Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, October 15, 2016

It's all funny until someone gets pressed to death

Imagine, it's three hundred years from now, and a little town in Poland is reveling in mischief, merriment and good old family fun, folks from the world over have come to dress up in costume. A funhouse is set up for the kids; it's a scale model of a crematorium. That's right folks! Come one, come all; kick up your heels and help us celebrate Olde Auschwitz Days!

What? That could never happen ... people celebrating an atrocity? You gotta be kidding, right?

Well, the comparison might be a tad extreme, as atrocities are weighed, twenty as opposed to millions. Still, in my adopted hometown, the "Witch City," Salem, Massachusetts, folks are midway through a month-long festival that owes its inspiration to just such a morsel of murder.

Proponents and fans of Haunted Happenings will spin it otherwise. We're just celebrating the spooky season and inviting all things that go bump in the night to come to Salem, bump up against each other and in the process bump up the local economy. After all, we're the Halloween capital of the world.

Hey, everyone celebrates Halloween, but not every town has a witch on a broomstick flying on the doors of its police cruisers. Witches and witchcraft: An ironic source of fame. Until fairly recently, it was a source of shame. Even after nearly three centuries, Salem was embarrassed by its history of judicial malfeasance that saw innocent folks railroaded onto the gallows. Well, most of them were innocent – wink.

Salem would try to redirect attention to its seafaring past when its ships sailed to the far reaches of the globe and returned to the infant United States with rare and exotic goods and ideas. So many ships that the Chinese thought Salem was a nation unto itself. So much wealth was brought in that tariffs collected in Salem accounted for a majority of the revenue that funded the federal government and spawned America's first millionaires.

Nah, that kind of history doesn't play on Jerry Springer. So, sometime around the 1970s, people from "somewhere else" with bucks to invest took a look around Salem and mocked, "You people are sitting on a gold mine."

Visitors pose at the Bewitched statue.
Kitsch and marketing led to what these days is the closest thing to Mardi Gras you're likely to find in the chilly Northeast. And like Mardi Gras, Haunted Happenings has a sexy vibe, but more of that in a bit.

First, let's take a refresher on Salem's claim to fame. Salem actually gets a bad rap – initially. The so-called witchcraft hysteria didn't begin in the port of Salem, but five miles inland at the farming community of Salem Village, now Danvers. Everyone knows the basic story, a group of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls, bored out of their skulls in the midst of winter and inspired by a slave/servant's spook stories got caught messing about with forbidden (occult)  things. In an effort to escape a good whupping, they began to throw various adult neighbors under the bus, and in those days the bus was called witchcraft. Most folks were skeptical at the girls' claims, but events began to snowball, if slowly, aided and abetted by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning adults.

After local judges determined there were cases to be made, the judicial proceedings were taken over by William Stoughton, a high-ranking colonial official who had no legal training at all, and who proceeded to toss out legal protections for the accused, such as the right to counsel. He allowed accusers to chat with judges and allowed spectral evidence. Imagine a DA today telling a jury, "Ladies and gentleman, I can't show you the murder weapon, on account of it's invisible, but that's okay, just take my word for it."

It became evident early on that verdicts were foregone conclusions. Those who did not confess were sent to the gallows, but for one grisly exception.

Giles Corey was a miserable old guy whose hobby was bringing nuisance lawsuits against his neighbors. In a fit of pique he accused his own wife of witchcraft, only to relent and recant his accusation. Big mistake, then he was accused of witchcraft.

Giles may have been the source of that Groucho Marx joke: "I went to court to press my suit, but the judge said, 'You can't press your suit here, you gotta take it to a cleaners.'"

Well, Giles didn't want to get taken to the cleaners by the authorities. See, if he pleaded guilty to save his life, his property might well be confiscated and his sons would lose their inheritance.

So Giles, being law-savvy, refused to enter a plea, which blocked his indictment. The downside of that was the sheriff was allowed to torture him until he agreed to plea or confess. Giles got pressed like a cheap suit.

That is, he was made to lay on the ground and something like a coffin was placed on top of him. Then the coffin was filled with rocks to the point of crushing him. He endured three days of this before he expired. The tour guides will tell you it happened in Howard Street Burial Ground. But most likely Giles was taken just across the street from the old gaol, to what is now the parking lot of the Polish Catholic church, St. John's.

So, final tally, 19 executed by hanging, one pressed to death.

There is a large Wiccan community in Salem who claim these twenty as martyrs for religious freedom. Well, no they weren't. Any of them would have been content to allow the hanging of a practicing witch. A creature so foul in the eyes of God, that they would rather go to their deaths rather than name themselves as such. Nonetheless, it's ironical that Salem today hosts lots of folks who follow the old religion.

One year, an organization of North American vampires based in Montreal announced they would have their annual vampires ball in Salem. The protests that flowed from the local Witches in the form of letters to the editor were hilarious, particularly the one that scolded: let vampires into Salem and the town will go to hell. Okay, it's paraphrased, but you just can't make this stuff up.

One of the newer, popular attractions is the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as TV witch Samantha Stevens, donated by TV Land. Nevermind that the series, "Bewitched," was set in a Connecticut suburb of New York City, not Salem. Also, Samantha is grinning more or less in the direction of where the witch trials were held and so that troublesome dichotomy again rears its hydra heads. Is this supposed to be fun?

That dichotomy is on display, uncomfortably one would think, everywhere in Salem, most notably in the understated memorial to the victims, dedicated by Elie Wiesel in 1992, the 300th anniversary of the hysteria, and which borders an alley of kitschy stores and a pirate museum – Arrrrgh!

No matter, Haunted Happenings has caught on in a big way. The largest crowds recorded came last year when Halloween occurred on a weekend. Is it fun? Sure it is. It's a fun outing for families. But it's even more fun for adults.

Even though we are often blessed with a stretch of Indian Summer in October, some of the costumes worn by young women literally fly in the face of the season. Last year, I made note of one striking young woman, hair so blonde it could blind you with reflected sunlight, wearing a black peaked hat and a black baby doll ... with heels. So many heads turned that it was a wonder there wasn't a slow-motion pile up.

When the sun goes down and the kids go home, the pheromones are as pungent as rum and candy corn. It is like a fog settles downtown as chill air contacts hot bodies.

Yes, Salem is a sexy town. I've set a few stories here, two of which included sex scenes in the Old Burying Point.

You wouldn't want to 'hang out' behind Walgreens three hundred years ago.
Perhaps, in a way, that's the best balm for guilt, if indeed there remains any after so much time. Today romance rules in Salem as potential lovers try to cast spells at each other.

I live atop Gallows Hill. No one forgets my address. Already this month folks have approached me while I was walking my spirit dog (really she's a lab mutt, but she has one bright blue eye that freaks out the tourists), and asked, "Is this where they hanged the witches?"

"Nope. The foot of the hill ... behind Walgreens."

And then, in their expressions I detect a momentary letdown. As if something as mundane as a pharmacy chain could somehow subtract from hallowed ground.

I give them directions, send them on their way and then retreat to my home with my black dog and two black cats.

Happy Halloween, all.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post, Bob!

    It must be hell for you residents while all this hullabaloo is going on.


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