See the real witch trial sites in Danvers, Mass.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
AMHERST – Tourists are filling the streets of Salem, Mass., this month, drawn to its spooky witch-themed attractions.
But to see artifacts and sites actually connected to the colonial Massachusetts witch trials, you have to go to Danvers, Mass.
That was the message from Robin DeRosa to a packed audience at the Amherst Town Library recently. Go to Salem to join the throngs of Halloween revelers and buy kitchy coffee mugs and scented candles and see fake witch trial sites, DeRosa said.
But to see the actual houses and graves of the so-called witches, go seven miles away to Danvers, said DeRosa, a professor of English and women’s studies at Plymouth State University.
Salem is a “witch Disneyland,” she said, created in the 1970s to give an economic boost to a depressed seaport city that had been devastated by mill closures.
In 1692, Salem’s name was Salem Town, but most of the witch trial-related events happened in Salem Village (now Danvers), DeRosa said.
“In the 1970s, Danvers missed the boat, and I think a lot of people there are happy” Danvers did not become a tourist destination, she said.
The home of Rebecca Nurse is in Danvers, and it’s still standing. So is the home of the Joseph Putnam family, the most vocal of the witch accusers.
The start of the witch hysteria began at the home of Samuel Parris in Danvers, and the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial is in Danvers.
Danvers is “ground zero” of the Salem witch trials, DeRosa said, yet few people ever go there, because it’s not set up for tourism and finding most sites takes work.
Also in Danvers are the grave and homestead of Rebecca Nurse, a well respected member of the community, whose execution soured people on the witch trials, DeRosa said, and they were soon shut down.
What is authentic in present-day Salem is at the Phillips Library, where there are actual witch trial artifacts and documents, including the testimony of Tituba, a household slave who was one of the first three accused, and the death warrant for Sarah Goode.
The library charges $10 for a visit, but “on Halloween it won’t be crowded,” DeRosa said.
During her lively slide presentation, called “Witches, Pop Culture and the Past,” DeRosa gave a quick history of the witch hysteria that gripped that part of Massachusetts from 1692-93.
“These three had no way to defend themselves,” DeRosa said of the first three accused. After the trials, the accusations picked up speed and eventually hundreds were accused and 19 were hanged.
And it’s no wonder that witch history mixes up the two towns.
History is a trick, DeRosa said, a mix of stories, theories and performances, with only a vague relationship to what really went on.
“Things happened in the past, but they are so irretrievably lost to us,” she said. People think they know things that aren’t actually known by anyone, even historians.
A reporter from the Laconia Citizen once asked DeRosa for interesting tidbits about Salem, so she told him that no one knows the location of Gallows Hill, the place of execution.
“If you go to Salem, people will be happy to tell you where it is,” she told him, but they will be wrong.
So the reporter sent his story to the editor who sent this note back: “All of Salem knows Gallows Hill is the big hill at the end of Essex Street.”
Except that Gallows Hill is not at the end of Essex Street, DeRosa said, showing various postcards and pictures of Salem sites purporting to be Gallows Hill. They are all in different parts of the city.
“No one knows where the witches were hung,” she said.
Small town politics
Local politics had a lot to do with who were the accusers and who was accused, DeRosa said, and people found it easy to believe witchcraft stories about those they didn’t like. She recommended a book called “Salem Possessed: Social Origins of Witchcraft” by Paul Boyer, which has maps predicting who would accuse whom based on who disliked whom.
Sarah Osbourne, for example, was disliked by many of her fellow townspeople when she married her Irish servant.
DeRosa packed a lot of intriguing ideas into her one-hour talk.
At bottom, she believes the hysteria may have started when anxiety about brutal and ongoing raids by Native Americans turned into fear of witchcraft.
Not much could be done about the Indians, but something could be done about people who were enthralled with the devil, and in those days, everyone believed the devil walked among them.
“Fear of being attacked by Native Americans became fear of the devil,” DeRosa said.
Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or at email@example.com.