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Salem -- witches' brew

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2004

SALEM -- For better or worse, thousands of Americans can trace their ancestry to one of the 19 men and women who were hanged for witchcraft in Colonial Salem. Some embrace the distinction, others reject it. But for sheer human drama, few episodes in American history can match the witch-hunt, making Salem the destination for a special class of visitors who arrive not to browse the shops or admire the architecture, but to surrender themselves to the dark magnetism that this coastal city continues to exert on the national conscience.

My own Salem connection is Martha Carrier, an outspoken goodwife whom Cotton Mather immortalized with the damning epithet ''Queen of Hell." She and four others met their end on Gallows Hill in the third of four public executions held in 1692. Deemed unworthy for burial in consecrated ground, their bodies were dumped into a rocky ditch and scattered with dirt.

For me, that was the definitive detail. With each successive year, I felt a stronger pull to make the trip to Salem.

What I needed was a personal artifact -- a shoe, a hairpin, some ordinary, everyday object that would lend a sense of reality to the fictionalized image of the trials created by books and films. I wanted physical proof that the whole thing really happened.

I started by looking for guides, but all I found were directions to graves and plaques, which reveal little about the fabric of people's lives.

I skipped the burial grounds and headed straight for the 17th-century houses. For a city so rich in historic architecture, it seems odd that only about five structures date to the witchcraft era. For me, the two most important were the House of the Seven Gables, a Colonial mansion where the magistrates hobnobbed at selectmen's meetings, and the Jonathan Corwin residence, known locally as the Witch House. Corwin was one of the judicial elite who cross-examined the accused witches at public hearings. His 26-year-old nephew, George, became Essex County's high sheriff, then made it his business to seize whatever property he could from those who had landed in prison.

Today, Corwin's home looks forbidding, all right. Though not overly large, it has a black exterior and a steep-pitched roof, though in 1692 the house would have been a weathered gray, as buildings weren't commonly painted. Now a museum, it is furnished to look like the well-appointed home it once was, yet contains none of Corwin's actual belongings. The museum's manager, Martha Patten, believes the only authentic piece is the fork that hangs framed on a wall in the parlor. Ironically, it belonged not to Corwin but to one of his victims, John Proctor. Proctor had articulated his contempt for the witchcraft proceedings and ended up among the accused. His fork is a curious-looking thing, two short tines with a 6-inch bone handle. Whether it was confiscated from Proctor's house or donated to the museum by his descendants is anyone's guess, but to me it stirred images of a wholly different world.

Yet another Proctor keepsake is in the reading room of the Phillips Library in Salem's massive Peabody Essex Museum. It is the sundial he might have kept on his barn or over the door of his farmhouse in the days before clocks were commonplace. The house itself still stands in nearby Peabody. Indeed, several of the original homes still exist, though not in Salem but in neighboring Danvers, then known as Salem Village, where the frenzy had its beginnings.

The instigators were two little girls who started having fits at the local parsonage. The stone foundations of that site, the Rev. Samuel Parris's house, have been set aside as a quasi-memorial. An archeological dig done there in the 1970s yielded an earthenware jug and fragments of a plate with the Parris initials. Both are exhibited in the reading room of the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers.

According to Danvers archivist and author Richard Trask, 15 witchcraft-related houses still dot the landscape. They are spread out, since they were once surrounded by farmland. Among them is the home of Sarah Osborne, a bedridden and possibly senile elder who died in prison. Another is that of Joseph Putnam, who clashed with his opportunistic brother Thomas, the man who capitalized on the furor by targeting his personal foes. Even the Ingersoll tavern, where the afflicted girls once fell into fits, is still in plain sight.

Two of these homes, those of Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Holten, are open to the public. The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the more famous, with its dirt drive, split-rail fence, and tiny cemetery. Goody Nurse was 71 and ailing when she was accused. Her neighbors rallied to her defense, but to no avail. Sarah Holten was among her detractors, complaining that Nurse had cast a spell on her husband, Benjamin Holten. He ''was as well as ever I knew him" until the day Rebecca Nurse ''fell a railing at him because our pigs got into her field."

The house, a classic saltbox, is steeped in Puritan atmosphere. The ceilings are low and dark, the fireplace massive and equipped with cast-iron utensils, and the furnishings sparse and humble. But none of Nurse's personal effects has survived, with one notable exception. Nurse was apparently one of only a few who received a proper burial. Her family secretly removed her remains from the notorious Gallows Hill ditch, probably the stone cleft that still runs the length of Proctor Street in Salem. They reburied her near the house in an unmarked grave. Today, a headstone marks the spot. The remains of fellow hanging victim George Jacobs were also moved here in 1992, having been discovered on what used to be his farm. Being arthritic, he was known to walk with wooden canes. His accusers would claim that his specter was using the canes to beat them. One of the canes rests in a glass case at the Phillips Library.

Of all the various sites, the library has collected the most artifacts. Gazing at them got me wondering why Essex County has never opened an authoritative Salem witchcraft museum where all the relics could be centralized, and, more to the point, why so little has survived.

''Part of it is cultural," said Trask. ''Polite society didn't talk about it for many generations. And with the exception of the Witch House and the Rebecca Nurse house, the Essex Institute [today's Peabody Essex Museum] was the only place that collected things, mostly documents. But as for actual artifacts, they haven't got many. It's still not something normal society wants to deal with."

Considering the options, the Salem Witch Museum seemed the best alternative, so before leaving town, I bought a ticket. I was herded together with a group of schoolchildren into a large darkened hall lined with wax figures and stage sets. Spotlights illuminated one section at a time as an omniscient voice narrated the story.

I emerged later, still in the story's grip, into the sunshine and traffic of Washington Square. A huge statue, an ominous figure in a long swirling cape and a high-crowned hat, loomed over me. A witch, I thought. Thank goodness they acknowledge it. On closer examination, I discovered this was no witch, but Roger Conant, Salem's Puritan founder.

It mattered little. For me the billowing cape, the self-important stride, and the averted gaze signaled nothing but gloom. For better or worse, it always will.

Diane Foulds is a freelance writer in Vermont and is working on a novel about the life of Martha Carrier. She can be reached at czechrep@together.net.

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