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16 miles NE of Boston; 4 miles NW of Marblehead

Salem is a family-friendly destination that’s worth at least a half-day visit, perhaps after a stop in nearby Marblehead; it can easily fill a day. If you know Salem only because of its association with witches, you’re in for a delightful surprise. Settled in 1626, four years before Boston, for centuries Salem enjoyed international renown as a center of merchant shipping. Its merchant vessels circled the globe in the 17th and 18th centuries, returning laden with treasures. One reminder of that era, a replica of the 1797 East Indiaman tall ship Friendship, is typically anchored near the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Salem also has literary heritage, thanks to novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and one of the finest cultural institutions in New England, the Peabody Essex Museum.

The Salem Witch Hysteria & Executions

The Salem witch trials that took place in 1692 were a product of old-world superstition, religious control of government, and mass hysteria. The crisis began in Salem Village (now the town of Danvers), in the household of Rev. Samuel Parris. A West Indian slave named Tituba told stories to the girls of the house during the long, harsh winter. The girls—9 and 11—began to act out the tales of sorcery and fortunetelling, claiming to be under a spell, rolling on the ground, and wailing that they were being pricked with pins.

The settlers took the behavior seriously, aware that thousands of people in Europe had been executed as witches in the previous centuries. Tituba and two other women were accused of casting spells. But the infighting typical of the Puritan theocracy surfaced soon enough, and an accusation of “witchcraft” became a handy way to settle a score. Anyone different was a potential target, from the deaf to the poor. 

A special court convened in Salem proper, and although the girls recanted, trials began. Defendants had no counsel, and pleading not guilty or objecting to the proceedings was considered equivalent to confessing. From March 1 to September 22, the court convicted 27 of the more than 150 people accused. In the end, 20 people were executed—14 of them women, by hanging. 

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The episode’s lessons about tolerance have echoed through the years. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible was a retelling of the Salem trials as well as an allegory about the prosecution and blacklisting of U.S. citizens accused of being communists in the 1940s and [‘]50s. Margaret Atwood based her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in nearby Cambridge because of the region’s history of Puritanism.