Salem, Massachusetts

August 20, 2022: A Spooky Summer´s Day

I had a free day in Boston before my cousin´s wedding and wanted to take a day trip. One of the top day trips is Salem, Massachusetts. My friend and coworker, Bryce, who lived in Boston, accompanied me on the trip. 

Salem is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It is best known for being the home of the 1692-1693 Salem Witch Trials. But for many Millennials, it is probably best known as the filming location of childhood cult favorite “Hocus Pocus”. Nowadays, Salem calls itself the Witch City and has leaned heavily into the Halloween-oriented tourism. 

Salem is easily reached by public transit from Boston. Typically the Commuter Rail trains take just 30 minutes from North Station. However, the rail was down for maintenance and in its place was a bus. It took a bit longer, but was free! 

The bus dropped us off at the train station. From there is was an easy walk into town. 

The town really has a vibe and takes The Witch City moniker seriously. 

The actual police logo that adorns all the uniforms and cars

The town center is full of of occult and talisman shops. There were probably more people dressed like witches or along the witch spectrum (strains of colored hair, unusual necklaces, pointed hats) than the entire rest of the country combined. As it was the middle of summer, the witches were clearly out of their element, almost like seeing Santa in April. In addition to the witches, there were lots of “normal” emo people too. 

Typical denizen of Salem

Our first stop was the House of Seven Gables, a top attraction in town. The house was featured in eponymous 1851 bestselling book by Salem resident Nathaniel Hawthorne. The museum also acquired Hawthorne´s childhood home and moved it next door. 

Bryce and Bryce at the House of the Seven Gables

By the time we arrived at 10AM, a crowd had already assembled. We got on a tour 20 minutes later. Interestingly, not a single guest on our tour had read the book. 

The house was built in 1668 for a ship captain and remained in his family for 3 generations with each generation expanding the house. By 1851, it was owned by Hawthorne´s cousin who often invited him over for dinner. By the early 1900´s, the house had become a full-flung tourist attraction and its new owner added all sorts of hidden passageways to create a tour route. These passageways and secret doors make the tour full of surprises. 

Inside one of the Seven Gables.

Our tour was led by a very sassy yet passionate man who must moonlight as a pirate. He wore Johnny Depp Captain Jack Sparrow-style eyeliner and lots of rings. While we learned a lot on the tour, the guide and his dramatic presentation style was a highlight. 

Next, we visited the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the USA´s first national historic site. The site protects the historic wharves where Salem became the main port of colonial America. It also protects the home of the new world´s first millionaire and the customs house, but they are not open to the public. 

Unfortunately, there is very little to see, and I was quite disappointed by the site. A rare miss for the National Park Service. 

The highlight of the National Historic Site was probably this sign

Back in the center of town, we visited Salem´s historic cemetery known as the Burying Point. The first grave in here is from 1637. Additionally, many of the judges from the Salem Witch Trials are here. 

As for the witches themselves, they were not buried in the cemetery. But next door there is a memorial to the 14 women and 5 men who were hanged along with Giles Corey who was pressed to death in an effort to extract a guilty confession and the 6 who died in jail awaiting their trials. The memorial contained a stone bench for each victim containing their name, death date and method of execution.  Many of the benches had flowers or notes proclaiming their innocence most likely written by local schoolchildren. Surprisingly powerful. 

RIP to the witches

After visiting a couple magic shops, we stopped for lunch at the Howling Wolf Taqueria – very much not in line with the witch theme. The portions were ENORMOUS, and the food was delicious in a cheesy non-authentic Mexican way.   

Afterwards, Bryce and I visited some more witch-themed attractions. Salem has 3 Witch museums. The one recommended by the Green Gables guy was the Witch House Museum which is in the home of one of the Witch Trial judges and the only currently-standing building in Salem directly related to the witch trials. 

The museum presented the story of the witch trials in neutral non-theatrical manner. The Witch Trials began in 1692 when three young girls began having “fits” of madness where they screamed obscenities and threw objects. The local judge suspected that a local Caribbean slave named Tituba was the reason. Tituba admitted that the Devil forced her to sign his book and that there were other witches in the community looking to do harm. 

While Tituba interestingly never had a trial for witchcraft, this set about a frenzy in the community. In total about 200 people were charged which was somewhere between 15-60% of the town´s population. In the end, 30 were found guilty and of those 26 died.

The trials ended once the governor´s wife was accused of witchcraft. The governor then changed the laws to not allow spectral evidence aka evidence from dreams. Once that happened, the trials essentially ended because there was obviously no physical proof of witchcraft. 

In addition to telling the story of the witch trials, the museum also had many artifacts from daily life in Puritan Massachusetts. Needless to say, life was no so good back then. 

A few blocks away was a house that was one of the filming locations for Hocus Pocus. A crowd had gathered outside to take pictures. It is incredible that more than 20 years later, the film is still so popular and such a part of Salem´s culture. 

Allison’s house in Hocus Pocus, now operated as a historic house museum run by the Peabody Essex

With time running out, our final stop for the day was the Peabody Essex Museum. Established in 1799 when Salem was one of the largest cities in the US, The Peabody Essex is one of the oldest museums in the United States. Its art collection is seriously impressive. 

An entire carved elephant tusk from China

The colonial art collection is certainly a highlight which includes one of the original charters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Additionally, due to Salem´s history as a center of trade, the Indigenous, Asian and Maritime art collections are among the best I have seen at any museum. The exhibits were so beautifully designed with just the right amount of detail. The museum is so good, it alone is worth the trip to Salem. 

It was now time to head back as the museum was closing and I needed to go to my cousin´s wedding. We headed back to the station to catch the bus into Boston. 

Final Thoughts:

Wow! Salem is a fantastic and well-rounded destination. The Witch City has such a vibe as I feel like every single person is into spells and magic and talismans. I really enjoyed the people watching. There are also more than enough museums and attractions to inform you about the Witch Trials. 

But the big surprise was the other non-witch attractions: the Seven Gables House and the Peabody Essex Museum which are such high quality but also not witch themed. 

I could not cover everything in one day in Salem, but 1.5-2 days would easily cover all the attractions. 

I understand why Salem is the top day trip from Boston and I can only imagine the energy here in October. 

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