Lowell, Massachusetts: Lowell National Historical Park

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Lowell National Historical Park was another National Parks site that reopened just in time for our visit.  It was admittedly a last minute addition to the itinerary, when I realised how near it was to Boston, and thought, “The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Sure, why the hell not?!”  I definitely remember learning quite a bit about Lowell at some point, probably at the university level, though I can’t really remember anymore (maybe AP US History?  Seems like the sort of thing that would have been in there.).  Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that I was aware of the history of the mills, and was eager to see where it all went down.

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Lowell is kind of cool because the historic buildings are spread throughout the modern town, so you get to explore a bit whilst finding them, and follow the canal paths (any time I’m near a canal, I get that “15 Miles on the Erie Canal Song” stuck in my head, and entertainingly for passersby, usually burst into song).  It appeared to be the day Lowell was having trick-or-treating (bizarrely, in the middle of the day, which is no fun at all.  Health and safety can bite me if it means lame daytime Halloweens.), so the streets were heaving with costumed children and their parents, which made it slightly tricky to get around (pun?).  The main sites are the Visitor’s Center, the Mills Girls Exhibit, and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum (which is $6, and the only site you have to pay for), although there is an historic trolley route running through town that does tours, and occasional canal tours that do cost extra.

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We began our visit in the Boott Mills Museum, which, like all the National Parks we visited, had remarkably friendly staff.  The ground floor of the museum holds the old mill machinery, which still works!  Unfortunately, we arrived during lunchtime, so the machines were silent when we walked through the factory room, after punching in on the old fashioned time clock.  We headed straight upstairs, which holds most of the exhibits, and watched the introductory video, which featured the voice of an amusingly southern Thomas Jefferson.  I mean, I know he was from Virginia and all, and the history of accents can be difficult to trace, but I don’t think the Southern accent was that well-defined at that point in time, especially for someone from the upper classes – I certainly never pictured Jefferson as being full on, Doc Holliday style “well, I declare!” Southern, so it cracked me right up.  Video aside, the rest of the exhibits were much more sombre in tone.

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They detailed the history of the Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain, and only really taking hold in America when British entrepreneurs came over with their mechanical expertise (I was just forced to memorise facts about Richard Arkwright for the dreary “Life in the UK” exam.  Not something I want to ever have to take again).  The experience of working in the mills was illustrated by more videos, featuring elderly people who had actually worked in the mills (the videos were recent-ish, as in, made at some point in the last 30 years, which meant conditions must have been pretty crap for much longer than I would have thought).  I was fascinated by these, especially because my grandmother worked at a suit factory in Cleveland in the ’40s, and although she had some fond memories, I realised her working conditions must not have been very pleasant.   Of course people in developing countries still work in similarly horrible conditions, which is a sobering thought, and one mentioned in some of the exhibits.  There were lots of interactive things where you could practice the steps of cloth-making for yourself; they were intended for children, but we were the only visitors so of course I gave them a go (I’m awesome at carding wool thanks to my short-lived Hale Farm internship).  There were also examples of the range of finished cloth produced by the mills, which I had to examine in detail, because, c’mon, Victorian fabric patterns that might have been used by the Ingallses ( I didn’t see any “turkey red” fabric with a big yellow pattern, but some of the calicoes could have been plausibly used by them, especially because Lowell fabric was on the inexpensive side, so it would have been affordable for Pa’s broke ass.  I am such a nerd)!

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The museum took us right up to the story of modern Lowell, which became the home of a computer factory (called Wang Computers, I couldn’t help snickering).  By the time we finished with the upstairs exhibits, the machinery downstairs was up and running (we could actually feel it start whilst we were watching the film, as there was a steady rumble underneath our feet from that point on).  They offer ear plugs, as the machines are very loud, and they only turn on a few of them, so I had some idea of the cacophony that must have resulted when the whole factory was operational.  It’s a wonder that not everyone went deaf.

