Author Archives: daseger

The Making of Witch City

As tonight marks the beginning of the month-long “Haunted Happenings” in Salem, a true celebration, so it also begins my annual (and perennial) consternation over “Witch City”,  Salem as mecca for all things Halloween. City authorities, merchants, restaurant owners, and yes, even museum directors, will say that Haunted Happenings is not trading on Salem’s notoriety as the site of the nation’s most notorious witch trials but such a statement is impossible to defend: there is no other compelling reason why Salem, Massachusetts would evolve into the Halloween destination aside from its dark history. Even those who acknowledge the darkness and the connection victimize the accused “witches” yet again: they are well-intentioned, but those who seek to turn 1692 into a mere lesson about the necessities of toleration and social justice are distorting the historical reality, just like modern witches identifying with “ancestors”.

So opportunism reigns in Salem, but it has done so for a very long time. Even though the festivities have really intensified over the last 33 years (Haunted Happenings commenced as a one-day affair back in 1982), Witch City evolved over a long time and as a result of many forces and contributors, both deliberate and unintentional. Several people have written about this evolution before (and I’ve devoted quite a bit of time and space to it myself), so I’m going to constrain myself to a veritable laundry list of these factors, all appearing after about 1867, the year of the publication of the first serious study of the 1692 Trials, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects. This book itself is influential, as is its abstract, along with the succession of guide books for Salem and the North Shore published from the 1870s until the first World War, “romantic” histories and fictional works featuring Salem issued in this same period, the bicentennial of the Trials in 1892 and everything it inspired, including the famous Daniel Low witch spoon and other witch wares, postcards, Salem’s own Tercentenary in 1926, branding (of goods, ships, trains, companies, public services, schools, neighborhoods), films and television shows, from Maid of Salem (1937) to Bewitched to Salem, The Crucible in all versions, The Salem Witch Museum, Salem’s Chamber of Commerce, and the initiation of Haunted Happenings, the arrival of Laurie Cabot, the “official” witch of Salem who “claimed” the victims of 1692 as fellow witches and the emergence of an influential and entrepreneurial Wiccan community, the Tercentenary of the Witch Trials in 1992, and the increasing national (global?) popularity of Halloween. In many ways, Witch City is a simple product of converging forces of supply and demand, with all that opportunism thrown in.

Witch City Collage 2

“Witch’s Parade”, n.d., Dionne Collection of Salem Images, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Ye Salem Witch Train

Boston & Maine RR “Ye Salem Witch” locomotive, operational 1937-53.


Two Salem Witches

Two “witches”, a century and a half apart: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869, New York Historical Society, and the “Adult Salem Witch” costume from Party City.

It is important to note that the long evolution of Witch City has been marked by resistance and criticism at nearly every phase of its escalation. She was probably just as ineffectual as I, but I share most of the sentiments of Caroline Howard King, a Salem native who returned to the city to write her memoir (When I Lived in Salem, 1822-66) just when witchcraft tourism was really heating up in the 1890s. She recalls being taken on the same route on which the “witches” were led to the gallows by her father when she was a child, and observes that it may be the influence of those early days which make it so impossible for me to look with toleration on the witch spoons and witch symbols which are so much sought after now. The whole witch episode seems to me a blot and disgrace upon the history of Salem, an awful tragedy to be regretted and mourned, instead of a thing to be gloried in and perpetuated, and I should be glad if Gallows Hill could be leveled and forgotten.

The Last of Summer & September

We’ve got a deluge of rain on the way, which we desperately need, but I imagine that the garden will be beaten down after it subsides so I thought I’d take some of the last pictures of the season. I also had a rare afternoon in the Back Bay of Boston so I took some window-box pictures as well: some in the full flourish of summer, others harbingers of fall. I’m always melancholy in late September, more because Salem’s witching season begins assertively on October 1 than because it marks the onset of autumn and colder weather. Prepare for that prolonged rant over the next few weeks–or stay away! I am working on a few interesting (at least to me) Witch City posts for October, but no doubt I’ll also retreat and focus on the more distant past as well. Or leave town.

Still-flowering Boston, September 28:

Last September 005

Last September 006

Last September 023

Last September 012

Last September 017

Last September 019

And then Home: lots of lavender and catmint and a very fluffy rose, anemones, perennial agertum (a great fall plant, and much more blue than it appears in this photograph); Trinity in the garden, like a ghost of our dearly-departed Moneypenny.

