Salem’s Moving History: The Continuing Saga of Witch City vs. the Peabody Essex Museum

I posted the below piece as a Twitter thread yesterday (so if it seems choppy, that’s why). This version contains elaborations, corrections, and a particularly relevant response.

February 26, 2018 — I’ve been following the latest in the Salem, MA, vs. Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) story avidly. It involves witches and art, monied institutions, powerless populaces, the control of history, and the character of a place.

It’s a fascinating, ongoing story that I dedicated a chapter to in A Season with the Witch. In precis, PEM in Salem is the ninth largest art museum in the country (and possibly larger after its current expansion finishes). That ranking is by area, not by collection size.

It was formed in the 1990s when two early American Salem museums (one a local history museum and the other dedicated to the international treasures brought back by Salem’s seafaring founders) merged.

The new version of PEM aimed to be a world-class, internationally relevant art institute, and then—surprisingly—met that goal. However, the museum is uncomfortable with Salem’s spooky reputation. It’s also uncomfortable with its own role as custodians of much of the city’s local history (it owns or controls many of the records from Salem’s 400 years of rich history, including most of of the Witch Trials documents and artifacts).

It won’t display the Witch Trials artifacts, is embarrassed by October, wishes it was in a major city (and that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston wasn’t so close), and would rather Salem have a salty, genteel North Shore reputation than a Witch City one.

That’s compounded by the fact that PEM is extremely well-funded (by old-monied souls whom I think are also uncomfortable with the city’s black and orange reputation) and—get this—owns much of the downtown.

That’s caused discord over the years as this big fish of a museum in the small pond of Salem has constricted access to materials, pushed for development of the downtown in ways that benefit it more than Salem’s other tourism, hidden Salem’s most famous artifacts, etc. Again, all while being extremely successful at creating a world-class art experience and ignoring anything too local.

The latest saga is that PEM has moved the historic records of the city (including Witch Trials stuff) in its purview to an offsite in Rowley where those records/artifacts will be more difficult to reach. And, most interestingly, just won’t be in Salem.

It’d be kind of like the Smithsonian keeping the original documents of the country in Frederick, MD (which honestly, it probably does, but only because it has too much to display and not because it wants them out of sight, out of mind).

Phillips Library on Essex Street, where the materials have historically been kept.

The whole thing’s a great, great story: A conflict of past vs. future, rich vs. pedestrian, art vs. history, city vs. institution, kitsch vs. culture, culture vs. character.

My feeling on this is that PEM should do whatever it wants to become a cultural force in the country. Over the past couple of decades, it’s been one of the great successes in the museum world. On the other hand, I think Salem needs an official history museum, an institution to protect its sensitive narrative that gets contorted every time someone uses the phrase Witch City (although I do love that contortion and use that phrase every chance I get).

Feels like both those concepts are doable, though, right?

But PEM would have to divest itself of some holdings (which is kind of an anti-museum thing to do) or create a sub-branded organization in charge of local history assets (which sounds cool, but would be a big, expensive initiative that would distract resources from PEM’s stated goals).

In conclusion, there’s no easy answer and you should Google “Blackbeard's skull” and “PEM.” You’ll have a good time. Actually let me do it for you.


After publishing the above thread, I was responded to by Donna Seger—a Salem resident, history professor, and the force behind the excellent Streets of Salem blog. She wanted to clarify and context some of my, admittedly, outsider ramblings.

She pointed out that the Witch Trial records are court records, so they belong to the state and, she thinks they will be “likely going back to the main state repository at Columbia Point,” which is in Boston. They are technically on loan to PEM.

I’m not sure why PEM changing repositories would suddenly make these not on loan anymore after 40 years of stewardship. But in addition to official court records, PEM also holds records and artifacts donated by families of the witch trial participants and private collectors. So I think Salem still loses that much more of its witchiness (keep in mind this is a place where most of the buildings with a connection to the trials have disappeared over time, with the only real exception being the Witch House).

But Donna’s main point was this: “The witch trials story is such a small part of the much larger story of donor intent and public trust.” And I agree, although sticking a pointy hat on that story makes outsiders like me care about it a lot more.

Here’s my full thread complete with the subsequent Twitter dialogue between Donna and me.

Check out Donna’s site, where she’s written regularly and thoughtfully on this topic over the past months.

Finally, check out A Season with the Witch, as I interviewed some of the central parties of the story, including PEM’s Vice Present of Marketing, the mayor, and various locals.


