Fresh from a visit to Salem, Mass., and recalling a more distant one to Rouen, France, I can’t help but think about the similarities between these two places and how they’ve treated an especially dark period in their past. As people who read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible know, Salem was the site of witch trials in the early 1690s. Puritans couldn’t quite handle the exuberant fits of some preteens and the summoning of the universe by Tituba, a black slave. Although those tried were afforded a trial, spectral evidence—in essence, mention of the defendants’ spirits leaving their bodies—was admitted. More than a dozen convicted witches were hanged; one man was crushed to death with stones. Massachusetts, at the time, was a British colony.
In Rouen, the establishment couldn’t quite handle the accomplishments of the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc. Summoned by mysterious voices as a teen to help save France during what became known as the Hundred Years War, she dressed as a man and helped France to some impressive victories over the English. Unfortunately, she was captured and turned over to the English and tried by the Church in Rouen. Accused of witchcraft and heresy, she was burned at the stake in 1431. She was 19.
During my short visit there, I bought some chocolate Joan of Arc’s teardrops, visited a church dedicated to her, and saw where she was burned. Would I have stopped and purchased some chocolate-covered almonds had they been otherwise named? Probably not. Would I have been quite so fascinated with Rouen? No again.
Across the Atlantic, Salem at one point was a prosperous port, but it wouldn’t be long before boats headed toward deeper harbors in Boston and New York. Today, Salem is a tourist destination, and a most pleasant one. Yet it’s interesting that the place that committed some horrendous acts against innocent women and some innocent men now can’t quite escape its darkest hours. Visitors can head to all sorts of attractions focusing on the witch trials and executions. There’s the Witch House, the Witch History Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Salem Witch Village, the Salem Witch Museum, and on.
Initially I was conflicted: Is it okay to enjoy these places, and to visit these sites? I’d felt the same when I learned of the Titanic experience in Florida. Should a tragedy where 1,500 people died really become a Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding–sort of dinner theater activity?
Yet, I’ve also been to sites commemorating other horrific moments in history. I’ve visited the park in Berlin that was formerly the Moabit Prison; I’ve been to Old Fort Niagara in upstate New York where too many early conflicts involving colonists and indigenous peoples took place. Just as these places educate about past atrocities, the unfortunate episodes where women weren’t entirely conforming to societal expectations and were harshly punished for it should also not be forgotten.
Witches have a viable brand nowadays. I’m not sure quite so many visitors would be lured if the rules of evidence were what was advertised, or the importance of separating church and state. But still, it’s ironic to me that the place that was so concerned with outing witches is now so full of them.