The reaper and a spandexed vigilante pose for their mother behind a weathered headstone. Both peculiar subjects are barely a foot higher than the faded monument—by looks, no older than 12. The vibes are dour: Nobody smiles except the adult on the other side of the camera, wearing a witch hat. The only ordinary things in Howard Street Cemetery around this time of year are the dead.
This plot of land was once an open field where a man was executed for witchcraft by pressing (boulders and the like) and afterward became a depository of unwanted New England corpses—the poor and colored. Now it sits prim before soft-green and blue three-story homes with hybrids parked in freshly paved asphalt driveways. Below the soil are centuries of human remains. The thin shadows of the graves cloak the ground like doors to an ancient subterranean darkness.
No one in the cemetery is here to pay respects to the recently deceased. None are even close to elderly. The last burial on the grounds happened sometime in the Eisenhower administration. A few tombs down from the kids, five full-grown goths stage their own private photo shoot. “Not enough shade,” one complains, waving their phone with a selfie stick in search of the perfect shot.
In most locales, this scene would be a jarring, if not incongruous, sight. In Salem—throughout the month of October and, increasingly, at either end of fall—it is as common as the bones buried under their feet.
They come by the millions in their flannel, their corduroy, and their tortoiseshell aviators. They prance in fall fabrics, autumnal oranges and woodland browns. They brave highway systems in need of triple bypass surgery and commuter rails that resemble mid-century meat factories. Beards and bobs and blonds and bros. They are not above changing a diaper atop a cool, gray crypt. They’ll hawk a loogie on anything—anything. They are unruly, belligerent enough to park a minivan square in front of a hydrant. They want to speak to a manager, they have to go to the bathroom, they were aiming for the trash, and they didn’t know the displays weren’t for touching. Frolicking through downtown with their heads craned back in laughter and their gullets full of cider or pumpkin beer, they descend on that little city on the northern shore of Massachusetts looking seriously (and, crucially, quite unseriously) for what nearly ripped Salem at the seams four centuries ago.
Last year, 2.2 million folks arrived in town. A hair under a million came in the month of October alone. Everyone I talked to in 2022 around Salem—across storefronts, pharmacies, restaurants, churches, museums, and Ubers—said the crowds were as large as they’d ever seen. I spoke to most of them this year, too, and they told me the same thing all over again.
The town just ain’t big enough for ’em. You can feel it, literally, when you wade through crowds, tightening your shoulders and moving with quick side steps, only to have shifted a few feet. For residents, the burden is partly intangible and often exponential. The drought of parking spots in the city turns biblical by late September. The pace of traffic is glacial. (Last year the mayor’s message to the swarms was simple: “Do not drive to Salem.”) Downtown pharmacies are raided. Groceries are best collected under the cover of night.
The masses assembled each fall are no hive mind. Camps include, but are not limited to: the history buffs, the actual practicing witches, the families looking for Halloween fun, the affluent and (often) international TikTokers, the Greek-life-adjacent party prowlers, and an ever-growing stable of repeat visitors, sometimes for life. A few of these descriptions overlap. Others are unlisted. All fall under the fraught and lucrative umbrella of “tourist.” Across states, nations, backgrounds, beliefs, and decades, they’ve appeared with escalating frequency not simply because they wanted to, but because they were outright invited.
For almost as long as the Salem witch trials have circulated in the public sphere as a cautionary tale of hysteria and depravity, the city and its residents have managed to make a buck off that reputation. By the mid-1700s, John Adams was writing with astonishment in his diary about his privilege in being brought to tour Salem’s “Witchcraft Hill”—then believed to be the site of all 19 hangings. By 1880, Salem’s first tourist guide highlighted locations related to the events, its victims, and its accusers. In the 1895 edition there were prominent notes on the mania of 1692, which, the pamphlet explained, “now brings thousands of visitors to Salem every year.” Starting at least as early as 1925, the township of Salem was commonly and officially referred to as the “Witch City.” Add a hint of technological growth, a dash of good old American marketing, and a morsel of the commercial and cultural explosion that is Halloween season, and you’ve got yourself a full-on socioeconomic feeding frenzy.
