On Witches, Witchcraft and Salem

On Witches, Witchcraft and Salem

A Journey into Hidden America

Halloween's always a bit different here. It's a little scarier, a little spookier, the kids a little quieter.But that's to be expected. Wouldn't you feel the same way if you were to spend Halloween in "the home of witches".

That's how it is in Salem, Massachusetts, site of the infamous witch hunts of the 17th century and the setting for Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel about witch hunting, The House of the Seven Gables.

Given its place in American literature and history, it should come as no surprise that officials in Salem treat Halloween as something special. A week's worth of events known as "Haunted Happenings" brings thousands of visitors annually to this city on the north shore of Boston.

One of the oldest cities in New England, Salem was founded in 1626. The witch hunts began in 1692, when a group of teenage girls accused some elderly women of practicing witchcraft. Witchcraft, in the Puritan theocracy, was an offense punishable by death. No defense was possible for the accused. If they insisted that they were innocent, it was taken as proof as their guilt.

Hysteria quickly spread throughout the community. Within a few months, hundreds had been arrested, 19 hanged and one man pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Only when accusations were brought against members of prominent families did public opinion turn against the trials. Eventually the girls confessed that they had accused innocent people.

The hysteria over witches that engulfed Salem was not exclusive to that town, once related Don Daly of the Essex Institute in town, "It's just that (the Salem witch craze) was the biggest and the last outbreak of witchcraft killings in North America. To a lesser extent it also occurred elsewhere". Indeed,many thousands of women were executed for witchcraft in the British Isles and Europe throughout the pre-modern era.

Of course, Salem's connection with witchcraft did not end there. It was reinforced when Hawthorne - the descendant of one of the judges at the witch trials - wrote about it in The House of the Seven Gables. Today, Salem is the spiritual center of interest in witchcraft and occult.

Salem is more than pleased to receive the attention. According to Dan Daly, Salem tried to capitalize on witchcraft as a tourist attraction as far back as the turn of the century. After the loss of its leather industry, Salem used the general fascination with witchcraft to pull itself out of an economic decline. In Salem they now show off witch images wherever you go - on taxicabs, newspaper titles, road signs and business signs.

Much of the initial publicity for the modern-day revival of Salem came back in the 1980's from transplanted Californian Laura Cabot, a self-proclaimed psychic and witch. Cabot claimed that she knew by age three that she was different than others and could read minds. By sixteen, she decided she was a witch and eventually moved to Salem, the home of witches. In the 1970's she gained notoriety for good luck incantations for the Boston Red Sox (in an era of hard luck before they eventually won the World Series in 2004). Over the objection of the local city council, then Governor Michael Dukakis designated her "official witch", and before long Cabot could be seen around town in black robes.

It soon became clear that Cabot was not the only one going around town with a connection to witchcraft. Eventually the count went as high as 2,000 in a city with a population of 40,000. Cabot became an executive with the Chamber of Commerce,and then became a spokesperson for witchcrfat (appearing in People Magazine and on Oprah). She became an advocate to correct what she believed were misconceptions about witches - especially what she considered "sensational distortions" of witchcraft by the media.

Halloween as currently observed owes much to the incorporation into Celtic Christianity of pagan practices, including the celebration of a harvest festival on October 31. This festival, called Samhain, is still celebrated by witches of modern Salem.

Paradoxically, the girls who set in motion the 17th century witch trials did not live in the city of Salem, but rather in nearby old Salem, which shortly afterward changed its name to Danvers. It was not until excavations occurred in the mid-1970's that the people of contemporary Danvers found out that their town was the actual site of the accusations (the trials were conducted in Salem).

Even with this revelation, there is little out of the ordinary these days on Halloween for the people of Old Salem (Danvers). For the most part, they leave all the fuss for Salem and the witches who make their homes there down the road.

Adapted from Beyond the Interstate: Discovering the Hidden America (John Wiley & Sons, 1989)

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