SALEM. Long-ago witch trials may draw visitors, but there's much more to this historic seaside city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Poor Roger Conant. It's been 300 years since the witch trial here, and still the innocent are accused. ``Mommy, there's the witch, there's the witch,'' shouted a towhead tyke tugging on his mother's sleeve and pointing to Conant's statue.

``That's not a witch, Timmy. That's Roger Conant. He's the man who founded Salem.''

Not good enough for little Timmy. ``No, it's not. It's the witch,'' he insisted.

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This was hardly the first time Conant has been at the end of an accusing finger. His statue does look rather nefarious, leaning into the wind with his long, dark, billowing cape and high-brimmed hat covering part of his stern face. The fact that it's outside the Witch Museum doesn't help his case.

``We hear that all the time,'' said Tina Koutsos, who works at the adjacent Romanesque Witch Museum - a former Unitarian church. ``A recent magazine article referred to Conant's statue as `Salem's sorceress.'''

Salem's brief witch era started in 1692. During the hysteria hundreds were jailed, and 19 men and women and two dogs were convicted and hanged as witches. It lasted only a year, ending just as quickly as it began.

This infamous period has certainly been no curse to trade and tourism here. Salem has capitalized on the brief period. The local evening newspaper carries a silhouetted witch-on-a-broomstick logo. Even police cars are emblazoned with a witch motif. Ask anyone if the witch connection has been exploited and they'll answer in the affirmative.

Ms. Koutsos admits, ``It's a great drawing card. It gets people here. But when people see how much more there is to Salem, they come back.''

A volunteer at the information booth at Riley Parking Plaza in the center of town agrees. ``Exploited? Of course the whole witch thing is exploited,'' she said and went on to rave about Salem's historic past and architectural masterpieces.

The information booth is a good place to begin a Salem tour. For $6 you can board a San Francisco-type trolley on rubber tires and take an hour's tour around the city. You may hop off at any of several points of interest, walk around, and hop back on later at no extra cost.

No matter how you travel - by foot, trolley, or broomstick - you're certain to find your way down Chestnut Street, the city's centerpiece. It has been variously described as ``the most beautiful street in America'' and the ``finest, best preserved, most aristocratic thoroughfare in the country.''

Salem has its quaint areas. This isn't one of them. These homes are the stolid, stunning survivors of Salem's glorious golden age of sea trade - handsome private residences in Federal, Colonial, and Greek Revival styles. They were built along the wide boulevard from the late 1700s on, by Salem's growing wealthy class of sea captains, merchants, statesmen, and politicians.

Where historic houses abound

Today every home on Chestnut Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The houses look much as they did 200 years ago. Horses have given way to cars, and stately elms destroyed by Dutch elm disease have been replaced by hardier honey locusts. There never were chestnut trees on Chestnut Street. No one is quite sure how the street got its name.

Our guide pointed out a nearby house. ``George Washington slept there,'' she said. We all giggled. ``He really did,'' she insisted. ``We have the records to prove it.'' Only Rip van Winkle spent more time sleeping than America's first President, it would seem.

The trolley moved slowly through the city, clanging its bell and dropping a few people at the Witch House, built in 1642. This was the home of Jonathan Corwin, a judge at the trials. Witches were never tried here, but preliminary examinations of some of the accused were held here.

If you are in the neighborhood and feel peckish, stop in at the Salem Inn for a fine, elegant lunch at the Courtyard Caf'e, just around the corner.

Down by the waterfront is the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, a place you definitely have to explore on foot. The trolley rolls on as far as Winter Island and across to Salem Willows. The Willows is a small, quaint old amusement park, where you may treat yourself to a chop suey sandwich. That's right, sandwich. Neophytes ask for a fork to help get it down. Locals manage without such equipment. Places to shop or eat

For those with shopping on their minds there's Pickering Wharf, with its collection of Oriental shops, boutiques, craft and sweet shops, and three restaurants.

If you decided to forgo a chop suey sandwich at the Willows, try some Portuguese dishes at the Restaurante Fragata on Congress Street, right near the wharf.

A trolley ride may be a good way to get a grip on this city, but Salem is really a walking town. The best way to see it is to get on a walking tour given by resident guide and historian Jim McAllister - a man who knows where the bodies are buried. Especially those at Salem's oldest cemetery, Burying Point.

``John Hathorne's buried here. Nathaniel Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather,'' said Jim, swinging his leg rather cavalierly on old John's slate gravestone. ``He was a relentless prosecutor during the witch trials,'' he added, explaining how Nathaniel later changed the spelling of his last name to distance himself from the infamous judge.

Richard More is buried here - the only known grave of a passenger on the Mayflower's first voyage to the New World. Nearby is John Turner, builder of the House of the Seven Gables, and the tomb of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem's most successful merchant. It is said that Derby was the first man in America to make a million dollars, and his wife the first to spend a million.

Just to the right of Burying Point is the singularly unattractive Grimshawe House. Interesting from a historical standpoint, the house today is an eyesore. This is where Nathaniel Hawthorne courted the fair Sophia, youngest of three Peabody girls, whom he later married.

Horace Mann, husband of Mary Peabody, visited here as well. Mann later became known as the ``father of the American public school system.'' The house is privately owned and covered with thick, gray, bulletproof asbestos siding. Only a worn boot-scraper has escaped the ugly siding.

But, as Jim McAllister said, ``It's better than just a plaque. At least it's still standing.''

Elias Derby's home, a classic brick Georgian Colonial, was a wedding gift from his father. It stands next to the Custom House, just across from Derby Wharf on the waterfront.

Nathaniel Hawthorne worked for a while at the Custom House and describes it in his lengthy introductory to ``The Scarlet Letter.''

Down a cul-de-sac by the sea, partly sheltered under a sprawling horse chestnut tree, is Salem's most famous residence. Hawthorne described it this way in the first line of his popular novel: ``Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns, stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely-peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst.''

The House of the Seven Gables, once owned by Hawthorne's cousin, was frequently visited by the young Nathaniel. It later became the setting of his famous novel.

This dark and brooding 18-room house is open all year to the public. You may tour eight rooms of the house and climb the hidden stairway to the garret. A preliminary slide show gives a bit of history before you start.

Also on the grounds is Hawthorne's birthplace, moved to this site in the 1950s. Salem has moved more than 300 historical homes in a massive effort to save, restore, and preserve them.

Near the center of town is the Witch Dungeon Museum, where a live dramatization of a witch trial is given. Don't worry if you don't have time for this one.

A tour of the Essex Institute Museum Neighborhood will bring the whole history of Essex County into perspective. It is worth a day's visit in itself. A small display of witchcraft memorabilia is on display to tease you through the door. But the real treasures lie in the superb collection of homes the institute maintains and a library containing original manuscripts of the witchcraft trials. Arthur Miller used this library extensively when researching and writing his drama ``The Crucible.''

You shouldn't leave Salem without visiting the prestigious Peabody Museum. The Essex Institute, which runs it, has its share of bounty from the early days of international sea trade, but here the walls simply bulge with these treasures, especially from the trade with China and India. Silver Chinese export porcelains, exotic furniture, trinkets, and decorative arts, all made in the East for Western markets, are beautifully displayed, especially in the new $11 million Asian Export Art Wing.

Yes, Salem's infamous witches may lure you to this engaging city, but the lasting charm is the historic beauty of this venerable city by the sea.

Practical information

In back of the Old Town Hall at 32 Derby Square is the Salem Chamber of Commerce. Stop in and pick up tour information and a calendar of events.

For walking tours contact Jim McAllister at (508) 745-6314 or the Chamber of Commerce at (508) 744-0004.

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