Last modified on September 16, 2021, at 20:24

Salem, Massachusetts

Salem is a city in Essex County, Massachusetts, situated on the coast of Massachusetts Bay. It had a population of 41,340 at the 2010 census. Its name is short for the holy city "Jerusalem". Until 1999, Salem was one of the county seats for Essex County, while the other county seat was Lawrence.

Salem is known as one of the most historic cities in America. It is among the oldest communities in Massachusetts, founded in 1626, and was an important New England seaport throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, serving as the hub for many fishing, whaling, and overseas trading operations. It has also been recognized as the birthplace of the National Guard. However, it is most famous for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which an outbreak of outrage or mass hysteria (depending on one's viewpoint) led to dozens of people being imprisoned, tried, and in some cases executed on charges of witchcraft.


Salem was founded in 1626 by Roger Conant, who led a group of English fishermen from Cape Ann to a spot near the mouth of the Naumkeag river, on the northern shore of Massachusetts Bay. Their settlement was initially named for the river. Two years later, Puritan immigrants under the leadership of John Endicott, part of the Massachusetts Bay Company, arrived; Conant agreed to step aside in favor of Endicott and was given a large land grant in reward. In honor of this gracious transfer of power, the community's name was changed to Salem, from the Hebrew word for peace. Salem was chartered in 1629, officially granted the rights of autonomy and self-rule by King Charles I. Thanks to its position on the coast, it prospered thanks to fishing, shipbuilding, and oceanic trade. Salem ships were trading with the West Indies as early as 1636, and the Custom House (which still stands today) was built in 1649. Many of the town's oldest surviving houses, dating back to the 1660s, were constructed by merchants who had become wealthy from this trade (including the "House of the Seven Gables").

In 1692, Salem fell victim to a major panic after several local girls began accusing other townspeople of practicing witchcraft. These accusations began to snowball and led to the convening of a special court, on whose authority twenty men and women were put to death, and many others imprisoned. The new colonial governor eventually stepped in and put an end to the trials, after which those still imprisoned were freed, and families of the victims were later compensated. This is the only series of witch-trials to be held in the future United States. (See also: Salem Witch Trials)

Though it was not a notable center of political activity in the years before the American Revolution, Salem was, like many Massachusetts towns, strongly Patriot in sentiment (though some of the merchants did have Loyalist sympathies). Following his arrival with a British garrison in 1774, General Thomas Gage briefly transferred the General Court there from Boston. A tense confrontation occurred at Salem early in 1775 which has come to be known as Leslie's Retreat, when a British regiment marched into town in search of weapons and ammunition held by the Patriots. Most of the population turned out to block their advance, and the regiment eventually agreed to return to Boston. After war broke out later that year, local seafarers turned to privateering in large numbers; Salem vessels are credited with the capture of between 400 and 600 British merchant ships during the conflict.

The period following the Revolutionary War saw Salem near the peak of its national importance. At the 1790 census, it was the sixth-largest city in America, and had the highest per-capita income; local ships carried on trade with Africa, China, the Caribbean, and other areas. The numerous Federal-style mansions that still stand in the historic Chestnut Street district were the fruit of the profits many Salem merchants and businessmen made during this time. By the mid-19th century, though, Salem's importance was starting to decline; not only had Boston and New York City become more important for long-distance trade, but the accumulation of silt in the harbor had begun to impair its usefulness as a port. The city turned more and more to manufacturing, producing leather, shoes, and textiles, among other goods. The opening of the first railroad line, to Boston, in 1838, assisted in this process.

What became known as "The Great Salem Fire" broke out on June 25, 1914, in the leather manufacturing district. It raged for two days, destroying over 1,300 buildings and leaving nearly half the city's population homeless.

In recent decades, the memory of the 17th-century witch trials (sustained by, among other things, the works of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Salem native and a descendant of one of the judges involved) has contributed to local prosperity and formed a significant part of the town's modern identity. Tourism, including but not limited to historic scenes of the witch craze, is now a major sector of the economy, and a sizable community of neo-pagans and self-described "witches" and "wiccans" live in and around Salem.


