Thousands of travelers visit Boston every year, taking in the historical sights of the city while also enjoying its rich, modern culture; but head just a short distance north and you’ll find what is widely regarded as one of the most haunted cities in the United States: Salem, Massachusetts.
The 1692 Witch Trials
Salem’s reputation for hauntings and witchcraft finds its roots all the way back in January 1692, when both the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris fell ill. The reverend sought the help of Dr. William Griggs, who claimed that witchcraft was to blame for their illness. It was this accusation that would ignite an inferno of allegations and trials that would forever shape the history of the then-17th-century village.
The early days of Salem were rife with the typical conflicts and stresses of the times, from hard winters and disease to tense factions among the village’s families. Salem was a Puritan community, and its inhabitants lived in what could be considered a restrictive society even by the standards of those days. This religious belief led to a strong fear of the devil and those considered to be the devil’s servants—witches. So, when a smallpox epidemic broke out, it was only natural for fear and suspicion to arise.
Many more accusations of witchcraft would follow Griggs’ claim, leading to the arrest of over 150 men and women — but mostly women — who were to await trial. The first trial took place in June 1692, in which Bridget Bishop was found guilty. She was hung on June 10, and 13 more women and five men would quickly meet her same fate at the gallows. (Contrary to popular belief, there weren’t any actual witch burnings—this was more of a French practice.)
The trials came to an end when the Superior Court of Judicature was formed to replace what had come to be known as the “witchcraft court.” This new court did not permit “spectral evidence” or the claim that the accused were able to use invisible shapes or specters to torture their victims. This had been used to condemn many of those already found guilty. The court pardoned those awaiting execution and dismissed the rest of the cases, officially bringing the Salem Witch Trials to a close.
A Haunted Legacy
While the witch trials may have ended in the 17th century, Salem’s reputation for the supernatural has permeated into present day. From haunted graveyards to cursed houses, there are hints of the paranormal at every turn.
The House of the Seven Gables
One of the most well-known haunted houses in Salem is the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, otherwise known as the House of Seven Gables. Featuring Gothic-inspired cross-gables and dark wood clapboards, the mansion looks like something straight out of a fairytale. The house was originally built by hat-and-shoe-merchant-turned-maritime-captain John Turner in 1668. The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion was then sold to Samuel Ingersoll a few generations later in 1782, after the Turners lost their fortune. Since its initial construction, the mansion underwent several expansions and remodels—most notably, the addition of a secret staircase.
It was during this era that Ingersoll’s daughter, Susannah, would frequently pay visits to her cousin, well-renowned author of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Nathaniel was the grandson of Judge John Hathorne, the very judge who had presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel would later add the ‘w’ to his own surname to separate himself from these events. Susannah told Nathaniel the story of how the Hathorne family lost most of their wealth and status in the years following the trials, leading to rumors of the “Hathorne Curse.”
Nathaniel disdained his ancestor’s actions, and this reproach would later go on to become a central theme of his novel, The House of the Seven Gables. The judge in this story receives the punishment he deserves for his heinous actions, but not before building a house that bore an eerie resemblance to the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion.
The Ingersoll family eventually lost possession of the mansion when their own fortune was lost. The downfall of prominent families in Salem became a frequent occurrence in the years following the trials, lending credence to the rumors of long-lasting curses. The House of the Seven Gables is now operated as a museum, staffed by performers who reenact theatrical plays based around the Salem Witch Trials.
But what about the ghosts? Is the House of the Seven Gables truly haunted? While the mansion’s staff may deny it, there have been several spirit sightings reported at the house. Some claim to have seen a spectral man climbing the steps of the secret staircase, while many others say they’ve spotted a ghostly boy playing in the attic. The most famous of these specters? Susannah Ingersoll, the woman responsible for igniting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s curiosity about his family’s past.
The Salem Witch House
If there’s a home that could give the House of the Seven Gables a run for its money as the most haunted spot in the city, it’s the Salem Witch House. Two and a half stories tall and constructed of black timber, the home-turned-museum is a preserved piece of the past pulled into the present day.
This foreboding 400-year-old structure is the only surviving building directly tied to the Salem Witch Trials. The house was purchased by Judge Jonathan Corwin in 1675 and remained in the family until the mid-1800s. By 1718, it was said to be marked by the “Corwin Curse,” due to the occurrence of no fewer than eight premature deaths in the family since its purchase. While no witches ever resided in the home, Judge Corwin was responsible for the death of 19 accused women and men. Could the tragedy that befell the Corwin household indeed be the result of a curse cast by the Judge’s victims?
While one of the other judges and twelve jurors would eventually go on to apologize for their roles in the Salem Witch Trials, Jonathan Corwin would remain forever silent. Some believe that this lack of repentance is the root cause of the family’s later suffering. The five children Corwin and his wife bore between 1684 and 1690 would all die young and, in 1717, Corwin’s eldest son would die of fever. The same sickness would eventually claim Corwin himself, along with his wife. This series of deaths would lead the Corwin household to collapse.
In the years since the Corwins’ residence, the Witch House has been renovated, restored, and even relocated 35 feet to the west to account for expanding roadways. During its relocation, bones were found beneath the house — the bodies were never identified. Nowadays, the Witch House serves as an attraction for visitors touring historic Salem. Within, you’ll find the remains of witch wardings and even a poppet (a doll used for spellcasting) that was once possessed by the first condemned “witch,” Bridget Bishop.
Does Bridget’s spirit dwell within the house, brought there by her doll? Do the witches who lost their lives permeate the structure? Or is it the Corwins themselves who cause some visitors to feel the chill of an unseen specter?
Salem in the Modern Age
Salem has since learned from its troubled past, and the city and its residents place a high value on human rights and acceptance. In fact, Salem is now home to a thriving community of modern-day witches. While the witches of the past were wrongfully accused of devil worshiping and Satanic acts, these contemporary witches practice various forms of peaceful, Pagan traditions that emphasize peaceful existence and social justice.
Throughout the years, Salem has frequently been captured on screen, serving as the filming location for shows like Bewitched and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Salem’s location and history would also serve as heavy inspiration for the Halloween-favorite, Hocus Pocus.
Today, as you walk down the streets of Salem, you’ll find a rich mix of urban living combined with the preserved past. Ghost tours and witch walks abound, as well as museums and purportedly haunted shops—like the famous Wicked Good Books store. October is a month of celebration in the city, and you’ll find the streets filled with tourists and locals alike, dressed to the nines in witch hats and dark cloaks.
While passing through a cemetery or watching a Witch Trial reenactment, it’s easy to get caught up in the theater of it all. But one should never forget the true nature of this city’s tragic past, for it is through this remembrance that we can learn to do better and look to the future with more open hearts and minds.