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A Bible-toting Christian demonstrator confronts a costumed reveller in Salem, Mass. Photo by John Andrews/Creative Salem

The town that paranoia built

Salem, Mass., is a living monument to the perils of witch-hunting

By Anne Bokma

Aug. 19, 1692. Rev. George Burroughs, a Harvard-trained minister, stands on a ladder perched against a tree in Salem, Mass., with a noose around his neck. He begins to say the Lord’s Prayer in a strong, sure voice. His very life depends on a perfect recitation since it’s believed that real witches are incapable of saying this prayer without making a mistake.

Burroughs gives a faultless delivery. The crowd begins to murmur. Some are moved to tears. But Burroughs is hanged anyway. Another Puritan minister, Rev. Cotton Mather, an enthusiastic supporter of the infamous Salem witch trials, which have consumed this New England town for the past several months, watches the proceedings from horseback. He stills the restless gathering by reminding them that Burroughs has had his day in court and that “the devil has often been transformed into an angel of light.”

Burroughs is one of five people hanged that day, one after the other, for the crime of practising witchcraft. The crowd’s wary reaction represents the beginning of public opposition to the witch trials. After all, if a respected minister can be hanged, anyone might be next. One month later, there is a final round of eight executions before the trials are stopped altogether. By then, 20 have been killed: 14 women and five men by hanging, and one man pressed to death under heavy boulders in an attempt to elicit a guilty plea.

In the twisted logic of the times, if accused persons confessed to being a witch and named others, they escaped the noose. Dozens chose this option. But those who maintained their own innocence and refused to make false accusations — lying, they believed, is an eternal sin — lost their lives.

Today there are plans to create a memorial on Gallows Hill to mark the site where these 20 lost their lives, victims of the paranoid Puritan fervour that gripped the area after two young girls began exhibiting epileptic-type fits and strange babblings, prompting the village doctor to declare them possessed by dark forces. Under pressure to name those who had taken them under Satan’s spell, the girls began pointing fingers. Soon eight more girls and young women claimed to be similarly afflicted, and the hunt for the demonic culprits took full force, setting off one of the most tragic and fascinating events in American history, one that serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of false accusations, religious extremism, mob mentality and lapses in the legal process.

Of course, no real witches were executed in 1692. Mass hysteria took hold in a community divided by personal vendettas, property disputes, economic scarcity and congregational bickering and who lived in fear of dangers such as smallpox outbreaks and attacks by Aboriginals.

“The real evil that existed in Salem did not reside in those who were imprisoned and executed. Rather, it lay in the religious fervour of the accusers and judges who believed that what they were doing was righteous and holy,” says Rev. Jeff Barz-Snell, minister of the Unitarian First Church in Salem, among the oldest churches in North America and one of two directly involved in the witch trials: two of its members were executed. The other church involved was the Salem Village church, now the First Congregational Church of Danvers.

Things have changed a lot in Salem in the ensuing 320 years. Once equated with paranoia and intolerance, the city today prides itself on being a beacon of acceptance and a champion of diversity. Twenty years ago, it launched the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, in memory of the victims and to salute those who promote tolerance and speak out against discrimination. It’s known as an LGBT-friendly community: last year the mayor signed a “No Place for Hate” ordinance extending protections against discrimination to transgender people.

Salem also has a reputation as one of the most welcoming communities in the United States for those who practise Wicca and other neopagan religions. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of its population of 40,000 are practising Wiccans, says Jeff Page, a local witch and guide for Salem’s Bewitched After Dark walking tours. “Salem is probably the only place in the world where you can walk around with a pentacle [a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle that’s the symbol of witchcraft] around your neck and no one will raise an eyebrow,” he says.

While Salem has done an admirable job of adhering to the dictum that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, the city also capitalizes on its tragic history as a way to make a whole lot of money — over $100 million is spent by the one million tourists who come to town each year.

The creative branding of “Witch City” began in earnest soon after the TV series Bewitched filmed a few episodes at the historic Hawthorne Hotel in 1970. It was then that witchcraft priestess Laurie Cabot opened America’s first witch shop in Salem. (Cabot was declared the “official witch of Salem” in 1977 by then-governor Michael Dukakis, an act that was later used against him by Republicans who accused him of being a supporter of witchcraft when he ran for president in 1988.) In 1972, the first for-profit witchcraft attraction, the Salem Witch Museum, opened its doors, spawning a host of others, from walking tours to haunted houses, graveyard tours, trial re-enactments and spell-casting performances.

