Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hey, we screwed up. Wanna see a museum about it? The Salem Edition

Salem could easily have been one of the many nondescript Boston suburbs. They are plenty of them, many of them with some tangential tie to America's revolutionary era or historically interesting architecture, but I personally can not muster enough enthusiasm to pay them a visit. 

Where Salem distinguished itself was by giving itself fully up to religious lunacy in 1692. This was not just the usual topical, fire and brimstone variety of god-inspired cray-cray. The Salemites went all out. In the midst of an perennially-feuding village, a new minister who had the questionable distinction of having failed at all prior vocational endeavors, managed to unite everyone in a massive game of "Find the Witch".
The minister, Samuel Parris, was well on his way to botching up his latest gig, with the villagers trying to very literally freeze him out of town by cutting his supply to any heating source. Luckily for him, his daughter and her cousin had a very public freak-out of sorts, wherein the girls "screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions".

Seeing as the local dr. could not find anything physically wrong with the girls, the minister came to the only sensible conclusion- not 'the whole town hates my dad/ uncle and it is really fricking cold in here"- no, he determined that they had been harassed by Satan. As getting jurisdiction on Satan proper would have been somewhat tricky, it was decided that there must be a human manifestation that could be put on trial.

Enter Sarah Good, a local homeless beggar, because surely if you are the Lord of the Underworld this is the body you are going to inhabit...and sure, you can control man's soul and lead him astray but getting a hot meal is tough, you know. She is charged as a witch. As is Sarah Osborne, a non-religious woman who dared to remarry and Tibuta who had the gall to be a mulata slave, one that worked for, you guessed, it the fine Rev. Parris.

Once the ball started rolling, there was no stopping it and soon even "upstanding" members of the community were being charged, almost 150 in all. Sham trials would lead to the hanging deaths of 18 people, 13 women and 5 men. One 80 year old man refused to enter a plea and was subjected to an interrogation that consisted of piling heavy rocks upon his chest until he could no longer breath. After two days of this 'questioning', he too passed away without ever having entered a plea.

It was not until the superior court got involved and determined that 'spectral evidence'- the testimony of the afflicted as to what they, and only they, had seen- should not be admissible that the convictions ended, those awaiting trial were released and an eventual "Oops. Our bad" was declared by the people of Salem.

Enter present day, Salem has become a become a beacon for all things new age-y, macabre and/ or simply quirky.  Every business, regardless of their function, seems to reference this dark period in history.

Even the local anti-littering campaign prominently features a familiar pair of striped stockings.

Or, let's say you want to promote your remake of a beloved 70's sitcom, starring an actress who is so heavily botox-ed that only her nose can move, you can simply place a statue in the middle of the town.

It is remarkable how they have managed to turn such a screwed up part of their history into their chief draw.  That said, there were plenty of acknowledgments of all the failures that led up to the mass hysteria.

An excellent film at the tourist information center explains the historical factors that led to these tragedies and ultimately turns the episode into a cautionary tale as to what happens when religious mania goes unchecked.

The walking tour I took, one that I highly recommend, as it covers not just the witch trials but the history of the city as a whole, made it a point to never refer to those that had perished as "witches" but always as "victims".

Most encouragingly,  the tour concluded at the memorial to the victims, all of whom have been subsequently pardoned for their "crimes".  Along the walls, which border a cemetery, are their names and quotes, all starkly speaking to what happens when sane judgment and logic is abandoned in favor of mob-fueled persecution.

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