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Although the Mill Girls Exhibit was right next door, it didn’t open until 1:30, so we decided to wander over to the Visitor’s Center on the other side of town to kill the 15 minutes or so until opening time.  On the way, we passed the historic trolley and train depot, though we didn’t come at the right time for the free tour.  The Visitor’s Center was small and filled with trick-or-treaters, but there were exhibits on the trolley, and Jack Kerouac, who I didn’t even know was from Lowell (not that I’m at all a fan of the Beat Generation, so I don’t know why I would have known).  There wasn’t much else to see, so we made our way back through the hordes of children.  I also noticed a few textile related museums on our walk, which looked interesting, but we had a flight to catch that evening, so we didn’t have much time to spare.

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I was excited for the Mill Girls Exhibit, because the stories of the girls working in the mills is more appealing to me than the history of the mills themselves.  The exhibit was housed in one of the old dormitories, where the girls lived under the supervision of a landlady who cooked their meals.  The dining room was set up, ready for a meal, and some of the foods the girls would have eaten were tacked up in a display (some of the “potatoes” had fallen to the bottom of the case, which amused me).  Climbing the narrow staircase, I found another room devoted to the mill girls that explained the the layout of the dorms, which would have had larger apartments on the corners for the families of higher-ups. Although the grand intentions of Lowell, which was initially conceived as a wholesome environment where girls could make some money whilst enriching themselves mentally and socially, eventually went awry, as these things do, many of the early girls (who were often from the middle classes) clearly enjoyed the social aspects of their time there.  It was only later, when immigrants came to work, and wages dropped, that the highfalutin ideas on education and good working conditions completely went down the toilet.  All of this was discussed in the upstairs room, but I would have liked to hear more, as the experiences of only a few girls were highlighted.

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The next section had a timeline of immigrants (with some nice old-timey photos), and then downstairs, we learned about the modern immigrant communities in Lowell, which seems to be a veritable melting pot.  I think it’s nice that they talk about the cultural background of Lowell, but I could have done with more historical exhibits and fewer modern ones.  That’s just my personal preference though – everything was arranged very nicely, and they’d clearly made an effort to engage with the local community with their displays.

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I definitely delighted in our visit to Lowell, and was glad I tacked it on to our itinerary in the end.  It was really neat to see all the old buildings still standing (it looks like some of them have been converted into flats), and they kept the mill heritage alive throughout the town, which was ringed with sculptures of spools and bobbins.  I like how they’ve integrated the historic buildings into the modern community, and have managed to preserve the often troubled history of the mills.  4/5, for the Lowell experience, and if I ever return, I’ll definitely check out the other museums in town (and maybe go on a canal tour!)!

Plymouth, Massachusetts: Pilgrim Hall Museum

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Although I honestly wasn’t planning it this way, I seem to have written this post just in time for Thanksgiving, so consider it my holiday offering.  Happy Thanksgiving!  When we were on our American roadtrip, my boyfriend, despite being British, was for some reason keen to see one of the most iconically American objects: Plymouth Rock (even though it is just some random rock that they’ve stuck in a cage and loaded down with symbolism).  Honestly, being a cynical type with little respect for totemic objects (certainly not ones with no basis in fact), I was less enthused, but went along for the ride, as I’d never been to Plymouth before either.  As predicted, the rock was a total bust, and I wasn’t about to pay to go on the replica Mayflower, so we were ready to cut our losses and leave when I spotted a sign advertising the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which assured me I could “touch a piece of Plymouth Rock.”  Well, forget everything I just said about not caring about the rock, because I’m not a monster…of course I wanted to touch it!  We hastily made our way over to the museum to see if it lived up to its promises, or if it was a load of tommyrot (yeah, I’m bringing tommyrot back, I think it’s time).

