Connected \\ October 3, 2022
Behind the scenes of PEM’s new Salem Witch Trials Walk
At 11:58 am, my finger hovered above the record button. I had set out on a hot August day to capture the noon bell chimes of the Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Salem. My goal was to weave the ambient sounds into a new Peabody Essex Museum audio walking tour on the Salem witch trials. At that very moment, a young woman walked by, a large snake wrapped around her arm. Her male companion had something thicker around his neck, a scarf perhaps. But probably not. I hit the record button, listened to the daily chimes and thought how, in Salem, a large snake out for a noon stroll can pass through a crowd almost imperceptibly — as can a mummy, a vampire, a werewolf and a group of female tourists in ubiquitous black pointy hats.
Not much can shock a local here. That’s because our city goes back almost 400 years with a layered and complex history. We live in the Witch City, a place where thousands of tourists flock each year to celebrate the Halloween season and simultaneously seek a better understanding of the infamous events of 1692 that put our small city on the map.
The city’s Samantha statue commemorates when the TV show Bewitched was shot in Salem in the 1970s. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) holds the world’s largest collection of Salem witch trials materials, including some 500 original documents on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. For more than 300 years, the complex drama of the Salem witch trials and its themes of injustice and the frailties of human nature have captivated and fascinated the public imagination. The extraordinary crisis involved more than 400 people and led to the deaths of 25 innocents — men, women and children.
PEM presented popular exhibitions in 2020 and 2021 focused on the Salem witch trials and linked the tragic events of 1692 to the modern day, including featuring the works of photographer Frances F. Denny, a descendant of a witch trials judge who created a series of portraits of people who identify as modern-day witches. This year, we again returned to tap the expertise of our curators to create a new experience to help people better understand this complex story — the Salem Witch Trials Walk. This self-guided audio tour is free with admission and includes stops in the galleries to see original documents and objects once owned by the accused and the accusers and also historic witch-themed merchandise later created to “sell” this story to a fascinated public. The tour also heads outside the museum to key sites in downtown Salem related to the witch trials, including PEM’s historic Ropes Mansion made famous by its appearance in the Disney film Hocus Pocus.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is visited by flower-bearing tourists year round. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Dan Lipcan, Director of PEM’s Phillips Library, has curated two exhibitions on the Salem witch trials. He is active with Voices Against Injustice who maintain the Salem Witch Trials Memorial and keep the lessons of the trials alive by celebrating champions of human rights. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
As someone who has made two witch trials episodes of our podcast – one about the history and another about the contemporary response – it sometimes feels as though there isn’t more for me to learn. But, of course, that isn’t the case. This history, this city (!) keeps teaching us all. Before this project, I never knew the powerful Witch Trials Memorial, which was dedicated in 1992, is intentionally situated behind the gravestones in the Charter Street Cemetery, to symbolize the citizens of Salem turning their backs on the accused.
Lily Kumar and Thomas Rutigliano from the Visitor Engagement team pose in a promotional shot for the Salem Witch Trials Walk audio tour. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
It is with great gusto that I took on this project. For people like myself who live in Salem, there has always been this sense of “Team History” versus “Team Witch Kitsch.” But the two are inextricably linked. There is a real history of tragic events and also a real history of 19th-century entrepreneurs creating witch-themed products and souvenirs. There is a real connection between a witch trials judge and Salem’s literary son, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose fictional works would contain the breadcrumbs left from 1692. There is a real history of those who identify as witches now making Salem their home and a real history of witch-themed tourism rising in the 20th century. It’s not one or the other.
PEM Curator Paula Richter talks about witch-themed products and souvenirs that were produced in the 19th century. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Along with the new walking tour, PEM will present an eclectic mix of programs to embrace the Halloween season this October. We offer a dance party dedicated to queer and magical fashion, a pop-up shop where you can find unique costume pieces, spooky stories after dark inside our historic houses, and the Ropes Mansion decorated to look like it did in Hocus Pocus, just as a new version of that film is released.
Danielle Olsen, of PEM’s education and civic engagement team, hunts for pumpkins at Marini Farm in Ipswich to decorate the Ropes Mansion. Photo by Bethany Beatrice/PEM.