The Salem Chamber of Commerce and the Salem Witch Museum hosted a festival called Haunted Happenings on Halloween weekend of 1982 that drew 50,000 people. Forty years later, the event still takes place, but it lasts a month. It’s responsible for about 35 percent of Salem’s annual tourism revenue. In 2022 visitors contributed $782 million to the region, generating 7,850 jobs and more than $31 million in state and local taxes. More people now go to Salem in October alone than to nearby cities Plymouth and Lexington combined annually.
It is awesome, financially beneficial, and out of control. In Salem, Halloween is a monthslong beast with an unquenchable appetite. It gobbles late-summer weekends and the first-of-winter snows. There are people who welcome it and people who flee it, but everyone feels it. And though by lineage this creation is at best rarely theirs, by geography and the inalterable stain of days gone by, they are full inheritors of its weight. Because of history—its burdens and allure—a community is held in a periodical and self-imposed state of bedlam. Look beyond the hoopla and you’ll see in Salem a storm, age-old as it is modern, that manages to unmask the knotty, innermost contents of the place and the folks who frequent it.
There is a book you’re asked to sign at the Satanic Temple in Salem. The text is for security measures, though—not to forfeit thy soul. The whole den is rather plush. Out front on a manicured lawn there is a three-tiered metal fountain with at least four cherubs and eight nymphs to boot. The floors are hardwood inside the building, and the wallpaper is a baroque blue.
Tickets to access the grounds cost $13. Tours are self-guided. Next to the front desk is an arcade game that’ll let you commune with an animatronic demon for a steady diet of quarters. “If you see a door that’s locked, don’t open it,” I was instructed in July by a receptionist who looked a little too calm saying that aloud. The place wasn’t outright empty, but there was no line around the curb. In October, the temple mutates into a bona fide spectacle. Tea parties are offered, across the month, for $66 a ticket.
Besides the art on the first floor, there is a statue of a shriveled baby goat covered with faux flowers and encased in glass. This would seem bound to dominate the chamber except for the fact that there is also a full-sized Baphomet statue just a few feet away, with two children at the man-goat-Antichrist’s side. “You can sit on his lap,” the staff assured me in advance, but I thought it untoward. The candles on a nearby marble mantelpiece are electronic. Selfies in the throne room are also encouraged. I am not saying the Satanic Temple is a tourist trap, but I’m not not saying it either.
There were no actual satanists in Salem in the year 1692, and the first accused was no witch: She was property. Just after the new year, the daughter and niece of town reverend Samuel Parris attempted to use a crude device known as a Venus glass to tell the future. Soon after, the girls started to have strange attacks that resembled seizures. According to spectators, “their throats choked” and “their limbs wracked.” By the middle of the month, they were diagnosed as victims of satanic possession, and they ID’d their supposed tormentors—the first was the family’s own housekeeper, an enslaved woman named Tituba.
Likely born on the northeastern coast of South America among the Arawak people, Tituba was kidnapped as a child and enslaved on the island of Barbados. When Parris oversaw his family’s holding on the isle, he purchased the girl. When he left the Caribbean for Boston in 1680, he brought her with him. By the time of the trials, she was no older than 30.
Over the centuries Tituba’s background and racial profile have been warped and obscured repeatedly. In plays and fiction stretching from the early 19th to mid-20th centuries, she is referred to as “half Indian,” “half Negro,” and a “Negro slave.” These characterizations are often riddled with stereotypes of African black magic that had appealed widely to northern and southern audiences. In works of nonfiction over the same period, Tituba is described as a “Negro,” a “half-breed,” and simply “colored.” At the time of the trials, there was no ambiguity in descriptions of her background: She is specified as “Indian” in all court documents.
