This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.
SALEM, MASS. — At the entrance to “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, a stark title panel reads: “No one was safe.”
Some of the figures accused of witchcraft mentioned in the exhibition included Sarah Good, whose own husband said “she is enemy to all good” at her trial; Bridget Bishop, a party girl apparently too fond of bright colors; Tituba, an enslaved Carib woman (and the first to be accused) who eventually, under duress, confessed to baking a “witch’s cake”; and a minister, George Burroughs, “suspected to have confederacy with the devil.”
And then there is Good’s daughter Dorothy, a 4-year-old when she was imprisoned, whose pet snake was ruled a familiar spirit. She was later freed, but her mother was convicted and hanged.
Between June 1692, when the first special court was convened, and May 1693, members of the Puritan community in Massachusetts Bay Colony (home to Salem Village, now known as Danvers, five miles from modern Salem) were condemned by their family or neighbors, and many imprisoned or hanged for witchcraft — perhaps the most infamous example in American history of mass hysteria.
At a time when the term “witch hunt” has gained renewed agency, and a law in Texas that effectively bans most abortions involves deputizing citizen enforcers, the trials have a new resonance. The deliberately non-touristy exhibition at the august Peabody Essex, which has the largest collection of original material related to the trials, reminds us that history can repeat itself.
“A lot of people were keenly aware that when those accusations were targeted towards them, it was the end,” said Lydia Gordon, a co-curator of the exhibition. “These accusations were grounded in fear. They were grounded in jealousy and land disputes and money. And it may look different, but this fear, and this needing to control mostly women, or people that fall outside of a heteronormative society? Well, we see this still today.”
The first gallery is dominated by original court documents and personal possessions. Among the most poignant items are testimonies by witnesses to the innocence of Elizabeth How (often spelled Howe), a mother of six, charged with “mischief following anger” for the sudden death of livestock and for “afflicting” several young girls who were the core accusers in Salem Village. Despite these protestations of her virtue, How was subsequently tried for sundry acts of witchcraft “to theyr great hurt.”
“It’s important to not forget that these tragedies didn’t happen that long ago,” Ms. Gordon said. “And so I think one of the things that the contemporary artists really put in this exhibition is a conversation of how we continue to use our voices to rise up against injustice.”
The show also connects the story to the present by showcasing works from two artists with ancestral ties to the accused: the fashion designer Alexander McQueen and the photographer Frances F. Denny.
When Mr. McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010, discovered he was a distant descendant of How’s, he dedicated his darkly dramatic autumn/winter 2007 couture collection to her. The collection, titled “In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692,” explored themes of paganism and persecution with an array of armored bustiers, crystal headdresses and flowing silhouettes suited to a goth coven. Juxtaposed with a timeline of How’s trial, the Peabody Essex showcases one of these runway pieces, a sleek black velvet gown with a starburst of bugle beads cascading from the neckline.
Seventeenth-century Puritans considered the color black extravagant, partly because the dye was expensive and faded fast with wear. And it was possible to be accused of witchcraft for breaking the Puritanical sumptuary laws and “sadd colors” dress code. (Imagine being hanged for dressing fabulously.) Next to a video installation of McQueen’s tribute to How, the curators have placed another compelling court document: a handwritten letter requesting payment by her daughters Mary and Abigill, who were eventually granted reparations from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on Jan. 22, 1712, for suffering “when our honoured mother was executed.”
Also bringing the events into a modern context is Ms. Denny’s photo series, “Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America,” which documents those who are reclaiming “witch” from its use as a weapon to punish otherness.
“This is a word that has accumulated a lot of baggage,” said Ms. Denny, who is a descendant of both Samuel Sewell, one of the Salem trial judges, and Mary Bliss Parsons, of Northampton, accused of witchcraft in 1674 and acquitted by a court in Boston. “What does it mean to be a witch?” she asked. “What does it mean to practice witchcraft? The witch is the only female archetype that is defined autonomously. And, of course, she’s the most feared and reviled.”
Opposite the McQueen gallery, the museum has mounted a selection of Ms. Denny’s most colorful, solemn and diversely feminine portraits. She spent three years photographing more than 75 subjects who identify on this spiritual spectrum — kitchen witches (witches with a focus on healing food), brujas (“witches” in Spanish), medicine women, herbalists, manbo asogwe (Haitian Voudou priestesses), practitioners of Santería, tarot readers and goddess worshipers. Some have embraced their identity publicly — a scroll through the TikTok hashtag WitchTok makes that clear — and others remain in the “broom closet,” as Ms. Denny put it, for fear of persecution.
“All of my subjects chose where they were photographed, and what they wore, so that they would have a stake in their own representation,” Ms. Denny said. She pointed to a middle-aged surgical coordinator for an organ transplant unit dressed in her scrubs. “You could pass Debbie on the street and not realize you’re walking by a Wiccan high priestess.”
This sort of shift in institutional thinking preoccupies Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who was recently named the Peabody Essex Museum’s first female director in its 221-year history. “Part of what gets lost in the witch trial circumstance is that what happened actually impelled people to better action after horrible action,” she said. “Because it had an incredible impact on the discussion of what is legal in this country.”
Directly opposite the museum on the Charter Street side sits the Old Burying Point Cemetery and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, where granite benches are engraved with the names of victims and their dates of execution. Descendants leave handwritten messages to their relatives, and other visitors, some in witchy attire and sporting pentacle tattoos, pay respect with coins, flowers, shells and painted pebbles.
Part of How’s testimony is embedded among the stone cobbles: “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of any thing of this nature.”