ANDOVER — Nearly a third of the more than 150 people accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were from Andover, according to linguist Margo Burns.
Burns, who lives in Manchester, N.H., and has family in Andover, is wrapping up a decadelong research project on the infamous events of 1692. Her ancestor, Rebecca Nurse, was one of the 19 people hanged as witches during the trials.
On Wednesday, Burns will present a lecture, "New Insights on Andover's Role in the Salem Witch Trials" at the North Andover Historical Society, 153 Academy Road. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. and costs $5 for non-members.
— Brian Messenger
What did it take to be accused of witchcraft in 1692 Salem?
Not much. In many cases, if somebody had fallen ill or if a cow had died or something, people would try to figure out why this happened. Their lives revolved around an understanding that things happened for a reason. All you had to do was have a little bit of a temper sometimes and you might get accused, if somebody had something bad happen to them or their family.
You said the majority of those accused in Andover confessed to witchcraft. Why?
Most of them were children. False confessions are very easy to coerce from young people. Some of the people were described by others as not being especially intelligent. Most of the confessions were achieved during very intense interrogation and sometimes torture. They picked on weak people. They felt they needed to get a confession to justify the witch hunt.
What was the punishment for admitting to witchcraft?
There was only one law on the books, and it was a capital felony. You would be executed, and the method of execution was hanging. They didn't always hang people, but they sometimes kept them in jail for a long time.
What is your specific relation to Rebecca Nurse? How did you feel when you first learned she was hanged despite proclaiming innocence?
She's my eight-times-great grandmother. It's a direct line. It's through my father's side of the family. When I found out she had been executed, and she had been cleared legally, it basically shaped how I feel about the death penalty and capital crimes. There's no taking it back.
You were introduced to documents of the Salem Witch Trials at a graduate seminar. Did you ever imagine you'd put in this much time and effort?
Absolutely not. I had thought I would write some kind of nonfiction summary to give my family, because I was taking a linguistics course. Ten years is a long time.
You're writing a book about Andover's role in the trials. Do you have a title or release date yet?
No. I've still been working on "Records of the Salem Witch Hunt." I'm putting together my first chapter.
What are some new insights you've learned? Any popular misconceptions?
The biggest one is this line of reasoning I've heard a lot that when people learned confessors weren't going to be hanged, people began to confess. This is a misconception. They did not know that they wouldn't be hanged.
Was anyone burned at the stake?
That is a misconception, that people burned at the stake. In Massachusetts, because they were a British colony, they were hanged.