Even today, you would have to comb through digitized archives of the trials to know that it was Tituba’s shrewdness, resilience, and adaptability that launched the affair on the way to full-blown delirium. In her deposition to the court, Tituba is coy and precise. Of the first three women accused (in addition to Tituba, two Puritan women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, were also named), she was the only one to admit her supposed involvement with the dark arts, feigning, “The devil came to me and bid me serve him.”
When Puritan prosecutors asked her why she followed Satan, Tituba said she was coerced by “four women and one man,” implicating Good and Osborne:
Tituba: They tell me if I will not hurt the children they will hurt me.
Court: Did you not hurt them?
Tituba: Yes but I will hurt them no more.
Asked about their unholy gathering, she murmured tales of riding “upon a stick or poale [sic]” and meeting a literal hellhound:
Tituba: The black dog said serve me but I said I am afraid.
Court: What did you say to it?
Tituba: I will serve you no longer then he said he would hurt me. …
Court: What else have you seen?
Tituba: Two cats a red cat and a black cat.
Court: What did they say to you?
Tituba: They said serve me.
These transcripts are ridiculous in hindsight, but at the time they were accepted as fact. No one would’ve thought Tituba capable of a clever and preordained manipulation—nor would they have expected the all-white court’s susceptibility to such a defense. Of the three women initially accused in 1692, Tituba was the only one to avoid the gallows. In the decades afterward, she admitted that her master had “beat her and otherways abuse her, to make her confess.” On the stand, she was performing for her life. She was careful and crafty with her steps.
That this is not common knowledge is proof of a blight that dates back to the time of the trials themselves: There are as many people drawn to the facts of this past as there are people interested in making those facts fit snugly around their own motives. Tituba lived a brutal and daring life. It shined so brightly that the descendants of the folks that enslaved her couldn’t keep their hands off its memory. Couldn’t help but hold on to her story so tightly that it soon became something else entirely.
The more time I’ve spent in Salem, the more times I’ve wondered whether it’s not this same force that pulls weary travelers into tourist traps and temples—that inspires the construction of attractions, even, in the first place. People arrive in Salem because of, if not drawn by, an episode that occurred centuries ago. And yet often they have, unabashedly, no intention of contending with that centuries-old episode. What they want is something that feels real (or at minimum, plausibly fake) but is ultimately their own. What these visitors desire, at their core, is simple and all the more transformative: They want hospitality.
“I’ve done this in this town five or six times and seen some crazy things,” Lloyd Peters, the assistant general manager of Ledger Restaurant and Bar, says as a crowd forms a line outside the establishment. “I’ve seen people spit on. I’ve seen people blasted out of their mind trying to come in and sit down.”
The posh Salem eatery is a few feet from the most highly trafficked intersection in the city, on Washington Street. It’s just past 5 p.m. on a Thursday in late September—which in Salem restaurant speak means the eerie not-so-calm before the storm.
To account for the surge in diners that it hosts in the fall months, Ledger orders nonperishables weeks in advance. Deliveries are arranged and managed throughout the day. If there’s too much traffic for a vendor to get near the loading dock, a few Ledger staffers will brave the throngs to meet them at the nearest accessible location. In October, upward of a thousand parties are likely to be served on any given evening. When a visitor sits at the bar with face paint or a ghoulish mask on, staff are instructed not to let the ensemble stop them from requesting identification.
Leaning next to the kiln-dried logs for the woodburning stove, I tell Ledger’s executive chef, Dan Gursha, that I plan on stopping by on a Friday evening to see the restaurant at its chaotic peak. “Finding parking is going to be a motherfucker, unless you’re taking the train. Once 7 o’clock hits,” he warns me, hands mimicking an explosion, “the place goes …”
This is Gursha’s (and Ledger’s) seventh October—he’d previously worked the kitchen at Copenhagen’s crown jewel Noma and staged with a three-Michelin-starred maestro in Paris—and he admits he had no idea what he’d gotten himself into during his first fall run. “We used to grind and hand-patty all our burgers, and the first October we did that,” Gursha says, with a penitent eye roll. “And like, literally, my sous-chef the whole first October just sat down in the basement just grinding burgers. That’s all he did. Because we sell, like, 400 burgers on a Saturday.”
