Salem, Massachusetts is well known for one thing: witches. Those who have never seen the town often picture a tiny hamlet cluttered with decaying centuries old buildings and quaint stores hocking tarot cards and crystals. That is what my family and I imagined as we navigated up the eastern US coast to the historic port city. It wasn’t what we found.
(Welcome to the summer 2017 edition of Traveling with The Travelers, a blog series I do whenever I travel. If you’re new to my blog, I named this series after my debut novel, The Travelers. Like a super dork, for the series I take pictures with the book and write about the places I visit.)
Salem may be known for witches, but other beings haunt its streets.
My family and I arrive at the Hawthorne Hotel with little knowledge about the place we will reside for the next two nights. I’ve chosen the hotel solely because I saw the name Hawthorne and figured it was a reference to famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne. My bookish nerdism often outweighs my practicality. (The excessive amount of money I spend on books is a testament to this.)
Gray clouds gather overhead, dimming the late afternoon sun. Inside the hotel, the dust of history kicks up a smokey atmosphere, like a pervasive feeling of dusk. Except for the computers at the front desk, the hotel maintains its 1925 charm.
A bright gold mailbox juts out from the area between two small elevators, which we soon find out creak and rattle as they go up and down the six floors of the building. Bronze and gold decorations hang from ceilings and accent doors and columns. If you want to feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, this is the place to stay.
While I am uneducated about the haunted history of the the hotel, my daughter has done her research. (Not at all surprising if you know her.) While the front desk clerk processes our keys, she asks him to confirm the purported hotel ghost sightings.
Built in 1925, after Nathaniel Hawthorne died, the ghosts in the hotel don’t seem to have any literary connections. The apparitions are much more mysterious in nature. Shrill cries of a baby and flickering lights plague guests of room 325. While the specter of a woman flits in and out of room 612.
The front desk clerk tells my daughter these are just stories and there are no ghosts in the hotel. But when she poses the same question to a staff member in the elevator, the woman’s smile fades to a dour expression and says without hesitation, “Yes, there are ghosts.”
“Do you pay extra for the haunted rooms?”
-Guest at the front desk
Travel Tip: I “lucked out” in picking this hotel. It was comfortable and cozy. The staff were incredibly accommodating. It was also centrally located for the Salem sites. We didn’t go back to our car until it was time to head off to the next destination. Every time we checked google maps it felt like wherever we were the next thing was always .3 miles away.
Within an hour of checking into the hotel, our shoes hit the town streets. We follow a red line through the city. It brightens and fades as it leads us to famous Salem locations and landmarks. Luckily, a friend of mine, who lived in the area, told us about this. Otherwise, we would have been very confused as to why someone painted a haphazard line along the Salem sidewalks. (Frankly, it looks like something a drunk local decided to do in the middle of the night. That only adds to the charm of it.)
The line takes us to another literary homage to Hawthorne, the House of the Seven Gables. It may sound familiar to those of you who love books, particularly the classics. This house inspired the book by Hawthorne of the same name. (I, of course, had to find a local bookstore and buy a copy of this book.)
My family and I arrive at the visitors center, just in time for the next tour. We move from the modern visitors outpost to a tiny anteroom with low ceilings. The discrepancy is jarring.
A young woman in a white shirt and slacks, our guide, enters the room and brings us into a small kitchen where (to no fault of hers) I learn for the second time in less than a week that old homes had low ceilings not because people were shorter in “olden times” but because it low ceilings better regulated room temperatures, in this case trapping heat.
The tour guide, who annunciates well but hasn’t quite learned how to excite a crowd with stories, takes us through the other rooms of the mansion recounting stories and historical context for each location. Low-ceilings and cramped quarters built in the 1600s give way to the more spacious “modern” sections remodeled in the 1700s-1800s.
After exiting the house, we enter a small, lush garden. Set just behind a picture-frame worthy scene of the water, it feels a little like paradise, especially compared to the dark, claustrophobic rooms of the House of Seven Gables. We stay a while here and soak in the beauty.
Travel Tip: Unless you’re a huge fan of the Hawthorne or have a keen interest in the minute details of 17th and 18th century architecture and history, the House of the Seven Gables tour may not be for you. My favorite parts, not surprisingly, were the sections of the tour where the guide explained the connections and influences to Hawthorne’s story, including a secret staircase.
