John Blanding / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

For the roots of Salem witch hysteria, look at the next town over

Some descendants of accused witches in Danvers, once called Salem Village, say they are ready to address their legacy

SALEM/ DANVERS, Mass. — Three centuries after America’s first recorded witch hunt, Salem no longer hangs its witches; it applauds them as a mainstay of the local economy.

In the last two weeks of October alone, Salem businesses selling palmistry and “Bewitched” memorabilia will make 80 percent of their annual income in what has become a $100 million a year — and rapidly growing — industry, according to local tourism authorities. While many of the Witch City’s neighbors are mostly commuter cities for those working in Boston, Salem has established a tourism industry that employs over 700 Witch City residents.

That’s all thanks, of course, to the legacy of 24 accused witches who died amid the hysteria of 1692. But not many tourists to Salem are aware that there are more homes, graves and artifacts of the witch trials in the next town over — sleepy, relatively conservative Danvers, known until more than half a century after the trials as Salem Village.

There is no direct public transportation line from Boston or Salem to Danvers. With the exception of a few special events, none of the Salem tours go there, even if it’s only a 15-minute drive away.

Descendants of accused witches in Danvers said that many of those who were murdered were deeply Christian and would have strongly disapproved of the annual Haunted Happenings events throughout October that draw American and international tourists for a celebration of the occult.

“I don’t think the other communities want” witch trial tourism, said Kate Fox, director of tourism authority Destination Salem, referring not only to Danvers but other neighboring cities linked to the trials, like Andover and Beverly.

Scores of Andover residents were accused during the trials after Danvers residents were asked to identify witches believed to be living secretly in their community. Six years after the conclusion of the trials, Beverly’s pastor Jonathan Hale penned “A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft,” which blamed Satan for causing hysteria that led to the death of innocents. But like Danvers, neither community appears to be cashing in on its history, some say out of shame.  

“That’s why Danvers changed its name,” Fox said. Roughly 60 years after the trials, what had been Salem Village changed its name to Danvers, after a long bid by the village’s farming community to not share taxes with the culturally and socioeconomically distant fishermen and maritime merchants of Salem Town, now Salem.

Danvers historians say residents had also hoped to forget the witch trials. 

“They were trying to get rid of the legacy,” said Richard Trask, Danvers’ archivist. He said that just a few decades later, Salem started selling its connection to the trials — largely nominal, with the exception of the only space still standing that is directly related to the incident, the so-called Witch House, which belonged to one of the judges in the trials.

Salem Town “metamorphosed the witchcraft. You began to get the idea that a witch is a cutesy character on a broom with a conical hat,” Trask said. The Witch House now sells chocolate lollipops shaped like witch heads.

Fox said that in 1891, a Salem jeweler, Daniel Low, made the first souvenir "witch spoon" and other witch-related novelties. Danvers’ disavowing its legacy and Salem’s starting to cash in on its role in the trials created what Fox called a “perfect storm.”

Nowadays in Salem, taxis, local government offices and even the local newspaper are adorned with witch silhouettes and pointy hat insignia. In Danvers, even as people decorate their homes for Halloween, one finds ghouls, goblins and ghosts — but few witches. 

Keeping quiet

Danvers archivist Richard Trask reads the original church record of the Rev. Samuel Parris, which describes the witch trials in vivid detail.
Massoud Hayoun

Some said that until recent years, Danvers residents did not speak of the trials in polite society and have vehemently opposed attempts to conjure bitter memories of the kind of guilt that iconic author Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in his book “House of the Seven Gables.”

“In so much of his work, [Hawthorne] tried to expiate the guilt he felt for being related to John Hathorne,” a magistrate in the trials, said Katherine Howe, a Cornell University American studies lecturer and the author of a comprehensive history of European and North American witchcraft, “The Penguin Book of Witches.” Howe is the descendant of three accused Salem witches, one of whom was hanged.