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It was surprisingly expensive, coming in at $8 each, but it is the oldest continually operating museum in America (as Google has informed me), so I guess they’re trying to ensure funding for its continued operation.  The gentleman at the admissions desk gave us an overly detailed overview of the museum (he was basically addressing us as though we were 5 years old and had never visited a museum before), and made a stab at humour with some weird, slightly sexist comment about how my boyfriend would have to steer me away from the gift shop to look at the museum (because obviously souvenir tea towels are better than history?), which was kind of bizarre, but he was pretty old so I let it slide.  There was a temporary exhibition on about the tourist trade in Plymouth, showcasing souvenirs through the centuries.  A lot of them related to a supposed love triangle between Myles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, and John Alden (John and Priscilla dolls, woot!) or were slightly boring looking history games that I would admittedly totally buy and play if they were still available. Lots of platters and other tat too, really, nothing too remarkable here.

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We then progressed downstairs, where we were instructed in no uncertain terms by the desk man to watch the video before doing anything else, so we obligingly plopped ourselves down for the show, which was a history of the Pilgrims.  To be fair, although I read William Bradford‘s writings in both high school English and some Early American Literature class I took as an undergrad, I hadn’t really learned much about the Pilgrims since grade school, so some of the basic facts about them had somehow escaped my notice.  For example, I had no idea they came from Scrooby (or where Scrooby was, for that matter.  Turns out it’s in Nottinghamshire and is tiny), and although I’d certainly heard of Myles Standish, I also didn’t know about the aforementioned love triangle (I guess we were too busy in elementary school re-enacting the Victorian idea of the first Thanksgiving with crudely made, historically inaccurate Pilgrim hats and “Indian” headdresses, to learn about anything even vaguely sordid.  Because I was in no way cool, I always got stuck being a lame Pilgrim, in a gross white paper bonnet.  Not that I’m salty about it or anything).  I was kind of eager for the video to finish so I could examine the objects in the case at the end of the room, which proved to be gen-u-ine Pilgrim possessions, including a cradle that was actually carried over on the Mayflower.  Despite making it clear that I don’t buy into the whole Pilgrim mythology (and seriously, screw the Puritan work-ethic – I enjoy being lazy, and two weeks of holiday is really not sufficient (not that I’ve ever had a full-time job, but still)), seeing some of the first surviving European artefacts brought to America was the bee’s knees.

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I actually did enjoy the downstairs galleries quite a lot, maybe because, like I said, I’m not particularly well-versed on the Pilgrims, outside of William Bradford and King Philip’s War et al, so it was interesting learning more about their quotidian lives.  There were a surprising amount of original documents and charters in their collection, as well as surviving furniture and whatnot (though not actual whatnots, like the one the Ingallses build with Mrs. Boast in By the Shores of Silver Lake), and I made sure to plunk myself down in the replica of the Bradford chair.

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Going back upstairs, I somehow managed to restrain myself from running straight into the gift shop (jeez), and instead took time to peruse the collection of paintings, mostly Victorian (as that was when the Pilgrim mystique really started to take hold), portraying the early years of the Plymouth settlement.  There was a fascinating display in the middle of the room that showed the evolution of our ideas on what the Pilgrims actually wore – the early Victorian paintings tended to portray them clad in sumptuous fabrics, outfits far more suited to the wealthy, and the late Victorian portrayal went to opposite extremes, with the weird buckle outfits and hats that we all know so well (exactly like the ones I was describing earlier that we were forced to construct from paper every November), because what better to accent your decidedly austere and drab clothing than a big shiny gold buckle?  The modern conception is probably more historically accurate, (or so we think), and shows them wearing normal 17th century clothes for poor-to-middling folk.  It was also here that they were hiding the chunk of Plymouth Rock, and you better believe I touched the hell out of it.  Mmmmm, rocky.

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Finally, we did head over to the gift shop, which was just fine, but seriously, not anything I would skip a museum to go see.  In spite of the slightly odd welcome, I’m glad we did find this museum, because it made the trip to Plymouth worthwhile, at a point when I was ready to give up on the town altogether. I’m still troubled by the American reverence for a random rock and the Pilgrims in general though (or more to the point, what the Pilgrims and the rock represent).  3.5/5 for the museum, and I hope everyone who celebrates it has a grand Thanksgiving, despite my Scrooge-like attitude!  Actually, I was planning on at least making a special meal this year, but a TMJ flare-up means although I’m still cooking it for my boyfriend’s sake,  I won’t be able to enjoy it without enduring horrible jaw and inner ear pain, so I guess I’ll just carry on being the Grinch of Thanksgiving in future!

