A Burning QuestionJuly 8, 2011
The motto of Salem, Massachusetts is, “To the farthest port of the rich Indies.”
I don’t know what that means, but I do know this.
If you’re walking around the town, don’t ask them how many witches they burned.
It’s a sensitive question.
“We didn’t burn any witches,” the tour guide says to me, “We hanged them.”
They say it with pride, like a dog owner telling you he never hits his dog, but only chastises him.
“Of course, there was that one woman,” the tour guide adds, “We crushed her with stones.”
I could tell that even he was embarrassed by that one.
Armed with this knowledge, I continued my walk through Salem doing the one thing I simply had to do:
Ask as many people as I could how many witches they burned.
I can tell you from experience that if you try this little experiment, each and every Salemite you encounter will give you the same lecture about hanging (but never burning) the witches. The only part that varies is whether or not they’ll disclose the poor woman who got crushed by stones.
I was going to give the Salemites a pass on all these indiscretions, until I saw this thing.
That’s right. It’s a statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The man whose only literary goal was to torture me in high school.
“This guy lived here?” I ask the tour guide.
“Yeah,” he answers. “In fact, the house that inspired The House of the Seven Gables is right down the street.”
“So here you are burning all these innocent women —”
“Hanging,” he interrupted.
“So here you are hanging all of these innocent women, and not one of you thinks to go after this guy?”
He didn’t seem to understand.
“You have a good afternoon,” he says and walks away.
I left the town with a thorough disdain for all the people of Salem and their sadly misplaced priorities.
I even thought of a new motto.
“Salem, Mass: Where we burn all the wrong people.”