Use Salem, Massachusetts, in a word-association assessment, and you’d undoubtedly get a word referencing the infamous Witch Trials of 1692. Less famous but even more formative is the rich maritime history that contributed to the buildings and waterfront on which Salem is perched. Residents are sometimes divided over what the true character of Salem really is, or should be. What is the source of its identity? How does it thrive financially? What should be its public face? How seriously should the city take itself? But maybe it is the questions and the contrasts which give this city its distinct individuality.
Salem’s sense of its own history is perhaps greater than that of many in New England. You don’t live through a tragedy during formative years, either as a person or as a society, without being in some way affected by it. The City of Salem’s approach to the blot of the witch trials on its story has been and continues to be varied.
On the one hand, there is the general acknowledgment that the famous trials, instigated by a gaggle of mischief-making teenaged girls, were an event that never should have happened. One way to make amends for this is to be extra-inclusive. Places of worship include, ironically, a Wiccan temple, a Hebrew temple and assorted churches. Furthermore, as if to prove its desire for diversity, recent statistics claim thatSalem’s public school system contains children representing 20 different language groups.
At the same time, the history doesn’t exactly hurt tourism. Salem boasts many witch-related attractions. Among these are the Salem Witch Museum, the Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, the Witch History Museum, the Witch Dungeon and Cry Innocent. These, of course, take a more or less serious view of the trials themselves and not all of them focus primarily on those specific events. Apart from the Witch Museums, other attractions with a macabre slant abound. Witch-based tourism started at least by the first half of the last century when a merchant named Daniel Low sold souvenir spoons sporting witches. The idea of marketing the witch phenomenon grew a bit in the 1970s and truly took off in the 1990s. Some residents wish the city would come into its ownas an upscale cultural center. They argue that the tourism cheapens this. But they needn’t worry, because Salem is home to plenty of class.
In the latter part of the 1700s, Salem became a powerful seaport, the richest city per capita in the country at the time, and the sixth largest. America’s first millionaires walked its streets and bequeathed it mansions and museums. The sea captains themselves, for example, founded the renowned Peabody-Essex Museum – the oldest continually running museum in the United States, which is renowned for its collection of Asian art. “Continually running” is not just a passive euphemism, either; in 2003, the museum moved an entire 200-year-old Chinesehouse into its collection. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is the oldest such site in the country as well. Even the Great Salem Fire of 1914 somehow managed to bypass the most historic district, leaving Salem with a most impressive and extensive collection of Federalist architecture.