An Eerie Scene
Students check out a local cemetery during a lesson on the Salem witchcraft trials.
It was a scene that was at once beautiful and a little creepy: a picture-perfect crisp, sunny fall New England Day where large maple trees had just started to turn fall colors, with a classic farmstead property in the background.
But the creepy part, as some students learned, was found in the dozens of tombstones lining the grassy grounds of the Old Burying Ground off Academy Road in North Andover.
They saw the headstones of local residents from childhood to old age, many of whom had ties to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
They learned quickly it was not so much creepy as it was fascinating to see the real-life people who were involved in the historic events of the witchcraft hysteria of the early 1690s
Students were there as part of their research into the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria for Ashley Johnston’s American History class.
While present-day Salem gets much of the attention when people think of the witchcraft trials, the true story really took place in present-day Danvers, and has strong ties to present-day North Andover.
Johnston was thrilled to bring her classes to see a historical site right down the street from the Brooks campus.
“Sometimes students will read something about history and they can’t quite connect with it,” said Johnston, who is in her first year of teaching at Brooks. “But being this close to it, and wandering through and reading the gravestones of people we’ve read about, it makes it meaningful to them. We’ve talked about witchcraft, so it’s good for them to be able to dig deeper into it by coming here.”
Students were asked to find certain gravestones of certain people involved in the witchcraft hysteria, including William Barker Sr. and his son, William Barker Jr., who were both accused of witchcraft in 1692. Both confessed.
“It’s amazing that within a few days of being accused, some of these people confessed,” said Audrey Webb. “It seems that the rule back then was you were guilty until proven innocent, and they could have been tortured, so it might have been easier to just confess.”
Toys Koomplee ’13, who hails from Thailand, said he knew about the witchcraft hysteria from reading The Crucible, but he was shocked to actually be able to connected names on gravestones with what he had read.
“I thought it was somewhat of a dramatized story what I read, but I’ve learned that those things actually happened,” said Toys.
And while the Haunted Happenings events in Salem have become a bit of a party scene for costumed revelers on weekends, Johnston said she is hoping to take her students to Salem on a weekday to take in the historic sites tied to the Salem witchcraft trials.
Johnston has been working with the North Andover Historical Society as sources for her students’ research, and have used writings by Cotton Mather as resources.
Thoughts and reflections
Johnston asked students in her classes to reflect on seeing history in person during their visit to the Old Burying Ground. Students found a shady spot at the cemetery, or lined the stonewall and jotted down their notes. Some of them shared what they wrote:
"It gave us the chance to see history up close and personal! It made what we were learning seem more than just words on a page. It's real!” — Hannah Buttress ’14
"It was great. It felt like we were reliving each person’s story by just
standing in front of their grave."-- Seif Abou Eleinen ’14
"I really enjoyed the trip to the gravesite, because it gave us much
deeper understanding. The witch trials no longer seemed like a story but
rather like a true piece of history. It was also cool to actually visit
this famous site that I haven't really known about before." -- Lara Lord ’14
"I like seeing the gravestones. It made it seem real. You don't always
think of the people in your history books as being real but seeing the
graves showed me that this really happened." -- Hannah Bordogna ’14
"Yes, it was (more meaningful) because I saw the gravesite and memorial,
it made all the witch trials more real and not just a story. It made
everything more meaningful!" -- Alesandra Miller ’14
"It was a very interactive way of learning which I think everyone enjoyed
greatly. It kept our attention and everyone was very involved!" -- Lucie
"It showed that such a rich, interesting, and important part of history
was 5 minutes away, so inspiring." -- Max Traina ’14
Did you know?
Local ties: In 1692, North Andover was known as Andover, and become involved in the witchcraft hysteria that so often finds Salem, Mass., in the spotlight. In July 1692, North Andover resident Joseph Ballard brought several of the afflicted girls from Salem (present-day Danvers) back to North Andover, hoping they could somehow explain his wife’s long and mysterious illness. A year later, some 50 Andover residents had been accused of witchcraft. Three were executed in Salem. More residents of Andover were accused of witchcraft than any other town in Massachusetts during the witchcraft hysteria.
Funky Fungus: There’s a theory that the “hysterical” actions of the accused people was actually caused by people ingesting the fungus ergo, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereals. According to a 1976 Science article, toxicologist say that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to “muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. Also, the fungus thrives in warm and damp climates—not too unlike the swampy meadows in Salem Village, where rye was the staple grain during the spring and summer months.”