Last September 021

Last September 032

Last September 040

Last September 036

Last September 050

Holding the Sun

I suppose I should be writing about the (super)moon, but yesterday I became captivated by the sun: not the real sun, but a stylized image of a sun in the hands of a “medieval” king on a very cool chair by the twentieth-century Italian architect and designer Paolo Buffa. Said chair, with its mate, was featured in the pages of T: the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, in an article on French designer Vincent Darré’s whimsical Paris apartment. There’s always something that catches my eye in this well-curated periodical, and this weekend it was the Buffa chair, or more particularly the image on the back of the chair: I tried to find its source–to no avail; I suppose Buffa must have sketched it himself–it looks “traditional” and “modern” at the same time, like many of his designs.

Darre apt Buffa Chairs

Darre Study

The Buffa chair in Mr. Darré’s study, in multiples: photograph by François Halard for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I love this chair! I want this chair! But I imagine it’s well outside of my price range (a pair of much less distinct chairs is priced at $5500 here), so after considering the style for a while I moved on to the substance. Because of its obvious splendor, the sun has been utilized by kings and queens projecting their power and magnificence from time immemorial and all areas of the world. The sun is generally utilized as a visual reference–either as accessible symbol or allegorical emblem–but it is actually held, or brought to earth, surprisingly seldom. It takes bravado to do that, like that exhibited characteristically by the Sun King, Louis XIV. From early on in his reign he utilized the sun in myriad ways: basking in its beams, driving its chariot, holding and eventually evolving into it. He was identified as the sun by both his supporters and his enemies–among them the persecuted and exiled Huguenots of France who projected him as a sun-inquisitor following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sun King Ballet Costumer 1660s

Sun King Protestant Perspective Nantes

Sun King Indictments LC

Louis XIV  in the costume of The Sun King in the ballet ‘La Nuit’ c.1665; Protestant caricature of King Louis XIV as inquisitor, illustration from ‘Les Heros de La Ligue ou La Procession monacale, conduite par Louis XIV, pour la conversion des protestants de son royaume’, Paris, Chez Pere Peters, a l’Enseigne de Louis Le Grand, 1691; Calendar of Indictments against Louis XIV, 1706, Library of Congress.

But sun symbolism was not always so straightforward, and certainly not in the seventeenth century, when it could represent not only a king and his mastery of all before him, but also faith and reason: the light of both spiritual and scientific understanding. In the very important emblem book of Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), the sun goes dark when held in the hand of a philosopher who has abandoned his faith for false theories while conversely another woman–from a bit later in the century, after Galileo’s very public defense of heliocentrism–holds the sun-light of understanding in her hand.

Sun Emblem

“Lacking Light”, Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), Glasgow University Emblems website; A woman holds a sun in her hand; representing the faculty of understanding. Engraving by T. Jenner [?], c. 1650, Wellcome Library, London.

What would Ada think?

In honor of tomorrow’s symposium, Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem, jointly sponsored by Historic Salem, Inc., the Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic New England, I thought I would ask and consider what Ms. Huxtable (1921-2013) might have thought about the emerging streetscape of Salem in 2015, fifty years after her influential New York Times article “saved” Salem from the destruction of 100+ historic buildings and a four-lane highway running down its center in the guise of “urban renewal” in the fall of 1965. I think she would have abhorred the big glass-and-faux-brick boxes looming on our horizon both literally (now) and digitally (proposals for the future), but I don’t really know. She was certainly not an exclusive preservationist: such a stance would have been impossible in her capacity as the architectural critic for the Times. She seems to have detested “Williamsburging” nearly as much as the emergence of “slab cities” and heralded preservation as a bulwark against thoughtless development with little historical or architectural integrity. In an effort to answer my own question, I browsed through many of her articles in the archives of the Times: this took some time, primarily because she is such an amazing writer. I wanted to restrict myself to skimming, but her sharp observations and critiques (Albert Speer would love the Kennedy Center) kept me reading. Certain words and phrases kept popping up as architectural attributes: art, identity, variety, and the integration of new construction and preservation, and others as outcomes to be avoided at all costs. In this category, I would place the phrase sterilized non-place, which appears in her 1974 follow-up article “How Salem Saved Itself from Urban Renewal”.

