Impulsive Traveler: Danvers, Mass., where the 17th-century witch hunt actually started

By Alexandra Pecci
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:19 PM

All that remains of the old Salem Village Parsonage is a small stone foundation, and I'm standing in it. A three-foot-deep pit lined with large stones, it's invisible from the road, at the end of an inconspicuous path between two houses in a suburban neighborhood. A few miles away, throngs of tourists crowd the sidewalks in Salem, Mass., but here I'm all alone, standing in the spot where the Salem witch hysteria started in 1692.

Salem may be known as the witch capital of the United States, and trials and executions indeed happened there, but the frenzy that set off the infamous witch hunt actually began in what is now Danvers. It was in Salem Village, as Danvers was then known, that Betty Parris, Ann Putnam and other "afflicted" girls first cried witchcraft against their neighbors.

I'd been to Danvers countless times, always on the way to somewhere else: work, the nearby malls, a restaurant. Even many locals don't realize the number of witch-trial-related sites that still exist, largely unheralded and unvisited, in their town. So I set off to shine a light on the darkness.

First stop is the parsonage, where the Rev. Samuel Parris lived with his wife, Elizabeth; his daughter, Betty; his niece, Abigail; and their slave, Tituba. It takes my stepmother, Robin, and me a second to notice the stone path that runs between the houses at 65 and 67 Centre St., and the small historic marker that's almost overgrown by bushes. It feels like trespassing as we walk between the houses and their back yards, but soon we see the small sunken foundation surrounded by a post and rail fence.

I step into it and struggle to imagine what went on here during the cold, dark winter of 1692: Betty and Abigail acting wildly, screaming and writhing in apparent pain, throwing things. The village doctor concluding that the devil must be responsible for their illness. The slave, Tituba, being accused of witchcraft. The panic, the fear, the shrieks, crammed into this tiny space. The entire foundation can't be more than 20 feet across. All that remains now is dirt and rock and a peaceful little clearing.

The site was excavated in 1970 by a team led by Richard Trask, who describes himself as "just a townie" when I meet him a few days later at the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers, where he works as the town archivist. A descendant of Mary Esty and John Proctor, who were hanged as witches, Trask says that he fell into his job because he was interested in the history of Danvers. It was an interest that most townspeople didn't share.

"Danvers never wanted to be acknowledged as the place where it had begun," he tells me. "There was always a shame, even in the '50s and early '60s," when he was growing up.

Now, Trask manages the Danvers Archival Center, which contains the most extensive witch-trial-related imprints anywhere as well as a few excavated relics from the period. Genealogical and academic researchers haunt the archives most often, although a few witch-enthused tourists do wind up there once they discover that Danvers is "the place," Trask says.

Trask's genial, Boston-accented voice also narrates a slide show about the witch trials at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, where we arrive late in the afternoon for a tour. According to our guide, tours take place "whenever people show up." Rebecca Nurse was an elderly and respected member of the Salem Village community before Ann Putnam accused her of being a witch.

The guide walks us through the circa 1678 house, which is furnished as it might have been when Nurse lived here, and demonstrates some of the never-ending chores that everyone, children included, were expected to perform.

As we walk through the house, my 13-month-old daughter, Chloe, squirms in Robin's arms, punctuating the quiet tour with yells of pent-up energy. In that moment, it's easy for me to imagine why a bunch of puritanically repressed young girls might have acted as though they were possessed.

"I guess being 'afflicted' got them out of chores," I remark.

"Exactly," says the guide.

Ann Putman claimed that Nurse's disembodied figure appeared to her, and that kind of "spectral evidence" was used throughout the trials to convict people such as Nurse, who was excommunicated, hanged and denied a proper burial. Her family secretly recovered her body from Gallows Hill, and legend says she's buried somewhere on the grounds of her homestead. According to our guide, there's an unmarked grave in the Nurse family burial ground behind the house.

Although the exact location of Nurse's remains is unknown, her family erected a monument to her here in 1885. The beautiful obelisk stands tall and crisp at the center of the burial ground, decorated by American flags, plantings and silk flowers. It declares Nurse a "Christian martyr." Another monument remembers the 40 people who signed a petition in support of Nurse after she was accused.

Our last stop is the cemetery where Thomas Putnam and his wife, also Ann, are buried with the younger Ann. The Putnam cemetery is tucked at the top of a steep, wooded concrete path next to the Massachusetts State Police barracks on Route 62. There's no historical marker, nothing even to indicate that there's a graveyard hidden up the hill. I'd discovered only a couple of sentences about its existence on the Salem Witch Museum Web site.

I stand at the gate and rake my eyes across the cemetery grounds, looking for the large mound in the earth that's the only remaining evidence of the Putnams' unmarked grave. When I see it, my stomach does a little flip. How different this place is from the burial ground where Nurse is exalted. Or from the somber and stirring Salem Village Witchcraft Victims' Memorial, where a faceless Puritan is etched in granite above the victims' names and methods of execution. Among them is the unnamed infant who died in prison before her mother was hanged. Huge chains and shackles lie across the top of the monument, and the victims' words are engraved in the stone, declaring their innocence from across the centuries.

"Well! Burn me or hang me," said George Jacobs Sr., who was hanged on Aug. 19, 1692. "I will stand in the truth of Christ."

Everything about the Putnam cemetery, by contrast, feels empty and lonely. A fence prevents me from going into it, but for some reason, I find it hard to leave, knowing that I may be the last person for a while to stand here and remember this sad, accursed family. I stare at the grass for a time, but finally there's nothing more to do. I take one last look and walk away.

Pecci is a freelance writer in Plaistow, N.H.

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