Witches are a big deal in Salem's modern culture.

The city's association with witchcraft has been capitalized on from films like 1993's "Hocus Pocus" to the annual Halloween festivities that draw in nearly a million visitors throughout the month of October.

But something often left out of conversations about the 17th century Salem Witch Trials is that the victims were real people who, along with their families, suffered a great injustice at the hands of their community.

A new exhibition at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum is recontextualizing the witch trials from a human perspective: "The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice".

The exhibition, which runs through November 26th, centers on the stories of the more than two dozen victims and features a rare collection of objects tied to the very real people behind the events.

When entering the exhibition, visitors are immediately confronted with the solemn atmosphere of a darker, quieter room. Paula Richter, one of the exhibition's co-curators, says that was an intentional choice to bring visitors closer to the time period.

“Here in the entry, we have a 17th century door, and we don't know what house it came from, but we're using it as an entry point into the world of 17th century Salem. It's ajar and we hope people get the sense of wanting to look beyond it,” she said.

Beyond the old door, visitors encounter dozens of enlarged reproductions of original court documents and letters pertaining to the trials. When you read them, you see the handwriting and, in a way, hear the voices of victims, defenders and persecutors in the trials.

Dan Lipcan, another co-curator of the exhibition and director of the museum’s Phillips Library, explained how one of the documents connects to Tituba, an enslaved woman who was among the first to be accused.

Not much is known about Tituba, other than the facts that she hailed from what is now Venezuela and was enslaved by the Rev. Samuel Parris.

But she is remembered for her testimony on March 1, 1692, which Lipcan said "really kicked the trials into high gear."

“She claimed that there were more witches," he said. "This was really alarming to the people in the community who thought a full blown crisis was at hand and she was very believable because of her indigenous origins.”

Eventually, Tituba was released from prison back into slavery and disappeared from the historical record. Tituba's story reflects many of the injustices that commonly occurred in colonial Salem against women and people of color.

"330 years later, we're still dealing with the aftermath of this crisis."
Dan Lipcan

Among the panels showcasing the victims’ stories is a grouping about the Towne sisters, one of the families most impacted by the trials. The three married and middle-aged sisters, Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Eastey and Sarah Towne Cloyce, were all accused of witchcraft. Rebecca and Mary would later be executed.

Before her death, Mary Towne Eastey left an impassioned plea to stop the trials and advocated for the other accused. One of the panels features an excerpt from her letter, dated September 16th, 1692, and reads, "I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die and my appointed time is set. But if it be possible, no more innocent blood may be shed.”

Lipcan explained that those who came to a victim's defense did so at great personal risk.

“This crisis split families," he said. "We have instances, like Elizabeth Howe, where some of her family supported her and tried to defend her, and some of her family didn't want anything to do with her.”

The risk of persecution was a pervasive fear during the Salem Witch Trials. Even some of the city's wealthiest and most influential families suffered as a result of the panic, like Mary and Philip English. The couple was likely the wealthiest family in Salem when the trials took place, but both Mary and Philip were accused of witchcraft and later imprisoned.

Evidence of the English family’s wealth can be seen through their personal artifacts at the exhibit. As visitors approach the panel about them, one of the first things they see is a beautiful and intricate embroidery sampler.

“I think its [the embroidery] primary importance is really as a demonstration that Mary Halingworth English had probably the best education available to a woman living in Salem,” says Richter.It's a British-style sampler, which were very long and narrow in the 17th century, and it has bands of flowers and vines and it's really quite garden-like. So, there were strawberries and some of the flowers are actually identifiable.”

A long floral embroidery sampler from the 17th century.
Embroidery sampler belonging to Mary Holingworth English.
Courtesy of Kristen Levesque

While Mary and Philip English would go on to survive the witch trials by escaping to New York, Richter explained that their story highlights another pervasive injustice that victims of the witch trials faced: the seizure of personal property.

“He [Philip English] spent much of the rest of his life trying to recover all of their property," Richter said. "Their personal property was seized and he did recover a tiny fraction of it, but he lost significant personal property as a direct result of the witch trials.”

Visitors see stories of both victims and accusers told alongside more personal artifacts including furniture, canes, chests and even massive, 300-pound wooden planks from colonial Salem's jail — an impressive archeological find made in the 1950s.

Near the end, the exhibition shifts attention to restorative justice through the centuries, and how the community has attempted to provide some sense of justice for the victims. Some of these efforts came less than 20 years later, with some 22 convictions overturned in 1711.

Lipcan explained the timeline of restorative justice in detail.

“In the aftermath of the crisis, many victims and victims' families began to petition the court in the state for reparations or exoneration," he said. "The descendants of Rebecca Nurse put up a memorial to her in 1885. There were other rounds of exonerations in 1957 and 2001 as victims were identified as not having been exonerated, and this goes up until last October [2022]. So, 330 years later, we're still dealing with the aftermath of this crisis, and it took Salem 300 years to build a memorial to the victims in town."

"The Salem Witch Trials: Restoring Justice" is open now through November 26th at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum.