13 October 2010

Salem recreates the 1692 witch hysteria

For centuries, Salem, Massachusetts, has been trying to forget the 1692 witch hunts. All the old buildings associated with the victims of the witch-hunt have been torn down—the court rooms, the meeting-house, the jail. Only the so-called Witch House remains, though its only claim to the title is that Judge Jonathan Corwin (1640-1718) lived there while he served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692.

Even the men and women who were hanged have no final resting place so marked. Condemned as witches, they were buried near the place of their hanging. Most of their families, however, snuck the dead bodies from the rocks in which they were tossed and gave them a final resting place—in an unmarked grave.

Torn down, disintegrated, obliterated. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s, when Arthur Miller’s The Crucible redefined all that “witch-hunt” could encompass, that the city’s outlook started to change. By 1970, Salem was endorsed by new age witches as well as TV witches. People started looking for history, and Salem remade it, in its many "museums" and storefronts.

Today, you can walk along Essex Street or Pickering Wharf and encounter witches by the dozens. You’ll hear mutterings of Bridget Bishop in the streets. You can touch the beam from the original jail—one of the few artifacts that survived—at the Witch Dungeon Museum. You can see vignettes of 1692 events at the Wax Museum of Witches & Seafarers, the Witch History Museum, or the Salem Witch Museum

What rises above the din of tourist attractions, though, are the voices of the dead. Despite the destruction of many witch trial documents, the ones that exist are so poignant, so telling. Luckily, the words are kept alive in Salem, in the many portrayals of these innocent victims of the 1692 witch hunt.

And that's why I find myself in Salem almost every October on a pilgrimage to the past.

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