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Salem’s Death Shop

Salem has something for visitors of all tastes: haunted tours like the Spellbound tour, beautiful architecture, a wealth of historic colonial, revolutionary, and maritime locations, a thriving restaurant and night life scene, and of course, our main attraction, the infamous Witch Hysteria. Visitors to Salem walk charming cobblestone streets and enjoy the year-round Halloween atmosphere. On the surface Salem appears to be a normal, if a little spooky, New England tourist town. It is a lot of fun, but sometimes our visitors want something darker, rawer, more intense, and for a while the Life & Death In Salem curiosity shop provided that welcome darkness.

For a few short years Life & Death In Salem was the go-to spot for all things morbid. Nestled in a dark corner of a decaying downtown mall, Life & Death was a homegrown version of an old-fashioned curiosity shop. Visitors could browse displays of Victorian death photography, cruel torture devices, and taxidermy freak animals. There was an extensive library of gruesome medical texts, true crime literature, and artifacts from the notoriously haunted Old Salem Jail. Life & Death owner Nichole Ferree is one of the foremost experts on the Boston Strangler case and was always glad to share information on new developments on the horrifying strangler murders, it was on one of her gore and crime night tours of the Witch City I learned of the Strangler’s ill-fated trip to Salem. I fondly remember her collection of grim 1930’s Magic Lantern crime scene glass slides from the Boston Police Department that Life & Death had for sale. Guests could recline on the oddly comfortable medical table and ponder the vicious-looking antique medical instruments. Life and Death hosted sideshow exhibitions and displays of fascinating spirit photography, and for special events an antique absinthe fountain was kept flowing. A vampire meet-up group called the Life & Death shop their home base, and there were persistent unfounded rumors of blood drinking occurring in the shop! But for all the amazing things Life & Death had to offer, the main attraction was the always changing array of human bones for sale.

On any given day you could walk into Life and Death and be greeted with a new shipment of human skulls, carefully packaged and shipped in from who knows where. Some were fresh, clean looking specimens, clearly intended for academic use, others were ancient, dirt-encrusted things. There were articulated human skeleton arms for sale, boney fingers beckoning out of casket shaped display cases. I am the proud owner of a few human ribs from the Life & Death collection. High on a shelf out of reach, for sale, but not really for sale, was the crown jewel of Life & Death in Salem: an articulated infant skeleton with two bulging heads grown onto one normal body. Life & Death was a ghoul’s dream come true! Deep-pocketed customers could walk out with a full skeleton while more budget-minded guests could always afford a vertebrae or two.

Life & Death had been making a name for themselves, attracting customers and controversy. Things were looking good. Sideshow performances were sold out, and the Ghosts and Gore Tour was catching on. Life & Death had a good relationship with various antique and oddity collectors and dealers, and word was getting out that if you had something weird to sell Life & Death was the place to do it. Life & Death was the place where you could get a fair price for your bizarre treasures whether they were a bucket of sheep eyes or family heirloom mourning jewelry made from someone’s deceased great, great, great grandma’s hair. Then the grave robbers came.

The Life & Death clientele was a little eccentric, so when the ragged looking young man came in and emptied a backpack of bones on to the counter it was business as usual. Then he came back the next day with more bones wrapped in rotten fabric. Now it was suspicious. The man mumbled out an unconvincing story about “finding the bones in a field or something”. This derelict was hiding information, usually when bones were proffered for sale there was a very specific narrative of where they came from, most of the time they were from retired doctors’ offices, intended for medical education, or from old collections with documented history, but not this time. There was no provenance on this sack of remains. The creep was sent packing!

More bones of questionable origin were flooding in, being delivered by a rough group of street kids and bums. No one was willing to divulge where they had come from. The bones were refused. Eventually one of the kids cracked. He admitted that the bones were being locally sourced. The catacombs of one of Salem’s oldest graveyards had partially caved in and opportunistic bums had transformed into body snatchers yanking bones from the earth in the hopes of financial gain! The fabric scraps had been portions of the burial garments of the deceased! The city was informed of the situation, the grave sites were filled in and no more questionable remains were proffered for sale, but the incident gave Life & Death In Salem a reputation as a haven for grave robbers.

Unfortunately Life & Death is no longer with us, numerous factors contributed to its untimely demise. The charmingly dark shop had been opened at the height of the Great Recession and hampered by rumors of grave robbing and blood drinking, Life & Death closed its doors. It had been too weird for Salem. Today Life & Death is something of a fond secret memory, guests on my Spellbound Voodoo Vampire and Ghosts Tour will inquire if I remember the shop. They want to go back to where they shuddered at the post mortem photography, bought the antique patent medicine, or caught the freak show. Some locals will cross themselves or pick up their pace when they pass by the old location, remembering the grinning skulls that once glared out at them from dark shelves. I believe that if Life & Death opened today it would be a massive success and be here to stay. Popular entertainment is flooded with what was once morbid and taboo, shows like Oddities and American Horror Story Freak Show have made it palpable to the American public. Taxidermy and bones have gone mainstream. Life & Death was ahead of its time.

There are a couple of places in Salem where you can still catch the spirit of Life & Death. Located at 55 Lafayette Street there is the wonderful Five Hands Curiosity Shoppe, accurately described on their website as “a menagerie of dark antiques, macabre, vintage, oddities and unusual items from all over the world”. Another must-see shop for the esoterically minded, or just plain ghoulish visitor is The Magic Parlor. Located at 213 Essex Street, The Magic Parlor is one of Salem’s finest old shops. In addition to their impressive array of authentic witchcraft supplies, novelty and gift items, the Magic Parlor carries a fine selection of real skulls (mostly animal but on occasion human), unusual antique supernatural artifacts, and preserved insects. The Magic Parlor is also the Salem Ticket Office for Spellbound Tours. The finest ghost tour in Salem, Spellbound focuses on the haunted history of Salem, paranormal investigation, and the grisly side of the Witch Hysteria. When you take a tour with us we visit multiple true haunted sites and discuss the weird side of the city past and present, including the vampire tales. It is important to remember what makes Salem really Salem and not just anther seaport town, and that includes paying tribute to the ghastly memory of Life & Death. See you in Salem!

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