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Boston, MA: Museum of Bad Art and the Warren Anatomical Museum

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These two museums have virtually nothing in common other than both being located in the Boston area, but I don’t really have enough to say on either museum to fill up a full length post, plus the Warren Museum doesn’t allow photography, so combining them allows me to include some entertaining photographs!  You may be familiar with MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) through their online gallery, which is in fact the only way to view most of their art collection.  However, they also have several “bricks-and-mortar” locations – one is in a movie theatre, so you have to buy a movie ticket to get inside, but the one we visited is in a public access television studio in Brookline, and is free, albeit slightly awkward to visit, as you have to look round the collection whilst people are at their desks working in front of you.

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The small collection (about 20 pieces) is displayed along two walls of a lobby, with a detailed (often amusing) explanation of exactly what makes each piece “bad art.” As MOBA puts it: “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”  So basically, you’re not simply laughing at the work of amateurs, but more often things where the skill is adequate, but something goes seriously wrong with the composition.

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MOBA was definitely good for a chuckle or two, but if you can’t go to see the actual paintings, I don’t really think you’re missing out.  Their online collections are far more extensive, and easily accessible to all, so I’d really only recommend going to the Brookline collection if you’re already in the area and feeling bored.

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Now, for the Warren Anatomical Museum.  It’s located inside the Countway Library of Medicine, which is apparently some kind of Harvard/Boston Medical Library alliance.  It’s right by what appears to be the hospital district of Boston, so parking is kind of a bitch unless you use one of the garages.  We had to undergo an interrogation/bag search by the rather unfriendly security guard, and show a photo ID to be allowed access to the library, but the museum is free, and located on the 5th floor.

On their website, they claim that the museum has over 300 cases, and I’m frankly puzzled as to how they came up with that number; as far as I could tell, they had four display cases (even if you broke up the display cases into individual sections, it was maybe 16 at the most).  They may have had 300 artefacts, but even that seems a generous estimate.  What I’m saying is that the museum is small, much smaller than their website would have you believe.  However, I guess I shouldn’t quibble too much over size, as there were some pretty neat things in there.

The main reason I wanted to visit (other than my general love of medical museums) was because they had Phineas Gage‘s skull, and, perhaps even more excitingly, the tamping iron that was jammed through it (woo, inanimate carbon rod!).  I remembered learning about Gage in psychology and linguistics classes, but in case you’re not familiar with him, basically, he was a 19th century construction foreman who had an iron rod rammed through his brain in an accident.  Surprisingly, he survived the incident, and was still a functioning adult, even though his frontal lobe was completely destroyed.  Unfortunately, the accident completely changed his personality, and he went from being reliable and amiable to argumentative and impatient, meaning it was impossible for him to hold down a job, and he exhibited himself in sideshows until his seizure-related death (another side-effect of the accident).  The reason Phineas Gage is so important is because his accident transformed the understanding of the brain, which led to developments in medicine and psychology (and darkly, would later indirectly lead to things like lobotomies, although really, if they had studied the case of Gage at all, they could have figured out destroying chunks of the brain was definitely a bad idea).  So yeah, it was pretty extraordinary to see the artefacts relating to his case.

Boston is also where the first public surgery under anaesthesia was performed, by Doctor John Warren, who is both the founder and namesake of the collection, so there were of course materials relating to that.  There were a few impressive teratological specimens, and the skeleton of a woman whose body had been absolutely destroyed by rickets, in addition to the usual surgical instruments you would expect from a medical museum.  They also had some fascinating accounts from students at the Victorian-era medical school, and the lengths they would go to obtain skeletons to study (something which involved conspiring with the janitor to get their hands on a corpse, which he would then boil down for them).  The walls were lined with portraits of famous 19th century doctors; the portrait of Crawford Long showed him to have the dark hair and long face that would have made him just my type, but a photograph of him taken in later life made me realise he was much less attractive than his portrait led me to believe.

