A Burning Question

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.”

43 thoughts on “A Burning Question

  1. Well, the good news is that they haven’t burned -er, hanged – any witches in a long, long time.

    Cartoonists, however, are still fair game.

  2. This has to be one of your best posts ever. By the way, every time I sneeze now my wife is replying with, “Chuck Norris.” Thanks Pastis. 😉

  3. Very fitting, that new motto. Hawthorne tormented me, too. Wonder if they’ll change their stationary right away or wait ’til the current stock runs out ….

  4. “Of course, there was that one woman,” the tour guide adds, “We crushed her with stones.” – Um, yeah…this was actually a man that was crushed with heavy stones. Thinking the tour guide needs a new job.

  5. We are going to Salem this December. I’ll be sure to ask all the natives how many witches were burned, carrying the torch on for you (pun intended!).

  6. I believe it was a man who got crushed by stones. Giles Corey, he was named. Those tour guides need to brush up on their history.

  7. When I went to Scotland they have a guard for the statue to the guy who created Calculus, especially around exam time.

  8. I think you meant to say: “Salem, Mass.: Where we HANG all the wrong people.”

  9. You can’t blame to tour guide for mistaking Giles Corey for a woman, he kept mistaking burning for hanging.

    P.S. Hilarious post!

  10. The motto refers to the trade with the Caribbean Islands (the West Indies) through which Salem, and many other New England seaports, grew wealthy and prosperous in Colonial times.

    /history lesson

  11. Don’t forget that Hawthorne’s family was involved in the trials. His great-great grandfather John Hathorne was one of the judges in the trials. Hawthorne added the extra ‘w” to his name to distance himself from the family legacy. Also, Salem Village, where the hangings took place is now called Danvers. They also changed their name out of embarrassment. The tourist trap that people visit is actually Salem Town. They only wish they’d hung a bunch of witches.

  12. Oh how I HATED the Scarlet Letter…such boring drivel! He loved the word visage…

  13. Brian is correct. Salem was a major shipping center in colonial times. One of the interesting points of interest in town is the Customs House, which you hopefully saw when you were there.

    Another interesting item on Salem and the witches is that the actual ‘incident’ occurred in Salem Village (now Danvers), and not Salem proper. As a direct descendant of Rev. Samuel Paris, I have done a bit of research on this!!

  14. So, we stoned one guy to death back in the 1600s. How many women are still getting stoned by fanatics in the middle east today? Not much funny there…

  15. Actually, Salem didn’t hang (or crush) any witches. Salem used to be named Salem Villiage. The original Salem was ashamed enough of their witch killing reputation that they changed the town name to Danvers. Salem Village decided to cash in on the tourist trade a few years back and changed their name. I totally took a course on this in college.
    And Giles Corey was definately a guy. He was crushed to death because he wouldn’t plea. If he’d pleaded, he would have lost all his land. So he kept his mouth shut so his descendants would have something to inherit. Legend has it his last words were “more weight.”

  16. The person that was crushed to death was not a woman, but a man. His name was Giles Corey, and when he was tried for witchcraft, he refused to plead either guilty or not guilty. Some sources state that the reason for refusing to plead was that if he entered either plea, his estate would be confiscated. By refusing to plead, he died without having lost his estate, which passed on to his sons. The crushing was a judicial procedure intented to force him to plead so that he could stand trial. He was 81 years old.

  17. Hmmmm, so the tour guide was an idiot. Folks from this region of the country should know that no woman was stoned during the Salem Witch Trials. Giles Corey was the only one stoned, his wife Martha was hung.

    And Hawthrone was descended from one of the witch judges.

    Oh, and did they feed you that ergot poisoning bit? That’s been disproven as the cause.

  18. fin fact stephan: hawthorne’s ancestors were judges in the salem witch trials.

  19. If you zoom in on the picture, you can see the Hawthone Hotel menancingly looming in the distance. If you stayed there you could have had lovely dreams where the townspeople slowly burned you at the stake while reciting to you the following Nathaniel Hawthorne Quotes;

    “A stale article, if you dip it in a good, warm, sunny smile, will go off better than a fresh one that you’ve scowled upon.”

    “A woman’s chastity consists, like an onion, of a series of coats.”

    “In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvelous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it.”

    “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”


  20. Read this yesterday and did not have time to respond. Another good one Stephan…you need to blog and tweet more 😉 Oh sorry, that is what RAT did!

  21. If you want to visit a really nice place where they did burn witches, head to Dornoch, Scotland, site of the last witch burning in Scotland. Lovely, lovely town.

  22. my favorite strip was the one where the crocs want “equal eating” rights, does anyone know the date of that one?

  23. Were you just looking for the answer, “We didn’t burn any witches, there’s no such thing?”

  24. Well, Hawthorne also wrote “Young Goodman Brown”, that’s got to be a point in his favor. That’s the only story of his I really remember, and I recommend it.

    Somehow I’ve reached adulthood without ever reading “The Scarlet Letter”, or maybe I’ve just suppressed the memory. Pretty sure that I did read “The House of Seven Gables”, but don’t remember anything about it.

    It’s kind of a shame, though, when most readers are “forced” to read these things for an English class, rather than coming to them on their own when they’re ready.

    Probably too serious for this blog, but I know from Stephan’s comments elsewhere that he’s not uninterested in literature.

  25. I believe they didn’t burn them because they wanted it to be a crime and not heresy like the Catholic Church. Only the church burns witches.

    Oh and the House of Seven Gables has a really cool secret passage in it that you get to use on the tour.

  26. Ah Mr. Corey. His last words (supposedly) were “more weight”. He wasn’t going to falsely accuse anyone to save himself. Now there’s a real old-school New Englander for ya.

    Interesting place, Salem. Try it around Halloween sometime.

  27. The real burning question is this: IS THIS BLOG DYING LIKE A CROCODILE WITHOUT FRESH ZEEBA MEAT?

  28. If you’re ever on the Queen’s Mall in Brisbane, Queensland, check out the statue of King George III. (he was the addressee on the envelope for the Declaration of Independence) Do what my friend did – loudly exclaim, ‘George the 3rd? Well, WHO would put up a statue to THAT as***le?!’ I was so proud. (he still makes me laugh) There’s your Australian visitor question! Besides, after PB4S, Australia is the second best place to ponder the subtleties of croc culture.

  29. My dad is one of the tour guides at Salem National Park. He HATES it when people ask about burning the witches. However I can confidently say he never would refer to Giles Corey as a woman – he’s way too OCD about history for that.

    He’s not a fan of the strip.

  30. Salem regarded the Witchcraft trials as shameful until the last 40 odd years when people found there was money in witches. Incidentally, as a consequence of the witchcraft trials, Massachusetts became the first Christian jurisdiction to decriminalize witchcraft.

    The Salem seal’s reference to the “farthest port of the East Indies” refers to the pepper trade which made Salem a wealthy city. America did not become a major player in the spice trade until 1797 when Captain Jonathan Carnes of Salem, Massachusetts returned with the first large pepper cargo from Indonesia yielding a seven-hundred percent profit for the ship’s owners.

    He had traded directly with the Indonesians at Sumatra rather than with the Dutch colony at Batavia. Carnes also brought home “curiosities” which he gave to the newly founded East India Marine Society. Other merchants soon followed in Carne’s wake and Salem became the center of the lucrative American spice trade. In March of 1839, Salem’s government passed an Ordinance providing for the City Seal. The Council ordered a seal showing “A ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836.”

    As an acknowledgment of the source of its wealth, the seal bears an image of a person in the traditional dress of Banda Aceh, the city at Sumatra’s northern tip. Salem embraced the “East Indies” trade as a symbol of its prosperity and engagement with the world of commerce. The city seal is a literal illustration of how Salem saw itself: peacefully engaged in the mutually beneficial exchange of goods.

    Salem was THE major American importer of goods from China, the East Indies and India until about 1810 when the harbor could no longer handle the larger ships of the time.

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