Salem, Massachusetts – The Truth About Witch City

by Timothy Lutts

I originally published this in September 2012. It’s pretty timeless. There are a couple of other Salem related links at the end of this post.

320 years ago yesterday, Giles Corey was pressed to death here in Salem, Massachusetts.

Giles was a prosperous farmer. He was 80 years old.

And his crime, such as it was, was refusing to enter a plea in court after being charged with witchcraft. Corey had already spent five months in jail awaiting trial, and observed that everyone who pleaded not guilty had been sentenced to hang. His wife was one of them; she was still awaiting execution. So he chose the alternate route.

Without a plea, Corey could not be tried in court, so to force a plea, boards were laid on his prostrate body and heavy rocks piled on it (the legal term was this treatment was “peine forte et dure”). Still he refused to plead, and after two days of this he died.

Three days later his wife was hanged.

I bring this up today for two reasons.

First is that October—just around the corner—is peak tourist in Salem, as the city gears up for a massive Halloween spectacle at the end of the month. Witches will be abundant.

Second is that just last week I had the honor to attend the rededication of the Salem Witchcraft Memorial, a site designed to honor the 20 innocent people whose lives were taken 320 years ago.

In fact, I was one of 20 descendants who had the honor of placing a bouquet of rosemary (for remembrance) on one of the 20 granite benches that commemorate the victims.

My ancestor was Rebecca Nurse, my nine-greats grandmother. She was 71 when she was hanged, and had eight adult children at the time, so she is a more likely ancestor than any of the others who were executed then.

And I only discovered my connection to her in the past year or so while doing genealogical research.

Yet I wasn’t surprised when I found the link. I always knew my family connections to the area were very old. My mother’s family arrived in Maine from England in 1635 and came to Massachusetts soon after. On my father’s side, we go back to the Mayflower; my middle name, Warren, comes from Richard Warren, who was a passenger.

And simple math tells us that if you have two parents and therefore four grandparents and therefore eight great-grandparents (with the number doubling every generation), you’ll have 2,048 nine-greats grandparents, or 1,024 nine-greats grandmothers. Most of us just don’t know who they were!

GilesCoreyAnyway, at the ceremony—solely by chance—I got to lay my bouquet of rosemary on the bench of Giles Corey.

Here’s a photo I shot at the time.

If you come to Salem, I recommend a visit to the memorial, located next to the Old Burying Ground on Charter Street. It’s a tasteful reminder of a big historic mistake, evidence of the fallibility of our ever-evolving society, and a warning that we should always work to avoid the influence of misinformed crowds as we struggle to find the truth. We’ve come a long way since 1692, but we still have a long way to go.

One final note about the ceremony. Among the hundreds of people in attendance were a dozen or so self-professed modern witches. Though they dress in black, today’s Salem witches work to be a force for good. They’re just one more facet of the kaleidoscope of life found in modern Salem.


One main benefit of Salem’s witchcraft heritage is that it brings in tourist dollars, and not just at Halloween. In addition to the historically significant Witch House (the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin), you can also visit the Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Nightmare Factory, the New England Pirate Museum, the Salem Wax Museum, the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery, the Salem Witch Village, the 13 Ghosts of Salem—a 3-D Haunted House and more.

Sounds pretty tacky, right?

Well, some of it is.

But Salem has far more than witchcraft to offer.

For the tourists, there are more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at, including the House of Seven Gables, the Pickering House, the Phillips House, the Ropes Mansion, the Peirce-Nichols House, the Nathaniel Bowditch House, and Hamilton Hall. Architecturally, each one is a treasure. Then there’s Chestnut Street, the ultra-wide one-way street packed with architectural treasures from end to end, many of which boast carvings by native son Samuel McIntire.

Other attractions include the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem Museum, Pioneer Village, and biggest and best of all, the Peabody Essex Museum, which over my lifetime has evolved from a musty repository of local ephemera and China Trade relics to a world-class showcase of art of all kinds. Credit for this transition goes, in part, to financial support that comes (indirectly) from local investment companies, from the Fidelity Funds to Affiliated Managers Group to Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo. Last year, the museum announced a massive $650 million capital campaign, $200 million of which will build a 175,000 square foot expansion.

So Salem is a great place to visit. But what about real life in Salem?

With more than 41,000 residents in the geographically constrained city, both traffic and parking are a perpetual challenge, and October is the worst month of all.

Happily, the hiring of a parking consultant this year resulted in parking rates closer to market levels (higher in the center of town and lower on the edges), so the parking situation has improved a bit. Furthermore, the presence of a commuter train that runs straight from downtown into Boston means access is easy for people without cars. The train also means Salem is a great bedroom community for people with jobs in the big city.

But Salem has its own booming professional community, replacing bygone manufacturers like Sylvania (light bulbs) and Parker Brothers (Monopoly and more). Now the three largest employers in the city are Salem Hospital, Salem State University and the City of Salem itself. Sixth is the state of Massachusetts, thanks to numerous county courthouses located not a stone’s throw from the site of the witchcraft trials.

There are restaurants galore to serve every taste; you’ll never go hungry here. There are plenty of bars and liquor stores, too, for better or worse.

As in many urban communities, the public school system is challenged, in part because for many families, English is a second language. Today the largest minority group has roots in the Dominican Republic. But they were preceded by—in reverse order—the Polish, the French Canadians, the Irish and the English, each of whom assimilated over time, and I know today’s minorities will, too.

We have a great mayor in Kimberley Driscoll, who’s been in office since 2006 and has done an excellent job of professionalizing the office. With the old-boy network that preceded her election a shadow of its former self, reason usually trumps politics these days.

Meanwhile, emotions continue to run high on some issues, and at the core of many of them is the tension between these two ideas:

On the one hand, Salem has a great and dignified history and it should be honored.

On the other hand, tourists bring money, so giving them what they want—often witches—enriches our city.

Nothing represents this ongoing battle better than the case of the “Bewitched” statue, featuring Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the television show that ran from 1964 to 1972.

Bewitched Statue- Elizabeth MontgomeryInstalled smack-dab in the center of town in 2005—and funded and maintained entirely by the Nickelodeon network—the statue is a favorite of tourists, who love to take their photo next to it. Diehard traditionalists, however, decry it as trivializing the most serious aspect of Salem’s past.

Meanwhile, out on the very edge of town by the harbor, a big change is happening. The coal-and-oil-fired power plant, a fixture of Salem since 1953, as well as the largest taxpayer and polluter (if you don’t count our cars), was sold this year. The new owner will convert it to natural gas, which is not only cleaner-burning, but also occupies a smaller footprint, which means some of the site can be rededicated to higher-value services, like serving cruise ships.

Salem also has a thriving network of charities, both public and behind-the-scenes. It offers live music and drama many nights of the week. It has a booming population of young people, both at Salem State University and downtown. It has preservationists who want to preserve Salem’s historic treasures. It has running clubs, book clubs, and theater clubs. It has marinas where you can take a cruise or even launch your own boat, and beaches where you can swim in the ocean.

In sum, Salem is a very rich city, with common challenges and unique assets.

I’m proud to have been born here, and I love living here.

More about Salem, Massachusetts:

Notable New Books by Salem, Massachusetts Writers

Things to Do in Salem, Massachusetts