It may be in ‘New’ England, but it is impossible to wander around Salem, Massachusetts, and not think that this place is old. The little brick houses crowding the streets; the gulls floating over the silent beaches; the country roads walled with reddening foliage. One of those dreamy, in-between spaces, where time once flowed fast and vibrant, but now just meanders along, exhausted by the weight of the history it carries.
Of course, you’ll want to come here partly for the witch hunts – that weird hysteria that gripped this part of the world in the late 17th century and left up to 20 people dead. And you’ll come across plenty of reminders. In central Salem, tarot readers, occult bookstores, and all sorts of spooky nonsense lines the street – after all, this is the land of the free, and even memories need to make money. Even one of Salem’s churches has been transformed into a museum of witchcraft. With great seriousness, the owners have listed the horrific results of ‘persecutions’ across the world (Bosnia included), and explain the benign origins of witchery in medieval European medicine-women. The highlight, though, is definitely the 30-minute show in what was once the main hall of the church – where, through gory dioramas and some audio visual trickery, we get to witness the origins of the trials in, allegedly, the innocent songs of a slave woman.
All this aside, Salem is fascinating also because it was, once, a rather important place. Go down to the dockside and you’ll come to the Customs House. This imposing old edifice is a long forgotten terminus of one of the greatest trade and social relationships in human history – that of the American east coast, Africa’s west coast, and rainy old western Europe. But another place that had a massive impact on Salem is China. Opposite the Customs House, you’ll find the replica of the Friendship – an ‘Indiaman’ that sailed literally halfway around the world as part of a three-way system known as the ‘old China trade’ that shuffled opium, tea, and silver around the world. In fact, there’s an entire twelve-building, nine-acre ‘Salem Maritime National Historical Site’ dedicated to Salem’s surprisingly international history, and it’s well worth an afternoon ramble.
If I had to choose, though, I would definitely go for the extraordinary – and I do mean extraordinary – Salem Peabody Museum. Beautifully designed and impressively well stocked for a museum in a city this size, the Peabody in particular features an entire Chinese house from back when they had Emperors over there, taken apart brick by brick, and brought across the Atlantic. It’s not too big, but it’s all too easy to get lost in its stone-and-wood courtyard and wonder if maybe they didn’t bring the ghosts who live here back too.
We went to Salem in the late Autumn (sorry, Fall), and the cloudless days of early September by the water’s edge offer moments of real peace. Nathaniel Hawthorne was born here – you can find his birthplace,a gorgeous wooden house in the most extraordinarily vivid shade of red, about ten minute’s walk from the ocean. Fans of Fanshawe and The Scarlet Letter will find Hawthorne’s world – or at least, it’s sometimes melancholy, sometimes achingly beautiful, spirit – all around them here. Don’t forget that between the Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace and the Customs House there’s at least one excellent ice cream shop. And there’s nothing that makes so much history go down as well as two scoops of mint choc chip.