SALEM — One of the city’s oldest burial grounds on Thursday got a fresh sign and with it, a proper place in the city’s historical culture.
The Friends Burial Ground on Essex Street, also known as the Quaker cemetery for its ties to the region’s centuries-old Quaker community, celebrated a rededication Thursday morning with a new marker at the front of the cemetery.
The marker, shaped like one of the state’s tercentenary signs but with more modern fonts and text sizes, explains that the site is “Salem’s third oldest and smallest cemetery.” It was also the site of the Religious Society of Friends’ second meeting house, built in 1718, and a pivotal part of Quaker culture when Salem served as the center of the religious community during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Still, the cemetery is never open. The gate is generally always locked, leaving visitors to stand on the sidewalk in front of the cemetery and pay respects from afar. The sign also serves to tell a story of persecution that often goes untold in a city known around the world for its 17th century witchcraft hysteria.
“My people have a complicated history in this land, especially in Boston and Salem,” said Kathleen Wooten, a Quaker and member of the Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting in Cambridge who spoke at Salem’s ceremony. “They were severely punished for their beliefs according to the accepted law at the time. They were fined and whipped, and thrown into prison.”
In her remarks, Wooten told the story of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick, who spent weeks in jail for supporting and hosting Quakers locally, possessing Quaker literature and more.
“While the parents were jailed, Cassandra Southwick’s children weren’t able to pay the fines levied against the Southwicks,” Wooten said. “It was therefore decreed that they’d be sold into slavery in Barbados, to pay off their fines.”
This was in 1659 — 33 years before the first executions connected to the Salem Witch Trials took place down the road at Proctor’s Ledge.
Ultimately, the children were never auctioned off. No one placed a bid, Wooten said, because the merchants and ship captains in attendance saw the children as innocent.
“I’d love to say that Quakers were faithful that day of the auction,” she said, “but I’d also like to believe others — non-Quakers — heard that call to service.”
Wooten paused, looking up at the crowd attending the rededication.
“I’m heartened that many of my Quaker brethren can’t be here today in person, though some of them are,” she said. “Many people of many faiths — and no particular faith — are living into that first kingdom of love that the first Quakers of Salem hoped to create.”
Frederick Martin, a Quaker from Newton, attended the ceremony and said he was glad that the cemetery “is being recognized and honored.”
“There’s persecution of Quakers in Salem, but Salem was actually more welcoming than Boston,” Martin said. “I wanted to learn more about that, and when a city recognizes us — the Quakers — as a presence, as important, as a part of the history... I just appreciate that.”
Closed for business
Interestingly, the cemetery is almost always closed. Bob LeBlanc, the city’s superintendent of cemeteries, said it’s only open for maintenance.
“It’s a historic cemetery,” LeBlanc said. “Foot traffic, human interaction with stones tend to be problems. We try to minimize that as much as possible.”
If someone were to request access through the city, they can get in, LeBlanc explained.
Being said, the cemetery’s not-open status draws an interesting parallel to the Charter Street Cemetery, which officials are considering closing for the month of October. The Old Burying Point, kiddie-cornered by Charter and Liberty streets downtown, has been a frequent talking point around the city as the Halloween season has continually grown, bringing hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Witch City each year and gradually causing irreversible wear on the historic site.
With a $600,000 restoration planned for the Burying Point, officials argue the suggested shutdown would prevent further damage from tourists before the work begins.
It’s a position that Kenneth Glover, a Quaker and Salem tour guide, endorses.
“I understand that anytime someone wants entrance into the (Quaker) graveyard, if they contact the city in advance, the city can have the gates opened up,” Glover said. “It’s out of the way, and it happens to be good for its protection.”
The move would have bigger impacts on Charter Street, where Witch Trials connections and some of the state’s most significant founders and early leaders are buried.
“I’m very concerned about the abuses people afflict upon the graveyard, from disregarding the prohibition against gravestone rubbing to using the tombs or stones to support their weight if they’re tired, and not understanding that is a place of respect,” Glover said. “So the argument to have the graveyard shut down in October is a compelling one, and as a tour guide who does a tour through the graveyard, I certainly could adapt to whatever the needs of the community were.”