Ada 1974 NYT

That phrase just says it all for me: sterilized non-place. And it makes me think that Ada Louise Huxtable, who summered right next door in Marblehead and would have taken a personal interest in all these new buildings going up in Salem, would not have viewed or reviewed them favorably. Lined up all together, as they are below, you can see an apparent generic uniformity on the one hand and a thoughtless, careless nod to Salem’s historic structures on another—just slap on some brick! So since we can never really know Ms. Huxtable’s opinion on these buildings, perhaps it is better to ask is Salem becoming a sterilized non-place?


Washington at Derby RCG

Big Box Hotel

Big Box District Courthouse

Two existing developments (the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center-and RCG Corporation’s Washington at Derby building) and two proposals (the winning design to replace the existing District Courthouse and RCG’s proposed Mill Hill development further down Washington Street).

The Pardoning of Ann Pudeator

As is my custom on this date, the day on which the final eight victims of the Salem Witch Trials met their deaths, I am writing about this enduring event in the spirit of commemoration and remembrance. This late September day proved to be the beginning of the end in 1692; conversely in our own time everyone in Salem is now getting ready for a celebratory Halloween season. The fear must have been palpable then; the excitement so now. The fact that we celebrate tragedy here in Salem always saddens me, every single day, but particularly on this poignant one at the very end of summer. I’d like to focus on one of the “eight firebrands from hell” who died on this day long ago, but also about the process (es) of exoneration for the victims of 1692: a more hopeful topic. Or is it?

Salem Witch Trial Memorial Danvers MA

Salem Witch Trials Memorial Salem

Ann Greenslit Pudeator was just one victim of September 22, 1692. She fits the traditional stereotype of an accused “witch”:  older ( in mid-70s), widowed (twice), and a healer of sorts–she definitely functioned as a nurse; I’m not sure I would go so far as to call her a midwife. She was often in a vulnerable position, but was nevertheless assertive. When her first husband died she was left destitute and with five children. To provide for her family, she began nursing, and included among her patients her neighbor Isabel Pudeator, the ailing (alchoholic?) wife of Salem blacksmith Jacob Pudeator. Isabel died, Ann remarried the much younger and wealthier Jacob, who himself died five years later, leaving his not-inconsiderable property to Ann and her children: a conspicuous inheritance which enhanced her vulnerability. Several years later the finger-pointing and Trials began, and Ann was accused, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to hang for “Certaine detestable Arts called Witchcraft & Sorceries Wickedly Mallitiously and felloniously practiced and Exercised At and within the Township of Salem”. A succession of neighbors gave evidence against her, but not a single person–including any of her five children—spoke for her: not in 1692 or for 265 years thereafter.

So that brings me to the topic of the legal exoneration of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, a process that occurred in three distinct phases over several centuries: in 1711 the Massachusetts colonial legislature reversed the attainders of “George Burroughs and others” (22 in all, “some put to death, others living still under the life sentence”) for witchcraft and paid a total of £600 in restitution to their heirs. For whatever reason, several victims did not have family members serving as advocates in this process, including Ann Pudeator. It was not until 1946 that her descendant H. Vance Greenslit of New Orleans commenced his campaign for her pardon, which remarkably took eleven years to accomplish via a Massachusetts state legislature resolution in March of 1957. A very illuminating 1954 New York Times article explains the hold-up:  concerns that tourists would be less inclined to visit a witchless Salem (!!!!), that descendants might expect reparations for a sullied escutcheon, which would be costly, and the opponents’ main argument that Massachusetts has no business tampering with the Crown’s work anyway–Massachusetts was a British colony in 1692; if anyone is going to absolve witches, it will have to be Queen Elizabeth II. One petitioner offered this solution: Take the whole matter to the United Nations.” Both Her Majesty’s Government and the United Nations neglected to rule on the matter, and so the Massachusetts Legislature quietly passed an oddly-worded resolution that relieved the descendants of “Ann Pudeator and others” from “disgrace or cause for distress”. It took another 44 years–and the energetic initiative of one of our Department’s graduate students, Paula Keen–for the “others” to be formally exonerated in a bill signed by acting Governor Jane Swift on November 1, 2001. And just like that and their fellow victim Ann Pudeator before them, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd were cleared summarily with the simple stroke of a pen.

