Salem sits on the coast of Massachusetts just north of Boston. While rich in maritime history, that is not what Salem is remembered for in the history books. Salem is home to the Salem Witch Trials which occurred in 1692-1693. While Salem was not the only location in the United States that executed suspected “witches,” these trials became the most famous and forever changed the history of Salem, also known today as “Witch City”.
Present day Salem does not tell the full story of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, Salem was comprised of Salem Town (present day Salem), and Salem Village (present day Danvers). Danvers officially broke off from Salem in 1752, changing its name and obscuring its historical attachments to the Salem Witch Trials. Today, most associate the witch trials with just Salem, but the accusations and hysteria started in Salem Village (Danvers) with the unexplained afflictions of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. The girls, ages 12 and 9, along with the village physician, would claim their afflictions were the result of witchcraft. They would name their first three victims of the Salem Witch Trials too: Tituba (The Parris’s slave), Sarah Goode (an outcast of Salem), and Sarah Osbourne (an older, ill woman). By Spring of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials were in full swing.
Around 200 people would be accused of witchcraft, and then 20 executed. Unlike the witch trials in Europe, the Salem Witch Trials never burned the accused. Instead, 19 were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge, which was located in Salem Town; one was pressed to death. A few died in prison while waiting their fate. Two men were at the center of the accusations and ultimately, some death sentences: Jonathan Corwin served as a judge along with John Hathorne. Corwin and Hathorne’s role as judges in the trials would end in October of 1692 when Governor Phipps established a Special Court of Oyer (to hear the trials) and Terminer (to make a decision). The Corwin family history in Salem dates back to 1638, arriving as merchants. Jonathan eventually worked his way up and move into the house now known as the “Witch House” in 1674. The house is located in present day Salem and has become a historic home and museum. The house received its nickname due to it being the only structure in Salem that one can visit with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials.
Salem is a very popular destination during Fall, especially during October, which is of no surprise given that we associate witches with spooky things and Halloween. Historically, the Witch Trials have nothing to do with Halloween. On the outside, the house is rather magnificent given the age, but has a certain eeriness in both structure and history. If you visit, it is recommended you buy your tickets in advance, especially during Fall. Tickets are $9 for adults and $6 for kids ages 6-14.
When you walk into the house, suddenly it seems less foreboding. You realize a family comprised of a husband, wife, and their children once lived here. The rooms are beautiful like most historic homes are. The museum has curated the space to include era appropriate furniture, décor, and accessories. As you tour the rooms, areas are roped off for the protection of the antiques, while information about the era is available to read, including some about the superstitions and medical practices during Salem in the 1690’s. The Corwin House provides an idea on what it was like to live in early America, of course the Corwin’s were a well to do family so represent a small portion of life back then. Nonetheless, this historic home is a window into a time period we can rarely touch today. I know for me, it provided additional insight as most historical homes I’ve toured were at least from the 18th century.
The tours are self-guided, but I recommend leaving at least 30-45 minutes in your schedule to make the most of this home, especially during peak season. There is a small gift shop that provides the usual knick-knacks as well as interesting replicas or items used in Salem in late 1600’s. The staff is often dressed in period appropriate clothing which adds to atmosphere and are very knowledgeable in the history of Salem. The house can get crowded, so watch your step between rooms, and up/down staircases. For those unable to go upstairs, there are photos that you can view, just ask a staff member and they would be happy to provide photos and explain the items and history on the second floor.
For those who watched the network series Salem, a replica of the house is used as a focal point in the show. The Witch House has remained an important piece of American history and in pop-culture. While there are other museums in Salem that focus on the witch history, this is the only true historic museum with real artifacts. The museum does not focus so much on the history of the Salem Witch Trials, but rather what it was like to live during that time. https://www.thewitchhouse.org/
To experience the full history of the Salem Witch Trials, I recommend visiting the Witch House, the various historical locations in Salem, as well as Danvers. Both Salem and Danvers outline the historical importance of various locations to include memorials. As a bonus, if you would like to add on to your visit another historic home that is loosely tied to the Witch Trials, then be sure to visit the House of the Seven Gables in Salem. While this historic home focuses on Nathaniel Hawthorne and his book The House of the Seven Gables, it is worth noting that Nathaniel Hawthorne is the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, the other judge who served alongside Corwin. It is speculated that Nathaniel Hawthorne added the W to his last name to disassociate from his family’s past.
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Larisa Moran is passionate about engaging more people with history. You’ll find her on Instagram (@History_Dame1776) where she delivers “history in under a minute,” and as a volunteer organizer at History Camps around the country. She’s also a regional editor for The History List. Larisa has a Master’s in Public Administration from George Mason University.