, Salem, MA


October 20, 2011

My View: Coming to peace with Salem's 'Witch City' moniker

Salem, where I work, is a city with a complicated personality. She absorbs the historians, artists, college students, ministers, preservationists, Wiccans, psychics and mediums who live here, and beckons about a million visitors per year.

Halloween to locals is not a day, but a "season," and during the other four, Salem is still the "Witch City." The broom-straddling hag, vixen or sweetie — depending on your perspective — is the official emblem of cop and high school athlete alike. Though Salem is also a world-class destination for art and culture, a stunning seaside community, and a showplace of antique architecture, the witch on the broom has practically jabbed the Sumatran pepper trader off the city seal.

I imagine John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Company's first governor, might be surprised. When he admonished the migrating English colonists to be "a city on a hill, the eyes of all the world upon (them)," his sermon outlined how their New Jerusalem could be a model of Christian charity:

"We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. ... If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

Salem had had a good start. The City of Peace (Shalom) got its name in 1628 when Roger Conant graciously stepped aside and assisted the governors, even after they replaced him as head of the plantation he founded.

But Winthrop was right to be cautionary. In the early years, the Massachusetts colony would become famous for an abundance of fish, fowl and firewood; for founding Harvard College; and for producing healthier children than their English counterparts. Yet, the growing colony also became infamous for banishing dissenters, hanging Quakers and running governors out of town.

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