Salem in Massachusetts, abounding in Puritan and American history is perhaps best known for the 1692 witch trials. My knowledge was restricted to magazines and websites which variously have described it as having a “witchy heritage, a haven for fans of “the occult and macabre” and of course that it was a prime destination during Halloween.
But Salem has another equally compelling history. That which is related to its role as the foremost maritime trading port for the country during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Driving from Boston to Salem
A trip into the Boston area opened up a sudden opportunity to visit this “witchy” town. On a bright and sunny summer day, my husband and I drove into Salem, located a mere 16 miles from the big city of Boston, for a short sojourn of 3-4 hours. There was a small public parking where luckily we found a spot and off we went.
History on Essex Street
We spent a pleasurable few minutes strolling along Essex Street, a pedestrian plaza of cobblestone and brick with its own storied history. Essex Street has been the main street of Salem since the 17th century and needless to say has seen many changes over the years. Still, there are many preserved shop fronts to give one a picture of bygone days though the building use has transformed over the years. The first such building I saw was the red shingled "London Coffee House" from 1698, today a sandwich shop but erstwhile "the gathering place of Patriots before the American Revolution" as was mentioned in the plaque above the entrance.
Close by was another such building, “U.S. Customs House 1805,” I read the board as I and my husband stepped inside into what was basically a gift store selling trinkets and ephemera. But I was curious to know more. It turned out that this was the first customs house from 1805 to 1807 before it moved to another street and is now known as the 1819 Custom house, a part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Being the primary port, Salem saw tremendous amounts of maritime cargo through the British spice trade, and also expensive goods such as Indian cotton textiles, silk, ivory and porcelain.
“Birthplace of National Guard,” said another street sign. Reading about it I discovered that the first American regiments were formed from the militia of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 which ultimately led to the founding of the National Guard.
Enjoying Essex Street
Today this street is chock a block with gift stores geared towards tourists with names such as “Bewitched in Salem,” “New England Magic,” “Wynotts’s Wands,” “Wicked Good Books” and many more. I was particularly charmed by “The Coven’s Cottage” which called itself a witchcraft store selling original artwork, jewelry, dried herbs, oils, teas, and items related to witchcraft rituals.
The shops were interspersed with cafes, restaurants, chocolate and ice cream shops, and a few attractions and museums. I noticed the Witch History Museum where the stories of the 1692 witch trials are told through dioramas and “historically accurate live presentations” as it was noted on the website. Short of time, my husband and I decided to bypass this place as I was more eager to visit the most famous of the lot, the Salem Witch Museum.
But that would come later. Ambling along the length of Essex Street my eyes chanced upon the ladies on each of the lamp posts. Decked in colorful skirts and bedecked hair, but eerily armless, the women stared out from each of the wrought iron posts, as part of a public art project done by local artists. It turned out that soon enough during our visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, I would learn about the significance of these statues.
After a quick lunch which included an incredibly flavorsome New England clam chowder at the Village Tavern restaurant on East India Square (immediately forming a connection between British Indian history and Salem in my mind), I was ready to explore a few of the town’s numerous places of interest.
Peabody Essex Museum, Essex Street
Our first stop: The Peabody Essex Museum. Housed in the East India Marine Hall, this most certainly is the preeminent attraction on Essex Street. The building was constructed by the East India Marine Society which was established in 1799 and consisted of mariners and seafarers who had sailed to China, India, and the Far East in vessels that belonged to Salem. The society functioned as a charitable organization and its primary aim was to set up a museum that would showcase curios not just from the Americas but also from around the world. Thus by 1825, the Society had succeeded in amassing a major collection of art objects.
Today this oldest continuously running museum in the country is a delight with a beautifully expanded gallery space and a sunlit atrium. The first expansion designed by Moshe Safdie in 2003 seamlessly incorporates the antiquated beauty of the East India Marine Hall with glass, brick and cement of modern times. Entering into the massive, light-filled atrium lobby I was struck by the towering, curved glass roof which reminded me of sails on ships. What was absolutely stunning was that a street was enclosed within the structure, creating a public thoroughfare, winding its way down the atrium, past the ticket desks, and gallery entrances.