Salem is located about 15 miles northeast of Boston, and about the same distance southwest of Gloucester and Cape Ann. It overlooks an arm of Massachusetts Bay known as "Salem Channel," which divides between Beverly Harbor to the north, separating Salem from the towns of Beverly and Peabody to the north and west respectively, and Salem Harbor, lying between it and Marblehead to the southeast. The original settlement at Salem lies on the northern shore of Salem Harbor. The downtown area (including most of the colonial-era landmarks) extends across the neck of land between the two harbors and west to North River, a smaller stream that flows into Beverly Harbor from the southwest. Newer neighborhoods exist in the Gallows Hill district further southwest, and along Palmer Cove (an extension of Salem Harbor) to the south.

The terrain and boundaries of Salem are highly irregular, due to the existence of these numerous coves, harbors, and necks of land, along with the many small streams that flow into the bay. The city has a total area of 18.29 square miles, including 8.28 of land and 10.01 of water.[1] Salem is part of the Southern New England Upland, and its elevation slopes sharply upward, from sea level along the shoreline to a peak of 219 feet at Peabody Reservoir, along the city's western boundary.

Due to its being sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the northern Appalachian Mountains, Salem's climate is difficult to categorize, combining aspects of a humid continental, humid subtropical, and an oceanic climate. Summers are warm but not hot, with average daytime highs of 80°F, and winters are fairly cold, with lows of 20°F. The ocean moderates temperatures somewhat but also contributes to a rather high annual rainfall. Precipitation averages about 48 inches per year, with March being the wettest month and August the driest. Nor'easters, hurricanes, and tropical storms strike the region occasionally.


At the 2010 census, Salem had a total of 41,340 inhabitants, grouped into 19,130 households, with a population density of 4,986.0 people per square mile. This figure represented a slight increase from the 2000 census, when Salem had a population of 40,407, and is not far below the all-time population high of 43,697 (from the 1910 census). 81.50% of the inhabitants were White, 4.93% were African-American, 0.42% were Native American, 2.65% were Asian, 0.05% were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 7.04% were from some other race, and 3.41% were from two or more races. Hispanics of any race were 15.60% of the population, most of them being from the Dominican Republic.

The median age in Salem was 37.6 years, with 18.7% of inhabitants under the age of 18, 12.8% between 18 and 24 years old, 28.6% between 25 and 44, 27.0% between 45 and 64, and 12.9% 65 years old or older. The sex ratio was 46.5% male, 53.5% female.[2]

According to the 2017 American Community Survey, Salem had a median household income of $65,528, and a median family income of $83,249. The unemployment rate was 5.6%. The per capita income was $35,361. About 15.3% of the population lived below the poverty line, including 22.8% of people under the age of 18 and 12.3% of people 65 years old or older.[2]


Salem operated as a town government from its organization in 1629, and was first incorporated as a chartered city in 1836--the second city in Massachusetts (after Boston) to do so. Since that time, it has had a mayor-council form of government, following what is known in Massachusetts as the "Plan B" system. Power is in the hands of a mayor (serving a four-year term) and an 11-man city council, one drawn from each of the seven city wards and the remaining four elected at large. The current mayor is Kimberley Driscoll, who was first elected in 2005.[3]

Before 1999, Salem was one of the two county seats for Essex County, with jurisdiction for the southern district (Lawrence being the county seat for the northern district). At that time, however, county operations were taken over by the state government (as has happened in several other counties), and since then the cities have had no such function.

At the state level, Salem is coterminous with the 7th Essex District in the House, and represented by Democrat Paul F. Tucker, who was elected unopposed in November 2018. It is a part of the Second Essex District in the state Senate, represented by Democrat Joan B. Lovely, who was likewise elected without opposition in November 2018.[4] Together with most of Essex County, Salem is a part of the Massachusetts 6th Congressional District, represented in the House of Representatives by Seth W. Moulton (D-Salem), who was reelected to a third term in November 2018 with 65.2% of the vote.[5]

Name Party Votes Vote Percentage
Seth W. Moulton Democratic 217,703 65.2%
Joseph S. Schneider Republican 104,798 31.4%
Mary Jean Charbonneau Unenrolled 11,309 3.4%

Perhaps in part because of the people it tends to attract with its occult reputation, Salem is among the more liberal communities in Massachusetts. In the 2016 presidential election, it voted for Hillary Clinton by a higher margin than any other municipality in Essex County with the exception of Lawrence city; Clinton received 68.24% of the vote as compared to 24.91% for Donald Trump.


