In June 2009 I visited Salem, Massachusetts, for the World History Association conference. Salem was wonderful, and the conference so engrossing that we were perhaps the last people on earth to notice that Michael Jackson had just died.
Salem was full of summer visitors, most of them there to see witches, and there were witches everywhere: rag dolls made into toothless crones, witches on broomsticks, witches with pointy hats, and memorably, witches made of black licorice. None bore much relationship to the characters in The Crucible, but nearly all the visitors were drawn to Salem by the play. Imagination, and enthusiastic marketing, did the rest.
Yet there’s so much more to Salem than the the 1692 witch trial. One of the privileges of history conferences is that there is often a guided tour given by someone who knows the history of the region, and we were taken on a walking tour by a PhD student who really knew her stuff. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here while writing A Scarlet Letter, and the customs house where he worked still exists. Salem was an important port before the shipping trade moved to Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, and tea merchants coming back from China and the Pacific started the exotic collection of items that became the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest in America.
I’ve just been travelling in Romania. Last week I visited Bran Castle in Transylvania, universally but in accurately known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Bram Stoker modeled Dracula on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. Dracul, the family name, comes from ‘dragon’, though it also has an overtone of ‘devil’. Vlad ‘the Impaler’ was gruesome enough – he is said to have impaled a whole Turkish army on a forest of spikes. He may just possibly have spent a few months in his childhood at Bram Castle, but he bears very little resemblance to the toothy gentleman in an opera cloak of Hollywood films, just as the toothless crones of Salem bear little relationship to the real victims of the witch trial.
Cultural heritage and tourism can make for an uneasy mix. As a historian, I would like to think that visitors to a historical site go away knowing more about their history. The truth though is that many people prefer their history in bite-sized gobbets of stereotype, preferably with added blood and gore.
In Australia, many tourists are perfectly content to see a convict site like Port Arthur in terms of blood-soaked triangles and a cat-o’-nine-tails, rather than learn how the penitentiary system worked.
As a historian, I find this trivialization of important historical sites depressing, but I can see the appeal from the perspective of tour guides. Maybe in the end, as Jimmy Stewart says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When truth becomes legend, print the legend.’