A Walk in the Galleries
It was time then to step into the galleries. The museum has a stunning collection of art and objects that span the world of creativity and has a notable collection of Asian Export Art which focuses on Japan, China, and South Asia. Unusual exhibitions seemed to be the norm.
The exhibition on Japanese export art established how Portuguese merchants who arrived in Japan in the 1500s to the Dutch East India Company influenced the works of the Japanese artists of that era. A lacquer tray from 1801 with the seal of the United States was one such piece that caught my eye. The information mentioned how the Japanese artists copied the seal in gold after finding its picture in the customs documents from the ship “Margaret,” which had sailed from Salem with American sailors who worked for the Dutch East India Company.
The exhibit on India focused on modern and contemporary Indian art that explored the post-colonial Indian world and I saw for the first time works of artists such as M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Ganesh Pyne, and Bikash Bhattacharjee among others. Bhupen Khakhar’s “First Day in New York” from 1983, where the artist cleverly juxtaposed happenings from everyday Indian life with a view of New York seemingly showing the adjustments a person has to make on a move to a new place struck a chord with me as someone who too undertook this journey many years back.
I made my way around the exhibition, walking past Husain’s Varanasi, Tyeb Mehta’s Rickshaw Puller, Atul Dodiya’s Bombay Buccaneer, each demonstrating the many traditional and cultural facets of Indian life, history, and symbolisms in splashes of bold color. Somewhere I was also surprised by this highly intriguing exhibition being in Salem and not in a museum of a major city and thus felt myself being lucky to be able to see it.
Equally mesmerizing was the trip into the galleries featuring American Art. Splendid furniture such as intricately carved and upholstered sofas and chairs, inlaid and carved desks and drawers, fine wood armoires and bookcases highlighting New England craftsmanship, paintings spanning over 300 years depicting the lives of the people that inhabited these areas were all presented in halls that uniquely connected the items on display with the stunning architecture of the space itself.
My husband pointed out the exquisite plaster and paint sculpture, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?,” a piece from 1892 illustrating this famous line from the poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow where he illustrated the lives of the colonists.
East India Marine Hall, Essex Street
Connected to the new building was the East India Marine Hall, the original museum, where at last I saw the bigger versions of the lamp post ladies on Essex Street. I discovered that these were actually ship mast decor from the seafaring ships of the 16th and 17th centuries. A sculpture of Lord Ganesh on the doorway amplified the Indian connection to the Marine Society.
Salem Witch Museum
But of course, I was in Salem and so we absolutely had to drop by the Salem Witch Museum which explores an exceptionally poignant event from American history.
As we gathered in the small lobby area of the museum waiting for our docent to arrive, I read the many displays on the wall that presented the history of the witch trials, many places in and around Salem connected with it and also information on witches and witch hunts as is shown in history.
Once we took our seats for the show, which takes place in a darkened room that lights up as the narration begins and I got to see the dioramas, I first thought of it as bit kitschy but it did get the job done quite well.
The museum highlights the events from February 1692 to May 1693 that led to the trials and death by hanging of fourteen women and five men on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.
Having not known much about the Salem Witch Trials, I came away with a clear understanding of what it means to instill fear in a society and what that can lead to.
Interestingly enough, no photography was allowed in the display areas and so I had to be satisfied with clicking pictures inside the gift shop which was bursting with items related to various genres of spookiness with a good measure of Halloween and Harry Potter thrown into the mix.
And so it turned out that though I did not visit “spooky” Salem in the month of Halloween October, this charming town still succeeded to enthrall and made for a very memorable visit.
Written by: Susmita Sengupta
Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. Her articles have been published in Travel Thru History, Go Nomad, Go World Travel, Travel Signposts, Travelstoke App, In the Know Traveler and Intrepid Times.