it’s three hundred years from now, and a little town in Poland is reveling in
mischief, merriment and good old family fun, folks from the world over have
come to dress up in costume. A funhouse is set up for the kids; it’s a scale
model of a crematorium. That’s right folks! Come one, come all; kick up your
heels and help us celebrate Olde Auschwitz Days!

That could never happen … people celebrating an atrocity? You gotta be
kidding, right?

the comparison might be a tad extreme, as atrocities are weighed, twenty as
opposed to millions. Still, in my adopted hometown, the “Witch City,”
Salem, Massachusetts, folks are midway through a month-long festival that owes
its inspiration to just such a morsel of murder.

and fans of Haunted Happenings will spin it otherwise. We’re just celebrating
the spooky season and inviting all things that go bump in the night to come to
Salem, bump up against each other and in the process bump up the local economy.
After all, we’re the Halloween capital of the world.

everyone celebrates Halloween, but not every town has a witch on a broomstick
flying on the doors of its police cruisers. Witches and witchcraft: An ironic
source of fame. Until fairly recently, it was a source of shame. Even after
nearly three centuries, Salem was embarrassed by its history of judicial
malfeasance that saw innocent folks railroaded onto the gallows. Well, most of
them were innocent – wink.

would try to redirect attention to its seafaring past when its ships sailed to
the far reaches of the globe and returned to the infant United States with rare
and exotic goods and ideas. So many ships that the Chinese thought Salem was a
nation unto itself. So much wealth was brought in that tariffs collected in
Salem accounted for a majority of the revenue that funded the federal
government and spawned America’s first millionaires.

that kind of history doesn’t play on Jerry Springer. So, sometime around the
1970s, people from “somewhere else” with bucks to invest took a look
around Salem and mocked, “You people are sitting on a gold mine.”

Visitors pose at the Bewitched statue.

and marketing led to what these days is the closest thing to Mardi Gras you’re
likely to find in the chilly Northeast. And like Mardi Gras, Haunted Happenings
has a sexy vibe, but more of that in a bit.

let’s take a refresher on Salem’s claim to fame. Salem actually gets a bad rap
– initially. The so-called witchcraft hysteria didn’t begin in the port of
Salem, but five miles inland at the farming community of Salem Village, now
Danvers. Everyone knows the basic story, a group of adolescent and
pre-adolescent girls, bored out of their skulls in the midst of winter and
inspired by a slave/servant’s spook stories got caught messing about with
forbidden (occult)  things. In an effort
to escape a good whupping, they began to throw various adult neighbors under
the bus, and in those days the bus was called witchcraft. Most folks were
skeptical at the girls’ claims, but events began to snowball, if slowly, aided
and abetted by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning adults.

local judges determined there were cases to be made, the judicial proceedings
were taken over by William Stoughton, a high-ranking colonial official who had no legal training at all, and who
proceeded to toss out legal protections for the accused, such as the right to
counsel. He allowed accusers to chat with judges and allowed spectral evidence.
Imagine a DA today telling a jury, “Ladies and gentleman, I can’t show you
the murder weapon, on account of it’s invisible, but that’s okay, just take my
word for it.”

became evident early on that verdicts were foregone conclusions. Those who did
not confess were sent to the gallows, but for one grisly exception.

Corey was a miserable old guy whose hobby was bringing nuisance lawsuits
against his neighbors. In a fit of pique he accused his own wife of witchcraft,
only to relent and recant his accusation. Big mistake, then he was accused of

may have been the source of that Groucho Marx joke: “I went to court to
press my suit, but the judge said, ‘You can’t press your suit here, you gotta
take it to a cleaners.'”

Giles didn’t want to get taken to the cleaners by the authorities. See, if he
pleaded guilty to save his life, his property might well be confiscated and his
sons would lose their inheritance.

Giles, being law-savvy, refused to enter a plea, which blocked his indictment.
The downside of that was the sheriff was allowed to torture him until he agreed
to plea or confess. Giles got pressed like a cheap suit.

is, he was made to lay on the ground and something like a coffin was placed on
top of him. Then the coffin was filled with rocks to the point of crushing him.
He endured three days of this before he expired. The tour guides will tell you
it happened in Howard Street Burial Ground. But most likely Giles was taken
just across the street from the old gaol, to what is now the parking lot of the
Polish Catholic church, St. John’s.

final tally, 19 executed by hanging, one pressed to death.

is a large Wiccan community in Salem who claim these twenty as martyrs for
religious freedom. Well, no they weren’t. Any of them would have been content
to allow the hanging of a practicing witch. A creature so foul in the eyes of
God, that they would rather go to their deaths rather than name themselves as
such. Nonetheless, it’s ironical that Salem today hosts lots of folks who follow
the old religion.

year, an organization of North American vampires based in Montreal announced
they would have their annual vampires ball in Salem. The protests that flowed
from the local Witches in the form of letters to the editor were hilarious,
particularly the one that scolded: let vampires into Salem and the town will go
to hell. Okay, it’s paraphrased, but you just can’t make this stuff up.

of the newer, popular attractions is the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as
TV witch Samantha Stevens, donated by TV Land. Nevermind that the
series, “Bewitched,” was set in a Connecticut suburb of New York City,
not Salem. Also, Samantha is grinning more or less in the direction of where
the witch trials were held and so that troublesome dichotomy again rears its hydra
heads. Is this supposed to be fun?

That dichotomy is on display, uncomfortably one would think, everywhere in Salem, most notably
in the understated memorial to the victims, dedicated by Elie Wiesel in 1992,
the 300th anniversary of the hysteria, and which borders an alley of kitschy
stores and a pirate museum – Arrrrgh!

matter, Haunted Happenings has caught on in a big way. The largest crowds
recorded came last year when Halloween occurred on a weekend. Is it fun? Sure
it is. It’s a fun outing for families. But it’s even more fun for adults.

though we are often blessed with a stretch of Indian Summer in October, some of
the costumes worn by young women literally fly in the face of the season. Last year, I made note of one
striking young woman, hair so blonde it could blind you with reflected sunlight, wearing a black peaked hat and a black baby doll … with heels. So
many heads turned that it was a wonder there wasn’t a slow-motion pile up.

the sun goes down and the kids go home, the pheromones are as pungent as rum
and candy corn. It is like a fog settles downtown as chill air contacts hot

Salem is a sexy town. I’ve set a few stories here, two of which included sex
scenes in the Old Burying Point.

You wouldn’t want to ‘hang out’ behind Walgreens three hundred years ago.

in a way, that’s the best balm for guilt, if indeed there remains any after so
much time. Today romance rules in Salem as potential lovers try to cast spells at each

live atop Gallows Hill. No one forgets my address. Already this month folks
have approached me while I was walking my spirit dog (really she’s a lab mutt, but
she has one bright blue eye that freaks out the tourists), and asked, “Is
this where they hanged the witches?”

The foot of the hill … behind Walgreens.”

then, in their expressions I detect a momentary letdown. As if something as mundane as a
pharmacy chain could somehow subtract from hallowed ground.

give them directions, send them on their way and then retreat to my home with
my black dog and two black cats.

Halloween, all.