Witches, sorceresses, brujas, healers: Women with special powers are known all over the world. But only one place—Salem, Massachusetts—is proud to call itself Witch City.
Salem is a coastal city north of Boston, and was a top colonial port. The town held longtime spice monopolies, and even today most of the pepper on the tables of North America comes through Salem. The city is also home to some exceptional pre-Revolutionary architecture.
But most know Salem as the settlement where in 1692 and 1693, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. In the end, 20—mostly women—were executed for conspiring with the Devil and bringing harm to their neighbors by supernatural means. They were innocent, of course, and the town’s name—a form of the Hebrew word “shalom,” or “peace,” will forever be associated with this eruption of shared insanity.
Today, the city celebrates its historical witches (to the dismay of some, in a shamelessly kitschy way) and is home to many modern-day practitioners of “the Craft.” And shared insanity takes the form of Halloween revels, which begin in early October and last all month. Whether you come to celebrate the holiday, get your future read, or stock up on the North Shore’s finest yarn, here is some of what you should know.
Your first stop will probably be Circle of Stitches. This is a spacious, naturally lit shop down on the picturesque Pickering Wharf, which owner Ana Campos has stocked with gorgeous squishy skeins from Brooklyn Tweed, Shibui Knits, Madeline Tosh, Harrisville Designs, Quince & Co, YOTH Yarns, and more—including her own hand-dyed line Toil & Trouble.
Ana recently began her campaign for Salem city council. A knitter in power! Think of it …
Circle of Stitches also stocks magazines like Laine and Pom Pom, embroidery and weaving supplies, and all manner of delightful gifts and accessories for fiber enthusiasts. There are even Salem-themed goods like enamel mugs and locally made, hand-dipped candles in every color. The calendar is full of classes, and every second and fourth Thursday, you can come for Sip and Stitch cocktail hour.
Not far away on Front Street, English expat Fidelis Fenno’s needlework shop B.F. Goodstitch offers locally themed projects like Witch House cross-stitch, and Christmas ornaments of the ubiquitous Salem logo of a witch riding a broom, in spooky silhouette.
Street signs, taxis, the giant water tower, and even the official seal of the city police force all sport this witch. We’ll talk about parking during October later. You don’t want to get a ticket from this guy.
When you’ve sorted your fiber intake, you’ll be wanting other sustenance. Your morning go-to should be A&J King. The emphasis here is the by-hand tradition; their motto is “No pain, no pain.” I recommend the canelés (little towers of custardy-fudgey interiors, with a crunchy crust, heaven!), all varieties of croissant, and the sticky buns.
See those canelés on the left there? You should probably get two of those.
A favorite Salem photo op is the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens (from the ’60s- and ’70s-era sitcom Bewitched). You can climb right behind Sam on her broom, make a wish, and leave an offering of flowers or patisserie in her upturned hand.
In forbidding contrast, just outside the hokey-yet-sobering Salem Witch Museum is a statue of Roger Conant, first governor of the English colonists in Salem. So imposing! So Puritan! (Conant was in fact a pacifist who led settlers away from the colony at Plymouth after he witnessed the violent behavior of Myles Standish.)
If the lines at the Salem Witch Museum are too long, head instead to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).
The museum is a compound of several buildings and architectural eras. One is the original home of the East India Marine Society, a group of sea captains who had all sailed around either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.
Some of the objects from the Society’s “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities” have been retired, like the shrunken heads I remember seeing here in the 20th century. Many are still on display, though, including centuries’ worth of textiles from Oceania, and some magnificent ship’s figureheads.
Yin Yu Tang, or “Hall of Plentiful Shelter,” is a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) house that was disassembled into nearly 3,000 pieces and brought over from China on a container ship in 2001.
For the Halloween season, the museum is hosting It’s Alive!, a collection of Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s classic horror and sci-fi movie posters.
While you’re there, you’ll also want to see Anila Quayyum Agha’s monumental and ravishing light sculpture All the Flowers Are for Me.
