Friday, September 25, 2009
Salem Witch Trial Memorial
On September 22, 1692, eight people (seven women and one man) were hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. These eight were the last of the accused to be executed in the crisis.
A few weeks ago, Pete and I found ourselves in Salem and decided to visit the burying ground. Despite having been born in Beverly and having visited Salem dozens of times over the past 25 years, I have never visited the Salem burying ground before. It feels indecent somehow.
I don't think I can eloquently express my discomfort regarding the burying ground in Salem. I think nothing of going to the graveyard in Newburyport or Rowley, but Salem makes me feel icky. I can't decide which I find more off-putting – the crass Halloweenification that supplies tourists with "witchcraft trivets," the heartfelt but historically-illiterate outrage of neo-pagans who think that the crisis had something to do with freedom of religion*, or the solemn head-shakers whose tut-tutting generally strikes me (unfairly, I admit) as wholly inadequate. Perhaps my problem is that I'm embarrassed that my interests overlap with groups #1 and #2, however tangentially, and I fear being perceived as one of their number.
In any event, I'd never been to the graveyard in Salem.
It follows from this that I had never visited the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. The first time I heard it mentioned, I grimaced. What hideous, heroic bronze statue or candle-adorned memorial wall was this?
The sign pointing the way to that attraction did not inspire a lot of confidence. The shiny gold serif font on green seemed better suited to a sign for a pretentious casual dining restaurant or faux Irish pub.
Jonathan or Moses Worster stones this far east," I sneered.
Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the memorial. It is a quiet, leafy park that you might not notice if you were not looking for it. A stone wall encloses a grassy rectangle about the size of a basketball court with several trees growing out of it.
Pete had picked up a pamphlet at the lovely Salem Visitor Center, which explained the symbolism of each part of the memorial. The 20 granite benches serve as cenotaphs for the executed men and women whose graves are not marked. The trees are black locust trees, chosen by the architect because "the victims were hung from that kind of tree" (I'm going to need to see some sources on that). Protestations of innocence taken from the trial transcripts have been carved on the paving stones, the words interrupted by the walls.
Nathanel Mather stone in the graveyard. I don't think I'll be a frequent visitor — I like my burying grounds deserted — but at least I can say that I've been.
*To clarify, I do not think that all Wiccans, pagans, etc. are insufferable. I am speaking specifically of those maddening people who walk around Salem talking about the persecution of their "sisters" or fill their drippy MySpace tribute pages with "Never Again The Burning" bullshit.