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

By John Edward YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 1988

Salem, Mass.

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.

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``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.

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.