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The Top 10 Weirdest Salem Myths and Legends

October 10, 2018

 

It's October!  The most wonderful time of the year, when all the good little ghouls come out to play in our fair city. Throughout most of the year we hear stories from our guests that we may have to slightly correct because of interpretation, newly discovered history, or simple cases of the telephone game. But in October... Oh boy... That's a whole new and terrifying ball of wax.

 

So without further ado, here are the Top 10 Weirdest Salem Myths and Legends that we have ever heard!

 

10 - THE CURSE OF MELAS

 

THE MYTH:  Did you know that the town of Salem got its name from an evil warlock named Melas? It's true! (no it isn't in the slightest!)  The story goes that this person tried to curse the new settlement of Naumkeag, and by naming the city his name in reverse, he would never be able to set foot inside its walls, thus making it safe forever!

 

THE REALITY: The generally accepted history of the naming of Salem comes from the Hebrew word "Shalom," making Salem the City of Peace. At this time, the term "Warlock" had pretty much fallen out of regular use, and a male witch would have simply been called a Witch. There is no historical basis to this supposed evildoer, whatsoever. Fun fact, this is a story that our head guide Daniel was taught IN SCHOOL!

 

9 - THE SEVEN GABLES SECRET STAIRS

 

THE MYTH: For as long as people have been giving and taking tours of the House of the Seven Gables, the story has gone that the secret staircase was used for just about everything from smuggling freed slaves through the underground railroad, to hiding secret native lovers for midnight trysts. We get it. It's a cool, spooky staircase that is beautifully hidden, so of course it must have some sort of exciting story behind it.

 

THE REALITY: It's a set of servant stairs. Back when servants were in common usage, these stairs and passages were just as common. It was "unseemly" for the servants to be in public view. They were meant to be like magic fairies, spiriting in to the rooms to make them tidy without you noticing them. Thus, hidden stairs and passageways were built to make it easy for them to access areas without meeting the gentry in the main halls and stairs.

 

As an addendum: Apparently in recent years there has been some debate over whether the staircase would have been part of the original (or later period) structure, as it was part of a rebuild by a famous Colonial Revivalist architect by the name of Joseph Chandler at the direction of Caroline Emmerton in 1909. It absolutely fits with the design of servants stairs that are seen in many similar structures, and since it was absolutely NOT used as described in the myth, our explanation still stands.

 

8 - THE BLACK HOUSES

 

THE MYTH: The creepy dark paint job of the older houses in Salem is always commented upon by the tourists and the locals alike. There are admittedly a lot of stories as to why this is such a common color, but the one that takes the cake is that they were stained dark with the blood of the natives, in order to scare them away and prevent raids.  This is one of the oddest things we, personally, have ever heard in Salem, and is most commonly traced back to people talking about the Gables for some reason.

 

THE REALITY: Back when the first period homes were being built, they were constantly wearing down on the outside because of the close proximity to the sea. When talking to the shipbuilders who often became housewrights by necessity, they discovered that by using tar on the outside wood (as they did on ships) they could minimize this problem and make the homes more durable and weatherproof. Again, this is one of many theories we have heard, but it seems to, pardon the pun, hold the most water.

 

7 - THE GRAVEYARD TUNNELS

 

THE MYTH: Beneath the Old Burying Point Cemetery are a series of tunnels that used to be connected to the Salem Harbor. Used for smuggling or simply unloading ships, these tunnels would flood with the high tide. When digging graves, they would simply open up shafts to these tunnels, and as the priest would ask the mourners to look up to the heavens, they would unceremoniously dump the bodies down these shafts to be washed out to sea...

 

THE REALITY: Where to begin with this one? It has the tiniest glimmer of truth. And we do mean the tiniest, most miniscule flicker. Originally, the Salem Harbor did come quite close to what is currently the cemetery, until sections of the city were filled in (check out the beautiful fountain on Essex Street to see the shifted coastlines), and there are some tunnels underneath Salem. However, the rest is such complete and utter ridiculousness, that we don't have a reality to compare it to, it's just not true.

