Historian Emerson Baker on the Salem Witch Trials

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Back in October 2014, we interviewed Salem State University historian Emerson Baker about his book The Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.  You can read that interview here.

Recently, I found an interview with Baker conducted by a National History Day student named Kayleigh.  It is published in five parts (so far) on the Witches of Massachusetts Bay blog.  Here is a taste of part three:

Kayleigh: In Salem, they treat history like it’s more of a show than actual history. The museums are kind of terrible. Why do you think that is? Is it because they think people will be more interested in the drama than the truth?

Dr. Baker: I think part of the problem is that Salem has become a dark-tourism community, a witch-trials-tourism community. A large part of Salem’s economy depends on tourists, depends on people coming here to visit the sites associated with the witch trials. And it’s problematic. We have the 1692 deaths of 19 innocent people and we have the people who are promoting dark tourism. I call it the vampire-fangs-and-fried-dough phenomenon. People come here during Haunted Happenings and find this carnival-like atmosphere.

I think the problem is knowledge. One reason I started teaching about Salem witch trials and writing my book was that if you tell people the story, it gives them great pause about what they are doing in Salem. But the other problem is that people are doing this for a living. Most of the museums in Salem that make their money off of witchcraft tourism are not really museums. By definition, museums are nonprofit organizations. And these are all for-profit businesses, and, as you point out by your question, many of these places make their money promoting the spectacular, the morbid, the lurid, rather than trying to tell the story as we historians would like to have it told.

When they dedicated the memorial at Proctor’s Ledge* in July 2017, I was honored to be one of the few people who was asked to say a few words. What I said then was that I was thrilled to see Salem’s reaction when we came forward and told the mayor and her staff that we had confirmed the execution site. Frankly, when we did that I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was thinking, how on earth are we going to raise the money for a memorial? You know, we were just a small group of folks. Immediately, at that first meeting, the mayor and her aide simply said, “thank you for doing this. This is now our duty, our responsibility to help ensure that this site has been properly memorialized and is never forgotten again.” And the city took it upon itself immediately to build a memorial there.

To me, it was something wonderful that the city was willing to confront its past. So when I got to speak at the dedication, I mentioned this and the way the community came together to build this memorial. To me, I hoped it signaled a new beginning for Salem and how it treats the witch trials.

I would like to see in the future less celebration and more communion, dedication, and thought about the events of 1692, rather than celebration and the carnival-like atmosphere. Realistically, we’ll never get rid of that carnival-like element. I think we need more reflection and less celebration. I guess I am mildly optimistic that that can happen.