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Published in The United Church Observer, October 2015 

“Salem: The Town That Paranoia Built”

August 19, 1692. Rev. George Burroughs, a Harvard-trained minister, stands on a ladder perched against a tree in Salem, Massachusetts, with a noose around his neck. He begins to say the Lord’s Prayer in a strong sure voice. His very life depends on a perfect recitation since it’s believed that real witches are incapable of saying this prayer without making a mistake.

Burroughs gives a faultless delivery. The crowd begins murmuring in concern. Some are moved to tears. But Burroughs is hanged anyway. Another Puritan minister, Rev. Cotton Mather, an enthusiastic supporter of the infamous Salem witch trials, which have consumed this New England town for the past several months, watches the proceedings from horseback. He stills the restless gathering by reminding them that Burroughs has had his day in court and that this is likely not the first time “the devil has been transformed into the angel of light.”

Burroughs is one of five people hung that day on the same tree branch, one after the other, for the crime of practising witchcraft. The crowd’s wary reaction represents the beginning of public opposition to the witch trials. After all, if a respected minister was hung, anyone could be the next target. One month later there is a final round of eight executions before the trials are stopped altogether. By then 20 have been killed — 14 women and five men by hanging  — and one man pressed to death under heavy boulders in an attempt to elicit a guilty plea. 

In the twisted logic of the times, if an accused person confessed to being a witch and named others, they escaped the noose.  Dozens chose this option. But those who proclaimed their innocence — pious Christians who believed telling a falsehood and admitting to being a witch was a grave sin that would damn them to hell — lost their lives. These courageous few chose a mortal death rather than eternal suffering.

Today there are plans to create a memorial on Gallows Hill to mark the site where these 20 lost their lives, victims of the paranoid Puritan fervour that gripped the area after a cadre of unhinged young girls began exhibiting epileptic type fits and strange babblings, prompting the village doctor to declare them possessed by dark forces. Under pressure to name those who had taken them under Satan’s spell, the girls began pointing fingers. Soon other girls, a total of ten, claimed to be similarly afflicted and the hunt for the demonic culprits took full force, setting off one of the most tragic and fascinating events in American history, one that serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of false accusations, religious extremism, mob mentality and lapses in the legal process. (See sidebar: The sins of Salem)

Of course, there were no real witches executed in 1692. There were only innocent women and men falsely accused in a mass hysteria that took hold in a community divided by personal vendettas, property disputes, economic scarcity and congregational bickering and who lived fear of dangers such as smallpox outbreaks and attacks by Indians. “The real evil that existed in Salem did not reside in those who were imprisoned and executed. Rather it lay in the religious fervour of the accusers and judges who believed that what they were doing was righteous and holy,” says Rev. Jeff Barz-Snell, minister of the Unitarian First Church in Salem, one of two parishes directly involved in the witch trials (two of its members were excommunicated and executed).

Things have changed a lot in Salem in the ensuing 320 years. Once equated with paranoia and intolerance, today the city prides itself on being a beacon of acceptance and a champion of diversity. Twenty years ago it launched The Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, in honour of the memory of the victims and to salute those who speak out against discrimination and promote tolerance. It’s known as an LGBTQ-friendly community — last year the mayor signed a “No Place for Hate” ordinance extending protections against discrimination of transgendered people. Salem also has a reputation as one of the most welcoming communities in the U.S for those who practice wicca and other neopagan religions. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of its population of 40,000 are practising wiccans, says Jeff Page, a local witch and guide for Salem’s Bewitched After Dark walking tours. “Salem is probably the only place in the world where you can walk around with a pentacle [a five pointed star that’s the symbol of witchcraft] around your neck and no one will raise an eyebrow,” he says.

While Salem has done an admirable job of adhering to the dictum that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, the city also capitalizes on its tragic history as a way to make a whole lot of money — $10 million is spent by the one million tourists who come to town each year. The creative branding of “Witch City” began in earnest a year after the TV series Bewitched filmed a few episodes at the historic Hawthorne Hotel in 1970. It was then that wiccan Laurie Cabot opened America’s first witch shop in Salem. (Cabot was declared the “official witch of Salem” by then governor Michael Dukakis, an act which was later used against him by Republicans who accused him of being a supporter of witchcraft when he ran for president in 1988.)

