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August 20, 2014, 10:34 am

Salem can be scary, but also educational

It’s just a small town in Massachusetts, but over the years Salem has gained national, even international notoriety, especially during this time of the year.

As the ghosts, goblins and ghouls roam the countryside near Halloween, what would this holiday be like without a trip to Salem, be it a trip to the graveyard on Charter Street where the spirits of those so unjustly put to death for witchcraft probably still haunt the grounds, the Witch Museum, the 1642 Witch House, and more reminders of our eerie past?

Salem is really just a quaint-looking small town some 16 miles northeast of Boston. It was Salem’s fine sheltered harbor that first attracted the colonists in 1626. The Naumkeag Indians helped the early settlers survive their first harsh winter, and just three years later, the tiny community, named Naumkeag after the helpful tribe, became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although the capital was later moved to Boston, Salem continued to thrive as people drew their living from the sea. But the city’s promising start was tainted in January 1692 by accusations of witchcraft, and the bizarre trials that culminated in the deaths of 24 men and women.

As much as Salem may have wished to wash away its past, in time the residents realized it was that very past that would bring in the tourist trade. And so it has. But the town has much more to offer, and can be easily and comfortably seen by following the 1.7-mile Heritage Trail, easily marked for all to follow.

By doing so, visitors will pass the 1642 Witch House, home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, said to have cross-examined several of the accused. The trail will pass the Peabody Essex Museum, where a treasure trove of fine and folk art is housed. A half-million objects from America’s past, including the original, handwritten court documents from the witch trials, are there.

On the grounds are restored houses from three centuries and economic classes, including the John Ward House, built in 1684, the Gardner-Pingree House, restored to its 1810 appearance, and the Crownshield-Bentley House, built in 1724.

Keep walking and you’ll continue to pass other history-filled houses. And if author Nathaniel Hawthorne interests you, you’ll eventually come to the House of Seven Gables on Turner Street, the building once owned by Hawthorne’s aunt. Hawthorne spent much of his boyhood in Salem, and found a great deal of material for his writing in New England History. His “The House of Seven Gables” is a prime example.

Winding your way through time, a tour guide will take you through the life of Hawthorne and the history that helped inspire his writings. The guide will also take you inside the heart of the house, including a hidden spiral staircase that was used by runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Perhaps, it is said, other spirits used the stairs to hide from other menacing pursuers. Climb the narrow, musty stairway and you can draw your own conclusions.

If walking is not your style, you can take the Salem Trolley tour. At this time of the year it offers an intriguing journey into Salem’s strange past, resurrecting legendary stories of witches, ghosts, murder and more.

The witchcraft and ghost shows continue to become more and more frightening at the Witches Cottage at 7 Lynde Street. While at the cottage you can also shake and shiver to a thrilling presentation detailing the witch trails of 1692 and how they related to Arthur Miller’s classic book, “The Crucible.”

Yes, Salem can be a scary place — especially at this time of the year. But it’s also quite beautiful, and offers rooms, restaurants, historic relics and much more to fit every interest and pocket book.