Emotions are still raw for some, even centuries later. Recently at a book reading, Howe said, she “had a woman come up to me in tears. [She] said, ‘I have to tell you, I’m so sorry.’ It turned out she was a distant relative of one of the magistrates.”

“It was and it wasn’t ridiculous to me,” Howe said.

There are some indications that being descended from an accuser is something of a scarlet letter.

The singular mention of the Putnam family on the Danvers Historical Society website is of Joseph Putnam, who “spoke out against the witchcraft hysteria gripping the village.” There is no mention of Ann Putnam and her daughter of the same name, two of the chief witch accusers, who are buried in Danvers. Trask said there are several Putnams residing in Danvers.

“Not all the Putnams were involved,” he said, not directly addressing the society’s website. “But a good portion were, and it turns out they were on the losing side of history.”

A witch cottage industry

The homestead of accused witch Rebecca Nurse, one of Trask's ancestors
Massoud Hayoun

Trask himself is of accused-witch stock. The homestead of his ancestor Rebecca Nurse, hanged for witchcraft after refusing to confess and accuse others, can be found in Danvers and is open to the public three days a week this month and is run entirely by volunteers. The Salem Witch Museum, by comparison, is open every day and has a full-time staff of docents and administrators.

Just a few miles from the hordes of tourists clamoring for witch swag in Salem, the only sound at Nurse’s empty seven-acre homestead is a woodpecker, hammering its way into what had been the barn.

Like every museum in Salem, Nurse’s home has a gift shop. But Trask says visitors won’t find any of Salem’s witch souvenirs there but rather educational materials, like a PBS film on Nurse and her two sisters, also accused of witchcraft.

“You won’t find a witch on a broom there,” Trask said, with a triumphant smile. “We can be pure, lily pure. We can tell the story in unsensational ways, and we don’t have to be kitschy.”

He played an integral role in uncovering the foundation of the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris — the site of what some historians say gave rise to the witch panic. Parris’ daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams were two of the chief accusers at the onset of the hysteria. His slave Tituba, believed to have been from the West Indies, was an accused witch.

Schoolchildren on a field trip visited the site during excavation in the 1970s. “We had two old ladies living across the street,” Trask said, “The old ladies were shaking their fists, ‘Why are you talking about this? Why are you bringing this up again?’”

He said that animosity is long since gone, but it appears finances have presented another obstacle. John Putnam’s house has been closed to the public because of a “lack of funding,” he said, preventing the Danvers Historical Society from “conducting necessary repairs.”

Danvers’ Chamber of Commerce closed in the early 1980s, Trask said. There is no one to oversee the development of a witch trial industry there. 

A tale of two witch cities

The foundation of Parris’ parsonage, the site of what some historians regard as the beginnings of the Salem witch panic
Massoud Hayoun

Destination Salem’s Fox says that tourists to Witch City get what they are coming for. “You can get a lot in Salem and feel like you don’t have to go farther afield,” she said, adding that Danvers still hasn’t “really reached out” to be a part of the Salem tourism boom.

But Howe believes bringing the two Salems closer together could be a fruitful enterprise.

“There is an opportunity for more. I think a lot of people come to Salem expecting to see more historic stuff … There is that hunger,” she said. “There is an opportunity to supply that. The Witch House does that. The Rebecca Nurse homestead also does a good job of that. Maybe there should be two threads: A fun and fantastical side and the history.”

For Trask and his two colleagues at Danvers’ archives, manpower might prove problematic. At present, “we can’t handle” hordes of tourists, he said.

For every 100 tourists to Salem, he estimates, just two or three make it to Danvers to see the sites mentioned in Salem's museums. But Trask is hopeful. “More and more people understand who are coming to the area. And they’re not your casual tourist,” he said.

Numerous Danvers residents declined to be interviewed on the subject of whether they would like more witch trial tourism. But Trask said that Danvers is readier than ever to speak for their ancestors — and “sell the story.”

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