The following excursion into the creepy history of Salem, Massachusetts, infamous for its witch trials, was written by guest writer Jayson Robert Ducharme, a good friend and talented author of horror and other wickedness. Check out his fantastic books here. All photographs were also taken by him during his trip.
Thank you Jayson for your contribution!
Precisely four hundred years ago, in 1620, Puritan refugees fled the Kingdom of England—specifically the Church of England—and became the second European colony to establish itself in the New World after Jamestown. They named their new home “Plymouth”—after the very city they set sail from in Britain. The area was native to the Wampanoag people, whom helped the Puritans find their footing and grow their crops. More Europeans arrived, and soon began to migrate from Plymouth on a mission of religious expansionism. They settled in new areas and named them after villages and cities they came from in England—Boston, Gloucester, Salem, and so on. Ten years after the Puritans arrived, they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston, named after a local Massachusetts tribe.
This religious migration in the Bay was hazardous to the Native Americans. Europeans—to put it lightly—were filthy. This caused what is now referred to as a “Virgin Soil Epidemic”, a term coined by Professor Alfred Crosby defined as “epidemics in which the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and therefore are immunologically almost defenseless”. The diseases brought to the New World by Europeans killed roughly 90% of the Bay Native American population. The diseases included were smallpox, influenza, and measles.
As well as this, dissent and hostility erupted between the Europeans and Natives not just over the epidemics, but resistance to Puritan ideals. The Puritans were incredibly strict regarding their religion and were quick to oust “dissenters” which included not just Natives, but other Europeans as well—including Roger Williams, who founded Providence. The Natives were becoming increasingly threatened as Europeans began expanding their influence and growth in the area.
Knowing their people were dying to disease and were progressively being pushed off their territory, attacks on Europeans by Natives began. Massachusetts Bay was struck by a Wampanoag tribe, killing seven settlers in Swansea in 1675. Europeans attacked back, and a year later a militia group slaughtered roughly 70 Native Warriors and between one hundred and two hundred women, children and elderly. The violence between Native Americans and Europeans only escaladed during King Philips War, with more than half of New England villages being attacked by Native tribes.
Thus, the stage was set. Early New Englanders were over three thousand miles away from England across an ocean, isolated in small hamlets in an unknown frontier, surrounded by enemies and religiously devout to the point of hysteria. All these elements of paranoia, religious fanaticism and mistrust of the unknown were a powder keg that just needed the right match to calamity.
That calamity came in 1692, in a relatively small coastal port called Salem Village. The match for that powder keg were two little girls named Abigail Williams and her cousin Betty Paris, who were twelve and nine respectively.
Abigail and Betty fell ill in February of that year. Their symptoms were bizarre, including fits of screaming, tearing out their hair, and hiding beneath furniture. The village doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed them with an “affliction under an Evil hand”. More women began to fall ill, and within days the whole village was in panic over “bewitchment”.
A special court assembled in Salem where people accused of witchcraft were tried by a “witch judge” and jury. Among the first who were tried and executed for the bewitchment of Williams and Paris were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Tituba was a black slave woman owned by Paris’ father, Samuel. All three were hung.
The witch terror endured in the North Shore of Massachusetts for another seven months, and roughly 150 people were accused. Accusations of witchcraft or wizardry were flung in every direction. Once accused, some people were tortured or tested in order to prove their guilt or get them to confess. Among these methods were a “touch test”, by which an accused witch would be forced to touch their victim, and depending on the reaction of the victim, proved their guilt. A method of torture used was “pressing”—which lead to the death of accused 81-year-old farmer Giles Corey. Corey was laid outside, had a wooden board placed on him, and was weighed down with rocks over the course of three days in order to get him to confess. Corey never confessed, but instead asked on the third day to have “more weight”, which killed him.
By the end of the hysteria, twenty-four people were either executed or died in custody for witchcraft in Salem—seven men and seventeen women. The victims were either from Salem or the surrounding villages, such as Ipswich, Rowley, Andover or Reading. Twenty were executed—all by hanging except for Giles Corey’s pressing—and an additional four died in prison.
Today, in macabre irony, the city of Salem takes pride in its history, even going as far as to call itself “Witch City”. Its population has grown to a substantial 40,000 and has a bustling tourist industry, which includes ghost tours and reenactments of the trials. It is also home to a lot of local witchcraft shops selling incense and mementos, and a popular destination for October festivities, such as Octoberfest or Halloween.
Attractions include the Salem Witch Museum, where guests are taken into a large room and given a narrative of the witch hysteria and trials, which are visually represented with large set pieces and models. Another popular destination is the “Witch House”—the restored and preserved home of witch judge Jonathan Corwin, where he lived for forty years. The city was also home to American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose own grandfather was a witch judge in Salem, and whose house stood atop Hawthorne Hill in Danvers, where the old Danvers State Mental Hospital once stood. While countless museums dedicated to the trials and victims are in the city, more traditional museums can be found as well, such as the Peabody Essex Museum, which traces the maritime history of the North Shore.
A memorial was constructed in the city dedicated to the victims of the witch trials. A small section of land with stone slabs bearing the names of the victims, as well as the dates and methods of their executions, is established next to the Old Burying Point Cemetery. Old Burying Point is among the oldest cemeteries in the United States, and is the resting place of two witch judges, John Hawthorne (the aforementioned Nathaniel’s grandfather), and Bartholomew Gedney.
Many parts of Salem are currently closed due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic here in the United States, which unfortunately threatens any potential autumn festivities that the city otherwise has. There is no other city, in my opinion, that is better to be in than Salem during October. At that time, during the day, it is like any other old New England city, with cobblestone sidewalks, gaslights and brick buildings. At night, it transforms into a beast of its own; fog rolls through the crowded streets, red and purple lights glow from its ancient graveyards and houses, and people dressed in period costumes entertain guests.
About the Author
Jayson Robert Ducharme is an author of contemporary supernatural and gothic fiction from New Hampshire. He has written forty short stories, ten novellas, and two novels. His most recent book, Ceremony of Ashes, is available on Amazon. His latest release, Alessa’s Melody, will be available October 6th, also on Amazon.