Cruise destination - Boston - Shore Excursion Review - Visiting Salem - page one
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The Boston area is rich in American history. However, it is not all located in downtown Boston. Surrounding communities such as Lexington and Concord, Marblehead, and Salem are also familiar historic names.
A shore excursion that is offered by a number of cruise lines during port calls in Boston covers both the Salem Witch Trials and Salem's Golden Age as a seaport. The tour is about four and a half hours by coach.
When I took this tour, the bus took about 45 minutes to get from the cruise port to Salem. As we moved through the outskirts of Boston the scenery changed from industrial to working class residential and then to more affluent suburbs.
These suburbs had evolved from being independent entities to places where people went in the summer to escape the heat of the city to more or less bedroom communities. Our guide was a native Bostonian and gave a running commentary of insights into this evolution.
Salem is best known for the witch trials that took place there in 1692-93. As a result, the town has become associated with witches and this reputation manifests itself today in such things as a large Halloween celebration, a statue of actress Elizabeth Montgomery in her role as a witch in the popular television series “Bewitched,” and even in emblems on the uniforms of the local police officers showing a witch riding a broom.
All of this is ironic because none of the people condemned and executed during the witch trials was actually a witch or practiced witchcraft. They were ordinary individuals who were swept up by a mass hysteria and condemned to death for no rational reason.
The hysteria began when three young girls became ill. They had fits and engaged in unusual behavior such as shouting things out at inappropriate times. Unable to diagnose any physical reason for the illness, the local physician concluded that the girls must have been bewitched. Based upon such things as the names that the girls shouted out during their illness, the townsfolk accused several local women of witchcraft. Inasmuch as there was widespread belief in magic and the supernatural, these accusations were deemed credible.
Once word got out that there were witches in Salem, the accusations snowballed. People who were unpopular or who behaved differently than the rest of the townsfolk began to be accused. Others were denounced as witches by people who held grudges against them. Of course, anyone who protested the senselessness of these accusations could well find him or herself on trail.
The fact that a person was a participating member of the local church was no protection against such accusations. Their devote churchgoing only served to show how powerful was the evil confronting Salem - - even a pillar of the community could be corrupted.
Those accused were brought before a local magistrate for interrogation. Some confessed under the pressure. The ones who protested that they were innocent were taken to be tried before a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer.
At the trails, the prosecution relied heavily on “spectral evidence.” The accuser would claim to have been injured by an apparition in the shape of the defendant. Since it was believed that the devil would not use the shape of a person without his or her consent, evidence of such apparitions was considered to be proof that the accused was in league with the devil.
Not everyone believed such nonsense. One of the judges resigned because spectral evidence was admissible. Along the same lines, in one trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. However, the outcry in the court room was so powerful that the jury was instructed to reconsider. They then found the defendant guilty.
In all 180 people from the Salem area were arrested and sent to jail for witchcraft. Twenty were executed, most by hanging but one was pressed to death by having stones piled on his chest. Five more people died while in jail.
Returning from a campaign fighting the Indian tribes in Maine, Governor Sir William Phips replaced the Court of Oyer and Termier with a Superior Court in which spectral evidence was not allowed. This halted the tide of convictions. When the Superior Court nonetheless found some defendants guilty, the Governor pardoned them.
Subsequently, calmer heads prevailed and it was realized that the defendants had been tried illegally and unfairly. In 1711, the civil rights of the survivors were restored and some compensation paid for their loss of property. Despite these and other attempts at apology, the Salem Witch Trials remain a stain on the history of Colonial America.
In Salem today, there is a memorial to the victims of the Witch Trials. It is a somber grass covered rectangle framed by a stone wall. Jutting out from the wall are stone slab benches, each with the name of one of the people who was executed.
Next to the memorial is the 17th Century Charter Street Burying Point. The juxtaposition of the memorial and the graveyard is said to symbolize the fact that the general public stood mute while this tragedy unfolded.
The story of the Witch Trials is told at the Salem Witch Museum. It is housed in a building erected in 1845 that was once the Second Church Unitarian. Visitors sit in the area where the congregation once sat. Surrounding this area are a series of stage sets with scenery and manikins. Each stage set is a scene from the story of the Witch Trials. With the house lights turned off, each of the stage sets is lit in turn as a narrator tells the story. It is presented seriously as a story of intolerance without any frivolous Halloween trappings.
Following the show, visitors exit through the back into an exhibit area, which is used to describe how the public perception of witches has changed over time.
The visit to the memorial and the museum was a sobering experience. If you are looking for a playful tale of the supernatural, this is not it. Rather, it is an experience that makes you realize that the boundary between civilization and mass madness is perilously thin.