Alumni Profiles

Trials and Errors
Burns '88, '91G discovers details of Salem Witch Trials.

By day, Margo Burns '88, '91G is director of the Language Lab at St. Paul's School, a private high school in Concord, N.H. But by night, and in any other spare time she can find, she becomes history sleuth, scholar, novelist and computer whiz focused on the Salem witch trials. So how did Burns end up immersing herself in the most detailed minutiae of events that occurred more than 300 years ago?

It started in the late '70s, when Burns began to research her family's genealogy and discovered that she is descended from Rebecca Nurse, a famous accused Salem witch. Burns had read Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and the more she learned about her ancestor, the more frustrated she became. "I wanted to tell Rebecca Nurse's story accurately," she says. "In The Crucible, she comes off as a limp old lady. When I read historical accounts, I found that she was not a wallflower at all. The real story," she insists, "is far more complex, dramatic and interesting."

Margo Burns standing near a fence with a farmhouse in the background Related to one of the Salem "witches," Margo Burns '88, '91G says her ancestor is misrepresented in modern accounts. Photo by Perry Smith

Nurse's story is one of the most poignant of the two dozen witchcraft trials that took place in 1692 in Salem, Mass. Seventy-one at the time of her trial and the mother of eight, Nurse stoutly defended her innocence. Described as "a woman of piety and simplicity of heart," she received a reprieve from the governor, and neighbors petitioned on her behalf. Nevertheless, she was convicted--the magistrate asked jury members to reconsider their verdict when they initially found her innocent--and hanged on July 19, 1692. It's now thought that public outrage over her conviction and execution stirred the first public opposition to the trials.

To set the story straight about Nurse and others, Burns began writing Pandemonium, a non-fiction novel about the Salem witch trials. Using research from primary sources, Burns hopes to dispel many myths. She refutes, for example, the theories that moldy bread or ergot caused the mass hysteria. What amazes her most is the common belief that the women actually were witches. "In many cases, they were just weird old ladies who didn't go to church," she says. Some argue that the trials revolved around greed and land. But Burns theorizes that the nature of mass hysteria had more to do with the phenomenon than any one cause. "Why did people start confessing to flying through the air on a pole?" she asks.

Burns also started an e-mail discussion list for Salem witch trial descendants. One of the participants was noted scholar Bernard Rosenthal, who invited Burns to become an associate editor on the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Now in its fifth year, the project will culminate with the publication of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, a book collection of new transcriptions. (Also working on the project is Texas Tech history professor Gretchen Adams '01G.) The last transcription, done in the 1930s, contained errors, says Burns. There are also numerous, possibly significant cross-outs in the originals that were lost in the 1930 transcription.

Joining the project meant putting her own book on hold for a while, but her continued research on the witch trials has led to ideas for an article and two more books. Currently, Burns is working on "Salem Examined," an article that will present the transcriptions for the modern reader. Despite the long hours the research requires, Burns says she loves it: "I come away from this work really charged up." ~

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