 

6 - NO WOMEN IN HEAVEN

 

THE MYTH: Apparently, at some point it made no sense for the Puritans to even mess around with trying to save the female of the species from their original sin, and as such, it was taught that no women were allowed in heaven. In fact, if you look at the gravestones in Salem, you can clearly see skulls on many of them, which was the sign of a heretic or a woman, and meant that whomever was interred there had a one way ticket to hell.

 

THE REALITY: While there is certainly a lot of evidence that life was very hard for the women of the colonies (that is its own post for sure), there was never any indication that they thought their immortal souls could not be saved. If they were hopeless, why have them go to church at all? It would have cut the numbers of the congregation in half, and without the chance of redemption, the threat of hell loses its terror. As for the skulls on the gravestones, there are different varieties and meanings (again, worthy of its own post) but as a generality, the common winged skull symbolizes the idea of the body dying, and the spirit moving on to heaven, exactly the opposite of this myth.

 

5 - THE TORTURE DUNGEON OF GEORGE CORWIN

 

THE MYTH: George Corwin, nephew of Witchcraft Trial's judge and Witch House owner Jonathan Corwin, became infamous for torturing the imprisoned accused. Most famously in the case of Giles Corey, who endured "Peine Forte et Dure" a pressing of stones upon his chest for 3 days, while Sheriff Corwin repeatedly asked him to enter an official plea, "Before his God and his Country" which Corey had refused to do in the court. George Corwin was so sadistic and enjoyed torture so much, that he had a secret dungeon below his home, where he could carry out his fiendish desires whenever he wished.

 

THE REALITY: The actual cases of Corwin administering torture to the accused are documented, but are far fewer than have been attributed to him. In the case of Giles Corey, who had pled Innocent but refused to use the official phrasing, likely to delay proceedings and cause trouble for the court and judges that he was furious with, his torture was illegal by the original Massachusetts law. The Body Of Liberties Act of 1641 forbade extreme torture "For bodilie punishments we allow amongst us none that are inhumane Barbarous or cruel." And while the Body of Liberties was officially replaced by the Provincial Charter in 1691 (the year the Witchcraft Hysteria began) it was still very much upheld in spirit during this time, and Corwin performing such torture was not seen as appropriate, and may have even led to Governor Phips to pay more attention to the trials and disband the Court of Oyer and Terminer that he himself had set up. But we digress...  For Corwin to have had his own personal dungeon for torture, there would have to be multiple cover ups and complicity, none of which would be likely during this time when everything was being documented. So while we have no actual proof that he didn't have such a thing, we have no proof that he did.

 

4 - THE FAKE CEMETERY

 

THE MYTH: The cemetery on Charter Street, known as the Old Burying Point is not a real cemetery at all!  It was built for scenes from the Disney holiday favorite, Hocus Pocus, and is set up every October as a set for tourists to enjoy! No one is actually buried there!

 

THE REALITY: This one is as pervasive as it is frustrating. Black Cat Tours is part of the founding of the Friends of The Downtown Historic Cemeteries group (SalemCemeteries.org) and as such we have worked on getting grants and promoting advocacy for the historic cemeteries here in Salem. The Charter Street Cemetery dates to the 1630's, and is likely the 3rd oldest cemetery in the country, the final resting place of two witchcraft trials judges, members of the Mather family, Revolutionary War heroes, and even a Mayflower pilgrim (all of whom have fantastic stories!) We assure you, the Old Burying Point is very much a real cemetery, and we hope that you will treat it with the respect that it deserves as a true historic landmark and place of reflection.

 

3 - TITUBA THE SECRET VOODOO QUEEN

 

THE MYTH: Tituba, one of the first people to be accused to witchcraft during the trials, was secretly teaching the girls black magic and voodoo. In fact, she was famous in her home country of Haiti as a Voodoo Queen, and the whole purpose in her coming to the Massachusetts colony was to subvert the children to be voodoo practitioners.