The following year, the first for-profit witchcraft attraction, the Salem Witch Museum, opened its doors, spawning a host of others, from walking tours to haunted houses, graveyard tours, reenactments of the trials and spell casting performances. Today, 24 licensed psychics are available to tell your future for $75 per half hour session. Dozens of witch shops with names such as Hex and Omen hawk everything from tarot readings to merchandise such as broomsticks, magic wands, crystal balls and voodoo dolls. At a shop called Artemisia Botanicals, the shelves are lined with more than 400 “healing” herbs, including something called false unicorn root, which the fuchsia haired store clerk cheerily reports cures cervical cancer. The only attraction not in the business of making money is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, located in a small peaceful park setting where the names of the 20 executed are engraved on simple rock benches. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel was present at the dedication in 1992 and his words are etched in stone at the memorial: “Only if we remember will we be worthy of redemption.”

The memorial is an exception to Salem’s tendency to make light of its unsavoury history — police badges are adorned with witches on broomsticks, the local public school is called Witchcraft Heights Elementary and there’s a whimsical statue in town of Samantha Stevens, of Bewitched fame, perched jauntily on a broom stick. 

Some 30 years ago the Chamber of Commerce launched Haunted Happenings, a month-long celebration of costume balls, ghost tours, street parades, a psychic fair, tombstone tours, witchcraft expo, séances, haunted house tours and a zombie walk, that attracts 250,000 revellers — 70,000 on Halloween night alone — and has helped cement Salem’s reputation as the Halloween capital of the world. According to The Boston Globe, “Salem owns Halloween like the North Pole owns Christmas.”

Some decry these marketing efforts for trivializing the somber aspects of Salem’s past, arguing that it makes a mockery of those devout Christians who went to their graves protesting their innocence, says Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. “Perhaps Satan has had the last laugh,” he suggests.  “He tempts us with profit — and here it is for the taking, the ultimate end product of this tragic era.”

Among the revellers who descend on the town in October are plenty of preachers, pundits and proselytizers who try to convert what they view as wayward witches and devil worshippers. Busloads of Pentecostals, Baptists and other evangelicals take to the streets, some using bullhorns and climbing on crates to warn of the hellfire and damnation that await those who don’t repent of their occult ways. “There is still the sense, certainly among evangelicals, that we are evil, that we dance with dark forces and are somehow connected to Satanism, when that in no way is part of our culture. I wish people would learn who we are,” says Rev. Jerry Hildebrand, a wiccan minister in Salem who also serves on the board of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. 

It’s not unusual to find conservative church ladies handing out religious tracts next to flamboyantly attired wiccans passing out fact sheets edifying the finer points of their religion. It all adds to the carnival like atmosphere and barely puts a dent in the celebratory mood since the partygoers and pagans vastly outnumber the religious do-gooders. Plus, a strong police presence helps ensure things don’t get out of hand.

All the hoopla is enough to cause some wiccans to hightail it out of Salem during the Halloween madness, says Hildebrand. “These days Haunted Happenings is a month that’s more focused on the drama of making money than on educating people.”

Local churches get in on the action during October too. Some open their doors only to have groups of drunken teenagers making use of their restroom facilities. Wesley United Methodist Church has offered alternative “Holy Happenings” events featuring praise music and testimonies.

Sixteen years ago, Phil Wyman, then a pastor at the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian denomination founded by famed revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson, began touting a “love your neighbour” approach, setting up a tent in the town square and offering cups of free hot cocoa as well as “reverse confessions” (church members dressed like monks apologize for sins of the church such as the Crusades and the witch trials),  “psalm” readings (an alternative to “palm” readings) and dream interpretations, all in an effort to  help people see “Christianity as a great loving adventure,”  says Wyman, who explains it’s been an effective way to spread the love of Jesus without alienating the pagans in his midst. In fact, his efforts at “festival evangelism” were so successful that Wyman was touted as a rising star in his congregation and was even awarded an $80,000 grant for evangelism training.

But then Wyman says he himself became the victim of a witch hunt after leaders in his church accused him of getting too cozy with the witches, pointing to his website’s links to pagan sites and a photo that showed him in a friendly pose with a local witch. He was called before church elders and fired in 2006.  “The meeting descended into an abyss of personal accusations against me such as: I did not mention the name Jesus frequently enough during the meeting, I did not lift my hands high enough in worship during the most recent district conference and I was learning Welsh because it was the language of the Druids,” he says. “It was unbelievable — people were sitting in judgment of me and I was accused of not being submissive to the church’s authority.” Today Wyman continues his outreach efforts during Haunted Happenings as the pastor of a 35-member religious community called The Gathering at Salem.

Over at the Unitarian First Church in Salem, Barz-Snell takes a different approach, offering October services such as “Hogwarts Sunday” and the “Gospel According to [fantasy writer] H.P. Lovecraft.” A chalice is lit and the names of the witch trial victims are read aloud on the anniversary dates of their executions. 

