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Mother and reluctant teenage daughter fall under the spell of this history-rich New England town

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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - "Salem? Why are you making me go to Salem?"

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By Catherine Mallette
McClatchy Newspapers (
3/30/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Travel

Those might not have been her exact words, but my teenage daughter's message was clear. She was a little less than thrilled that I had scheduled a day in Salem for us after a mid-winter weekend break in Boston. After all, she goes to school in a historic village in western Massachusetts. And she's even named for the historic Massachusetts town (Hadley) where I grew up. Why bother with another old town? Couldn't we have one more day in the Prudential Center mall?

But Salem was calling me. I had been there briefly as a teenager on a school field trip to visit the Peabody Essex Museum to view its impressive East Asian art collection. I didn't remember much about the town, but I was inspired by two relatively new novels. "The Heretic's Daughter" by Kathleen Kent is about one of the women accused in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

The other, which I absolutely loved, is called "The Lace Reader." It takes place in a modern-day Salem, filled with tourist-trap witch shops, Wiccans and colorful characters. Author Brunonia Barry casts a lure to readers who will want to see these people and sites themselves.

And so we left the busy streets of Boston and drove northward, traveling about 27 miles in about 50 minutes.

When we arrived, the town common, a vast open space around which Salem was settled in 1626, was covered with a blanket of snow. Commons were originally constructed so villagers could have one well-protected place to graze their animals and to use for militia practice. I like to think of them as the Colonial version of a pool-and-rec center in a modern subdivision.

We checked into the Hawthorne Hotel, which sits on the edge of the common, and immediately headed out to explore. We learned one thing very quickly: Salem is a great town for foot traffic. It is easy to get around (even with dirty, melting snowdrifts) and you can walk to most attractions.

After a quick and delicious lunch at Boston Hot Dog, we started at the Visitor Center on New Liberty Street, where we admired a detailed miniature display on early maritime life. In the center of the room was a map of local attractions, and we asked one of the people on duty which of them were open.

This is something that I had forgotten about New England in the quarter-century since I've lived there. Many places do not have "winter hours." Several of the places we wanted to go were closed until April. So no Witch Dungeon Museum. No Witch History Museum. No Pioneer Village. Apparently the best time to visit Salem is in October around Halloween, when absolutely everything is open to accommodate the hordes who descend upon the town for its monthlong Haunted Happenings celebration.

Nevertheless, we identified a trio of museums that sparked our curiosity and off we went.

We started at the Salem Witch Museum, housed in a former church. "Frommer's New England" guidebook assured us this would be "one of the most memorable attractions in eastern Massachusetts" and called it "interesting and scary."

My daughter had a different opinion, declaring it one of the worst museums that she has ever visited. It was, I will say, a bit tired, but it did give a comprehensive and succinct overview of the events of the witch trials (and it might be scary for very young children). Visitors sit in a large auditorium and around them are life-size figures posed in scenes that light up as the narrator speaks for about half an hour.

There's plenty of time to ponder how odd it is that you are in this very place, only because more than 300 years ago, over the course of seven months, 20 people were killed when a group of girls went a little crazy and started accusing various adults of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. That those girls could wield so much power says more about the harsh, puritanical lives of the settlers than about the girls themselves, I think.

Our next stop was the Salem Wax Museum, where we bought a two-part ticket for that museum and the Salem Witch Village across the street. The wax museum was also a bit tired, consisting of a room full of life-size displays depicting events in the witch trials ("There's old Tituba again," we said, as we looked at this museum's interpretation of the West Indian slave who inspired the witch-crying girls with her tales of the supernatural). But this museum also had some interesting scenes from Salem's maritime history. The gift shop downstairs was a very pleasant surprise. This is a great place to take kids, even teenagers.

Hadley immediately involved herself in a gravestone rubbing activity while I tried to replicate the knots shown in the hands-on display about sailing. There's even an area that's a little like Build-A-Bear, where you can purchase stuffed animals, groom them with blow-dryers and buy them clothes. We pounced upon a black cat, bought him a witch's hat and named him Salem.

The Salem Witch Village was the best of the three. As Hadley said, "We actually learned something there!" Again, the displays are a little on the old and cheesy side, but we learned that Salem was named for Jerusalem and that it was once the richest town in America thanks to its trade relations with China in the late 18th century (this would explain all the gorgeous old homes on Chestnut Street).

We also learned what a male witch is called (answer: a witch) and why exactly Wiccans follow a peaceful creed. And we learned that about 30 years ago, Wiccans first came to Salem and began developing a thriving community.

