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Salem Today: Making the Most of a Dark History

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 386 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... SALEM TODAY: MAKING THE MOST OF A DARK HISTORY Lisa
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 2000
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      Lisa Krause
      National Geographic
      October 31, 2000


      Forget Burkittsville, Maryland, the site of a fictional witch hunt in last
      year's Blair Witch Project.

      Three hundred years ago, Salem, Massachusetts was the site of some of the
      scariest events in U.S. history.

      For nearly a year, suspicion and intrigue gripped this coastal New England
      town as residents accused women, men, and even a five-year-old child of
      practicing witchcraft.

      Salem's witch crisis began in the fall of 1691. Two young girls -- the
      daughter and niece of the minister of Salem village -- fell into hysterical
      fits, blaming their odd behavior on witchcraft.

      The children's game launched a season of suspicion in Salem. When the
      infamous witch trails of 1692 were over, 24 men and women had been accused
      of witchcraft and 19 had been hanged.

      Though the town once tried to shake its legacy of witchy happenings, a
      changing view of witches -- and Halloween -- has helped turn Salem into one
      of New England's most popular tourist destinations.

      Now, Salem embraces its dark past, offering visitors hearse-guided tours of
      its infamous sites, including four haunted houses and a staggering seven
      witch museums. And for the entire month of October, the town hosts one of
      the country's largest Halloween celebrations, "Haunted Happenings." The
      events range from canine Halloween costume contests to psychic fairs to a
      Halloween parade that draws 150,000 "spook-tators."


      Salem's popularity has risen along with that of Halloween in the last few
      decades. It is now the second most popular holiday in the U.S. after
      Christmas, says Kate Fox of Destination Salem, a partnership between the
      government and local businesses that serves as the city's office of Tourism
      and Cultural Affairs.

      About one-third of Salem's annual 1 million visitors come during the month
      of October, drawn by the continuing allure of the city's infamous history,
      Fox says.

      Though the exact location of Salem's Gallows Hill -- where 19 of the accused
      were hanged -- is in dispute, tourists can visit Salem's Witch House, which
      actually belonged to one of the judges in the witch trials, and the
      homestead of Sarah Nurse, one of the first accused -- and hanged -- in

      In 1992, the city erected a memorial to the victims of Salem's witch hunt to
      mark the 300-year anniversary of the witch trials. The memorial was
      dedicated by holocaust survior and Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Weisel.

      "It shows that the concept of a witch hunt updates itself. Bigotry,
      prejudice -- whatever you want to call it -- is universal," says David
      Gavenda, a lifelong Salem resident and director of the Salem Visitor's

      Today, there is a strong Wicca community in Salem, and even an official
      witch, Laurie Cabot, who was commended by Massachusetts Governor Michael
      Dukakis in the mid-seventies for her work with children.

      Salem's present-day witches are "very diligent, determined to co-exsit
      peacefully with everyone else," says Gavenda.


      Once the seventh largest port city in the colonies, Salem has a rich
      maritime history, and offers visitors a unique window on nearly four
      centuries of U.S. history.

      "Witches are the hook that gets people here, but they come back to
      appreciate the history," Gavenda says.

      Salem's Peabody Essex Museum has just completed a U.S. $100 million
      restoration. The oldest continually operating museum in the U.S., it honors
      Salem's seafaring heritage. Salem sea captains were among the first
      Americans to travel to Asia and the Pacific, returning with exotic
      souveniers. The museum also houses a remarkable 552 documents realting to
      the witch trials of 1692.

      Now the second most visited city in Massachusetts, Salem offers vistors
      arts, antiques, historic homes, and the feeling of a real New England city,
      says Gavenda. "When vistors go down to the waterfront they see [that] this
      is a true working community."


      As early as 100 years ago, tourists bagan coming to Salem to experience the
      witch heritage, says Hillary Witham, of the Salem Halloween Comittee, which
      organizes the month-long "Haunted Happenings" events.

      In fact, says Witham, Salem is credited with starting the collectible spoon
      tradition in the U.S. In 1892, a Salem shopkeeper sold the first collectible
      spoon -- embossed with the image of a Salem witch.

      "Other places have Halloween events, but this is one of the few‹maybe the
      only sites in America that has a direct link to witches and witchcraft,"
      Witham says.

      "It's all in fun, though," he adds. "[Salem] has grown to what it is not
      because of spells and witchcraft, but because it's fun. Ninety percent of
      the Halloween vistors come to see what costumes the other people have
      dreamed up for Halloween."

      We've had people coming in costumes since Colombus Day," says Kate Fox, who
      notes that at the city's various costume balls, competition can get intense.
      "A few years ago, we had two groups dressed as the cast from Titanic. It got
      pretty ugly."


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