The Charter Street Cemetery, also called the Old Burying Point, is a beautiful link to historic Salem’s past tragedies and glories. In this small plot of land are buried the bodies of notable figures such as notorious Witch Trials hanging judge John Hathorne, and Mayflower Pilgrim Richard More, as well as the earthly remains of regular old time Salem dwellers who’s history is lost to time. The graveyard is one of the oldest in the United States, dating back to at least 1637 and it contains beautiful examples of the early American folk art of gravestone carving, one of my favorite examples being the Timothy Lindall stone with it’s intricately carved skeleton and Father Time/Reaper motif. Next to the cemetery proper is a sober, modern memorial to the innocent victims of the Witchcraft Hysteria. This is merely a memorial, as none of their bodies were interred in the ground of the cemetery after their executions, it was a violation of the law to bury a witch in consecrated ground. No decent visit to Salem is complete without a visit the Old Burying Point. Every Spellbound tour includes a trip to this important burial ground.
Once the Charter Street Cemetery was a stately place, today it is in decay. Centuries of neglect have caused stones to crumble. The natural shifting of the earth, as well as the constant digging out and building up of the land around the graveyard have caused the land to buckle and memorials to be forced askew. The law states no living soul is allowed in the Burial Ground after dusk, yet the gate is left swinging open all hours and the curfew is rarely enforced, allowing dishonorable thrill seekers to sneak in under the cover of darkness and ransack the graveyard for souvenirs. Every year a few more headstones and footstones go missing. But for all the devastation Charter Street Cemetery is an oasis of peace in the heart of urban Salem.
On the Voodoo, Vampires, and Ghosts Tour we discuss the history of the cemetery, and the bizarre claims of paranormal activity associated with it. Our guests enjoy experiencing the ghostly atmosphere and learning the history, but one thing that sometimes comes as a surprise is that this old graveyard is more than just a historic and haunted attraction- it is a religious pilgrimage site for many practitioners of witchcraft, voodoo, and other magical faiths.
In certain cultures and faiths a cemetery is not merely the place to dispose of bodies and remember the ancestors, it is viewed as a portal to the spirit world. A place where the the distinction between our world and the world of the spirits or gods can become blurred and we can more easily make contact with the other side. People come to the cemetery to speak to their own forefathers. They come to invoke the power of the deceased and to petition for assistance from others who have passed. Being among the bodies of the dead and the memorials of their earthly existence helps put the spiritual seeker in the right mindset to make contact, and reminds them of the gravity and seriousness of their quest.
Visit the Charter Street Cemetery enough and you start to notice traces of ritual activity. The large, flat stone monuments make excellent alter surfaces and it is not uncommon on an early morning visit to the cemetery to come across the still smoldering remains of a candle from the previous night’s ceremony. If you know what you are looking for sometimes you will see various symbols, signs and sigils scratched into the dirt. In addition to the curious visitors and history buffs the Old Burial Ground hosts witches for their shellwork, and people who come to meditate in it’s calm, but charged atmosphere.
In Voodoo the gatekeeper to the spirits and gods is named Papa Legba. Legba is most often depicted as a dark skinned elderly man, frequently enjoying a pipe, wearing a big straw hat, and walking with a cane or crutch. Sometimes he looks rather like the popular imagined image of the old time hoboes, while other times Legba is slick and snazzy wearing an old fashioned tailcoat. He can be compared to Catholic Saint Peter, and Saint Lazarus and in certain forms of worship he fills some of the same roles. The importance of Papa Legba cannot be stressed enough- if you are a believer in particular faiths you have to reconcile with Legba before you can make anything happen, it is he that opens the door to the spirit world and allows mortal man to communicate with the gods and spirits. Despite his serious role, Papa Legba is also a trickster, he likes a good time, but needs respect to be shown to him. Before Papa Legba will work with a petitioner there are prayers to be said, and offerings to be made. Red and white candles may be burned, and gift offering will be laid out. Papa Legba is a god, but his appetites are much like ours. To get in good favor with Papa Legba his workers will leave gifts like good food, tobacco for his pipe, candy, and of course some good, clear rum.
Legba is said to guard the the crossroads from our world to the world of the supernatural so many people go to the graveyard to work with him. The Charter Street Cemetery is both a symbolic crossroads to the spirit world and a literal crossroads from one place to another in Salem. It is right smack between Essex Street, the commercial hub of Salem, and Derby Street, where the old wharves were and the sailors brought back the goods from other lands that made Salem the wealthiest city in the world way back during the golden age of sail. Dirt from graveyards is used in many spells and rituals, and so is dirt from the crossroads. Charter Street is perfect because it is both. It is a graveyard crossroads, a perfect combination!
One of the most positive aspects of Salem is the respect shown to the practitioners of various faiths who may come to do their thing the graveyard. Last October, at the height of tourist season, one of the huge stone slabs became a makeshift alter. Coins started to appear on it, laid out in intricate patterns, all laid out for symbolic reason. There was easily a hundred dollars on that slab that someone could have swept right into their pockets. But no one dared. People knew it was part of an alter, a ritual, and left the coins be. They know it would have been the same as stealing from their own church.
See you at the crossroads,