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William Russell Burns, 72, grew up reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. But reading about Salem's history, including the town's 17th-century witch trials, is a little like reading into personal family history for Burns, who traces his roots in Salem, Mass., back more than 350 years.
Through his mother, Lucretia Perkins, Burns can claim one of the town's earliest settlers--a John Perkins who landed in Ipswich in 1628 and settled in Salem--as his direct antecedent.
"And we've been in Salem ever since," says Burns.
Burns' other relatives have been equally famous, or infamous.
"A great-great-great aunt by the name of Bradbury was found guilty [of witchcraft], but was spared," says Burns. "She would have been Witch No. 20, but for some reason, she was spared the gallows or stoning."
Even a history of family betrayal is described with equanimity by Burns. "The interesting thing was that her husband, Mr. Bradford, testified against her, but I guess that was the nature of the hysteria at the time."
Later relatives also hailed from the area but went out West to achieve fame and acclaim.
One of Burns' great-great-grandfathers, a John Stevens, led a regiment of 200 men north of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. "He was ordered to take a northern route, and Lewis and Clark had a southern route," says Burns.
He attributed the popular recognition of Lewis and Clark today to the pair's superior public-relations people.
"They had similar journeys, but apparently, Lewis and Clark had a better publicist," says Burns.
Burns' own father was responsible for the erection of the Hawthorne Hotel, a Salem landmark named after the town's most renowned literary genius.
In fact, Burns himself might never have come about without this 1920s-era edifice.
"My father met my mother through the Hawthorne Hotel; he was the principal architect," says Burns. "I think he whistled at her...and then they got married."
In his own lifetime, Burns has seen drastic changes in Salem, changes that have capitalized upon the town's notorious witchcraft trials to attract tourists.
The Second Unitarian Church, to which Burn's family used to belong, has become the Salem Witch Museum, and the Salem Visitors' Center now stands where the Second: Corps Cadets Armory was before it burned down.
Burns says that the commercialization may be in poor taste, but says it is important for the local economy.
"To the extent that it demeans the 19 people that were killed, I think it's poor because there's quite a connection here between Halloween and the people who were hung," he says. "But the business people feel that if Salem is going to do anything, this is the direction we're going to go in."
Burns says that the city currently does a thriving trade in witch-related T-shirts and other paraphernalia and that tourists are especially interested in this period of the town's history.
Some of those tourists erroneously believe that Roger Conant, the founder of Salem and a surveyor of the town along with John Perkins, was also a witch.
The belief persists because a statue of Conant replete in "flowing black garb" stands in front of Salem's church-turned-museum.
"They don't understand that that was just the attire of the period," says Burns.
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