Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends by Sam Baltrusis #ghosts #hauntings #salem


The more you know about a person, the harder it is to demonize them.”
Margo Burns, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt

When historian Margo Burns pitched the idea of a lecture examining the genesis of the rye-based ergot poisoning theory and its ties to the Salem witch trials, she jokingly called the topic “the fungus among us.”

Yes, she’s talking about Salem’s moldy bread myth.

Compared to her more serious contemporaries specializing in the witch-trials hysteria, Burns approached the topic with humor. “If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a ham,” she joked, sporting her trademark bowtie. “But I’m not a ham on rye.” Ba-dum-bump.

Levity is Burn’s secret weapon. And so is her lineage. She’s a great granddaughter eight generations down to witch-trials victim Rebecca Nurse.

After listening to her speak at a lecture organized by Salem’s Witch House about the origins of the controversial ergot theory, Burns tackled a much larger issue associated with the witch trials of 1692. Pop culture continues to twist Salem’s history. And Burns wants to untangle it.

Burns told me that her fascination with the witch trials was ignited during the summer of 1995 when she started to learn more about her famous ancestor. She recalled holding the original document written by the Rev. Samuel Parris indicting Nurse. It was a turning point for the linguistics scholar turned historian. “It was a bit strange to read a detailed description of my relative’s genitalia,” she said, explaining that the obvious scars related to childbirth and old age that was somehow interpreted as a so-called “witch’s teat” in the trial document. “I don't think you have to be a descendant of a victim to truly understand the gravity.”

What Burns learned from her initial research is that if it's a primary source it doesn't necessarily mean that it’s fact. “You can't believe everything that it said or written even if it’s coming from a primary source,” she said. “In some cases, you have to literally read between the lines.”

Nurse, respected by her Salem Village community, was initially acquitted of witchcraft charges. However, her innocent verdict was reversed after the afflicted girls continued to have fits during the interrogation. Nurse was hanged at the gallows at Proctor’s Ledge on July 19, 1692. Years after the execution, the verdict was deemed unjust by the colonial government and ultimately reversed.

In Nurse’s pre-trial hearing, silence literally equaled death.

Burns told me that one explanation for her ancestor’s ultimate demise was that Nurse was hard of hearing. When the magistrate asked the seventy-one-year-old woman a question, she failed to respond. “Apparently, the girls really started to flip out and the jury kept coming in and out. It was so noisy in the courtroom she couldn't hear what was going on,” Burns explained. “Because she was elderly, she probably didn’t answer because she couldn’t hear. If you were asked a question and you refused to answer it, that could be used against you. Silence was considered proof of guilt.”

As the associate editor and project manager of the comprehensive book Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, Burns is now armed with an arsenal of original witch-trials documents and is respected for her ability to debunk the myths perpetuated by the media and pop culture.

Her underlying motivation: How do we know what we know?

It was this basic question that inspired her to tackle Arthur Miller’s The Crucible after watching the 1996 film adaptation starring Daniel-Day Lewis and Winona Ryder. Burns recalled being unnerved by the play turned movie’s historical inaccuracies. In response, she crafted a comprehensive analysis of what Miller got wrong.

 “It's a constant challenge because you have to untangle The Crucible,” she said. “I’m all for creative license but I wish he used different names.”

In her online essay called Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction, Burns skillfully lists the inaccuracies perpetuated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. For example, Abigail Williams was born in 1681 and didn’t have a romantic relationship with the sixty-year-old John Proctor. Williams was eleven in 1692 and the alleged affair didn’t happen because of the age difference. Proctor wasn’t a farmer but he was a tavern owner. Even though Williams is portrayed as the niece of the Rev. Samuel Parris, we’re not exactly sure how she was related to Parris. Also, the reverend’s wife was alive during the witch trials. She had two children in addition to Betty Parris.
Burns believes Miller pulled some of the more outlandish myths from Charles Upham’s Salem Witchcraft book first published in 1867.

For example, Tituba didn’t lead some wild dance party in the woods. And, more importantly, she wasn’t an African-American caricature perpetuated in the late 1800s. “Tituba wasn’t a voodoo practicing black mammy from Barbados. She was an Indian,” Burns continued. “She got recast by how people saw the world during the Civil War.”