We may live in modern times, but those trials still have lessons to teach us, according to Barz-Snell. “If we really want to make amends for those who lost their lives in 1692, we need to work in the here and now to find justice for those falsely accused and persecuted today,” he says, pointing to the  “demonizing and pathologizing of poverty — blaming people for being poor,” as an example.

The human tendency to cast suspicion on specific groups during times of social unrest certainly didn’t end with the witch trials. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible famously drew parallels between the hunt for real life witches in puritan New England and the witch hunt of communists in the 1950s McCarthy era. And there have been plenty of other witch hunts, from the internment of Japanese North Americans during Pearl Harbor, to the fear of homosexuals during the AIDS crisis and the targeting of supposed terrorists in an era of Islamophobia.

One thing’s for certain — there are always people eager to point fingers at those perceived as a threat. Baker, the Salem historian, believes the most important lesson the witch trials can teach us “is not to scapegoat people who are different.”

While Salem is synonymous with the witch trials, many don’t realize the hysteria actually began in what is now the town of Danvers, located six kilometres north of Salem, known as Salem Village until 1752.  It’s a short drive, but few tourists bother making the trip. There aren’t any witch shops or psychics-for-hire here. Danvers has distanced itself from its dark past, but it has erected a massive granite memorial to the witch trial victims along a quiet country road. The names of the victims, along with their last heartbreaking pleas, are etched in stone. Like Martha Cory: “I am an innocent person. I never had to do with witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospel woman.” Or Rebecca Nurse: “I can say before my Eternal father I am innocent and God will clear my innocency.” Or John Willard: I fear not, but the Lord in his due time will make me as white as snow.”

It’s here, far from the hucksterism of Salem, that the import of the trials hits home as one imagines these plaintive cries falling on deaf ears.

Sidebar: A word on wicca

Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized wicca as a religion in 1985, practitioners of this nature-oriented polytheistic belief system still face plenty of discrimination today, says Hildebrand. She points to cases in which a parent’s wiccan religion has cost them custody of their children and to students who are kicked out of school for violating the dress code by wearing a pentacle.  Hildebrand was instrumental in the successful 2007 legal challenge against the U.S. government to allow the pentacle to be approved on military veterans’ headstones.

Many wiccans travel to Salem in the same way Catholics journey to Lourdes, but there is no real connection between those accused of being witches in league with the devil in 1692 and modern day wiccans. “Some like to make the link that the people executed in Salem are their cultural heirs — but those who were killed weren’t wiccans,” says Baker, the historian, who, conscious of potentially offending wiccans, is quick to add that he thinks wicca is a “beautiful” faith, one marked by pacifism, equality and being kind to people, animals and mother earth. “But it’s not a faith with historical roots in the 16th century and there’s no shame in that.”

Hildebrand, who was raised a “good Presbyterian girl” says there’s merit in reclaiming the word ‘witch’” and visits Gallows Hill to honour the victims of the witch hunt trials every Halloween (known as Samhain by wiccans who consider it a sacred day to honour ancestors because it’s the time of year when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.)

So it’s a surprise when she contacts the Observer by email after an interview to request the word “witch” not be used to describe her. It could have a negative impact on her business as a wedding officiant, she says.

 It seems there’s still a long way to go before wiccans feel comfortable fully emerging from the broom closet.

Sidebar: The sins of Salem

Several ministers played a central role in the frenzy that overtook Salem. In addition to Rev. Burroughs and Rev. Mather, Rev. Samuel Parris was the first ordained minister who presided at the pulpit of the tiny parsonage of Salem Village and it was in his home that the troubles first began. His nine-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece were the first to have strange fits, spouting gibberish and contorting their bodies into odd positions. 

Theories for the girls’ behaviour have been attributed to everything from child abuse to ergot poisoning from a rye fungus, which may have caused hallucinogenic effects. Today, scholars generally agree the mostly likely cause was posttraumatic stress disorder — several of the girls had witnessed the violent deaths of family members as the result of Indian raids.

The trials themselves were a farce, allowing skin tags and moles to be used as  “proof” of “the devil’s mark” and “spectral” or invisible evidence based on dreams and visions seen only by the afflicted.

Once the girls set these disastrous effects in motion, they couldn’t retract their statements or they would have been punished themselves. They discovered a newfound power that was unheard of for girls who lived limited lives in puritan New England and who would normally never have been allowed to speak in church or court.

Suddenly, these girls wielded enormous authority — enough, even, to determine if people would live or die. 

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