Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Salem Witch Trials: Three-hundred & Twenty-two Years of Intolerance

If you've ever walked to the top of Gallows Hill in Salem, you know what a cold, haunting place it is. Three hundred and twenty-two years ago on June 10, 1692, the first woman accused of witchcraft was hung there marking the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials. Between the first hanging and the end of the trials in October of the same year, over 150 people were accused, nineteen were hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death. Two dogs were also hanged—if you need more proof that people can be insane remember that, two dogs were hanged for witchcraft.

I moved to Salem in September 1988. At that time the witchcraft tourism business was pretty moderate and, though there were quite a few museums and metaphysical businesses, you could still go downtown without being overwhelmed by hoards of tourists and giant buses idling everywhere. Laurie Cabot, the Official Witch of Salem, was a fun person to run into. I remember her pulling up to a popular outdoor clam shack in an old Subaru with a bunch of goth kids and all of them piling around a picnic table to feast on clams and lobster.

Actually, I have a good Laurie Cabot story. A friend of mine was working at Filene's in the North Shore Mall and an Estee Lauder rep and she talked me into letting her do my makeup one day. She put me on a stool in the middle of an aisle, wrapped a towel around me, stripped off all my make up, and then left me there while she answered a phone call. While I was sitting there feeling like a dope, Laurie, in her traditional black robes, walked by and said, “Oh, you look fabulous!” When my friend returned, I told her and said, “But I don't have any makeup on.” My friend said, “She's a witch. She knows how you are going to look.”

Over the years of living in Salem and then Marblehead, I took a lot of visitors to a lot witch attractions and, during that time, I came to see them less as entertainment and more as a sad commentary on humanity. In 1992 when the Witch Trial Memorial was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel I attended the ceremony and I will never forget the sight of this small, fragile man and his words about intolerance and hate—I was never able to look at any of the witch trial tourist traps the same after that.

When I wrote my novel Depraved Heart I drove back to Salem and went back up to Gallows Hill. In the novel, the heroine, Tempest, is confined to a psychiatric hospital ward from which she can see the hill and she spends her days looking at it, trying to understand what torments her. As I was standing on Gallows Hill for the second time—twenty years after my first visit there—it seemed even more haunted and haunting than ever. I thought of the 14 men and 6 women (and 2 dogs) who were killed there, and of their bodies, tossed into the woods like so much garbage.

Salem today is a huge commercial enterprise. Lots of people make tons of money from the tourism built on a great human tragedy. And I wonder in all these years what have we learned? We still vilify and demonize and hate those who are not like us. When will we learn?

Thanks for reading.

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