Friday, July 8, 2016

Life List #54: Visit Salem, Mass

Suffice to say, this day was the true inspiration for this entire trip. 

A dump truck woke me up to a busy Boston morning, in my otherwise quiet hostel. I was easily able to lie there in a sleep-rest mix until seven when I got up and began my day. I did a little yoga to loosen up, packed a day bag, and ate some free toast and tea for breakfast. I followed my directions to the station where I would catch a public bus bound on a tedious journey to Salem, Mass, just 17 miles north of Boston. There are many nicer and faster ways to Salem, but at $4.20, this was the frugal journey. I studied my visitors guide like a text book, long before and while I was on the journey. It was full of notes, stars and dogears for where I would be spending my time. Though I had my day mapped out, I started at the National Park Service run visitor's center, to see if I could get any insider suggestions or tips. I told the man that I wanted to have fun but not spend a fortune. Salem has nearly uncountable museums and attractions dedicated to their witchy history and I knew I only wanted to afford entry to a couple of them.  I was told all admissions ranged from $9-$13 so two was plenty. I also had several free experiences marked on my map. Though I only experienced two paid attractions, I think I choose well. This is where I went:

The Witch Dungeon Museum $9, hour long experience
This began with a 15 minute live performance adapted from 1692 transcripts of a witch trial in Salem. It was a great learning experience to learn more in depth about the witch trials in a hands-on way. There were two character actresses and a narrator, all in period costume, who set the scene of 1692 Salem. I learned more information that I ever knew. Our tour group was then led downstairs to a recreated version of a dungeon that used to stand close to the museum's building. This dungeon held men and women accused of witchcraft while a trial could be arranged. Due to my love of the creepy, this was one of my favorite sites in Salem, as well as some of my favorite moments on the trip. We were first shown "luxury" cells which housed prisoners who's families could afford room and board. There were several mannequins in what looked to be the size of a small college dorm room. As you might be able to tell, the mannequins looked miserable, though they were the lucky ones. They got the most access to food, a straw bed, and even a chamber pot to relieve themselves in. The medium sized cell was about enough space for one person to stand with outstretched arms. The small cell, for the poorest of the poor, was a column like space with enough room for a person to stand upright and maybe turn in a circle. We learned that a cell this size was once home to a woman and her 4-year-old daughter. It was most interesting to hear the reasons of the starting and continuation of the witch trials. 
The majority of the trials took place in 1692, when 19 people were put to death by hanging by their own government due to speculation of witchcraft. The moral climate among the fairly recent Puritan settlers  was one of purity and devotion to religion. Fear circulated easily as these vulnerable people could easily be succumb to death by starvation, exposure, and Native American backlash. The hysteria kicked off with some young girls, who began to act strangely, blaming their behavior on being possessed by the devil. The girls would accuse several women, often the most vulnerable in the society, of bringing the devil onto them. 

As the girls followed the leader, the entire community was on the lookout for strange behavior which deviated from Puritan values, that could only be blamed on the devil. Women especially were targeted due to their increased independence in the growing colonies, which fell out of line with what it meant to be a good law abiding Christian. With little control over nature's challenges and armed with only archaic medical knowledge, these people had no other information to explain what was going on. In the interest of making the colony safer, they tried and executed people that were a threat.  From my time at Witch Dungeon Museum, I also learned that it could be common practice to accuse a person of witchcraft or wizardry, to make claim to their land. If a person confessed they were no longer able to hold land, if they did not they were in danger of execution. Colonial government was similar to the Wild West, though eventually the people of Salem got the newly appointed governor of Massachusetts involved to stop what was clearly becoming unrealistic persecution.

To learn even more about the Salem Witch Trials check out this info from the History Channel. 
The House of Seven Gables, $13, 60-90 minute experience
It was the picture of this attraction that sold me in the first place. Though I wasn't 100% sure what to expect, I was in for an interesting learning experience. This colonial mansion was built in 1668, has experienced lots of changes, and now stands as a museum commemorating the inspiration of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of the same name. I have always respected this great American author, but was not aware he called Salem home, until arriving there myself. Hawthorne published the book in 1851 after being inspired by this home, which belonged to his second cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, of a prominent Salem family. The house had a few secret passage ways, including a tight, hidden stairway which the nimble among us actually got to climb! Entry to the House of Seven Gables also included entry to Hawthorne's childhood home which was moved to the site to prevent it from being torn down to make way for a parking lot. 
Salem is, unbelievably walk able, and I often found myself passing locations because I underestimated how close everything was. Free things I enjoyed were the Witch Trials Memorial, Old Burying Point Cemetery, Friendship of Salem,  and Common's House. I spend some time eating lunch and relaxing in the park, Salem Commons, one of the numerous shooting locations of the movie Hocus Pocus.

For any lover of U.S. Colonial history or the macabre, a visit to Salem is a necessary evil. I enjoyed lots of people watching and window shopping in addition to my learning. Here are just a couple of tips I have to enjoy Salem.
1. Request the Salem visitors guide by visiting their website. You can plan out your stops even before you get there.
2. Know what's important for you to experience. There are many similar experiences to be had so unless you want to spend load of cash on admission, pick and choose from the lengthy list. Salem is for witch lovers, literary fanatics, and colonial history buffs.
3. Salem is real people living among history. Part of the reason that I wanted to visit this area is to experience centuries old buildings. Though it's full of tourists, people live their entire lives here. Historical buildings and sights are just a part of their daily life.