Although it was a bit of a hassle accessing the Warren Museum, and the collection was fairly tiny (at least, the collection on display, I’m told their holdings are far more extensive), it was a rare opportunity to see Phineas Gage’s skull, so I am glad we stopped.  If you’re in Boston and a fan of medical history, then it’s definitely a worthwhile destination, just don’t expect your visit to take much longer than half an hour.

A Bewitching Day in Salem

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Sorry, but a pun was unavoidable.  Happy Halloween everybody!  Today I’m writing about one of the Halloweeniest places on Earth; Salem, MA.  Salem is somewhere I’ve always really wanted to visit; in fact, it was on my “Places I want to Visit” page until I finally remembered to remove it.  Before this trip, I’d never even been to New England, but I felt sure it would be as atmospheric as Hocus Pocus had led me to believe.  Although some parts of the trip were kind of a bust, I’m happy to say that Salem wasn’t one of them, although it was EXTREMELY touristy, as I was anticipating.

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Salem is not terribly big, and is primarily composed of the following: shops and restaurants, most of with a witch theme, or spooky-sounding name; overpriced museums and haunted houses, again sticking to the witch theme; and some of the most adorable 19th century houses I’ve ever seen.  Some of Hocus Pocus was indeed filmed in Salem, and the overhanging trees perched in the tree-lawns of some of the streets, coupled with the old houses made it feel as though it would be a great place to do some trick-or-treating (although, as the houses lacked the ample front yards and pumpkin-strewn porches of suburban Ohio, it didn’t exactly take me back to my own childhood memories of Halloween night.  Oh, nostalgia).

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Obviously, Salem is famous for the Salem Witch Trials, which is up there on the list of disturbing events in American history, and it’s thus a bit odd that it is a hotspot for modern Wiccans, but then again, Whitby is a goth hangout, and the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel wasn’t even real, so maybe not so weird after all.  Although Salem has a long and rich history outside of the witch trials, the whole witch thing really came front and centre sometime around the ’60s, when a few episodes of Bewitched were filmed in Salem (and there’s a Samantha statue in the middle of town), and it was only exacerbated by Hocus Pocus, until it really became the main focus of the town.  There’s lots of opportunities at the local witchcraft shops to have your fortune told, which is not really my cup of tea, mainly because I’m cheap and tend to laugh at inappropriate times in those kinds of situations.  To be honest, I was really into Wicca and “magick” when I was a teenager, so I know perfectly well how to “read” Tarot cards, and sometimes I do, just for fun, but I’m certainly not going to pay for a reading.  Anyway, because museums are really my thing, I went to three of them whilst in Salem, as I wanted to get a mix of the cheesy and serious.

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The first was the Salem Witch Museum, the one in Washington Square (because there are a LOT of witch museums, and they all have similar names).  Because I studied the trials pretty extensively in high school and beyond, I didn’t really want to do a walking tour that would just focus on basic history; I wanted something over-the-top, and this was the place the proprietor of our B&B recommended (she sold me on it when she said it was like the Hall of Presidents in Disneyworld, although there were sadly no animatronics to be found).  You’re not allowed to take pictures, presumably so you can’t show people how lame it is, so we parted with $9.50 and joined the massive queue of people for the next showing.  We were ushered into a large theatre, with manneuquins arranged in various tableaux along the walls.  There’s a recorded narrator, which sounds like it was done in the 1960’s, that tells the basic story of the witch trials, and a spotlight shines on each scene as he discusses it.  There’s a devil with red eyes that glow intermittently, which is the only bit that could even sort of be construed as scary.  Following about half an hour of blathering, we were then directed into a smaller room, and given a tour by a staff member who discussed modern witch hunts and Paganism with us.  I would have probably enjoyed it more if it wasn’t packed with obnoxious teenagers on some sort of field trip (and if the staff didn’t keep asking me if I was with said teenagers).  The whole thing was extremely lame, and very overpriced, but I do like outdated attractions, so I didn’t hate it or anything.  2.5/5.

