Salem, Massachusetts: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

It’s been over a month since my trip to New England, and I’m finally writing my last post about it. I’ve already written about visiting the Boston Public Library and the great bookstores I was able to check out in Maine, but those of you who read my review of The Witches may remember that one of the sites I was most excited about was Salem. Schiff’s harrowing account of the Puritan community that became gripped in witchcraft paranoia was so fascinating, and I was excited to finally see the city I had read so much about.

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The modern town of Salem was different than I had pictured. In a lot of places, it was much like a smaller version of Boston: a compact, brick-lined city with shadows of its historical roots appearing in the artwork and some of older buildings. It was dense, winding, and actually really quaint. I had researched a good place to eat beforehand (a must if you’re a vegetarian like me) and had learned that Salem is really veggie-friendly. We had lunch at a place called The Lobster Shanty, which had the perfect mix of seafood and burgers for the omnivores in my party, plus some vegan sandwiches, soups, and a delicious mac & cheese (which I really enjoyed). This part of Salem was filled with cute shops and galleries; even though it was a smaller city, it felt cosmopolitan and lively.

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The view from The Lobster Shanty (none of the things on the sign were true, to my delight).

 

Of course, I wasn’t just here to visit a nice city. I wanted to surround myself in history, have a tactile connection to the people and places I had read about. To be fair, I wasn’t visiting Salem at the right time for that. I’ve heard that the time to really enjoy the witchcraft history is, of course, in October. But I still wanted to see whatever monuments and museums I could.

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I’ll start with my only “skip.” I searched online to find a good museum that would give an overview of the trials for people I was traveling with who hadn’t read Schiff’s book. The Salem Witch Museum appeared on a lot of travel lists and is located near the visitor’s center and other sites, which is why I thought it would be a good pick. But I suppose I imagined it to be a more traditional museum, with some artifacts (or recreations), plaques of information, and maybe a little video. Instead, the bulk of the museum experience takes place in a large room with dioramas that light up as a pre-recorded narrator takes you through the story, interrupted occasionally by ominous music. It was…a little cheesey. (Anyone remember the Stars Hollow Museum from Gilmore Girls?). It wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. The narration did provide a decent overview of the events of the trials, even if it wasn’t filled with the detail and nuance that Schiff’s book provides. It’s a perfectly fine touristy spot, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who already knows the history, and I would definitely say that if you visit it, don’t go with the expectations of a more traditional museum.

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The thing that I would definitely recommend is the The Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It’s simple and modest (and as such, was a bit hard to find), but that’s part of what made it so moving. It’s just a courtyard surrounded by a stone wall, and interspersed within the wall are larger stones that jut out, upon which the names of the victims are carved. It was quiet and tucked-away, but that seemed like the right kind of memorial for this history. It didn’t turn the victims of the trials into a spectacle–the trials themselves were spectacle enough. Instead, it offered a place of quiet reflection. It was strange and sad to see the names of the people I had read about, to walk around and spend a moment remembering their lives. It was a sobering but meaningful experience.

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The first victim of the trials. Some lovely person had left a flower for her.

There were plenty of other witch-themed attractions, but our day was winding down. Some of the attractions seemed to lean more towards the cheesey. I could see that kind of thing being fun at Halloween, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it on this trip. While there weren’t quite as many historical landmarks to visit as I expected, it was still a good experience to see what the city looked like: an interesting blend of tourist attractions, somber memorials, and trendy arts districts. It was hard to imagine it being the same Puritan community that had once been so consumed by fear, but Salem’s history has certainly given it a unique and memorable personality.

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