Salem Witches – An Overview
When people hear about Salem, Massachusetts they can’t help but think of witches. The connotation born from a tragedy has been transformed into a focal point for a now thriving community. Salem is now a hub of tourism and a center for education. While the Salem Witch Trials became synonymous with false accusations and hysteria, there is much to learn from this dark part of American history, and from the process by which a town’s reputation was positively transformed in the aftermath of past injustices.
Revisiting the Salem Witch Trials
When were the Salem Witch Trials?
Although the witch hunts in Salem occurred in the late 17th century, the phrase “witch hunt” and the specter of mass hysteria is as relevant today as when the historic event occurred.
The Salem Witch Trials began in the spring of 1692. Then, a group of young girls accused several people of practicing witchcraft in Salem Village, which is in modern-day Danvers. The hysteria resulted in a special trial being convened.
The first to be convicted was Bridget Bishop, who was sentenced to death by hanging in June of that year. The question of how many people died in the Salem Witch Trials is a total of 20. Most were hanged, one man was crushed to death and others died in prison waiting for their trial to begin. Over 200 people were accused, including women, men, and children.
One of the earliest accused of being one of the Salem Witches was an enslaved woman from the Caribbean named Tituba. Although she was first to be accused by the afflicted children whose sudden onset of fits was attributed to curses by local witches, it is not clearly established if Tituba was actually involved in practicing any supernatural rites.
By 1693, the hysteria died down and public opinion shifted away from the pursuit of alleged witches. All remaining accused were ordered to be set free, but much damage was already done. In spite of annulled guilty verdicts, tension and hostility remained rampant. Four years later, the court denounced the use of “Spectral Evidence” or the highly subjective dreams and visions that were prevalent during the Salem Witch Trials. In the following years, a day of fasting was declared to acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials. Some families of those executed were compensated and the town admitted it had made a mistake.
Possible Origins of the Salem Witch Craze
Later theories suggest the witchcraft accusations were spurred on by ergot poisoning. This caused the fits and visions the affected girls experienced. Others point to a larger historical context involving xenophobia and paranoia. In 1689, England waged a war with France that played out in parts of New York and southern Canada. War refugees were displaced to regions such as Salem Village, Massachusetts.
This exacerbated existing class tensions between the wealthy in Salem and those who were dependent on farming. The tension enhanced rivalries and suspicions among neighbors. Salem Village’s first ordained Minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, didn’t help things. He preached a strict and moralistic interpretation of the Bible. This interpretation encouraged the idea that daily aggravations and conflicts might be the work of the Devil. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the hysteria began with his young daughter, Elizabeth, and niece, Abigail.
It is also considered doubtful by modern scholars that many of the accused were actually practicing witchcraft. It’s more likely that the dynamics in Salem at the time were ripe for paranoia leading to a proliferation of witch stories and accusations based on fervent puritanical fears and superstitions.
Acknowledging the Past in Salem
Modern attempts to rectify the wrongs done in Salem have been widespread. They include the building of a memorial in 2017. And even more recent efforts to pardon specific accused persons like Elizabeth Johnson, who for unknown reasons was not exonerated along with others..
Many artists and writers have also immortalized the events of the Salem With Trials. Hundreds of books and television shows have been inspired by the events of this era. These retellings of the past have largely been successful in two arenas. First, they’ve preserved some essence of the injustices committed against the victims. And second, they’ve increased the awareness that sociopolitical tensions could lead to history repeating itself. Even as recently as 2019, the Witches of Salem series featured on the Travel Channel, continues to retell this tale of tragedy to modern audiences.
The persecution and Witch Trials haunt Salem to this day. But modern efforts have transformed the legacy from one of fear to empowerment. Modern witches have reclaimed Salem as a center for education and tourism. Every year, visitors from all over travel to Salem to experience the combination of history and modern magick.
The Beginnings of Modern Salem Witches
So how did Salem go from being home of tragedy and witch persecution to the modern-day “Witch City?”
