about what happened in 1692 in America — or elsewhere.
Importantly, the film gives Sarah Cloyce a speech in which she explains how neatly the witchcraft accusations matched property disputes in Salem Village. In other words, adults were feeding suggestions to the “afflicted” girls about whom to denounce. That is usually the way it works in “children’s crusades.”
BEELEEVE THE CHILDREN!
Of Hocus Pocus (1993), Ocker observes,
The witches are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Nijimy in, if not exactly career-defining roles, roles that will probably outlast anything they’ve ever done. There are entire generations of people who know Hocus Pocus, but have no idea about wind, wings, sex, city, hair, or spray.
Yes, but it’s Disney (kids win, witches lose). That is probably why I had no interest in it in 1993, and besides, I had student papers to grade. And Sex and the City will be Parker’s role that I remember.
If Three Sovereigns for Sarah presents a documentary-style take on the 1692 witchcraft panic, The VVitch gives us the imagined European witchcraft of the 16th–17th centuries transplanted to New England, where tiny cleared islands of Christianity struggle to survive up against dark walls of savage forests, In that, it echoes some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spookier fiction, in which he dips from the same well.
But it’s a horror movie, so the central character witch is herself a teenager, not a mature woman. Of course you have your pact with the devil, the Witches’ Sabbat, spectral flight, possession, and Black Phillip, the goat who is more than a goat. In lighting, costuming, and general atmosphere, it is the best of the three. Unlike the other two, it was not filmed partly in or near Salem but near Kiosk, Ontario, in order to get the best cinematic forests.
Also, it gives me a segue into talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and witchcraft, coming up.
So back I go in two weeks, and M. is going with me — a trip celebrating a wedding anniversary that ends in zero. We have lots of Amtrak reward points to spend, and it’s too early for gardening here. A rented apartment awaits us. Granted, winter is hanging on grimly in New England, but we will take our chances.
We have been preparing ourselves with a series of movies — more on that soon — and I actually read all of The House of the Seven Gables, with more of Hawthorne waiting on the bedside table, to put myself in a mood of dark Romanticism and decay.
Like Ocker, I wonder, “Why Salem did attract today’s witches? Why in the 1970s?” He has some ideas, which I will share later.
So consider this to be the first of a series of travel-related posts that will appear between now and Beltane, more or less.
A personal note: Despite her French surname, M. on her father’s side is New England Yankee all the way down. According to family tradition, the name came from some French Huguenot (Protestant Christian) who fled across the Channel in the 17th or early 18th century to escape Catholic persecution, the family transforming gradually into English Puritans.
Although they moved on to northeastern Vermont, they presumably came through Massachusetts. “So,” I tell her, “you might pass by an ancestor’s grave. Perhaps even one of the witch-hunters. . .”
And at that point she starts shouting at me.
What can I say? The Cliftons were Virginians who probably spent their Sundays sipping rum and betting on cockfights, not listening to two-hour sermons and hanging so-called witches.
On the other hand, she is willing to make the trip!
It has been joined by many others. Walking along nearby Pickering Wharf feels like a trip down Diagon Alley.
Could Sarah Good, a homeless beggar (hanged) or Susannah Martin, an impoverished widow (hanged) have imagined that their deaths would produce a Salem where being a witch is fairly normal and the police cars have flying witches on their doors? 1)Meanwhile, two burly Salem cops are yelling at some kid to get off his bike, which he is riding illegally on the pedestrian mall.
The National Park Service visitor center, devoted both to Salem’s peak years as a port in the 18th and 19th centuries and to the events of 1692, contains several shelves of books on historical witchcraft.
The accusations against the Amiraults might well rank as the most astounding ever to be credited in an American courtroom, but for the fact that roughly the same charges were brought by eager prosecutors chasing a similar headline—making cases all across the country in the 1980s.
Those which the Amiraults’ prosecutors brought had nevertheless, unforgettable features: so much testimony, so madly preposterous, and so solemnly put forth by the state. The testimony had been extracted from children, cajoled and led by tireless interrogators.
It’s like Salem 1692 again: letting kids fantasize and treating those fantasies as evidence in court. “Spectral evidence.”
On Tuesday, voters in Massachusetts will select a replacement for Senator Edward Kennedy.