Physical Evidence of Witch…Trials: The Salem Witch Trials 1692 Exhibition

October 22, 2020 — The few surviving artifacts of the Salem Witch Trials haven’t been publicly shown in 30 years. We’re talking about an event that has been namedropped every single day in this country since it happened, that has become a modern metaphor and a broad space in popular culture. More than that, in a city obsessed with the ancient murder of its innocents, these artifacts have somehow been buried in a basement of the wealthiest institution of Salem for decades.

Until now.

If you read A Season with the Witch, you witnessed me stumbling upon the fascinating story of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) versus the city of Salem. It’s the chapter entitled “The Art of Selling Salem,” and it details the emergence of PEM,  how it came to own most of the real estate downtown (some three dozen buildings) and the ultra-rare artifacts of the witch trials, as well as how it wanted nothing to do with all the hocus pocus of Salem, ancient or modern.

So what’s changed? Why is PEM now outing itself as the guardian of the artifacts of the Salem Witch Trials?

Some say it’s the new director, Brian Kennedy. In a speech to the North Shore Chamber of Commerce a year ago, he said, “What's happened to PEM over 25 years is we became more national, international. We had to do that to really grow…but we need to be now more local and regional as well. We need to be both.”

Compare that to the previous director, Dan Monroe, who oversaw the 25-year transformation of the museum into its present incarnation. When I interviewed his Chief Marketing Officer Jay Finney for the book back in 2015, he explained his boss’s take on all the witchery. “It’s just a nonstarter for us. We’re not about aggrandizing the myth of Salem.”

However, I’ve been told that this Salem exhibit has been in the works since before Monroe’s retirement. And in fact, in the final years of his tenure, PEM really did start engaging at a seasonal level, for instance, when it exhibited Kirk Hammett’s collection of movie horror and science fictionart and props, back in 2017. And in a city like Salem, the seasonal level is a local level.

This outcome seems to be part of a long-term and wildly successful plan. PEM (via Dan Monroe) pushed the witches as far away from itself as it could, and then, once its brand could stand on its own in the more rarified air of international-grade museum institutions, it let the witches closer. Now it has the international reputation of a high-class museum but can still be Salem’s hometown go-to. I was always rooting for you kids to get together.

But, really, who cares about all those machinations? I got to see the original Salem Witch Trial artifacts, man.

The exhibit is small, but considering we’re talking about a 328-year-old event in a mewling colonial town, it’s surprising that anything at all survived. It features everyday artifacts owned by the participants and victims of the trials, as well as original civic documents from the proceedings.

One of those everyday artifacts is John Proctor’s sundial, an object that could only be owned by a man of some means and which illustrates that nobody was safe during the Salem Witch Trials. Proctor was hanged about two months after the first victims swang. Another artifact was a set of wooden planks from the Salem Gaol, which held many of the victims before their one-way trek to the gallows. It was torn down in the surprisingly recent year of 1956 and replaced with an office building at Ten Federal. Other fascinating artifacts including a trunk owned by Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the trials who lived in Salem’s famous Witch House and a cane and bottle fragment owned by Philip English, an accused witch who was wealthy and connected enough to escape from jail with his wife. All pieces of colonial life that would be lost to time were it not for four measly months in the city’s early history.

My favorite artifacts were the walking sticks of George Jacobs, Sr., who was accused of being a witch by his granddaughter and was one of the victims of the trials. I imagined him hobbling into the courthouse on them to appear before the examiners. Maybe even walking up to the rope on Gallows Hill.

The exhibit also displayed original editions of books that were influential on the trials or which came out of the trials themselves. Like the Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for hunting witches written in the fifteenth century, The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, in which he defended the trials; and Thomas Maule’s Truth Held Forth, in which he condemned them.

Documents were on display too, the ink faded to brown and outlining in delicate cursive the tragic fates of so many. There were warrants and petitions, jailer’s bills for holding the accused witches, accounts of physical examinations for witch marks, complaints and indictments. The warrant for the execution of Bridge Bishop, whose neck tested the tensile strength of first rope of the trials, stuck out in particular (complete with the wax seal of Chief Justice William Stoughton).

The exhibit ended with the names of the victims painted on the wall and images of places you could visit in Salem and Danvers that memorialized or were connected to the trials—the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial, the Witch House, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, the Salem Village Parsonage Archeological Site—a walk down memory lane for me from my time working on A Season With the Witch.

Maybe the Salem Witch Trials 1692 Exhibition is the beginning of a much-needed official telling of the Witch Trials story in Salem. Or maybe it’s a temporary alignment of the stars. Either way, who knows when these artifacts and documents will go on display again. As of right now, they are on exhibit at PEM through April 4, 2021, which is longer than the amount of time it took the trials themselves to take place.