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Next, I visited a more serious museum, in the form of the Salem Museum.  This is housed in the old town hall, and is more of a historical society, with free admission.  The walls were hung with informational posters, and there were a few cases with objects from Salem’s history, but there wasn’t a lot in there, and pretty much served as an overview of Salem’s history.  They did make the bold claim (ok, via a quote) that Nathaniel Hawthorne was handsomer than Lord Byron, which I have to dispute, though I suppose Hawthorne had the advantage of not being a drunken, syphilitic libertine.  I do feel guilty about skipping the House of the Seven Gables, but I’ve never read the book, nor The Scarlet Letter, so I felt I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it properly (it is a glaring omission, considering I was an English major, (I’ll get round to it eventually!), but I do remember being creeped out by “The Minister’s Black Veil,” if that’s any help!).

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Salem was also where Parker Brothers was founded, so the museum had a room at the back devoted to the history of the company, which was by far the best part.  I LOVE board games, and I’d really like to start collecting antique ones if I ever have any sort of income, so I enjoyed looking at all the Victorian morality games, and the various versions of Monopoly manufactured over the years.  I should also mention that there is a man dressed as a pirate who runs the gift shop/greets people (I mean, he does work there, he’s not just a random weirdo or something), and that part of a witch-hunt play thing takes place in the attic of the museum building, so you may suddenly see an angry mob coming towards you, screaming “Witch, witch!” so be prepared for that.  2.5/5

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Thirdly, there’s Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, commonly agreed to be the best waxworks in town, and you know I love a good wax museum.  Unfortunately, Count Orlok’s kind of defeats the purpose of visiting a wax museum by not allowing photography.  I mean, why go through the trouble of making replicas of famous movie characters if you’re not allowed to get your picture taken with them?  What’s the point?  Still, I did pony up $8 for it, and in fairness, they were very good waxworks (note: zombie above was not done by Count Orlok’s), which made the no-photo thing even more galling.  My favourite was of course Winifred Sanderson, but there was also Beetlejuice, lots of characters from Hammer horror, life masks of Bela Lugosi et al, and lots of other modern monsters.  They only had a few of the Universal monsters, and Dracula and Frankenstein were not among them, and they didn’t have anything from the Evil Dead series, which is my favourite horror trilogy (really, all I can handle is over-the-top cheesy horror, anything actually scary just gives me horrible nightmares), but that might be for the best as I think I might have cried if I couldn’t get a photo with Ash.  During October, they run a haunted house in the afternoons where people jump out at you, but it’s pretty small in there, and I wanted to be able to actually look at stuff uninterrupted, so keep in mind that you have to visit before 2:30 if you feel the same.  3/5, I would have rated it higher but for the stupid photography rule.

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There’s lots of other stuff to do around town; I hear the Witches and Seafarers Wax Museum is hilariously crap, but I didn’t feel like blowing more money, and I was scared they wouldn’t allow photos either.  There is an old-timey photo studio that does witch portraits; obviously, I couldn’t resist, but they have my boyfriend in them too, and he’d be extremely embarrassed if I posted them on here.  I had really good pizza and ice cream from Flying Saucer Pizza and the Salem Screamery, respectively.  Of course, I also paid a visit to the cemetery, which is a lovely, if sadly unkempt New England style graveyard with verse and death’s heads on many of the old stones.  Simon Bradstreet, husband of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet is buried here, as is John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel, and one of the douchiest judges in the witch trials, which is probably the reason why Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname.

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Next to the cemetery is the witch memorial, so you can pay solemn tribute to the victims of the hysteria. It’s probably one of the few sites relatively untainted by modern tourism left in Salem, although that said, I didn’t go in the Witch House, the only remaining site directly connected to the trials.  But, when in Salem, it’s best to just give in to the touristy madness, and take advantage of all the activities around town in October.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to visit, even though Binx never turned up.

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