Discovering art, literature & history


Salem, MA

Discovering art, literature and history in “The Witch City”: Salem, Massachusetts

by Barbara Rizza Mellin

For most of us, Halloween is a one-night event, but in Salem, Massachusetts, it’s a month-long celebration. 

While the stigma of the infamous witch trials of 1692 still haunts the city, modern Salem, approximately 20 miles north of Boston, has turned the episode into a tourism boom. Thousands of people visit this seaside community each year during October to join in the unique festivities, such as the annual Haunted Happenings Grand Parade. There are also year-round themed attractions, including the Witch Museum and Cry Innocent, a theatrical reenactment of the trail. You can even visit the The Witch House, home of founding father and trial judge Jonathan Corwin. With its seventeenth century-style unpainted clapboards and diamond-paned casement windows, it is the city’s only structure still tied directly to the infamous witchcraft trials. And author Nathanial Hawthorne’s family heritage included Judge John Hathorn, one of the presiding judges.

However, Salem has much more than witches to offer visitors. As many in Winston-Salem know, the name derives from “Shalom” meaning peace. Lovers of art, literature, history, and seaports will find something of interest. New England’s oldest mansion, the House of Seven Gables, was built here in 1668. Hawthorne’s birthplace home is also at the site. The elegant Hawthorne Hotel downtown displays framed handwritten letters from the author.

Another historic site is Salem’s Custom House where Hawthorne worked as a surveyor from 1846-1849. His dreary depiction of the building in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter doesn’t do justice to the grandeur of this Federalist edifice built in 1819. Salem is rich with historic houses dating from early Colonial to Georgian to Federal periods. Many were designed by Samuel McIntire, who embodied the American ideal. He was a self-taught woodcarver, responsible for creating much of the architectural grandeur of a major 18th century American city. Among the first to popularize the symbols of the American Revolution—the profile portrait of first president George Washington and the “American” eagle—he transforms them into decorative motifs for official buildings and everyday homes.

As the sixth largest port city in the U.S. in the 18th century, Salem was a major maritime municipality prospering from a complex trading system. At the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, you can visit a reconstruction of the 171-foot, three-masted frigate, Friendship, originally built in 1797. The treasures acquired in the “China Trade” by sea captains and wealthy merchants, such as Elias Hasket Derby, America’s first billionaire, became the basis for the collection at the Peabody Essex Museum (  Founded
in 1799, it is the country’s oldest continuously operating museum.

Today the museum, renovated in 2003 by world-renown architect Moshe Safdie, ranks as one of this country’s twenty-five largest art museums, and its exceptional collection has grown to more then 2.4 million items. Permanent and changing art shows highlight Asian, African, Native American, Oceanic, Maritime and Photographic works that bring a unique world cultural view to exhibitions. Among the museum’s architectural treasures are 24 historic buildings and Yin Yu Tang, the only complete Qing Dynasty house located outside China. This truly is a world-class museum worth the trip any time of the year.

You certainly don’t have to wait until Halloween to visit Salem, for this city by the sea is bewitching any time of the year.

Barbara Mellin is an award-winning artist and writer. As an art historian and world traveler, she finds inspiration in the “diverse cultures, natural beauty, and amazing people” that she has encountered in her visits to five continents, 24 countries and 45 states. Her articles on art and travel have been published around the world. Originally from the Boston area, she now lives in Winston-Salem, where she is a member of several professional art organizations and serves on the board of the Winston Salem Writers. For more information, visit


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