After leaving the House of Seven Gables, my family and I walk along the water’s edge. Like Dorothy, we follow our road, our red swath of paint we’ve come to rely on as a historical touchstone.
As we pass through the streets, the idea that Salem as a small just town known just for the persecutions of witches quickly falls away. Quirky restaurants and stores open up into a large verdant park on the edge of a rocky shore. A boxy lighthouse at the tip of a peninsula marks the land before the strong giant of the ocean rushes up on the shores.
We walk along the gravely finger that reaches out into the sea. Occasionally we pause to enjoy the history pit-stops, including a recreation of a mast. (We also pet some dogs, a motif we’ll repeat over and over in this pet-friendly city. )
Interactive displays tell the maritime history of Salem, once the richest port city in the Americas.
A trading city since its inceptions, after the American Revolution Salem gained exclusive trade rights with China, bringing to the Americas things like porcelain and pepper. This highly lucrative trade created vast wealth in the Salem. Today, the city proudly displays its connection and influences with Eastern culture via museums, memorials and shops.
Travel Tip: The walk to the lighthouse in Salem is educational and lovely. It was my daughter’s favorite part of the visit. Additionally, an aquatic memorial on Essex Street honors the importance of the relationship between China and Salem. (Without this lucrative trade agreement, the Americas would not be what they are today, a reminder of how important it is to maintain friendly relationships with other countries that may be different and strange to us.)
A Witch, a Sword and a Knife
On our second day, our red line takes us to a new, strange place.
A group of people, men, women and children, stand in a circle. Around us ivy climbs stone walls and wispy plants lick against the edges of our shoes. A man poised with a sword pressed to his nose stands in the center. A burning candle and incense drift in the air.
Statues of gods and goddesses sit atop the table like chess pieces on an board I can’t see. The man drives the sword into the ground and then pulls out a knife, called an athame. He jokes, “Can you imagine telling some of your friends you’re standing in a garden with a guy holding a knife and performing magic?”
This man is Tom. He’s quick to note that magic isn’t scary. It has one main principle, harm none. How can that be bad? (It can’t. If more people adhered to this principle the world would be a much, much better place.) He’s part history professor and part charismatic tour guide, a perfect balance.
Tom flips his long, wavy black hair to the side. He leads us through a magic ritual, explaining the meaning behind each step. At the end of the spell, we get a crystal. (There’s much more to what we’ve done. But I don’t want to give it away. It’s worth experiencing whether you’re a skeptic or not. If it helps, I’m a skeptic and still loved this experience.)
Regardless of the preconceived notions about Salem or witchcraft, this experience represents what I, as a visitor, perceive as the best of humanity. In Salem, people walk the streets, completely unfazed by a group of people in a garden circling a man with a sword and a knife chanting peaceful refrains that respect the living (and dead) and nature.
This is real meaning of acceptance and freedom. Live and let live without doing harm. A small time in Salem had a large impact on my world view. It gave me hope for humanity again. (I’m not sure there’s a higher compliment.)
Travel Tip: The Salem Witch Walk with Tom was one of the best tours I’ve ever taken and highly recommend it. (Note: There are many tours of the same name. This one leaves from Crow’s Haven store. Tom is the highlight, filling the tour with the perfect balance of his signature humor and playfulness, his Wiccan insight and his knowledge and respect for the history of Salem. It’s far, far better than the Salem Witch Museum. If you’ve seen the Gilmore Girls episode “To Live and Let Diorama” where the town creates a ridiculous museum the town’s history using mannequins, imagine that but with witches. Actually, it’s almost so bad it’s good, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, almost.
Reflections on My Visit to Salem
Truth be told, while I was pleased to find out there was more to Salem than witches, I chose to visit the city on our summer tour of New England because of it’s witch history. I have an interest in things Wiccan and mystical. (I wrote a book about witches, called The Travelers.) I expected to find tours about the witch trials. I expected an abundance of shops touting magic, spirituality and tarot readings. Salem met my expectations, but in an unexpected way.
I found a city that embraces a tragic history and transforms it into something positive. Police cars, newspapers, everything has the classic emblem of a witch flying across a moonlit sky on a broom. As you’ll learn if you visit the city, that’s not meant to trivialize what happened. When we first arrived, I worried the witch obsession was purely based on tourism (aka, money), a trap to pull us in and exploit a dark time in American history. Instead I found a city with a deep soul and a purpose.