Less than an hour drive from Boston, the town of Salem offers its visitors an interesting slice of history, mixing gender politics with mysterious tales – the infamous 300 years old Witch Trials.
Among the most studied events in Colonial American history, Salem Witch Trials cost 20 people their lives and about 200 people their freedom and good name. Majority of the accused and the executed were female, and the decision makers were male.
Since then, the story became the main source of local tourism traffic. Many women take part in current Salem “witches’ economy” – including business owners and authors.
Jump to the list of things to do in Salem.
Who is Afraid of Strong Women? The Brief History of Witches
The figure of a “witch” in Western imagination can be found making love potions or cursing her enemies in Greek mythology and Roman literature. From 14th century Europe, the practice of “Witch Hunting” was associated with the religious belief that the forces of evil could harm people through the agency of those declared witches.
Mainly women were hunted and executed as witches. Most of them were of older age, of vulnerable social status, foreigners and all had exceptionally developed skills or knowledge.
In the 19th century, suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage dared to point out to the link between persecution of witches and repression of women’s intellect in the name of misogyny. In her 1893 book, she devoted a chapter to analyzing witchcraft as a political institution. She wrote that “a vast amount of evidence exists, to show that the word “witch” formerly signified a woman of superior knowledge”.
The use of the term “witch” towards powerful women by their male opponents recurred in recent US history. Most infamously during the 2016 presidential election, candidate Hillary Clinton was called “The Wicked Witch of the Left”.
A recent US survey reveals that one of every 5 persons in the US believes in witches.
Contemporary feminists and influencers have taken on the mission of reclaiming the term “witch”. Instead of it being used by men to vilify women, equal rights activists rebrand “the witch” as a symbol of power. In protests, for example, banners are calling “Hex the Patriarchy”.
The Women of Salem Trials
Driven by mass hysteria, 1692 Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. Dozens more were accused – the youngest only five years old. The main story of the trials took place in Salem Village (present-day Danvers) and Salem Town.
It all started with the daughter of the village’s first ordained minister – 9-year-old Elizabeth Betty Parris and her cousin 11 years old Abigail Williams. The girls were behaving in a way that seemed strange to the community, and the local doctor attributed it to supernatural causes.
Under pressure of investigation, the girls blamed three local women for bewitching them:
- Tituba, the family’s slave
- Sarah Good, a local beggar
- Sarah Osborne, an impoverished old woman
The three women – who were easy targets due to their low social status – were put in jail. More and more accusations followed, fueled by paranoia.
A Special Court was established. The first case brought before it was that of Bridget Bishop. The older woman was declared guilty and hanged, despite claiming to be innocent. She became the first of 19 people executed in Salem Witch Trials.
The official hunt left as quickly as it arrived. Within a year all those who were charged with witchcraft in Salem were pardoned.
But justice was slow to be restored. Tituba was sold to pay for her jail costs. Her position as “an outsider” among colonial white Puritans was addressed in a 1986 novel by Maryse Condé, called “I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem”.
The town continued its process of healing the harm done by the trials:
- In 1697 a day of fasting was declared
- In 1702 the trials were announced unlawful
- In 1711 a bill was passed to restore the rights and good names of the Witch Trials victims
- In 1957 (almost 300 years later) Massachusetts formally apologized for the tragedy of 1692
Until Today, historians, scientists, artists, sociologists, and psychologists are fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials. The 1692 events are now attributed to a complex combination of forces: colonial politics, religion, gender, economics, boredom, and even weather.
One of the studies, published in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael, explained the behavior of the little girls with a fungus ergot, which was likely consumed by them in wheat and caused hallucinations.
21st Century Salem Embraces its Past and its Women
Witches remain the main tourist attraction in Salem. More than 250,000 people visit the town annually. “Haunted Happenings” that take place in September and October draw the most crowds.
All year-round tourist attractions around Witchcraft located in downtown Salem, around Essex St., include:
- Witch History Museum
- Witch Dungeon Museum
- The Witch House
- Salem Witch Museum
- Bewitched Sculpture – depicted actress Elizabeth Montgomery astride a broom and framed by a moon crescent as in the famous TV series, Bewitched
- Salem Witch Trials Memorial
- Salem Witch Walk – a guided tour in downtown Salem
- Crow Haven Corner, Salem’s Oldest Witchcraft Shop owned and operated by Laurie Cabot
- Artemisia Botanicals, owned by Teri Kalgren, sells herbs, books and also hosts meetings of “Witches Education League”
- Dress up as a witch or wizard for a photo session that will leave you a nice memory of your Salem visit at Witch Pix Custom Studio
Non-witch related tourist landmarks that celebrate women:
- House of the Seven Gables, established as a museum and settlement house by local philanthropist Caroline Emmerton
- The Punto Urban Art Museum is an art program led by North Shore CDC, a community development organization which builds housing lower means customers while installing murals in the same areas. Among the Punto Urban Art Museum are female muralists Angie Gonzalez, Mariela Ajras, Paola Delfin and many more.
- Salem Women’s Heritage Trail was created in 2000 by Salem historians, curators, and librarians to pay respect to the women who have contributed to the development of the town. Author Bonnie Hurd Smith published a book which can be used as a self-guided tour. It features:
– Philanthropist Caroline Plummer
– Abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond
– Educator Charlotte Forten
– Artists Louisa Lander
– Sarah Parker Remond’s Underground Railroad station
Other women who stand out in local history are:
- Mary Spencer, who is believed to invent the first commercially produced candy Gibralter in the US in the 19th Century
- Elizabeth Peabody, who opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in the US, spent her early years in Salem before relocating to Boston
- Nancy Harrington, the first female president of Salem State College
Today Salem makes efforts to celebrate the achievements of its women, not only as victims, and in 2006 Salem welcomed its first woman into the Mayor office. Mayor Kim Driscoll is the 50th mayor of the town.