Done with our history lessons for the day, we walked over to the Museum Place Mall to catch a movie and then had a late dinner at Bella Verona, a cozy Italian restaurant that appeared to be filled with locals. Back in our room at the Hawthorne, as I collapsed into my not-so-comfortable bed, I looked over at Hadley and saw her reading the room's guest book about local attractions.

She started making a list. Could we go see Salem's most favorite witch tomorrow? Could she have her palm read? Could we take a photo of her with her head in the faux stockade? Could we go by the bookstore down by the harbor, and what about breakfast _ it looked like there were a lot of good bake shops.

Aha. My hopes were realized.

Salem, it turned out, had won my daughter over with its charms.




Two 2008 debut novels inspired our trip to Salem. Reading one or both will enhance your visit.

_"The Lace Reader" by Brunonia Barry (William Morrow, $14.99 paperback). This page turner takes place in modern-day Salem. The narrator comes from a long line of mind-readers and women who tell fortunes based on the patterns in hand-made lace. The author, who was born in Salem, describes a quirky harbor town that relies on a cheesy tourist trade and fosters oddball characters. This book is a great combination of well-defined characters and twisting plot. I've read descriptions of it as a "mystic thriller" and I think that's accurate. The publisher, William Morrow, and the town of Salem are both hoping the book will spark interest in Salem tourism (it worked with me!) and already there are some special "Lace Reader" tours offered around town, including one offered by the Hawthorne Hotel.

_"The Heretic's Daughter" by Kathleen Kent (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99 hardcover). Penned by a Dallas author who is a descendent of one of the women executed in the witch trials, this book tells the story of that woman, taking readers inside rustic Colonial cabins and the underground jail for "witches."


_Hawthorne Hotel. This well-located hotel next to the common is one of just 221 hotels in the national Historic Hotels of America program. If you are familiar with historic hotels, then you know that part of their charm is that they can be quirky. Our bathroom was split in two _ on one end of the room was the shower in a place that must have once been a closet. Everything else was in another small room on the opposite end of the bedroom. The beds were saggy and the TV's remote control didn't work, but the lobby and hotel room were beautifully furnished, and the hotel staff was friendly and helpful. A bonus for fans of the TV show "Bewitched": When the show shot episodes of Samantha's visit to Salem, Elizabeth Montgomery and her real-life husband stayed in this hotel. 18 Washington Square W., 978-744-4080.

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_Boston Hot Dog. This may be the best hot dog I've ever had. Lots of fun, gourmet combinations to try, including, surprisingly, a Texas Dog, with chili, cheese, jalapenos and bacon. We stuck with basic cheese dogs. Limited seating at counters. 60 Washington St., 978-744-2320.

_Brother's Deli & Restaurant. Nothing fancy in this cafeteria-style place with TVs mounted on the walls. But the food is fast and good and not expensive. Breakfast is served all day. We recommend the eggs and hash browns. 283 Derby St., 978-741-4648.

_Bella Verona. Family-run Italian restaurant high on charm and great food. Intimate atmosphere, as the restaurant only seats about 40 people. Pasta is fresh and handmade. Lots of seafood options that take advantage of Salem's location. Entrees are very reasonably priced, about $13-$16. 107 Essex St., 978-825-9911.


_Salem Witch Museum, 19 ˝ Washington Square, 978-744-1692. Admission: Adults, $8; children 6-14, $5.50; seniors, $7.

_Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers and Salem Witch Village, 288 Derby St., 978-740-2929.

_Hysteria Pass covers admission to both. Adults, $10.95; students, $5.95; seniors, $8.95. Age 5 and under free.


We didn't have time for these, or they were closed during our visit, but they are popular attractions.

_The Peabody Essex Museum. Features art from New England, Africa, India, Asia and East Asia, including items brought to Salem by sea captains during the days of early trade with China and an 18th-century Qing dynasty house. Upcoming exhibit: "India's Contemporary Artists Mine Their Traditions" opens April 4. East India Square, 800-745-4054.

_ "The Friendship." A replica of a 1797 sailing ship, "The Friendship" is anchored in the harbor. The tour is part of a larger tour of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. 174 Derby St., 978-740-1660.

_The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a now-classic book about this house, owned by his cousin. The tour of the 1668 home features costumed guides and period furniture and gardens. 54 Turner St., 978-744-0991.


Catherine Mallette:


© 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

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