, Salem, MA

October 20, 2011

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

My View
Kristina Stevick

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.

Declining church membership would spawn covenantal compromises, murders and suicides would increase, and good relations with the American Indians would disintegrate into violence.

Fed up, King James II revoked the city's charter in 1684, putting land grants in chaos and leaving the people without a legal court. Resentment grew between Salem's increasingly wealthy townies, who made money off of the sea, and struggling villagers, who toiled on disputed farmland. Wealth was not so common in the commonwealth.

In other words, it was a different generation from those who'd heard Winthrop's charge: "If our hearts shall be seduced, and worship our pleasure and profits ... we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it."

Of course, the witchcraft hysteria of 1692 was not merely the result of forgetting Winthrop's charge. Bitterness and long memories created the fertile environment for accusation in a culture that already believed in, and therefore made effective, the charms and hexes of folk magic.

By the time the witchcraft ordeal was over, 25 people had perished. And this failure of religion and reason prompted today's tourism industry. "Witch City" makes the most of it.

I owe my own livelihood to the public's interest in the hysteria, so I can't act smug. I've worked in Salem for nearly two decades, first as an actor, then on the production side of "Cry Innocent: The People Versus Bridget Bishop," an interactive play that invites the audience to sit on the jury of the first person hanged for witchcraft in the 1692 hysteria.

We recruit audiences from Salem's modern streets and, in the process, get an interesting view of our City of Peace. We've seen shouting matches and fistfights between business owners and their mascots. We've been "hexed" by competitors, and we (along with other businesses) have been the recipients of a literal door "prize" of dead animals.

Rivalry for tourist dollars is the root of acrimony.

When we've said yes to zany television shows or spooky events, we've had to evaluate if we were selling out. Did we give in, for instance, when our mob of "Puritans" chased "What Not to Wear's" TV hosts through downtown Salem so that a local psychic could win a new wardrobe?

No, it was a way of saying to our neighbors: We may have different aspirations, but we can laugh at ourselves and share the playground.

As much as they might roll their eyes at it, locals admit that Halloween dragged Salem out of its downtrodden feel of the 1970s. Some had the good sense to save priceless architecture and restore the historic seaside, thwarting Salem's flirtation with "urban renewal" 40 years ago.

Because of such preservation and, yes, because of the commercialism, Salemites can still innovate and create. We might see plenty of kooky-spooky, but there is much more to discover here: museums, galleries, restaurants, inns, independent shops, and year-round cultural festivals and events.

Sure, the witchcraft mayhem might draw tourists to Salem, but while they're here, we can illuminate the rest of our story, a story that includes Anne Bradstreet, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Adoniram Judson, John Winthrop and dozens of other historic figures whose charms have long helped define the City of Peace.

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Kristina Stevick is an adjunct professor of theater and the artistic director of History Alive! — a branch of the Gordon College Institute for Public History. This piece first appeared in the Oct. 19 edition on the college's e-column Faith+Ideas=.