  1. I think it's worth mentioning that if you look at Donna's blog you can see that she is one of those people that hates Halloween and witch trials tourism.

    1. Oh, totally. Which is good evidence that the records transfer is a much bigger issue than just the Witch Trials since she and PEM share that in common. My favorite posts from her are during October. Ha.

  2. Hi J.W.,

    I read Ms. Seger's blog on "The Making of Witch City" and that certainly explains why this is a broader issue for her. She clearly detests anything related to the city's Witchy identity but her blog is filled with half-truths and age-old assumptions about the Witches in this city and why we are there. That's not suprising since I doubt she ever bothered to ask any of us. It's so much easier to insult us.

    That kind of insult is why I moved from Salem and, given that mine and my husband's business empire is probably the largest single occult revenue generator in the city, that we spend the spoils in a city 1,400 miles away is all the retort I ever need to point in Ms. Seger's direction. I don't if Ms. Seger is from Salem, but many of the most rabid anti-Witch folks are "condo people" who moved there in the past twenty years and have no idea what a factory lunchbox town of poverty and destitution Salem actually once was. When I was the child of a poor mother, we lived at places like Winter Street, Derby Street, and other areas of the city that were all, to be quite kind, dumps. I make a lot of money and I barely afford to live there now.

    In particular, Ms. Seger's willful ignorance on the subject of the Samantha statue is beyond me. Most of those condo people would never have moved to Salem had Salem not cleaned up it's f-act-ories and become the little yuppy enclave it is, but folks seem to forget that it's tourism that caused the cleanup. When you've people coming over for dinner, you clean your house. Well, that handful of Bewitched episodes had about as much to do with Salem's tourism success as anything ever has so to have a nod to the show makes perfect sense to those of us who understand and respect our city's tourism history.

    The positions of the PEM are also not as cut and dry as some might think it is. The marketing director and his wife are friends of my husband and I and they were at our wedding. No, the museum doesn't see eye to eye with me on everything, but many bridges of understanding have been built over the years.

    I was a Salem Witch for nearly twenty years before Witchcraft also became my career. I never thought that the people of 1692 were my "ancestors," other than the various folks from Salem to Ipswich who actually are, given that Robert Day of Ipswich first came over from Hertfordshire, England on the Hopewell in 1635.

    Laurie Cabot came here around the same time as those Bewitched episodes aired. She came here because it made sense, not because anyone executed in 1692 was named Cabot. If she were going to capitalize on that aspect of things, I think she might have changed her name to Nurse or Bishop. No, it was something bigger than that. Because the Witch Trials forever branded Salem with an association with the word Witch itself, this city remains the single greatest platform from which to educate what real Witchcraft is—not the Satanic delusions of paranoid puritans, but a mystery cult steeped in magic and old gods. Given that my entire adult life has been spent educating people about Witchcraft, I can think of no better place to do it than there, and it's one of the reasons that, in spite of my having moved a world away from the Ms. Segers of the world, the platform of our two shops, our events, and other endeavors in Salem, we maintain a strong educational presence. We see our staff there as ambassadors of Witchcraft, magic and, yes, Salem. They take that role as seriously as we take it and I think I speak for many Witches in Salem when I say we resent the type of misrepresentation that bigots like Ms. Seger continue to foist upon a spiritual and religious community.

  3. Thank you so much for your attention to this important issue, J.W.! The Boston Globe certainly agreed with your emphasis on the witch-trial aspects of the this tragedy in their editorial, and I guess that's why it's even more tragic that the trial records will be removed from Salem along with the Phillips Library. I think many people in Salem are concerned as concerned about the present as the past: and a vital city that balances a healthy tourist economy with one based on well-grounded and diverse historical interpretation--but it's hard to achieve the latter when you don't have any archives! Speaking for myself, I do tend to focus almost exclusively on people in the past: the victims of 1692, and the donors who left their family papers and possessions to the PEM's predecessors thinking that that we going to be part of Salem's history.

  4. I can definitely understand the divide. When I lived in the Boston area I loved Salem but hated the "witch kitsch". I was fascinated by the kind of "spooky" miasma of Salem's sad past but felt it would be nicer if the "witchy" image of the city was a remembrance of a gross injustice during a time of ignorance as opposed to some characterization of the city as a haven for witches (as if the witches of the 17th century actually existed or something silly like that!) (I also loved the PEM, a great museum.)