The Town that Paranoia Built

Salem, Massachusetts is a living monument to the perils of witch-hunting.

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Published in United Church Observer in October 2015

Aug 19, 1962. Rev. George Burroughs, a Harvard-trained minister, stands on a ladder perched against a tree in Salem, Mass., with a noose around his neck. He begins to say the Lord's Prayer in a strong, sure voice. His very life depends on a perfect recitation since it's believed that real witches are incapable of saying this prayer without making a mistake.

Burroughs gives a faultless delivery. The crowd begins to murmur. Some are moved to tears. But Burroughs is hanged anyway. Another Puritan minister, Rev. Cotton Mather, an enthusiastic supporter of the infamous Salem witch trials, which have consumed this New England town for the past several months, watches the proceedings from horseback. He stills the restless gathering by reminding them that Burroughs has had his day in court and that "the devil has often been transformed into an angel of light."

Burroughs is one of five people hanged that day, one after the other, for the crime of practising witchcraft. The crowd's wary reaction represents the beginning of public opposition to the witch trials. After all, if a respected minister can be hanged, anyone might be next.

One month later, there is a final round of eight executions before the trials are stopped altogether. By then 20 have been killed: 14 women and five men by hanging, and one man pressed to death under heavy boulders in an attempt to elicit a guilty plea.

In the twisted logic of the times, if accused persons confessed to being a witch and named others, they escaped the noose. Dozens chose this option. But those who maintained their own innocence and refused to make false accusations - lying, they believed, is an eternal sin - lost their lives.

Things have changed a lot in Salem in the ensuing 320 years. Once equated with paranoia and intolerance, the city today prides itself on being a beacon of acceptance and a champion of diversity. Twenty years ago, it launched the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, in memory of the victims and to salute those who promote tolerance and speak out against discrimination.

It's known as an LGBT-friendly community: last year the mayor signed a "No Place for Hate" ordinance extending protections against discrimination to transgender people.

Salem also has a reputation as one of the most welcoming communities in the United States for those who practise Wicca and other neopagan religions.

It's estimated that about 10 percent of its population of 40,000 are practising Wiccans, says Jeff Page, a local witch and guide for Salem's walking tours. "Salem is probably the only place in the world where you can walk around with a pentacle [a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle that's the symbol of witchcraft] around your neck and no one will raise an eyebrow," he says.

While Salem has done an admirable job of adhering to the dictum that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, the city also capitalizes on its tragic history as a way to make a whole lot of money - over $100 million is spent by the one million tourists who come to town each year.

The creative branding of "Witch City" began in earnest soon after the TV series Bewitched filmed a few episodes at the historic Hawthorne Hotel in 1970. It was then that witchcraft priestess Laurie Cabot opened America's first witch shop in Salem.

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