Haunted Salem

Witch Museum

Witch Museum

Salem, Massachusetts is famous for witchcraft. I should know, for the vibration of witchery spreads far and wide throughout the countryside running through the roots of the trees and rising with the sap to blossom in weedy Springtime. Crickets sing, the grass glows under the moon.

I went there for the first time in the 1970’s, with a friend, to visit the famous Witch Museum. I came away with something quite different than I expected, and no less haunting.

Salem

The small town of Salem, Massachusetts leans against the sea. Victorian mansions, with their airy widow’s walks, and doors hung aslant to close with the rolling of the tide, speak of an era when this was a prosperous maritime city where merchant ships sailed in loaded with luxuries gathered all the way from Europe to the Far East. Eighteenth century householders filled their rooms with Chinese vases, Indian bedspreads, Russian samovars, jade carvings, Italian art, and other exotic items quite foreign to Puritan New England — things Cotton Mather and his Calvinist fold would have frowned upon.

Witches

But of course, the Puritans thrived over three hundred years ago, when Massachusetts was a colony of the English Crown and the English Crown was hanging witches. The early days of Salem Village were a darker time, as dark as the lowering winter clouds that turn everything gray, cold, and blustery. When the long night was relieved by a small hearth fire, and a few bayberry candles, and the wind shrieked into the cracks around the window sills to blow them out. Populated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the colonists did not leave their superstitions behind in England. Their belief in, and fear of, witchcraft were carried to these shores.

The graveyard where the accused witches were buried in 1692, lies there still. Behind a nearby hedge is a memorial to those who were hung, mainly for being grumpy neighbors, eccentric old women, or for having attracted the jealousy and spite of the hysterical girls who made the accusations. The memorial is semi-circle of stones marked with the names of the executed. Whether any of them were guilty of witchcraft or not is still uncertain, but when one walks under the brooding clouds of the New England sky that roll in on a wild Atlantic Sea, where the cawing of the crows chills the blood, and the full golden moon rides low and shining through the bare trees, it is easy to understand why those be-nighted souls were so easily convinced. This land invites magic.

In the 1970’s, Salem was still in its pure state. Not yet a theme park, the Witch Museum stood on its own, a stone and mullioned stable where the jails were small, barred, and filled with straw. Incarcerated within were waxworks witches still suffering fear and degradation, awaiting trial, and the certain journey to Gallows Hill.
Outside, in the garden of the Witch Museum, a large bronze statue of Cotton Mather, in a swirling cloak and peaked hat, still wields his authority with an iron fist.

Witches Poppets: Another Kind of Ghost

Much of Salem is still quite old. Houses from Colonial times still parade down the treelined streets. An old church broods on a corner, and of course Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house and gardens are colorfully squeezed between the parking lot and the road. Once Pam and I had seen these attractions, we went for lunch in a bustling seaside cafe. Alll that was left for the afternoon were tours of the many historic mansions that reared their heads behind the high hedges and stone walls of the old town of Salem.

In the pre-Nixon era, when money was actually worth something, one could take a guided tour through one of these mansions for 50 cents. For high school students whose history courses were severely narrowed down, watered down, and rife with propaganda, the lifestyles these houses revealed were a surprise. Three stories tall, with room after room of exotic furnishings, they seemed more European than American. One house in particular stands out. After we climbed its many stairs and explored its many rooms, we  exited through the back garden. There, a small playhouse took up the far corner in the hedge. Inside was a collection of maybe fifty antique dolls.  French fashion dolls, wax dolls, Colonial wooden dolls, and white china dolls, stiff as corpses, sat on rocking horses, velvet sofa, rocking chairs, had a tea party, and lay in little beds all on their own. I enjoyed looking at them. All shapes and sizes, they were beautiful, mysterious, and even spooky with their glass eyes and frozen stares.

A few weeks later, I came home from school with the disabling menstrual cramps that plagued me every month since I was fourteen years old. Back then the only pain reliever on the market was aspirin and that didn’t work. I lay down on the couch and fell into one of those heavy slumbers that you get when you want to escape from pain. My mind was whirling, whirling before I blacked out.

I began to dream a dream that was so vivid, it not like a dream at all, but real. My eyes were closed and at the same time open, for I saw a  large number of antique dolls , like the ones in Salem, come out of the closet, and crowd into the room. In their white muslin gowns, curling wigs, china faces, they stood on the floor beside the couch, and staring up at me with their myriad glass eyes.  “Oh,” I thought. “I do have a large doll collection!” I rose up on one elbow to see them better, and suddenly snapped back to reality. They were gone!

Now call me what you will, but I always thought these poppets were witches that followed me home from Salem, from that little house in the back garden. Witches work through dolls, and these were a cross between dolls and faeries — those spirits of nature that grant witches their powers.

Those dolls were enchanted, I tell you!

I went back to Salem in the 1980’s and found it had become a large and ugly theme park of Haunted Houses and witchy souvenir shops. Much of the old magic was lost in the midst of so much tacky commercialism. The dolls house in the back garden was gone of course; it probably wouldn’t have survived in a time when vandalism had become the norm. In 2006, the theme parks had dwindled down to few and New Age shops had moved in. With less ostentatious clutter, the austere beauty of the old town can breathe again.

I carry the witches dolls inside me now.  They continue to work their magic in my imagination and stare out at me from the shelves in my walk-in closet, and my kitchen cupboards, and make appearances in my poems and stories. As witches poppets, of course.

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