Salem Witch Trials

The Salem News
Online Edition Thursday, April 01, 2004

Witch Trials documents are a hit on the Internet
By Alan Burke
Staff writer

SALEM - More than 300 years ago, Salem residents thought unseen devils and witches were all around. Belief in the unreal led to the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials.

Today, those charges of witchcraft and the desperate protestations of innocence still linger in the virtual reality of cyberspace. It's all part of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, located at www.salemwitchtrials.org.

In 1999, the University of Virginia set out to put every document connected to the event online, including multi-volumed, classic history books, commentaries, letters, town and county archives and images.

Much of the effort has been completed, says the site's creator, Benjamin Ray, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. In fact, all that remains to be done is to add newly discovered documents and to correct errors made by earlier readers of the documents.

In a related effort, several scholars, including Bernard Rosenthal at the University of Binghamton in New York and Danvers historian Richard Trask, are painstakingly rewriting the witch trials record, looking at the original parchment documents, sometimes with high-tech equipment, to discover more precisely what was said in the infamous court of Oyer and Terminer.

"It's really a great Web site," says Elizabeth Bouvier, archivist for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which owns the court documents but long ago put them into the care of the Essex Institute's Stephen Phillips Library, now a part of the Peabody Essex Museum. "It's quite wonderful in bringing these documents to life and contextualizing them."

"People in all parts of the world can be online and access all of this information," says PEM spokeswoman Joan Norris. "I think that's really exciting."

In fact, the museum is pointing to the success of the Web site as an example of what it hopes to do with the Phillips Library, which recently made a controversial decision to cut back its hours. In addition to documents from the witchcraft trials, the library houses Revolutionary War papers, materials from novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and poet John Greenleaf Whittier, genealogical materials and more.

Putting them online would make them more widely accessible.

But Ray cautions that "it takes a great deal of work for a museum to put its archives online." He adds, "I don't know of any major library or archive that has reduced its regular services to its patrons while at the same time developing its ability to deliver materials via the Internet. Archives and libraries are a very people oriented system for good reason."

It also takes a great deal of money to go online. Ray's site cost $233,000, with most of it coming from grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Norris says the museum is committed to spending large amounts of money on its plan. 40,000 hits.

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia site is an example of what online archives can be. Schools, scholars and history buffs are making good use of it. Ray, who started it initially to help his own students do research using original source material, reports that he was getting up to 40,000 hits a year in 2002, when he stopped counting.

"I think it could be double now," he says. "I never imagined that this would be such a hot topic."

Students have benefited tremendously, he says. Some of the summaries on the site come from Ray's students, who became armchair experts on the event after reading virtually everything about it. Locally, the Danvers Public Schools regularly dips into the site.

Ray laughs when asked why all this was done in faraway Charlottesville, Va., at a school founded by Thomas Jefferson.

"Why not Harvard?" he asks. "Why not Salem State? Well, it has to do with me. My ancestry goes back to Salem Village (now Danvers)."

A Maine native, Ray says his family name was spelled Rea in 1692 and the name is found on documents in support of the accused Rebecca Nurse, a frail, 71-year-old woman who was eventually hanged as a witch in 1692.

Another reason the project came to Virginia, he says, is because the university is a leader in digital scholarship. The online record will become a permanent part of its library.

But it's a library open 24 hours a day to anyone who cares to drop in and to visit a time and a place when America was just beginning.

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