Peters credits a combination of “comradery” and “embrace-the-suck mentality” for keeping the ship afloat amid logistical typhoons. Also, cash helps: “About half of our profit comes in in this time of year,” he says, servers buzzing around like bumblebees. “If Halloween didn’t happen, there’s no way a city this size could support this many restaurants and shops. … We all have living wages here. You know what I mean? And if it wasn’t for this, we wouldn’t.”
That the most demanding times in Salem enable the smooth living of December through July is a common refrain not just in hospitality circles, but throughout the city’s commercial sector. For 10 weeks there are, certifiably, too many people to sell anything to. Hotels are booked half a year in advance. Wait times at restaurants are measured by hours, plural. Rachel Christ-Doane, the education director at the Salem Witch Trials Museum, once told me that in October, the demand for the museum’s exhibits is regularly so high that “people will stay up until midnight and buy their tickets and crash our website.”
More than one resident independently repeated another’s exact description of the onslaught: “The city can’t meet the demand.” This is not a problem specific to Salem. There are many national and international localities that are (because of weather, location, culture, etc.) positively and hopelessly swamped. And the morbid nature of Salem’s appeal isn’t that uncommon among travel destinations. Millions visit the Colosseum every year. Same with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have never been to Auschwitz, but I am wholly certain that someone is selling something like bratwursts somewhere nearby. Salem is Salem because, unlike those sites, in Salem a plurality of people come for the bratwursts. They arrive in spite of the history, and they have no shame in this.
They’re not even, really, aware of it.
In Salem there are four total cemeteries, each of which attracts an outsized number of visitors. Charter Street Cemetery, built in 1637, is often filled with tourists who’ve wandered onto the old gravely tract from the nearby Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Broad Street Cemetery was built in 1655, and Howard Street Cemetery was erected in 1801—both host a strange ensemble of guests: children, artists, diners, and the generally curious. Greenwood Cemetery, the city’s youngest and most isolated graveyard, is also the only active burial ground in the city, making the presence of sightseers there a unique and often prickly challenge.
In October, like restaurants and museums, these confines of the dead turn into people magnets in their own right. Folks—residents included—tend to use the spaces as pseudo-parks. People have picnics in the shade of a granite box tomb. There are herds of regular dog walkers. Vandalism occurred throughout the 1900s in multiple plots, but the reports nose-dived at the turn of the century. Sometimes a visitor might take a piece of a broken grave. Photos are weird but not illegal. Litter is generally the top offense. (At Charter Street a tour guide told me they’ve had to kindly remind visitors not to flick their cigarettes onto the grass.)
Kelly Ryan, a kind, overworked city administrator who oversees three of the four properties, says her biggest concerns are staffing and space. At Greenlawn, where Ryan is based, the no. 1 annoyance is wedding requests. There’s a little cathedral at the top of the cemetery with Gothic windows and clay-red doors, but it’s out of use. Out-of-towners don’t always realize this, or that there are still funeral services held on a near-daily basis. “People forget this is the last cemetery serving Salem,” Ryan says. “And I can’t make more land.”
Mike Albert, one of the cemeteries’ longtime caretakers, tells me that some days he sees tourists plodding through the grounds with their “colonial garb.” Other times it’ll be residents on their way to or from somewhere. Occasionally, folks come in to switch out their loved ones’ flowers. “I think cemeteries are more for the living,” he says, “than they are for the dead.”
If all of this—the graveyard overactivity, the culinary high-wire act, the ravenous ticket wait lists—seems a Faustian bargain, that’s because it is. Salem is many things, most of which will awe you and a few of which may have the opposite effect, but the one thing it is not is oblivious to the bed it has made. I ask a museum worker whether the cost was worth the payoff. She says she likes to think so. She also adds, immediately, “Ask me on October 30.”
