Connected \\ September 19, 2023

Behind the scenes of PEM’s 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 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 we have more than 300 years of the grim and the fantastic passing on the streets. 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 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) has long cared for the world’s largest collection of Salem witch trials materials. From 1980 until 2023, this included some 500 original documents on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. We recently returned these documents to the state of Massachusetts court system following a significant renovation of their archival facilities. We continue to share our digitized copies of these documents, as well as objects owned by the accusers and the accused during the tragic events of 1692. 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.

Since 2020 , PEM has presented popular exhibitions on the witch trials, and in 2021, linked the tragic events of 1692 to the modern day, 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. In 2022, we focused on how the trials affected one family, focusing on the Towne Sisters. This Fall, we examine attempts to restore justice and how this is sometimes a very slow process with steps toward healing continuing to this day. In The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice, we look at attempts to make amends and repair reputations that began shortly after the trials ended and continue all the way to the present.

Artist in London, Sundial, Brass. Gift of Abel H. Proctor. © 2007 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Jeffrey R. Dykes

Artist in London, Sundial, Brass. Gift of Abel H. Proctor. © 2007 Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Jeffrey R. Dykes.


A beautiful brass sundial, stamped in stars, teaches us how the Puritans thought about time and mortality. It tells the story of its owner John Proctor, a prosperous farmer, who ran a tavern with his wife Elizabeth. He petitioned on his own behalf and on behalf of others falsely accused during the Salem witch trials. When he asked for just a bit more time to live, he was denied the request.

Fast forward to 2021 and a North Andover middle school teacher and her students embark on a civics project to formally clear the name of the last victim of the Salem witch trials. Working during two cycles of the Massachusetts legislature, their petitioning and phone calls prove successful and Elizabeth Johnson, Jr., known to the students as EJJ, is exonerated, making worldwide headlines.

Carrie LaPierre and her former student Lucas Ioakim visit PEM to see witch trial related objects. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

Carrie LaPierre and her former student Lucas Ioakim visit PEM to see witch trial related objects. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.


Last year we began 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 objects belonging to 17th century Salem residents tied to the trials and also historic witch-themed merchandise later created to “sell” this story to a fascinated public. This year, it will include the 2023 exhibition The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice. The tour then 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.

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 shown here in the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Dan Lipcan, Director of PEM’s Phillips Library, has curated two exhibitions on the Salem witch trials. He is shown here in the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


As someone who has made 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.

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.

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 walking tour, PEM will present an eclectic mix of programs to embrace the Halloween season this October. Our Bats! exhibition includes live winged creatures of the night, where you can also learn the vital role these misunderstood pollinators play in our lives, ecologically, culturally and as inspiration for technological advances. Check out pem.org for more information on bat curator-led tours, our pop-up shop The Bat Box, drop-in bat art making, palm reading lessons and haunted tales told live in our historic houses.

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 Diana DiRamio/PEM.

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 Diana DiRamio/PEM.

Ropes Mansion decorated for Halloween as the Hocus Pocus movie scene. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Ropes Mansion decorated for Halloween as the Hocus Pocus movie scene. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM


This is, I believe, at least the 10th project I’ve done for PEM that involves the Salem witch trials. I’ve interviewed numerous experts, appeared on radio shows, hosted an Instagram takeover, and helped to compile resources for a new website initiative. The lessons we continuously learn about this story — the othering of our neighbors, living in fear, resorting to violence— are as valuable today as they were the moment the frenzy of that terrible summer wore off and the residents realized what they had done.

When this new project is complete, I’ll escape to Maine for a few days and watch October unfurl from a distance. But soon, I’ll be pulled back to this storied place. As Nathaniel Hawthorne often said — and I’ll paraphrase— there is no escaping Salem for good, not really.

Start the Salem Witch Trial Walk at PEM, where you’ll experience curator-led tours in three different galleries. It’s free with admission. Then, go outside for the Witch Trial Memorial, the Ropes Mansion and more. For more Halloween fun at PEM this October, see our Eerie Events at pem.org.

The author is the producer and host of the Salem Witch Trials Walk. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

The author is the producer and host of the Salem Witch Trials Walk. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

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