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On the dark side

The monsters of the witch trials were the living, not the dead, and all the relics still seem chilling

A gravestone in the burial ground at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers.
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2008

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Every October, tourists seeking frightful Halloween fun descend on Salem like ghosts on a graveyard. Streets crawl with costumed revelers, warlocks and wizards, black cats and pointy hats.

While undeniably entertaining, some of the city's witch-related attractions - wax museums, dungeons, even a statue of the country's most bewitching television sorceress, Samantha Stephens - are more Hogwarts than history. Plus, the crowds and traffic tie-ups sometimes can make a weekend trip to the Witch City feel more like a trick than a treat.

If the Halloween spirit has you in the mood to explore landmarks associated with the witch hysteria of 1692, leave the ghouls and goblins of Salem behind and head next door to Danvers. Known as Salem Village until 1752, Danvers lacks the congestion and commercialization, and it's filled with authentic witchcraft-era structures that played a central role in one of the most notorious events in Colonial history.

To see where the madness started, take a walk down Centre Street. The tidy homes and manicured lawns offer no indication that wickedness could ever have sprung from this sod. However, tucked behind the backyards of this tranquil neighborhood is the original stone foundation of the Salem Village parsonage, the epicenter of evil three centuries ago. It was here that the accusations, treachery, and suffering began.

During the winter of 1692, Samuel Parris, Puritan minister of the humble hamlet, lived in the house that once stood on this foundation along with his 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece. According to some accounts, the minister's slave, Tituba, regaled the neighborhood girls with tales of witchcraft.

Soon after, the girls living in the parsonage and others in the village were struck with a strange malady that caused violent convulsions, contortions, and outbursts of gibberish. Unable to find a cause, the only diagnosis the village doctor could offer was witchcraft. The "afflicted" girls, at the behest of village elders, identified their three bewitchers: Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne .

The women were promptly arrested, but the madness had only just begun. The delusion spread like a pestilence with frightening speed from the modest parsonage to the surrounding farmsteads to towns miles around. There were more afflictions, accusations, and arrests.

By the time the hysteria subsided, more than 150 accused witches had been imprisoned, 19 men and women sent to the gallows, another crushed by stones, and five others died in jail.

The names of the 25 victims are engraved in the granite wall of the Witchcraft Victims' Memorial, just a half-mile from the parsonage foundation. The breadth of the victims' hometowns listed on the memorial - Salem, Salem Farms (Peabody), Andover, Billerica, Amesbury, Reading, Topsfield, Marblehead, and Rowley - serves as testament to just how widespread the hysteria became.

The memorial, dedicated in 1992, sits across the street from where the original Salem Village Meeting House stood. The village's 500 residents gathered in the meeting house for religious and civil occasions, and many of the harrowing witchcraft examinations took place there.

Amazingly, those arrested for witchcraft who admitted their crimes had their lives spared, while brave protestations of innocence could be equivalent to a death sentence. Declarations of innocence from eight of those executed flank the memorial's list of victims, and together they are its most moving feature.

One of the quotes is from Rebecca "Goody" Nurse, who, despite being 71 and bedridden, was named by the village girls as one of their tormentors. "I can say before my eternal father I am innocent," Nurse said during her examination. Forty of her neighbors believed Nurse's plea and signed a petition testifying to her Christian character, but it wasn't enough to save her from the gallows.

Visitors to the Rebecca Nurse Homestead can still see the saltbox house where Salem constables arrested the frail woman. The property's 27 acres crisscrossed by split-rail fences and stone walls belie those dark days. Guides lead visitors through the farmhouse's three restored rooms and demonstrate some of the arduous chores that consumed most hours of daily life.

The homestead also includes a reproduction of the Salem Village Meeting House, which was built for the filming of the 1985 PBS docudrama "Three Sovereigns for Sarah." Although the lack of religious imagery makes the interior feel stark, a close eye will spot small period items, such as the long black pole wielded by the tithing man to awaken those who slumbered during services. It's easy to gaze at the elevated pulpit and imagine the terror that must have been felt by those gathered inside who rushed to falsely accuse others of heinous acts of witchcraft before being accused themselves.

Cloaked in the shadows of the homestead's stately pines is the Nurse family graveyard, where it's believed that Rebecca Nurse's children reinterred her body after secretly removing it from Salem after her execution. An obelisk in the middle of the burial ground honors her memory. An adjacent granite table is inscribed with the names of Nurse's 40 heroic neighbors who had the courage to rise in her defense.

Besides being the place where the frenzy started, Danvers hosts perhaps the most complete collection of printed materials relating to Salem Village witchcraft at the town's archival center in the basement of the Peabody Institute Library. The center holds more than 1,000 items relating to the hysteria, including early imprints relating to witchcraft and rare books, such as "A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft," a contemporary account written by Reverend John Hale of Beverly lauded for its balanced presentation.

Hale, minister of the First Church in Beverly, was an active participant in the witchhunts, but reversed his opinion about the proceedings and began to advocate against them. His change of heart was no doubt solidified when his wife, Sarah, was accused of witchcraft.

The house where the minister, the great-grandfather of patriot Nathan Hale, wrote his reflections in 1697 still stands in Beverly and is open to the public. Down the street from the Hale Farm is the small burial ground where Reverend Hale, his two wives, and residents accused of witchcraft are buried. The cemetery is no spookier than any other at night. But in the revealing light of day, if you wander among the dead and ponder the dark side of the human spirit that was unleashed in 1692, the graveyard can be haunting.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.