There is a village just off the silty banks of the North River where wooden homes with thatched roofs are nestled among the trees. They are from a different time: devoid of electricity, insulation, and indoor plumbing. When you move between them in the dark, shadows tend to dance and the wind seems to howl rather than blow. The houses are replicas of the first Puritan constructions in Salem (they appear in the opening of the original Hocus Pocus), and even with their proximity to the modern world, the visuals are convincing enough to fool you briefly.
A few hours after dusk on an early October evening, I arrive at the village looking for seclusion, a portal back to the settlers and the world they inhabited with brutality. I do not know this at the time: What I think I am looking for is to see, in the night, something that might legitimately scare me and in doing so help me understand the paranoia and fear that lead not just to mania but to killing the very people closest to you, the ones who pledge to your God that they are on the same crusade. Spend enough time in Salem, and it’s hard not to sense the proximity to what was—how short the distance can sometimes be. At a certain point, if you stare with sufficient intensity, the puzzle isn’t what happened but how it happened. That there must be something, somewhere, that explains the whole thing.
Samuel Parris was not born in Salem; he came from outside the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Raised in London, he attended Harvard in the 1670s and attempted, for at least the first half of his life, to helm his family’s slavery plantation in Barbados. It was not until 1689, after he’d bombed out as a planter, moved to Boston, and reinvented himself in the confines of the church, that Parris was hired as Salem Village’s minister. (Salem Township, which made up the more mercantile half of the community, had its own church, a source of rising tension.)
Parris picked up detractors almost immediately. Within weeks of starting, he announced that he intended to institute a restrictive covenant between regular members of the church and an exclusive group known as the elect. “Christ gathers a Church by separating of the Elect from the rest of mankind,” he argued in one speech. What Parris was pursuing, he admitted, was “a true separation between the precious & the vile,” a compositionally “pure church.” In the lead-up to the witch hysteria, opponents repeatedly pushed back on Parris’s vision: They withheld his salary and took over Salem Village church’s elected committee. By the time of the accusations made by Parris’s daughter and niece, the reverend had fostered a toxic stew of resentment within an increasingly factional community.
In the centuries since the Salem witch trials, there have been as many interpretations of the events as distortions. In the 1700s the popular school of thought in New England was explained best by a historian of the era called Jedidiah Morse, who attributed the hysteria to the seclusion of the community, which he said “furnished fuel for approaching terrors.” But that still leaves unexplained why similar events of the same scope didn’t happen in other, similarly isolated colonial communities. In recent scholarship folks have tried to use geographic data to present the trials as an extension of long-standing economic disputes between Salem Village and its more affluent neighbor Salem Township. But upon further analysis, the correlations turned out to be quite weak.
A theory even cropped up at one point that the mania may have been the effect of ergot poisoning—a result of consuming spoiled rye in bread—which is known to cause hallucinations. (This too was disproved upon further examination). Today, the single most common explanation for what happened is that it was all an extension of Puritan misogyny, as shown by the wide gender divides in accusations (120 women vs. 42 men), convictions (29 women vs. five men), and deaths (15 women vs. six men). Puritans not only believed that women’s bodies were inherently weaker, they also argued that because of that weakness, women were inherently more susceptible to satanic temptation. But like the isolation argument, the fact that women were the primary victims of the Salem witch trials still doesn’t explain what motivated the trials in Salem specifically: 78 percent of all people accused of witchcraft in early New England were women, but every town and village in early New England did not have episodes that implicated Salem-level percentages of their total population.
The thing I’m most convinced served as a distinction between Salem and other parts of New England at the time of the trials was Salem’s involvement in disputes with the different Indigenous nations of the Northeast. Even by the late 17th century, Salem was still the most populated Puritan settlement north of Boston, and the townspeople made up a significant portion of the militias sent to fight in disputes with Native forces. One scholar even identified that between 1689 and 1691, a number of Salem residents were killed in these skirmishes.
