Salem: Bewitched by a dark past

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Salem's House of the Seven Gables, near the ferry landing, was made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of the same name. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Kathryn Yengel

Pamela Wade finds there's more to this Massachusetts city than its spooky history.

By Pamela Wade

"You don't have a squirrel one?" asks the woman, rifling through the hanging costumes of lobsters, skunks, giraffes, koalas, ballerinas and pirates. Dressing up for Halloween is a serious business in the United States, and dogs can also get in on the act here at Penelope's Pet Boutique.

Salem in October is a single-focus town. Never mind that the hour-long ferry ride from Boston is a sparkling delight of islands and lighthouses; or that brilliant orange and yellow trees shade the shingled roofs of pretty brick-and-clapboard houses and their neat gardens. What the cheerful crowds thronging the streets want to see are giant spider webs, pumpkins, ghosts, ghouls and, especially, witches.

Not all of these are pretend. Certainly the four Anjelica Huston lookalikes posing for photos in the street market are fake, but the two women striding along Essex St in billowing cloaks and pointed hats might easily be real.

It's ironic that a town best-known for its witch trials and executions now has a thriving community of modern witches. Like Peter, the entertaining and informative guide at the Salem Witch Museum, who takes us through the history of the 1692 trials and all the way up to present-day witch hunts, for example of Muslims and gay people.

"It's human nature," he shrugs.

Leanne claims to be a psychic and medium as well as a witch, and is rushing off to hold a seance.

"I used to be a stockbroker," she says cheerfully, standing in her shop, Hex, surrounded by shelves of potions, spell ingredients and candles labelled "Curse Reverse" and "Conjuring Spirits".

An altar is heaped with skulls, trinkets, candles, incense burning inside a horn, and notes to the dead.

"We read these out at Samhain," says Leanne, using the Wiccan preferred name for Halloween.

It's all rather fanciful, but in a shady courtyard beside an old cemetery is the dignified memorial to those who died after the group hysteria of a dozen teenage girls led to random accusations of the townspeople.

More than 200 people were tried by the Puritans: eventually 19 were hanged and poor Giles Corey was crushed to death, rocks piled on his chest.

Roger Conant, the founding father of Salem, built the city's first house. Photo / Thinkstock

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More than 400 years later, high- and low-brow fascination still brings people flocking to Salem, especially as Halloween approaches - but there are other reasons to visit.

One is the town's maritime history. There's an impressive sailing ship moored by the pier, welcoming visitors to the little port and teaching them about the infamous 300-year Triangle Trade of slaves, sugar and rum between Africa, the West Indies and Massachusetts.

There are also literary connections: near the ferry landing is the well-presented House of the Seven Gables made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of that name. Better-known for The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne was born nearby and was a frequent visitor to the house.

He was also a strikingly handsome young man, and his fresh-faced portrait hangs in the Peabody Essex Museum, which provides more relief from the Halloween frenzy of the streets.

One of the oldest museums in the US, it is bright, light and modern. The exhibits include an actual 1800s Chinese house, a collection of ships' figureheads and Napoleon's boots.

It's the intellectual version of the equally eclectic collection of goods inside the equally fascinating junk shop down the road.

Salem: it's all about history, and whether that's actual and authentic, or fake and

fun, it's certainly worth a visit.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Take a ferry or train from Boston.

Accommodation: Stay in Boston at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.

Further information: See salem.org and DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Massachusetts.

The writer was a guest of Destination Salem.

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