Today, dozens of licensed psychics are available to tell your future for $75 per half-hour session, while witch shops with names like Hex and Omen hawk tarot readings and merchandise such as broomsticks, magic wands, crystal balls and voodoo dolls. At a shop called Artemisia Botanicals, the shelves are lined with more than 400 “healing” herbs, including something called false unicorn root, which the fuchsia-haired store clerk cheerily reports cures cervical cancer.

The only attraction not in the business of making money is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, located in a small peaceful park setting where the names of the 20 executed are engraved on simple rock benches. Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel was present at the dedication in 1992, and his words are etched in stone at the memorial: “Only if we remember will we be worthy of redemption.”

The memorial is an exception to Salem’s tendency to make light of its unsavoury history. Some 35 years ago, the Chamber of Commerce launched Haunted Happenings, a month-long celebration of costume balls, haunted house tours, street parades, a witchcraft expo and a zombie walk. The annual festivities attract 250,000 revellers — 70,000 on Halloween night alone — and have helped cement Salem’s reputation as the Halloween capital of the world.

Some decry these marketing efforts for capitalizing on those devout Christians who went to their graves protesting their innocence, says Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. “Perhaps Satan has had the last laugh,” he suggests in an interview. “He tempts us with profit — and here it is for the taking, the ultimate end product of this tragic era.”

Among those who descend on the town in October are busloads of conservative Christians who take to the streets to warn of the hellfire that awaits those who don’t repent of their occult ways. “There is still the sense, certainly among evangelicals, that we are evil, that we dance with dark forces and are somehow connected to Satanism, when that in no way is part of our culture,” says Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand, a Wiccan minister in Salem who also serves on the board of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. “I wish people would learn who we are.”

Local churches get in on the action during October too. Sixteen years ago, Phil Wyman, then a pastor at the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination, began offering free cups of hot cocoa in the town square as well as “psalm” readings and “reverse confessions” (church members dressed like monks apologized for past sins of the church) in an effort to help people see “Christianity as a great loving adventure,” he says. His efforts at outreach were so successful that he was awarded an $80,000 grant in 2005 for evangelism training.

But then Wyman says he himself became the victim of a witch hunt. Leaders in his church accused him of getting too cozy with the witches, pointing to his website’s links to pagan sites and a photo that showed him in a friendly pose with a local witch. He was called before church elders and fired in 2006.

“The meeting descended into an abyss of personal accusations against me, such as I did not mention the name Jesus frequently enough during the meeting; I did not lift my hands high enough in worship during the most recent district conference; and I was learning Welsh because it was the language of the Druids,” he says. “It was unbelievable.” Today Wyman continues his outreach efforts during Haunted Happenings as the pastor of a 35-member religious community called the Gathering at Salem.

Over at the Unitarian First Church in Salem, Barz-Snell takes a different approach. During worship services, he lights a chalice and reads aloud the names of the witch trial victims on the anniversary dates of their executions.

We may live in modern times, but Barz-Snell believes those trials still have lessons to teach us. “If we really want to make amends for those who lost their lives in 1692, we need to work in the here and now to find justice for those falsely accused and persecuted today,” he says, pointing to the “demonizing and pathologizing of poverty — blaming people for being poor” as an example.

The human tendency to cast suspicion on specific groups during times of social unrest certainly didn’t end with the witch trials. There have been plenty of other witch hunts, from the internment of Japanese North Americans during the Second World War, to the hunt for communists in the 1950s McCarthy era, to the fear of homosexuals during the AIDS crisis and the targeting of supposed terrorists in an era of Islamophobia.

One thing’s for certain — there are always people eager to point fingers at those perceived as a threat. Baker, the Salem historian, believes the most important lesson the witch trials can teach us “is not to scapegoat people who are different.”

While Salem is synonymous with the witch trials, many don’t realize the hysteria actually began in what is now the town of Danvers, located six kilometres north of Salem and known as Salem Village until 1752. It’s a short drive, but few tourists bother making the trip. There aren’t any witch shops or psychics-for-hire here. Danvers has distanced itself from its dark past, but it has erected a massive granite memorial to the witch trial victims along a quiet country road. The names of the victims, along with their last heartbreaking pleas, are etched in stone. There’s Martha Cory: “I am an innocent person. I never had to do with witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gosple [sic] woman.” Or Rebecca Nurse: “I can say before my Eternal father I am innocent, & God will clear my innocency.” Or John Willard: “I fear not but the Lord in his due time will make me as white as snow.”

It’s here, far from the hucksterism of Salem, that the import of the trials hits home as one imagines these plaintive cries falling on deaf ears.

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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