New Englanders almost universally viewed Native Americans as, in the words of Boston theologian and witch trial defender Cotton Mather, Satan’s “most devoted … children.” (Don’t even look up their feelings on Black folks.) Puritan settlers believed they were carrying out God’s will just by existing—that they had braved the cruel waves of the Atlantic to receive a righteous shelter in his “new world.” If there is a contributing factor that made 1692 Salem different from any other period or place in New England, it’s that Salem residents often knew all too well that the “new world” their God had given them was filled with forces from whom they would have to claim it. In serving him here, every shadow in every tree line might be your downfall.
What made Parris unique—and what set Salem on the path to self-destruction—was that he saw agents of darkness without and within. The days he ambled up to the pulpit and spit venom unto his flock were neither few nor far between. Take this from his sermon notes:
Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his Church, & who they are. 1. There are Devils as well as Saints in Christ’s Church. 2. Christ knows how many of these Devils there are. 3. Last: Christ Knows who these Devils are.
This is the sickness that fueled the mania both in Parris’s community and in his own household. A feeling not just of impending doom, but of looming retaliation. That everything he perceived as against him—this place, its original inhabitants, his very neighbors—would eventually do to him what he wished to do to it.
Only once in Salem have I felt a great and instantaneous shame. It had little to do with Samuel Parris or the recorded facts of the trials and everything to do with our memories of them. I was walking past a wall in Salem’s slickly polished Peabody Essex Museum, filled with recordings, paintings, stills, and candids of the tribes and people native to this and all other land in the country. What came to me in the moment was not some instantaneous enlightenment. It was a thought that each generation of my loved ones hands down to the next: that the cost of a place like Salem, of all places in this nation, is measured by everything on those walls—the lives inalterably changed alongside all of that death. What I’m afraid of is what this place says about anyone who chooses to spend their time chasing 21 witchcraft murders, while—in every speck of dirt and every town in this country—there are so many bones left to find. Still so many lives contorted and misled.
As parishioners shuffle their way into the soothing warmth of St. Peter’s–San Pedro Episcopal Church in Salem, there’s another woman in another witch hat, though roles are reversed this time. Neither the Sunday morning chill nor the presence of an ardent flock is enough to dissuade her from getting social media fodder: She needs her candids, and the church has a wrought-iron fence. Built on land donated by a wealthy Anglican victim of the trials, St. Peter’s has stood as a refuge and staple in downtown Salem since 1733. Two hundred eighty-nine years later, as I visit in 2022, the same sturdy pews that lined the original chapel support today’s faithful. At the altar, they even use the same silver.
St. Peter’s reverend Nathan Ives first told me the story of its founding last year while we climbed up and down staircases all over the grounds. Ives grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts, but his family has been in Salem since the mid-1600s. Because of its location and longevity, the church draws visitors throughout the fall months. For the more inquisitive, they offer a tour of the building for $10; sometimes travelers just wander in, mid-service, off the street. “Lots of folks come in and stand in the back to look, as if they’re watching some odd thing take place. It’s a church service,” Ives says. “I’ve had some people walk right down the aisle like they’re in a museum. In the middle of a sermon or something, and they’re walking around like, ‘Oh, I’m just taking pictures.’”
As for many residents, his feelings about the crowds are thorny and, depending on the case, range from ambivalence to open frustration: “I think there’s a blindness, intentional and sometimes ignorant blindness of the true facts of the matter if you really looked at the truth of what happened here. That’s not to say people shouldn’t come to Salem and mourn, but they should be respectful of the history that happened here. They should be knowledgeable of it, they should know.”
When I return for Sunday Mass this year, Ives is readying for a bilingual service in Spanish and in English. (“It’s a bit like a tennis match,” the reverend says of the back-and-forth between languages.) In the chapel there are hymnals and Bibles inside each pew. At 10:15 a.m. there are 10 churchgoers present, and by 10:30 that number has doubled. After Ives reads aloud from the book of Exodus, the church’s Bluetooth speakers are accidentally connected to someone’s phone outside the building, a cost of the morning rush.
After the service concludes, the congregation shares coffee in an old auditorium and the reverend introduces me to Cristal, another Salem resident and a parent of two young children. Her parents and her 88-year-old grandmother sit nearby while we chat and watch the kids chase each other in circles. I wonder aloud how anyone manages to keep up a semi-normal routine as parents amid the throngs.
