The legacy of the Salem witch trials is complicated.
During October, tourists flock to the North Shore city from around the world to celebrate the contemporary idea of witchcraft tied to Halloween. Others like author, historian, and Salem State University interim dean and professor Emerson “Tad” Baker, focus on the rush to judgment and the innocent lives and families that were destroyed by the 1692 trials.
“Salem has had historical amnesia. It has a tendency to look away from its tragic past,” said Baker, who was part of a team of scholars that in 2016 actually confirmed the site where the accused witches were executed. “Gallows Hill is a place of unspeakable sorrow. Our job was to make sure no one ever forgets the victims.”
Twenty women and men were executed following the trials — 19 were hanged, one was crushed to death — and another five died in jail.
“The place of the executions is a great connector to the past,” said Marilynne Roach, a Watertown author and scholar who was part of the Gallows Hill Project. “Remembering is a painful process.”
“The legacy of what transpired here crosses into the imaginations and consciousness of our community, our Commonwealth, and even our country,” said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. “It’s a legacy that speaks to the need for the rule of law and the impartiality of the judiciary.’’
The human legacy of the witch trials is equally important. Genealogy and finding ancestry through DNA are popular, and many people are surprised when they find a family connection to the trials.
“I have lived in Salem all my life,” said John Keenan, Salem State’s president. “Growing up, my family never spoke about our connection to the witch trials. When I was a kid, I found information in my grandmother’s attic that showed we were descended from Rebecca Nurse, one of the women executed. Back then it wasn’t a big deal in my family, or in Salem. Salem was a manufacturing town. Today with the focus on tourism, there is much more interest in being a descendant.”
Having a family connection to the witch trials is not unusual.
“If you take all the people associated with the trial — the accused, judges, witnesses, jurors, court officers — and you multiply that by nine or 10 generations, you get about one million people around the world that have a family connection,” said Baker. “If you are not a descendant, then you probably know someone that is.”
Keenan’s career as an assistant district attorney, legislator, and college president has focused on social justice. He admits to being influenced by his connection to Rebecca Nurse. His Salem State University biography states, “This tragedy shapes his commitment to social justice and human rights.”
Christopher Child, senior genealogist at New England Historic Genealogy Society in Boston also traces his family to Rebecca Nurse through her brother.
“I have always enjoyed the puzzle of genealogy,” said Child. “We hear lots of family legends about connections to important historical events. Sometimes we are assisting someone looking for a connection to a different event and they get surprised to find their ancestors were connected to the witch trials.”
The Internet has built communities of people with witch trial lineage and there are gatherings where they share their history and connections.
The debut of a new play, “Saltonstall’s Trial” at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly, just minutes from Gallows Hill, has become a magnet for scholars, descendants, and theater lovers. There will be 10 performances from Oct. 17 to 27; tickets start at $19.50.
The play focuses on the true story of Haverhill Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall, who served on the court and questioned the fairness of the trials. Saltonstall, like his peers of the time, believed in witchcraft but questioned the due process and the dependence on spectral evidence. As a result of his search for the truth, he was put on trial and his family placed in peril.
Keenan and Child plan to see the play, and Baker will be a guest speaker following the performance Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 20, there will be a special descendants performance at 2:30 p.m., followed by a post-show conversation with Roach and Rachel Christ, director of education at the Salem Witch Museum.
Anyone who is a descendant is invited to leave the family’s story on the production’s website, www.punctuate4.org, and get a discount on a ticket.
Baker is particularly enthused about the new play, not because of the past, but because of the current social climate in the country.
“It is no coincidence that we see ‘witch hunt’ in the news today,” Baker said. “I read the script and I see modern relevance in the play to the issues on our minds today.”