 

THE REALITY: OK, it's not always told in such a fantastical way, but very often Tituba, the slave of the Parris household, is described as being accused of teaching the girls magic or voodoo in secret, and this is what caused the beginnings of the hysteria. While the story of the origin of the witchcraft hysteria may never be truly known in detail, what we do know for certain is that young Betsy Parris began to have fits and convulsions, and doctors, not knowing what the cause was, went with witchcraft as a possibility, which was latched onto by her father, the minister of Salem. What we also know, is that while Tituba was accused of witchcraft very soon after, and that she confessed (likely because of whipping) she was never accused of teaching the girls magic. She was admonished for making a "witch cake" under the direction of Mary Sibley, and with the assistance of her husband, in order to ascertain who was bewitching the young girls, but that is the only reference to her performing "beneficial" magic for them. There are some theories that state that the girls were attempting to perform fortune telling to see who they would marry, but Tituba is never mentioned in this. As for being from Haiti, reports vary, but Tituba was most likely from an Arawak, Kalingo (or historically, Taíno) village, and brought to Barbados to be sold as a slave, or originally from Barbados itself. While the Arawak believed in a polytheistic pantheon of spirits, or ancestors called Zemi, which is similar to the Vodun religion, there is no specific link to Tituba and Voodoo.

 

2 - THE BODIES UNDER THE WITCH HOUSE

 

THE MYTH: When the Corwin House (Jonathan Corwin) was moved back in the 1940's to accommodate the widening of the street, underneath the original hearth were several bones. These were thought to be hidden bodies, and the town was in an uproar over the hidden corpses in the basement of the Witch House.

 

THE REALITY: This one has the most historical fact behind it, as there was indeed a newspaper article about bones found under the Witch House, along with a shocking headline and gruesome photo to accompany it. The reality behind that headline is much more mundane. It was common at the time of building (1640's) to bury meat or bones underneath the cooking hearth, in order to promote plentiful food for its inhabitants. Even if this were not the case, the odds of charred bones from various meals over the past 300 years finding their way into the ashes and under added bricks is not unlikely. Regardless of their origin, the bones discovered were decidedly not human.

 

As a side note to this entry, though not as bizarre, there are no cases of Witchcraft Trials victims being brought to the Corwin House for examination. While Corwin and Hathorne may have heard original accusations in his parlor, the odds of him being willing to bring an accused witch into his home, with his family and children, are astronomically against it.

 

1 - ERGOT POISONING or THE CASE OF THE DRUGGED BREAD

 

THE MYTH: This is without doubt the most common bizarre myth in Salem, and once again, could have its own blog post, but we would be digress in not including it on this list. The theory of ergot poisoning is that there was a type of mold that grew on the rye that the colonists of Salem used to make their bread. The ergot had an LSD-like effect that caused the inhabitants to see and hear things that weren't there, thus causing the bizarre hallucinations which caused over 250 people to be accused of witchcraft.

 

THE REALITY: We honestly wish this were true. If it were it would be so very easy to excuse the actions of the colonists. The truth is by far more frightening, the idea that hundreds, if not thousands of people could be swept up in a pervasive fear and hysteria that touched everyone from the lowest homeless and destitute to the wife of the governor of Massachusetts.  So where did this all begin? In 1976 Linnda R. Caporael wrote a paper entitled "Ergotism: The Satan loosed in Salem?" After a matter of days after the article was published, it was publicly refuted by Stephen Nissenbaum, an historian and co-author of "Salem Possessed" and over the years, dozens of experts have weighed in and found the basis for this theory lacking in anything resembling convincing.  What are the main reasons for this? Firstly, as Nissenbaum presented, the likelihood of this not occurring any other year would be odd, as it was not a particularly unusual year, apart from a harsh winter. Secondly, the custom was for all bread to be served toasted, as Puritans generally believed that untoasted bread caused stomach problems, which would have helped to kill off any ergot that survived baking. The last, and most convincing argument against the ergot theory, is that one of the most common side effects besides hallucinations, was gangrene and necroticism of the extremeties. Meaning, your limbs would go black and fall off, and you would likely die. If this was happening during a time when every single instance of perceived witchcraft was being documented, and dozens of people were so affected by this ergot poisoning that they were having the hallucinations, SOMEONE would have noted that the other symptoms were happening as well, right?

 

Well there you have it!  We hope you enjoyed this trip through the truly bizarre in Salem's history of tourism and mythology. If you liked this list, share it with friends to help the truth outweigh the legends. And if you have heard something similar, or something that we haven't covered, let us know!

 

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