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Sisters for Eternity

by Skip Blaeser


As women and human beings, we are children of the earth. We are derived from it, during our lives we walk upon it, and when we die, in one way or another, eventually our bodies are returned to the earth.

Danvers, Massachusetts is a quiet town with a population of slightly more than 24,000. Well wooded, it is located in southern Essex County, about 17 miles north of Boston by way of highways I-93 and I-95. Chances are, however, you are far more familiar with the coastal community that lies on Danvers' southeast border: Salem, Massachusetts.

Not altogether facetiously called the "Witch Capital" of the world, Salem, Massachusetts was, of course, the site of the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692. However, few people today are aware that the land that is now Danvers was actually part of Salem in the latter part of the 17th century. In fact, Danvers was at that time called Salem Village, settled by a group of farmers who moved out to find new land to cultivate about a decade after Salem Town had been settled in 1626. By 1672 Salem Village had become a separate parish, at which time they built a meetinghouse and hired their own minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who would later become a key player in the witch trials.

Up until the 18th century, episodes of witchcraft hysteria were not uncommon in either Europe or the American colonies. Between 1645 and 1647, for example, several hundred people were hanged during England's most serious "witchcraft outbreak", more than ninety percent of them women. Between 1662 and 1663, seventy-nine people in and around the settlement of Hartford, Connecticut were accused of witchcraft, sixty-one of them women. Thirteen of the fifteen Hartford "witches" who were eventually executed were female. And yet it was the Salem's episode of witchcraft hysteria in 1692, another drama in which accusers and accused alike were nearly all female, that captured the world's attention, perhaps because it was to be one of the last great "outbreaks" in Western history.

Although few people familiar with the Salem legend need be reminded of the story, launching the great Salem witch hunt was the strange, inexplicable behavior of several young girls in Salem Village, one of whom was Reverend Parris' daughter; another, his niece. By turns the girls behavior became more and more bizarre; they took spastic fits, claimed that they were being "pinched" and "tortured" by spirits, and that they were visited by witches' spectral forms. In a time when mental illness was virtually unknown, and almost certainly always misunderstood, supernatural explanations for the girls' behavior such as witchcraft were perfectly acceptable to even the most learned men of the day.

Thus when the girls in Salem, for reasons that will never be fully understood, blamed their apparently violent "afflictions" on the practice of witchcraft by certain of their female neighbors, no one in the Salem community had any reason not to believe them. Satan, after all, was known to "favor" females as both his accomplices, or "hand- maidens", as well as his victims. Women were often caught in frightening quandaries; in an era of high infant mortality, a midwife who delivered "too many" healthy children was sometimes suspected of using supernatural powers to guarantee safe births. A woman who habitually miscarried might be accused by irate in-laws of "willfully" destroying her offspring to gratify Satan. Conversely, a woman who frequently miscarried might accuse a neighbor of using the Devil's powers to either prevent pregnancies or to cause them to abort. And extraordinarily, a woman who miscarried of a hideously deformed child might even be accused of having carried Satan's offspring.

Eventually close to 200 persons in and about Salem and greater Essex County were accused of witchcraft. Nearly three-fourths of the accused Salem witches were female, including 71 year-old grandmother Rebecca Nurse, and, almost impossibly, 4 year-old Dorcas Good, who was accused of using witchcraft to "take revenge" on the afflicted girls because her mother, Sara Good, had also been arrested for witchcraft. And nearly half the accused male witches were husbands, brothers or sons of female witches.

Fortunately, the Salem Witchcraft trials were brought to an end within the space of a year, as the "afflicted" girls drew more suspicion than compassion from the community, and as more and more people accused of witchcraft refused to give false confessions.

Ever since, Salem has hosted a thriving tourist trade, home to such attractions as The Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon Museum, and The Salem Witch Village, as well as having become home to many modern day organizations "dedicated to educating the public" about witchcraft. Cemeteries that boast gravesites of Salem witches and accusers are some of the most popular attractions.

