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Salem, Massachusetts

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Did You Know … ?

  • During the American Revolution, Salem’s fleet captured or sank 455 British vessels.
  • In 1790, Salem was America’s richest city on a per capita basis.
  • A catastrophic 1914 fire left 18,000 Salem residents homeless, nearly half the population.
  • Of goods carried by Salem’s late-18th century traders, pepper was the priciest, producing profits of up to 700%.
  • The largest customs duty bill collected at Salem was $140,761 in 1831.

Witches, witches, witches

Visitors don’t have to believe in witches to enjoy Salem, but a tremendous chunk of the city’s $100 million tourism business piggybacks on the superstition and tragic misreading of human nature that culminated in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, during which 20 of the accused were executed.

Several museums are devoted partially or entirely to the notorious trials; the Salem Witch Museum is the most visited. Another museum, the only surviving building connected to the trials, was the home of a trial judge. Tourists also can choose reenactments of trial events, relevant multimedia presentations and walking tours with ghosts and witches for themes.

Against this background, travel companies, merchants and self-described witches offer the paranormal in a 21st century framework. Visitors can take witch-led tours, attend seances, consult psychics, take instruction on ghost hunting — and shop at witch supply stores.

Salem, in promotional materials, refers to its five seasons: October is the fifth. Salem Haunted Happenings and the Festival of the Dead are umbrellas for a series of activities, all in October, some using the language of witchery lightly, others focusing very seriously on all things paranormal.

There is more to Salem than the fallout from witch trials. A coastal settlement 15 miles from Boston, Salem in the 18th century became a major fishing, shipbuilding and maritime trade center. More than 50 wharves lined Salem’s harbor.

This seafaring past was central to creation of the Peabody Essex Museum. The history also shows itself at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The latter includes preserved homes, three wharves, the 1819 U.S. Custom House and a recreated 1797 tall ship.

Salem’s past is alive on the streets, too, beginning with Chestnut, America’s oldest planned street, created between 1796 and 1804. Pickering Wharf offers a variety of sailing and sightseeing options, as well as waterfront shops and eateries.

In the 19th century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here; the real House of Seven Gables is open to visitors, as is Hawthorne’s birthplace.

Finally, themes for annual events in the other four seasons run the gamut from poetry and theater to seafood and spices, plus a summer maritime festival.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Explore the future with a psychic and shop for “magical” gifts at the Annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo. The monthlong event, set in October, is part of a larger Festival of the Dead.
  • Make good use of the Peabody Essex Museum, which displays, among other things, ship models and nautical equipment — and a 200-year-old Chinese house. Consider one of the museum’s workshops or drop-in activities in the Maker Lounge.
  • In season, charter a sailing yacht for a day or for an overnight. Take the helm if you want to be involved in the sailing activity.
  • During Salem’s October Festival of the Dead, consider participating in a seance, the Dumb Supper (billed as a dinner with the dead during which no one speaks) or an instructive session on how to find ghosts.
  • Choose an after-dark walking tour led by a witch. Itineraries vary and may include the history or may focus on “enchanted locations” and other sites associated with magic, spells, potions and the like. Another choice: a presentation on casting spells, led by a practicing witch.
  • If traveling in August, plan to compete in the Witches Cup Bicycle Race, or schedule around the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Spend time in a building where trial-related events actually occurred, the 1642 home of one trial judge, now called the Witch House. Preliminary examinations of the accused were carried out here.
  • Paddle your way around Salem Harbor or well beyond, by booking a guided kayak tour.
  • Stroll through historic cemeteries beginning with the Charter Street Burying Point, one of the oldest in Massachusetts. Others are the Howard Street Cemetery and the Broad Street Cemetery. Or, take a guided ghost tour that includes cemeteries.
  • Shop for herbs, incense, ritual tools and even broomsticks at one of Salem’s several shops specializing in the magic arts and the needs of witches. One promotes its “spells and gifts that keep on giving.”
  • Tour the National Park Service’s tall ship, the Friendship, a replica of a 1797 cargo vessel that traveled the globe. Walk the historic wharves that also are part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and take time for historic houses, stores and other buildings on premises.
  • At Pickering Wharf Marina, sail on a replica of the 1812 privateer Fame or choose an evening cruise at sunset with live music and cocktails. Or choose a daytime narrated sightseeing outing exploring coastal waters.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Join a narrated tour of Salem aboard the Salem Trolley, and/or walk the marked Salem Heritage Trail.
  • Drop by Pioneer Village, a re-created Puritan village, circa 1630. Built in 1930, it was America’s first living history museum.
  • Learn about the witch trials at the Salem Witch Museum. See actors recreate a trial at the Witch Dungeon Museum. Or, at Old City Hall, see “Cry Innocent,” a reenactment of the witchcraft examination of Bridget Bishop.
  • Pursue an interest in novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Head to the House of Seven Gables (which belonged to Hawthorne’s cousin and gave him the title for one of his books), his birthplace, and the Custom House where he worked.
  • Order the catch of the day for dinner. Also, buy candy at Ye Olde Pepper Companie, America’s oldest candy company (1806).
  • Head to the waterfront, at Pickering Wharf, to get a better sense of Salem as the major trading port it once was — and for lunch and a little shopping.

Additional Resources

For additional information, consult Destination Salem at www.salem.org