To me, as an anthropologist, that assertion about my property being a fire hazard sounds close to wishful thinking, with more than a hint of witchcraft accusation. In evidence of my influence, a certain neighbor accused me of forcing him to exterminate 13 possums in a single evening, and another accused me of causing her cancer and its recurrence, although I guess not its interim remission. In 1996 a local conceptual artist depicted my yard in a gallery installation themed around “local notables”. I wrote an accompaniment: “sight on site; sight on sight”, underlining the fact that gaze is a voluntary act, rather different from most of the other senses.
By 1995 I was already deeply involved in searching out other cases of late 20th-century witchcraft accusation. Most cases around the U.S. involved women, anomalous in some way, often gardeners, and sometimes being attacked while they were perceived “down”. I mentioned my father’s 1988 death, but I could also have mentioned that of my stepmother in 1994, whom I had earlier brought to Indiana. Some of these women victims of neighborly hate had also just lost someone significant, one her own mother as a suicide in their joint home.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to petition drives and getting the right lawyer.
Some came voluntarily. Others were prisoners of war, and some were vagrants, orphans, and street kids rounded up in English ports. One ancestor of mine shows on a ship’s passenger list as an unaccompanied 12-year-old boy, so he probably was already someone’s servant or else the ship’s captain planned to sell him on arrival.
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!”
But he just did, because M and I are in both categories.
Here you see two refrigerator magnets from the Salem Witch Museum, my Black Phillip pin (really from Nerd Scouts but very Salem-ish), a receipt for two museum admissions, and, good measure, a National Park Service brochure about the maritime history of Salem. (Not shown: Salem Witch Museum t-shirt.) So you see, Mr. Finney, we can be “cultural tourists” and part of “that [t-shirt buying] demographic” At The Same Time.
I need to write a blog post about the maritime stuff.
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.
A century and a half after the Salem witch trials, they still lived in the mind of a young Salem writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). From his fiancee’s window, if he had a good arm, he could have thrown an ink bottle at the headstone of his ancestor John Hathorne, a leading judge in the trials, in the adjacent Charter Street cemetery.
Is this not one of the most Goth sentences ever written? “Years, many years, rolled on; the world seemed new again, so much older was it grown since the night when those pale girls had clasped their hands across the bosom of the corpse.”
Poe (1809–1849), Hawthorne’s contemporary, did not much care for the story in which it appears, “The White Old Maid,” a (sort of) ghost story published in 1835.
In an 1847 critical essay, he praised Hawthorne’s writing (“purest style . .. . the most touching pathos, the more radiant imagination”) even when it was not always popular but suggested that he needed to “escape from the mysticism of his Goodman Browns and Old White Maids into the hearty, genial . . . Indian-summer sunshine.”1)Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9–10. Originally published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1847.
Hawthorne was both impressed and horrified by his Puritan ancestors. He admired their courage and enterprise as settlers, but was repelled by their dogmatism, suppression of individuality, and most of all by their mass execution of accused witches in 1692 (as well as sporadic earlier trials).
Henry James (1843–1916) wrote that Hawthorne had a “feeling for the latent romance of New England” and praised his handling of “the ingrained sense of sin, of evil, and of responsibility” in a world marked by pressing moral anxiety [and] the restless individual conscience.” Hawthorne sought out and delineated “the laws secretly broken, the impulsive secretly felt, the hidden passions, the double lives, the dark corners, the closed rooms, the skeletons in the cupboard and at the feast,” creating “a mystery and a glamour where there were otherwise none very ready to [his] hand.”2)Henry James, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 2.
In other words, he is fascinated by the psychic and psychological history of New England, and how events like the witch trials create a kind of inter-generational curse or psychic poisoning — this is part of the back story in his novel The House of the Seven Gables, of which one critic wrote,
But as the Pynchon story [the Pynchons are the house’s owners in the novel—CSC] is an historical chronicle stretched over two centuries, the treatment of witchcraft changes with the changing times. Hawthorne shows scrupulous fidelity to both historic fact and oral tradition in recording the transformation from the Puritan to the contemporary version of folk belief. Just as the Puritan faith was relaxed and liberalized in the Unitarian and Transcendental periods, so too folk faith in witchcraft transformed itself to accord with the new spirit of the age.3)Daniel G. Hoffman, “Paradise Regained at Maule’s Well,” in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Seymour L. Gross, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 476.
You can almost think of his writing as a “secret history” of Salem and the surrounding towns.
His witchy-est story, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), takes place in a witchcraft-haunted fictional New England much like the setting of the 2015 film The VVitch., although it is, with heavy-handed allegory, a story about a Christian man’s loss of faith. Sarah Cloyce, an actual Salem village woman who was accused of witchcraft but never tried (played by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1985 production Three Sovereigns for Sarah), becomes in Hawthorne’s story a priestess of Satanism, even though Brown knows her as the one who taught him his Christian catechism, for he discovers that most of the “best people” are secret devil-worshipers. (Shades of Michelle Remembers!)
Now we stand only slightly farther apart in time, say 150–180 years, from Hawthorne’s writing. At a time when the Salem witch trials were seen as an embarrassment and the actual execution site forgotten, Hawthorne did keep the “witch city” meme alive.
But who else passed it along after Hawthorne’s death? There are two obvious candidates, and others not so obvious. I will be returning to the most obvious soon.
Edgar Allan Poe, “Tale Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9–10. Originally published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1847.
Henry James, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” in The Complete Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 2.
Daniel G. Hoffman, “Paradise Regained at Maule’s Well,” in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Seymour L. Gross, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), 476.
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.
No one was hanged on Gallows Hill, but it makes a good high spot for a municipal water tank. The park is called Gallows Hill Park, of course.
I left our Salem apartment last Thursday to walk to the site, but what people used to think was the site is not the site. In fact, the true location, which was of course known at the time and remembered through at least the mid-18th century, when the last persons who witnessed the executions of 1692 would have been passing away, was then forgotten.
Somehow, Gallows Hill, because of its prominence, became fixed in people’s minds and was promoted throughout the 19th century as the site. The city acquired it and some nearby land in 1936.
I waked through typical New England streetscapes of (mostly) white-painted frame houses mixed with some commercial areas. The “No Tour Buses” sign was a clue that I was near someplace important — but was I?
Turning onto Proctor Street from Highland Avenue. One of the victims was a farmer named John Proctor, but his family kept on going and later owned land in the area. And are those artificial flowers a memorial or just someone’s decorative touch on Proctor Street?
I walked right past Gallows Hill Park (do the tour buses go there?) because it was not the place and continued on Proctor Street.