Austin author Raymond Villareal recently had his first novel published: A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising. He related in October at the Texas Book Fest that his inspiration for the book “came from my love of vampire books,” but it became much more than this.
“It didn’t occur to me until I was writing it that it deals with people who are different from us. Do we want to understand or destroy them? It’s easy to find a segment of the population you don’t like.”
Even before America became the United States, it was all too easy to find a group of people who could be identified as evil. This took a deadly turn in the infamous year of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts when both women and men were executed in public. Why? Because they were witches.
I visited Salem this October to see for myself what it was all about, and despite the natural tendency for Salem to capitalise on its notorious past, I found much history about the witch trials there to be told in a sombre and factual manner.
First stop for any visitor should be the Salem Witch Museum, which presents a series of dioramas in a darkened room that illustrate how people first became accused of being a witch, on through the trials and executions. To get the best view, find a seat near a circle that is lit up in the floor. Many people along the side simply can’t see the entire dioramas, but this central floor location allows one to pivot on a seat to view them all fully.
From there visit the memorial that was built in 1992, the 300th anniv of the trials. It is a low-key commemoration: you walk along a large outdoor rectangle and look down to see stone slabs, one for each victim. It is placed adjacent to the old burial site, which has many spooky tombstones from the 17th and 18th centuries.
A visit to the House of the Seven Gables is essential, as it is among the oldest timber framed houses in North America. Having been started in 1668, it was here when witchery overtook Salem (the house itself has little connection with the witch trials). It is also the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name, and one can tour his birthplace home right beside the Gables house. Many tombstones in the old graveyard bear the name Hathorne. It is storied that Nathaniel changed his name by adding the letter W to distance himself from Justice John Hathorne, his infamous great great grandfather. John earned the eternal reputation as the Hanging Judge of the witch trials (he died in 1717).
At the excellent Wax Museum, one can see a series of dioramas up close, one of which features Justice Hathorne. Others show witches on trial, or being hanged. One of these is Bridget Bishop, the first to hang: her fate is shown in the lead photo of this article. Also not to be missed at the Salem Witch Village is a good witch who casts spells. It’s a particularly soothing introduction to modern witchcraft that can be enjoyed by all, no matter what your religious beliefs.
Visit the websites for details on visiting. Lines can be long, with wait times of two hours at each venue, so plan on a full day in Salem:
Photos with this article, taken Oct. 2018, by C. Cunningham