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Salem ‘Witch Book’ to be auctioned

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This copy of the Bay Psalm Book was once owned by Jonathan Corwin, a  judge in the Salem witch trials, and his wife.
This copy of the Bay Psalm Book was once owned by Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the Salem witch trials, and his wife.(Swann Auction Galleries)

A book containing psalms and spiritual songs that was once owned by Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges in the Salem witch trials, will go up for auction next week.

The "Witch Book," which was later owned by descendants of one of the people hanged after the trials, is a previously unknown seventh edition of the "Bay Psalm Book," dating to the late 1600s.

It will be part of the "Printed and Manuscript Americana" lot that will be auctioned off by New York-based Swann Auction Galleries on Thursday.

Auctioneers, who say the book is worth at least $40,000, are calling the book "the star among several important historical texts" being sold.

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Rick Stattler, an Americana specialist for Swann Auction Galleries, said that the book was originally owned by Corwin, one of nine judges selected to oversee the witch trials in 1692, and his wife, Elizabeth.

Corwin's former home on Essex Street in Salem is known today as "The Witch House." It is the only structure still standing in Salem with links to the trials, according to the city's website. Corwin was heir to one of the largest Puritan fortunes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, according to experts.

The Corwins owned the book not long after the trials took place, said Stattler, who has a master's degree in history and has been working as an archivist and auction specialist since 1992.

The storied Bay Psalm Book was first printed in Cambridge in 1640. According to the Library of Congress, the hymnal is considered "America's First Book."

The book is a more literal, and less poetic, translation of the Bible's Book of Psalms. It was closely followed by the Puritans.

Later editions were published in England, then shipped back to New England, Stattler said. Until the "Witch Book" came into the possession of the auction company, it was not known that a seventh edition had been published in America.

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A chunk of text inside of this particular Bay Psalm Book reads: "Printed and Sold by Benjamin Harris at London-Coffee House over-against Old-Meeting House in Boston, New England. 1693."

"When I realized this was an edition that had never been known before — of one of the most important American books ever — I think that added more to the importance," Stattler said.

The book's eerie relationship to the Salem witch trials goes beyond Corwin's ownership.

In the late 19th century, the book landed in the hands of John Proctor's descendants. Proctor was hanged during the witch fervor in the small New England town.

"It does give it an interesting twist," Stattler said. "It has a double connection to the trials."

Auction house officials said that a family from Western New York who owned the book recently decided to part ways with it.

"Within the family, it was regarded as being important primarily because of the Jonathan Corwin connection," Stattler said.

Its relationship to the Corwin and Proctor families has generated interest, not just with potential buyers. Salem officials are also excited about news of the book's discovery.

"I would very much like an opportunity to examine this piece coming up for auction and see if its contents hold any handwritten details about [Elizabeth Corwin's] life with Jonathan," said Elizabeth Peterson, the director of Salem's Witch House, in an e-mailed statement.

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"It's always very interesting when a document or artifact surfaces. That mysteries and opportunities for discovery still exist relative to this episode in our history is incredibly exciting."

The announcement about the notable religious text going up for auction comes weeks after experts in the North Shore city said they had pinpointed the precise location where the Salem witch hangings occurred.

The site, which is known as Proctor's Ledge, is where 19 people who were accused of witchcraft were sentenced to death.

The small crop of land is named after Thorndike Proctor, a descendant of John Proctor.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.