According to Burns, every generation interprets history with a biased lens. “My era is the coercion of false confessions,” she said. “I strongly believe they were planning to execute all of those who confessed. They were heavily trying to get people to confess because it was simply a lot easier to convict them.”

The historian said the “how do we know what we know?” lens should be applied to Miller’s take on the Salem witch trials. “People see things in their periphery,” she explained. “We fill in those gaps.”

However, Burns said The Crucible playwright successfully tapped into the mythic, Joseph Campbell-style motif that “people you trust can turn on you” which resonates with contemporary audiences and continues to make the Salem witch trials so disconcerting. “People can be mean to each other to the point they could have someone killed,” she said. “There are so many reasons that could ultimately result in mortal harm. Holding a grudge could result in people dying.”

After spending a decade collaborating with Bernard Rosenthal on Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, Burns redirected her lens on the controversial ergot poisoning theory.

Introduced by Linnda Caporael in the 1976 edition of Science magazine, the undergrad student turned professor noticed a link between the strange symptoms reported by Salem’s afflicted girls and the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. Acid is a derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain. Mental effects of ergotism include mania, headaches, vomiting and even psychosis. It also resulted in gangrene and it was common for victims to randomly lose body parts like fingers and ears.

The ergot poisoning theory has been slammed by scholars like Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and co-author of Salem Possessed. He publicly disputed the moldy bread myth saying that it "appears unlikely to me that this would not happen in any other year, in any other household and in any other village." However, people who visit Salem year after year still believe it’s a viable explanation to the madness that unfolded in 1692.

"I was one of those people who wanted to dispute it,” Burns told me. Of course, her initial impression changed after she did the unthinkable. Burns contacted the original source of the ergot theory. Yes, she actually reached out to Linnda Caporael.

Burns said she was shocked to learn that the woman behind the controversial theory was oblivious to the backlash. “When I talked with her, she didn’t know about Nissenbaum’s response,” Burns said. “Based on our conversation, she thought the negativity was directed toward Mary Matossian. That moment of the conversation gave me pause.” For the record, Matossian cited Caporael’s theory in the 1982 edition of American Scientist in which she argued that the symptoms of Salem’s afflicted resembled some of the hallucinatory effects associated with ergot poisoning.

According to Burns, Caporael was merely applying the scientific method in her original Science magazine article while Matossian was absolute in her attempt to present ergot as a feasible possibility. Burns said Caporael’s suggestion that there could have been a medical explanation to the witch-trials hysteria is conceivable using the scientific method. “It’s interesting to me what people hear and how they extract information,” Burns explained. “The scientific method is a completely different way of looking at the world.”   

During her presentation at the Witch House event, Burns raised a few eyebrows when she defended Caporael. However, the historian effectively weaved together a narrative giving a trippy and sometimes hilarious backstory to the counterculture-colored lens of the 1970s. Burns also presented a few of the sensational newspaper headlines associated with Caporael’s article and then discussed the country’s LSD-laced point of view a half century ago which culminated with Timothy Leary’s “tune in, turn on, drop out” call to action.

When Burns decided to “take ergot head on,” she said it was important for her to go directly to the theory’s originator. “Every story has a source. Who knows when it first started? It’s rare to actually know the flashpoint,” she said.

The idea that ergot poisoning was to blame for the Salem witch trials was simply a byproduct of Caporael’s time. “Linnda got it right,” Burns mused. “Well, she got the scientific method right.”

But how did Caporael’s moldy bread myth impregnate pop culture? Burns cites the hundreds of newspaper articles with over-the-top headlines as the culprit. Apparently, it was a slow news day. “People have agendas regarding how they interpret the past,” she continued. “We use facts to say what we want them to say.”

Meanwhile, the featured expert from TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? is redirecting her focus on one of the more vilified characters from Salem’s witch-trials past, William Stoughton. He was the chief justice overseeing the special court of Oyer and Terminer and was somehow overlooked when Arthur Miller assigned the title of “hanging judge” to John Hathorne in The Crucible.

When asked if she views Stoughton as the ultimate bad guy, Burns said she is trying her best to be objective. History shouldn’t be interpreted with black-and-white thinking. “The more you know about a person,” she said, “the harder it is to demonize them.”

Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends
Sam Baltrusis

Genre: Ghosts, Hauntings, Local History, Salem, Haunted History

Publisher: Globe Pequot Press

Date of Publication: May 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4930-3711-7
ASIN: 978-1-4930-3712-4

Number of pages: 264
Word Count:  61,500

Cover Artist: Globe Pequot Press

Tagline: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Book Description:

It’s no surprise that the historic Massachusetts seaport’s history is checkered with violence and heinous crimes. Originally called Naumkeag, Salem means “peace.” However, as its historical legacy dictates, the city was anything but peaceful during the late seventeenth century.

Did the reputed Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, strike in Salem? Evidence supports the possibility of a copy-cat murder. From the recently pinpointed gallows where innocents were hanged for witchcraft to the murder house on Essex Street where Capt. Joseph White was bludgeoned to death and then stabbed thirteen times in the heart, Sam Baltrusis explores the ghost lore and the people behind the tragic events that turned the “Witch City” into a hot spot that has become synonymous with witches, rakes, and rogues.

Amazon     BN    Globe Pequot Press


What is it about the sleepy New England city that engenders itself to history’s witches, rakes and rogues?

Salem, Massachusetts suffers a bit of an identity disorder. There are two versions of the so-called “Witch City” that have symbiotically etched itself into the collective unconscious. There’s the iconic, blood-stained Salem that boasted a sadistic sorority of witch-hanging zealots in the late 1600s. And then there is the modern, witch-friendly spectacle that welcomes thousands of supporters into its coven of commercialism every October.
   It’s a tale of two Salems.
  As far as the paranormal is concerned, the city is considered to be hallowed ground. However, based on my personal experience as a local historian and tour guide, Salem has a love-hate relationship with its ghosts. Why?
   "The city has a long history of not wanting to get wrapped up in commercializing its witch history," explained Tim Weisberg, host of the radio show Spooky Southcoast and researcher with Destination America's Haunted Towns. "It's something they've only really embraced over the past couple of decades. There's still a bit of an 'old guard' in the city that doesn't want to see anyone capitalizing on witches, ghosts or things of that nature.”
   As Salem’s on-air expert for the national Haunted Towns TV show, I helped Weisberg hunt for locations with ties to the witch trials of 1692. It was tough. “As they've let some of that guard down and television shows have come in, it's been my experience that the 'powers that be’ who control many of the allegedly haunted and historic locations have been disillusioned with the way productions have come in and treated its history,” Weisberg told me. “At least, that's what I heard in the rejections I received from certain locations when attempting to get permission to film Haunted Towns."
   Known for its annual Halloween “Haunted Happenings” gathering, it’s no surprise that the historic Massachusetts seaport is considered to be one of New England’s most haunted destinations. With city officials emphasizing its not-so-dark past, tourists from all over the world seem to focus on the wicked intrigue surrounding the 1692 witch trials.
  Originally called Naumkeag, Salem means “peace.” However, as its historical legacy dictates, the city was anything but peaceful during the late seventeenth century. In fact, when accused witch and landowner Giles Corey was pressed to death over a two-day period, he allegedly cursed the sheriff and the city. Over the years, his specter has allegedly been spotted preceding disasters in Salem, including the fire that destroyed most of the downtown area in June 1914. Based on my research, a majority of the hauntings conjured up in Salem over the city’s tumultuous four-hundred-year-old history have ties to disaster, specifically the one-hundred-year-old fire that virtually annihilated the once prosperous North Shore seaport.
Cursed? Salem is full of secrets.

About the Author:

Sam Baltrusis, author of Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends, has penned eleven historical-based ghost books including Ghost of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City. He has been featured on several national TV shows including Destination America's Haunted Towns, the Travel Channel's Haunted USA on Salem and served as Boston's paranormal expert on the Biography Channel's Haunted Encounters.

During the summer of 2019, he will be featured on the one-hundredth episode of A Haunting airing on the Travel Channel. Baltrusis is a sought-after lecturer who speaks at dozens of paranormal-related events scattered throughout New England, including an author discussion at the Massachusetts State House and paranormal conventions that he produced called the Plymouth ParaCon in 2018 and the Berkshire’s MASS ParaCon in 2019. In the past, he has worked for VH1, MTV.com, Newsweek and ABC Radio and as a regional stringer for the New York Times.

Visit SamBaltrusis.com for more information.