It is hard not to contemplate the basis of the fame that has accrued to many of Salem Town's former inhabitants. After all, even those who today insist that they practice witchcraft, or "wicca", are quick to point out that there was certainly never any real "witchcraft" associated with the 1692 Salem hysteria.

At best, it is acknowledged today that the Salem tragedy was born of a catastrophic collision of strangely aberrant adolescents and disastrously contorted religious fervor. And yet, essentially the product of an epic "misunderstanding," the world is fascinated with Salem Town and its former inhabitants, while Danvers, though it was once part of Salem, goes virtually unnoticed by history but for a name.

Few people know that in fact, twelve of the nineteen witches who were ultimately executed came from the Danvers area, including Sarah Osbourne and Rebecca Nurse. The 1692 parsonage of Reverend Parris was also located in Danvers; the Reverend Parris, of course, owned Tituba, the Carib Indian slave and first witch to be accused by the hysterical girls. In addition, the Salem Meetinghouse, where many of the accused witches were initially examined by the magistrates, was also located in Danvers.

And yet no one visits Danvers.

Particularly forgotten, in fact, is a tiny cemetery that was brought to light this past year in the Boston Globe. It consists of some 500 graves, situated on an incline sloping down and away from the awe-inspiring structure that was once the Danvers State Hospital. The hospital, high on the hill with its brick towers and slate-covered eaves, looks much like a castle looming out of the woodlands. While hundreds of visitors browse by Salem graves only a mile or two away, no one visits this cemetery. The graves are unmarked save for worn, numbered stones amidst the underbrush, and they contain the remains of former hospital patients. However, no one knows who they once might have been, for any records that may have existed matching names with numbers have long since been lost. The grass covering the area was cut for the first time this past year. And yet the story of how this cemetery came to be is as tragic as anything that ever happened in Salem.

When the Danvers State Lunatic Hospital, as it was originally known, was built in 1878, it was considered an upscale facility, able to provide private accommodations for up to 300 patients. At the time it was meant to serve as a model in state-of-the-art care for the mentally ill, clearly many of them women, who were at that time hospitalized for such "disorders" as habitual drunkenness, menopause, masturbation, sexual deviance, and one particularly interesting "illness" called "deranged menstruation."

Most of the first patients at Danvers State Hospital came from well-to-do families; however, as time went on, more and more patients came from less auspicious backgrounds. Some patients, for example, were eventually either institutionalized permanently on purpose by their families or left behind by the death of family members. When these patients died, either unclaimed or unwanted patients, they were the ones who ended up being buried and virtually forgotten beneath the numbered stones, some as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, by which time abuses in drug therapy, insulin coma shock treatments and electric shock treatments and patient beatings were common, according to the reports of patients who eventually survived the closing of the hospital in 1991.

It is food for thought to contrast the forgotten graves of the unwanted former patients against those of those other former Salem residents whose nearby graves are visited almost daily. The people who visit the "witch" graves know the occupants of those graves no better than they might know the occupants of the Danvers Hospital cemetery, yet those Salem graves receive thousands of tourists annually. Had those women buried behind Danvers Hospital lived two hundred years earlier, would they have been considered "possessed" by the Devil rather than afflicted by "hysterical menstruation"? Would they have received the support of their community rather than be abandoned by their friends and neighbors?

Ironically, in the end, all of these women, these people, lie buried within the same town limits, sharing the same municipal earth. Famous and forgotten, separated by a few hundred years of concocted history and only a few miles of highway and verdant countryside, all of these former Salem residents are now sister citizens for eternity, equally deserving of respectful remembrance.


Skip Blaeser is a former attorney who, in addition to being a wife and mother of two small boys, is currently pursuing her longtime passion for writing historical fiction. She received her A.B. from Princeton University, and her J.D. from the Boston University School of Law. Skip and her family live in New England.

E-mail Skip at:
MarieKDB@aol.com


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