One of the pioneers of this effort is Laurie Cabot. Known as the “Official Witch of Salem,” Cabot’s path synchronistically led her to move from Boston to Salem in the late 1960s. Though at the time Salem was the last place she wanted to live. Already an “out of the broom closet” witch in Boston, she had reservations about how people would respond to her in Salem because of the town’s history. But after her cat, Molly Boo, got stuck in a tree and no one would help, she appealed to the media. She revealed her witch status and proclaimed her cat as her Familiar. So she really needed help to retrieve her. The rest is history.
Cabot opened a shop in Salem in 1970. Then, witches the world over took notice. She went on to open more stores and author several books.
The Modern Salem Witches’ Renaissance
Salem has since become a safe space for witches to gather and learn. It also serves as a hot spot for tourists who want to explore the occult. Cabot has since admitted that her initial goal was to educate the public about witchcraft. And that goal has certainly been complicated by Salem becoming the Halloween (or Samhain as witches call it) capital of the United States.
Cabot began the first Witches’ Ball in 1973 and this has been an annual tradition that has also spread to other parts of the country. She was instrumental in getting Wicca to be recognized as a valid religion and has taught classes not only out of her shop in Salem but at renowned colleges like Wellesley, Harvard, and Oxford.
And Cabot is now far from a lone witch in Salem. There are estimated to be between 800 and 1600 witches living in the town. The modern witches of Salem have brought their own unique contributions to the community.
Other Predominate Salem Witches
Erica Feldmann, for instance, moved to Salem in 2010 while studying the history of witchcraft in graduate school. She was surprised to find a lack of open community gatherings considering the area’s reputation as a place of resurgent interest in witchcraft. When she opened her store, HausWitch Home and Healing, she made it part of her goal to foster community and has been offering workshops and gatherings as part of her mission.
Teri Kalgren of Artemisia Botanicals has seen the community evolve over the years her store has been open. Even when fads and fashions come and go, those who appreciate the spiritual aspects of witchcraft pursue a serious study and endure. The modern witches of Salem show the world that even the most negative of experiences can be transformed and used for good and empowerment.
Modern Salem witches find still other methods to contribute to the community. They are often conscious of their duties to both educate and give back to the community. One example of this is Lori Bruno, who is a Hereditary High Priestess of Italian Witchcraft, runs a faith-based organization from which she offers readings, classes and conducts healing services. In addition, previous Governor Dukakis granted her the “Protector of the Children of the Commonwealth” award for her dedication to fostering children.
Salem is well-regarded as a key destination for tourists who want to explore the world of the supernatural. While it’s common for visitors to seek New England destinations in the fall, Salem in October is well-known to be jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of visitors because of its witchy vibes. Much of the core remains devoted to reversing the myths about witchcraft. A Witches Education Bureau, for example, helps to dispel the negative stereotypes of people who practice Wicca and Witchcraft.
The Witch Village in the 21st Century
In recent years, the meaning and connotations of what it means to be a witch have evolved yet further and Salem has also accommodated this shift. Since the rise in social tensions and political polarizations, many modern pagans have felt a call to channel their spiritual beliefs and practices to address social injustices.
This is reflected in a recent exhibit in Essex’s Peabody Museum called The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. If prior decades saw the rise of witchcraft in Salem as a way for pagans to reclaim the term from negative and persecutory distortions, this mission seems to now be evolving into a call to reclaim power in nonconformity of all kinds including feminism and other more politically oriented practices of witchcraft. The exhibit featured portrayals of modern-day witches from all walks of life, presenting a diverse and broad definition of a witch as someone who has been marginalized but is reclaiming their power in spiritual and unconventional ways.
Whether guided by nature worship, ancestral connections, a connection to the divine, or a combination of all of these, this renaissance of witchcraft as it relates to feminism and more broadly, challenging patriarchy and white supremacy has become a more pronounced facet of witchcraft that has always existed as witches have always challenged the status quo.
The life of a witch is filled with surprises and a sense of following an unconventional destiny. So, too, is the energy of Salem. A place that once succumbed to the worst aspects of groupthink and destructiveness but which has been transformed into a place of healing and empowerment for those who seek to follow the path of the witch.