1711 Reversal of Attainder


I have never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft but having spent most of my professional life in the company of 20-year-olds here in Salem I’ve definitely been exposed to the man and his works, especially as they (supposedly) relate to our gothic city. Many of my students believe that the Lovecraftian city of Arkham was modeled on Salem, and its Miskatonic University, our university. They might be right about the former, as the fictional Arkham does indeed have a lot of Salem features, but Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U. is a lot more ivy-covered than our concrete Salem State: most experts assert that is modeled after Bradford College, a now-defunct college up in Haverhill, or perhaps even Brown University, located in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. We have a great nursing program but no medical school (to service our sanitarium) or Department of Medieval Metaphysics. Apart from the University, The Arkham/Salem connection seems so well-established that I’ve always been curious that Lovecraft has not been assimilated more comprehensively into the relentless Witch City campaign, but that seems to be changing now: I’ve seen Lovecraft walking tours and an exhibit over the past year, and for the next few weeks the Salem Theatre Company is staging an adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep, the Lovecraft story most closely associated with Salem through its references to the old Derby house and the old Crowninshield place.

Thing on the Doorstep

One of my former students directed me to a site that really drives home the Salem/Arkham connection: The Miskatonic Railroad, 18821907. The centerpiece and absolute focus of this Arkham is Salem’s fortress-like train station, which was demolished in 1954. I don’t believe that Lovecraft ever mentioned the Salem Depot in his works, but it certainly appears Lovecraftian, both in photographs and as recreated for the model Miskatonic Railroad. Its creator, John Ott, doesn’t care much for the rest of Salem, but he is duly impressed by our long-gone station: “Salem today rates about a seven on the dreary scale—not much to see, despite its touristy cant. But up until about sixty years ago, Salem boasted the most spine-tingling eerie Gothic-Norman stone train station in North America”.  Apparently he doesn’t share Lovecraft’s affection for Federal architecture!

Salem Train Depot SSU

Salem Train Depot Razing SSU

Arkham Ott

Arkham Ott 2

Salem Train Depot side view LOC

Miskatonic RR Station

Photographs of the old Salem Train Depot from c. 1905, 1910 & 1954 (the razing!!!), from the Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections and the Library of Congress interspersed with John Ott’s model Miskatonic Railroad Station. Many more images (and stories) of the latter here.

Theo and Leo

Last night, the “Strandbeests” were released here in Salem, the kinetic, evolving, mechanical-yet-ethereal “beach animals” of Theo Jansen, a Dutch engineering artist and Renaissance Man. There was a not-so-sneak preview of these PVC-pipe creations a few weeks ago up on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, but yesterday the big beests were on view for the special opening of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibit is interactive but also a bit static–it’s striking to see these “animals” move and with the exception of one of the smaller beests, that really can’t happen in the confines of a gallery. But Mr. Jansen’s own evolutionary process is revealed, and the photographs of the beests on the beach (by Russian-born photographer Lena Herzog, who happens to be the wife of my very favorite filmmaker, Werner Herzog) are absolutely haunting. In the midst of the exhibition, with these big skeletal structures all around me, I became absolutely fixated on reproductions of Jansen’s preparatory sketches–they reminded me of Leonardo’s notebook drawings almost instantly. I spent the summer looking through (reproductions of) these notebooks as I was teaching a course on Renaissance art and science so they were fresh in my mind, but the association is rather obvious: Lawrence Weschler, who wrote the introductory essay to the companion volume to the exhibition, calls Theo Jansen a cross between da Vinci and Don Quixote. Leonardo, of course, was as preoccupied with engineering as much as he was with art (probably more so) and he had his own animalistic creations, including a “mechanical lion” made for a pageant celebrating the newly-crowned King of France, Francois I. But it is Leonardo’s sketches of wings in his passionate pursuit of flight that remind me of Jansen’s drawings, or vice-versa. Dream machines are eternal, it seems. Strandbeests PEM Strandbeests 067 Strandbeests 046 Strandbeests 034 Strandbeests 023 Strandbeests 026 Strandbeests 019 Strandbeests 055 Strandbeests 016 leonardo-da-vinci-bird-wing-with-mechanical-connections-1 Leonardo Wings Sketch Scenes from the exhibition preview of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Notebook sketches from Leonardo’s  Codex Atlanticus, Veneranda Biblioteca and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,174 other followers

%d bloggers like this: