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Demystifying Witchcraft in Portsmouth and Salem

Salem Witchcraft Museum /

“Oh God, it’s October again!” Prof. Emerson Baker groans over the phone, and I can almost hear his eyeballs roll up towards the heavens. Reporters by the dozen call “Tad” Baker this time of year for their annual Halloween fix. (Continued below)


But it’s his own fault. Dr. Baker teaches history at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. He specializes in the 17th century and often teaches a course entitled “Witchcraft and Magic in Early New England.” His popular book The Devil of Great Island is an entertaining yet scholarly study of the mysterious flying rocks that pelted tavern-keeper George Walton in New Castle, NH in 1682. Now Baker is deep into the research for his next book. Storm of Witchcraft will focus on the Salem Witch Trials for the prestigious Oxford University Press. And he will appear on-camera next month in the National Geographic television special "Salem: Unmasking the Devil."

The curse of Witch City

Prof. Emerson Baker author of "The Devil of Great Island" / Macmillan photoSalem, like Portsmouth, was once among the most active ports on the Atlantic coast. Its history is rich with maritime tales of the China Trade and privateering and famous figures like navigator Nathaniel Bowditch and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Since its seaport trade collapsed and its industrial era faded, Salem has become dependant, again like Portsmouth, on heritage tourism. But despite its rich past, Salem has been branded as “Witch City.”

“It’s really too bad,” Baker says. “It [witchcraft] really has more to do with Danvers than with Salem. Only the trials and executions took place in what is now Salem. It took up less than a year of Salem’s history, and yet it has overtaken all of this other stuff historically.”

What began as clever “branding” has morphed, for many, into a cheesy stereotype of Hollywood-influenced fiction – more Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter than historic Salem. Shops focused on the supernatural litter the historic district selling plastic human skulls and glow-in-the dark fangs. Directly across from the prestigious Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) visitors can pose for photos wearing rented witch costumes gathered around a fake boiling cauldron. Baker quotes from one tourist brochure that claims: “This is Salem’s only authentic paranormal tour.”

“Historians and locals want to tell the Salem story correctly,” Baker says. “But when we tell it correctly, people aren’t going to come for the witchcraft and Halloween tourism.”



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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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