The PEM-commissioned wicker sculpture Stickwork, by Patrick Dougherty, is installed nearby. It’s been weathering in place for more than two years, and will be up through 2017. You can explore it inside and out.
For afternoon sustenance, Jolie Tea Company is a tiny and refined spot with many tea varieties and macarons to pair with them. (The Earl Grey macarons are sublime. And kind of on the big side, the way we like ’em here in America.)
Proprietress (is this the right word for a modern-day tea shop owner? Somehow in Salem I feel it might be) Amy even has a lending library inspired by Shakespeare & Co of Paris, the famous bookshop whose founder, George Whitman, spent his childhood in Salem. In case you don’t finish your book over tea, know that there are no requirements for borrowing. (I picked up a book full of Parisian shopping secrets, natch.)
Salem supports dozens of witch supply shops, bookstores and botánicas. Crow Haven is the oldest of them, and is worth a visit. My favorite, though, is the youngest: HausWitch Home + Healing, just down the block from the Bewitched statue.
HausWitch stocks candles, tarot decks, and herbal remedies, as you would expect, but also household goods like table linens in moon prints, books on tidying and pillows.
Lots and lots of pillows.
Owner Erika Feldmann is the creator of HausWitch’s ready-made spell kits, good for any magical assistance you or your home may need. Want to freshen the vibe? There’s Open Window. Want peaceful coexistence with roommates? Co+Habitate. There’s also HausWarming for your new space, and if you’re wanting a place that hasn’t come to you yet: Dream Haus. All you need is inside, including an old-fashioned skeleton key for the front door.
Now Age Travel + Healing is HausWitch’s sister business. In addition to providing Reiki work and other healing modalities in their airy Front Street space, owner Melissa Nierman leads small-group walking tours with an emphasis on the little known and the offbeat. One tour visits Salem monuments associated with specific tarot cards. There are also tours of Salem’s witch history, from the trials to the present day, history of spiritualism tours, and a tour of lost Salem architecture.
No tour can skip the 17th-century house known simply as the “Witch House” in downtown Salem. Once the home of witch trial judge Jonathan Corwin, it also served as impromptu jail for the accused. It is now a museum, and the last remaining structure in town with ties to the trials.
The John Ward House is another PEM property open to visitors. Many Colonial-period houses were garish by modern standards; New Englanders are known to have loved bright salmon and cherry and lemon-colored homes. But if there is an architectural theme to 17th-century Salem, it is brooding. The mood on early Salem’s mood board was … pretty moody.
Later period homes, in the Georgian and Federal styles, are also celebrated. Not with blue plaques though! Instead, the Historical Society employs little white houses. Fun fact: “Cordwainer,” or maker of new shoes (as distinct from a cobbler, a repairer of shoes), was a common profession in the colonies of Boston’s North Shore. The word is related to cordovan, or Spanish leather.
The House of Seven Gables is both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best-known novel and the actual place he wrote it.
Nathaniel was the great-grandson of Judge John Hathorne, aka the “Witch Hanging Judge,” who never publicly repented the deaths he ordered, and later served on the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature. It is thought that Nathaniel added a “w” to his name to make his relationship to the Witch Hanging Judge less obvious.
A breath of salt air should dispel any lingering historical gloom, so you’ll want to make time to explore the waterfront. The National Park Service’s vessel Friendship is out of the water right now for repairs, but Pickering Wharf and Salem Harbor are still beautiful spots.
And if you’re in Salem, you’re too close not to pop over to Marblehead, which has its own spectacular group of well-preserved colonial architecture and occult connections. Marblehead, after all, is the town where H.P. Lovecraft felt himself yanked centuries back in time in a split second—an experience he called the most powerful moment of his life.
Getting there: As all locals know, parking is the real terror of Halloween in Salem. Don’t even attempt to drive. Take the train from Boston’s North Station, the Newburyport/Rockport line (the “T”). Buy your ticket using the T app. Or take the ferry from Boston’s historic North End, which stops for the winter the day after Halloween. Or you can get the bus from Boston’s Haymarket Station.