The city is served by the Salem Public School District, which includes six elementary schools, one middle school, and three high schools.

The elementary schools are:

  • Bates Elementary (K-5)
  • Bentley Academy Charter School (K-5)
  • Carlton Innovation School (K-5)
  • Horace Mann Laboratory School (K-5)
  • Saltonstall K-8 School
  • Witchcraft Heights Elementary School (K-5)

Collins Middle School serves most of grades 6-8 (except those in Saltonstall). Above grade 8, most students attend Salem High School, which has an enrollment of about 950 students. The mascot is the Witches, and the school colors are red, black, and white. Some students attend two alternate high schools, New Liberty Innovation School and Salem Prep High School.[6]

Salem is home to one institution of higher education, Salem State University, founded in 1854 and part of the Massachusetts state university system (not to be confused with the University of Massachusetts, a separate organization). It enrolls over 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students, the highest number in the state system, and has five different campuses, including a new library opened in 2013. Its mascot is the Vikings.[7]


Until the 19th century, economic activity in Salem revolved around overseas trade and other maritime activities, such as fishing and shipbuilding. By the mid-1800s, as its relative importance and suitability as a port declined, the city shifted more toward manufacturing, which continued to be the case until the late 20th century, when, like many American cities, the relocation of manufacturing elsewhere caused it to transition again from an industrial to a service economy. Today the health care sector has both the largest workforce and the highest economic output, followed by retail trade. Finance, manufacturing, education, and professional services also continue to be relatively important. Top employers are the North Shore Medical Center, the Salem City Government, and Salem State University, in that order.[8]

The city and the local Chamber of Commerce have made active efforts to draw businesses to Salem, providing numerous guidebooks and financial assistance programs to interested entrepreneurs. As might be expected, the city government includes a Historical Commission that monitors any construction or refurbishing of properties within its four official historic districts.[9]

The downtown region is boosted by Salem Main Streets, a non-profit organization devoted to recruiting and promoting businesses within the district through tourism and community events. One of its chief attractions is the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, an outdoor shopping center located between Salem Common and the harbor.


Like much of eastern Massachusetts, Salem lies within the Boston media market, and receives most of its radio and television coverage from there. Radio stations based in Salem itself include WESX (1230 AM), an ethnic/religious station, and WMWM (91.7 FM), a college radio station broadcasting from Salem State University. There are two local newspapers, the Salem Gazette and The Salem News.

Though the witch trials of the 17th century were for a long time a source of community shame to Salem, interest in them has resurfaced in recent decades, partly because of their being publicized by literature, movies, and television. Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible did much to link the town with witchcraft in the popular mind, especially where the trials were concerned. Scenes from an episode of Bewitched were shot in Salem in 1970, and the daytime scenes of the 1993 Disney movie Hocus Pocus, which quickly became a Halloween classic, were filmed there as well. Other movies (not all of them paranormal in theme) shot wholly or partially in Salem include Bride Wars, The Lords of Salem, and American Hustle.


Witch-related Tourism

Interest in the witch trials and related phenomena has provided a great deal of tourism to the Salem area in recent decades. The Witch House, named because it was the home of Jonathan Corwin, a magistrate involved in the prosecution of accused witches, is the only surviving building with ties to the trials, but other attractions include Gallows Hill Park (believed to be near the site where convicted witches were hanged), and Salem Museum, which includes many exhibits on that era. Various other memorials and monuments to the witch trials and their victims exist throughout the city, and a number of ghost and witchcraft tours are held year-round.

Other Tourism

Much of Salem's downtown and waterfront district has been included within the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, established in 1938 (the first National Historic Site to exist in the U.S.). It includes the surviving colonial and Early Republic mansions of several merchants and shipowners, the Salem Custom House (1819), and the Friendship of Salem, a replica of a 1790s sailing ship. Other historic sites include the Pickman House, built approximately 1664 and believed to be Salem's oldest surviving structure, and the House of the Seven Gables, a 1668 mansion made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1851 novel of the same time. Hawthorne's birthplace, dating to the 18th century, is also open as a museum.