“I don’t usually shop during the weekend unless it’s really necessary. I usually shop during the week, mostly after work,” she says. “If I go during the weekend, I’ll go on a Sunday after 5. You avoid the crowds. You’re probably not going to find everything you want, but you’re going to find most things.”
Her daughter has her own qualms about the influx of tourists. “I don’t like when people just take the things that you put somewhere,” the poised 7-year-old tells me. “And when there’s a lot of people.” (Later, she clarifies that the “things” she was referring to were all, in fact, candy.)
When Cristal was 16, she and the rest of her family immigrated to Salem from the Dominican Republic. She “knew nothing” about the witch trials. She learned about them briefly at Salem High in the early 2000s and remembers October being much more subdued then. Now, she says, it seems like the hordes get worse every year. When she enters a particularly bustling locale with her babies, she’ll pause and look them in the eye. She wants them to be aware of their surroundings but not let them control them. “I want them to enjoy it, too. I don’t want them to grow up thinking, like, ‘Oh, when it’s October, we need to leave the city because it’s madness,’” Cristal says, shaking her head. “We live here.”
Windows face every direction in the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in nearby Danvers, a visible sign of the paranoia present during its construction. Inside the bright-red cabin, there is a deep, wide fireplace made of dark red bricks. It holds six pots, two andirons, some wood, and a heap of ashes, and it would have room for a full-sized adult—if a full-sized adult were so inclined. Today it is a living museum, kept in a condition as comparable as possible to what it was when its namesake was taken from the home, jailed, tried, and later hanged.
When Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft, she was 71 years old and nearly deaf. A well-known member of Salem Town church, Nurse immigrated from England in 1635, at the age of 14. She was, by most of her neighbors’ descriptions, pious and harmless. But as the “afflicted” children made their first wave of accusations in March 1692, they charged Nurse with bewitching and “spectrally” abusing them. The trial occurred in June at the meeting house in Salem Village. When her accusers swore Nurse had “beat” and “choke[d]” them, the septuagenarian was steadfast in proclaiming her innocence. When the prosecution asked her, “Do not you see these afflicted persons, and hear them accuse you,” she swore, “The Lord knows I have not hurt them. I am an innocent person.”
After her death, the homestead stayed in the family for a little over a century and then changed hands several times. The current property is a fraction of the size it was in Nurse’s day, but the layout of the house is a faithful rendition. At the front of the building is a wall constructed of overlapping logs, a crude 17th-century barricade. When it’s open for business hours, there is almost always a guide stationed inside. (The home is owned by a local nonprofit that also does 18th-century battle reenactments.) When I visit the property on a September morning, the guide is able to recount verbatim dialogue from the Nurse trial. The location of the homestead in Danvers, about 5 miles from Salem, thins the herd of potential visitors to mainly history buffs. While I eye the living quarters, I let slip a reflexive “interesting,” to which a square-faced father with bifocals responds, brutally, “I suppose.”
By the time Nurse’s trial wound down to a conclusion, her health had worsened. When the jury returned a ruling of “not guilty,” the judge made them vote again and reconsider. Even after she was ultimately convicted of witchcraft, Nurse was temporarily pardoned by colonial governor William Phips until—under pressure from her enemies—the governor reversed his own pardon. Within three weeks, Nurse was taken to Gallows Hill, a few miles from her home, and hanged.
What they will tell you, if you visit the homestead, is that they cannot say with total certainty where she is buried. There is a field bordered by a towering tree line on the western end of the property that contains a graveyard for the entire family. The thought is that Nurse’s husband and son went and retrieved her body while it still hung and then immediately buried it in the back, hidden from sight. The plot is slightly raised in person, boosted on a slope under the cover of sappy white pines. There is a spot where stone pillars abut the treeline, and that is where her body likely rests—next to those of her husband and their son. A large obelisk in the middle of the burial ground honors Nurse and praises “her Christian character.” It was installed in 1885, years after her so un-Christian, and so very Christian, death.
