Salem, MA

Discovering art, literature and history in "the Witch City"
For most of us, Halloween is a one-night event, but in Salem, Massachusetts it’s a month-long celebration. While the stigma of the infamous witch trials of 1692 still haunts the city, modern Salem, approximately 20 miles north of Boston, has turned the episode into a tourism boon. Thousands of people visit this seaside community each year during October to join in the unique festivities, such as the annual Haunted Happenings Grand Parade. There are also year-round themed attractions, including the Witch Museum and Cry Innocent, a theatrical reenactment of the trail. You can even visit the The Witch House, home of founding father and trial judge Jonathan Corwin. With its seventeenth century-style unpainted clapboards and diamond-paned casement windows, it is the city’s only structure still tied directly to the infamous witchcraft Trials. But there are many connections throughout the city. Author Nathanial Hawthorne’s family heritage, for example, included Judge John Hathorn, one of the presiding judges.

However, Salem has much more than witches to offer visitors. As many in Winston-Salem know, the name derives from “Shalom” meaning peace. Lovers of art, literature, history, and seaports will find something of interest. New England’s oldest mansion, the House of Seven Gables, was built here in 1668. Hawthorne’s birthplace home is also at the site. The elegant Hawthorne Hotel downtown displays framed handwritten letters from the author.

Another historic site is Salem’s Custom House where Hawthorne worked as a surveyor from 1846-1849. His dreary depiction of the building in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter doesn’t do justice to the grandeur of this Federalist edifice built in 1819. Salem is rich with historic houses dating from early Colonial to Georgian to Federal periods. Many were designed by Samuel McIntire, who embodied the American ideal. He was a self-taught woodcarver, responsible for creating much of the architectural grandeur of a major 18th century American city. Among the first to popularize the symbols of the American Revolution—the profile portrait of first president George Washington and the “American” eagle—he transforms them into decorative motifs for official buildings and everyday homes.

            As the sixth largest port city in the U.S. in the 18th century, Salem was a major maritime municipality prospering from a complex trading system. Salem exported its salt-cod, candles, and other products to the British West Indies, where they were traded for sugar, molasses and native goods. Then, these products were transported to Arabia, India and China to be exchanged for coffee, tea, spices and merchandise, which were returned to the city for trans-American export from Salem. At the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, you can visit a reconstruction of the 171-foot, three-masted frigate, Friendship, originally built in 1797. The treasures acquired in the “China Trade” by sea captains and wealthy merchants, such as Elias Hasket Derby, America’s first billionaire, became the basis for the collection at the Peabody Essex Museum (  Founded in 1799, it is the country's oldest continuously operating museum.

Today the museum, renovated in 2003 by world-renown architect Moshe Safdie, ranks as one of this country’s twenty-five largest art museums, and its exceptional collection has grown to more then 2.4 million items. Permanent and changing art shows highlight Asian, African, Native American, Oceanic, Maritime and Photographic works that bring a unique world cultural view to exhibitions. The Himalayan collection, for example, boasts America’s leading collection of 19th and 20th century Bhutanese textile arts, while the African department houses one of the world’s finest collections of Ethiopian Christian art. Among the museum’s architectural treasures are 24 historic buildings and Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house located outside China. This truly is a world-class museum worth the trip any time of the year. You certainly don’t have to wait until Halloween to visit, for this city by the sea is bewitching any time of the year.






The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin