SALEM — For almost two centuries beginning around the year 1500, tens of thousands of people were put to death across Europe. They were suspected of being witches.
Many were executed after witch trials in several German cities. “But they’re not known as the witchcraft capital of the world,” says Dan Lipcan, head librarian of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library.
The Peabody Essex is, of course, located in the heart of the witchcraft capital of the world, here in Salem. For years, the museum has left Salem’s biggest claim to fame to the kitsch museums and tchotchke shops that make up a significant chunk of Salem’s economy. Now the esteemed institution, too, is spellbound.
The new exhibition, “The Salem Witch Trials 1692,” which documents the hysteria that led to the deaths of 25 people accused, is PEM’s first in-depth look in nearly 30 years at the real-life events that gave the “Witch City” its nickname. Opened in late September, the show is paired with “Salem Stories,” an alphabet soup of art and artifacts that celebrate the wealthy merchants, the undaunted immigrants, and the collective heritage they created that makes Salem a one-of-a-kind city.
The Witch Trials exhibition brings some solemn context to Salem’s bedknobs-and-broomsticks fixation on witchy iconography. The first item visitors will confront is a pristine, oak-bound 1494 copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, the German text that sparked the vast European witch hunts of the early modern era.
The show features original letters written by the locals accused, remnants of the squalid Salem jail where they were incarcerated, and the familiar 1855 painting, “Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for Witchcraft,” by the American artist T. H. Matteson, one of the most frequently reproduced images related to the trials. Jacobs’s two canes are pictured in the foreground; alongside the painting, a glass case displays the actual canes.
The witch hunt in Salem occurred during a time of rampant tensions and mistrust. There were property disputes that pitted residents of Salem Town (modern-day Salem) against the less-affluent farming community of Salem Village (today’s Danvers). Across New England, New World newcomers and Native Americans were waging King William’s War.
For these reasons and more, the social climate was ripe for the kind of intolerance that unfurled as the Salem witch trials. The strange behavior of a few young girls led to swift accusations of witchcraft levied against some of the more marginalized adult members of the community, and the trials began. On June 10, 1692, the first convicted defendant, Bridget Bishop, was hanged on what would become known as Proctor’s Ledge.
In all, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft before the hysteria subsided. In 1711, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acknowledged the injustice, paying restitution to the families of the victims. In 2001 — nearly 300 years later — the state exonerated the last of the victims.
Lipcan, the Peabody Essex librarian, is a relative tenderfoot to the city, hired away from the library at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. He shares his newcomer status with Brian Kennedy, PEM’s director, who was hired in early 2019. Kennedy previously ran the Toledo Museum of Art.
“The library collection here is amazing,” Lipcan says. “It needs to be better known, in my opinion.”
In 2017, PEM announced that it was moving the rare books and special collections in its Phillips Library to a new climate-controlled facility, the former Schylling toy company building on Route 1 in Rowley.
“The move to Rowley was very hurtful to people,” Lipcan says. “One of the charges when I arrived was, ‘You need to repair relations with the community.’”
Since his own arrival, Kennedy has spoken of building a “third campus” — a digital museum to complement PEM’s recently expanded gallery space in Salem and the research library in Rowley.
“We need to be sharing our own collections more,” says Lipcan. “A tiny sliver is available online, but we’re going to change that.”
Lorelei Stathopolous was one of the locals disappointed by the move of the PEM collection to Rowley. For decades, she has operated Crow Haven Corner, which she bills as the oldest witch shop in Salem. She says she’s pleased the museum is addressing the truth of the witch trials.
“A lot of people do forget, and the city does forget, about the 1692 victims,” she says.
Lipcan, who grew up on Cape Cod, has a degree in printmaking. As a trained artist, he relied on the expertise of noted scholars, including Emerson Baker, author of the definitive account “A Storm of Witchcraft,” and Richard Trask, the “godfather” of witch trials history. Trask is the town archivist in today’s Danvers, where many of the accused actually lived.
“I’ve been drinking from a fire hose here,” says Lipcan, smiling behind his mask as he walks a visitor through the exhibit.
Upstairs on the other side of PEM’s vast atrium, curator Karina Corrigan explains the thinking behind the displays in “Salem Stories,” an A to Z of art and artifacts that recount Salem’s development since the witch trials. There’s history of the academic kind — N is for Naumkeag, the Native American people for whom Salem was originally named — and the more whimsical: G, for instance, is for “Game On,” a commemoration of the Parker Brothers company, founded in Salem, the makers of Monopoly, Risk, and many other popular board games.
“There will be things that are new to people whether they’re on Essex Street or coming from Estonia,” Corrigan says.
Since his arrival, Kennedy, the director, has emphasized the museum’s duty to engage with visitors on multiple levels, both with multisensory experiences and crowd-pleasing exhibitions.
When he first assumed the job he heard from “hundreds” of people, he says, about their hope that the museum would direct more of its attention to local lore.
“They wanted to see us focus more on that history, which essentially begat the museum,” Kennedy says.
“We’ll absolutely continue with the major temporary exhibitions,” he continues. “But we’re also thinking about exhibitions that would attract different audiences, and how the museum engages outside the walls of the museum as well as inside.”
Kennedy, who was born and raised in Dublin, says his first association of Salem with the witch trials likely came from Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible” (1953). The production, he notes, was widely interpreted as an allegory for the McCarthy-era “witch hunt” for Communist sympathizers in America.
“There are so many things in society right now that are causing fear,” Kennedy says. “It was important for us that we start by acknowledging the injustice and tragedy of the period.”
As visitors exit the Witch Trials gallery, they’ll pass an enlarged quote drawn from the winning proposal for the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, the public space behind the museum that was dedicated in 1992 by Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor, and author Elie Wiesel to mark the 300th anniversary.
“Deafness to the voices of others is the root of injustice,” wrote the artist Maggie Smith and the project architect, James Cutler. “Silence in the presence of injustice is complicity.”
With those simple words, the lessons of the Salem witch trials remain a cautionary tale for the present day, says Lipcan.
“This is what we want people to leave with,” he says. “It’s all there.”
The Peabody Essex Museum has reopened to the public and extended its hours for the month of October. Due to the pandemic, the number of visitors in the galleries will be restricted for the foreseeable future. Tickets ($12-$20, free for Salem residents) can be reserved in advance at pem.org.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.