The feeling I cannot shake when I stand in this place, this shrine that was made to be hidden, is that maybe it ought to have stayed that way. That we are prying too much and it is not meant for us. That in that hummock is an intimate and tender response to great horror. Which is, maybe, part and parcel of why some folks are drawn to it. There is a point at which one cannot separate what cheapens or sullies a space like this from what enables it and keeps it alive. In this hanged woman’s hidden graveyard, I think that point is an incalculable distance backward on Salem’s current trajectory.
The closest estimation of where the gallows where Nurse was hanged in 1692 were located is now marked by a monument about 15 minutes from the graveyard and the homestead. The neighborhood around it is called Gallows Hill. The memorial is a wall of rough gray bricks with the names of the dead carved next to the dates of their demise. There are very smooth pebbles and flowers cast beneath it, though some of the latter are fake.
Farther up the slope is a well-manicured baseball field that borders a skate park and a gravelly construction lot. The homes that make up the district are adorned with spooky skeletons and smirking plastic jack-o’-lanterns. Checkered high-rises tower over the tree line to the east. Because of the open space provided by the ball field, you can see a giant light-blue water tower above the canopy on the westerly side. Letters bigger than people that are printed on the tower spell “Salem.” Under the A and the L is a black witch on a broomstick pointed to the sky.
We are greeted by a woman who dons colonial attire and an accent that isn’t fully British. I say I came from Boston, and she says she has family there. It’s not clear whether she’s still in character or not. Downstairs, the woman answers to “Goodwife” alone. I’m a little confused, but I roll with it. It’s my first and only mock Salem witch trial.
There are a lot of tattoos, very many black boots, and surplus Converses in this courtroom. Seating is in three sections, three rows per section, five people in each row in the basement of the “Lost Museum” on Salem’s Lynde Street. The actress playing Judge Hathorne—of strained relation to Nathaniel Hawthorne—has a long blond wig and a white plume on her blouse. A pen quill in hand, she smiles and smacks the dark-brown mallet down in her other palm to start the proceedings.
“Raise your hand now if you feel as though there may be evidence of witchcraft against you,” she says, very seriously. After the hands rise throughout the courtroom, she adds, “Raise your hand now if you feel as though you may have testimony against one of those accused of witchcraft.” In an opening icebreaker, the judge warns everyone of the “angels” and “devils” that are “among us.”
“Are there those here tonight accused of witchcraft?” she asks.
“Yes,” the Goodwife answers. “There are, ma’am.”
“Please, bring them forth.”
The first of the accused is named Indigo and pleads innocence, unsuccessfully—done in by a neighbor, out in the woods, who swore she saw the “devil’s book.” The second person accused has a middle school education and a face painted green and is on their way to 5 feet tall.
“As we know, age does not know bounds when you are affected by the devil,” the judge reminds the crowd. The kid almost clears her name. Then she slips up and admits to eating apples, “the devil’s fruit,” apparently. In a flash she’s ejected from court.
Next up is Sheryl. Sheryl is cool. Sheryl is calm. Sheryl makes it past her first accuser. Sheryl wasn’t dancing in the woods. She was getting her steps in. Then the judge calls in the local blacksmith, and for Sheryl this is no good.
The local blacksmith has jokes. (See if you can say “pounding my anvil” three times fast.) The local blacksmith is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It’s not weird. You are. His beard has an edge up. He says Sheryl turned his dog “into a duck”—and he gives that “duck” a rhetorical flourish, just a little panache.
Laughter hangs over the room. Sheryl, the judge, and the blacksmith are grinning. They’re each practically floating off the ground. It is a most awesome frenzy. Here—plum in another Salem October—past and present are what they’re wanted and needed to be. You get what you come in for. You make of it what you can. It is an unholy bargain and always will be.
The judge thumps the gavel for good this time. The night is over. Out of character, out of sight, and out of mind.
“We do like to have some fun with this,” the judge says, the exchange completed. “Does anybody have any questions?”