Category Archives: History

Lessons in Legerdemain

A by-product of the scholarly research that I’m doing on wonder and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been my exposure to texts on more practical magic that creates “artificial conclusions”, to use the words of a seventeenth-century scribe. I’m really not sure what to do with these texts–especially the more modern ones that fall well outside my period–but they certainly are interesting, and entirely suitable for a blog post or two! Books on magic tricks, conjuring, sleight of hand, legerdemain, are first published in the mid-seventeenth century (at least in England) right up through the 20th, and the classics are very valuable–deemed so most especially by the magical community. The first English book on practical magic, appropriately authored by Hocus Pocus Junior was The Anatomie of Legerdemain, first published in 1634 and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century: the Library of Congress has the second edition which was bequeathed by Harry Houdini himself in 1927. Both that edition and one from 1638 in the library of St. John’s College at Oxford University have been completely digitized, so you can learn all these tricks for yourself. The 1654 edition below sold at a 2009 Sotheby’s auction for £37, 250, so I suppose we’ll have to make do with the digital editions.

PicMonkey Collage

Legerdemain 1638

Hocus Pocus 1654 ed

This is a charming little book. The anonymous author, “Hocus Pocus Junior”, whom many presume to be one William Vincent, who received a license “to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Realm of England and Ireland” and was described as “alias Hocus Pocus” on several occasions, begins the preface with the question: Courteous Reader, doe you not wonder? and proceeds to define his art: Legerdomaine is an operation, whereby one may seem to worke wonderfull, impossible, and incredible things by agility, nimblenesse, and slightnesse of hand. The partes of this Arte are principally two. The first is in the conveyance of Balls, Cards, Dice, Money &tc…The Second is Confederacie (tricks performed in partnership, essentially). So we learn all the old (now newly-exposed for the first time!) cup and card tricks, along with special maneuvers like How to seeme to pull a rope through your nose and How to seeme to cut off a mans head..called the decollation of John Baptist, as well as “how to seem to eat a knife” and “breathe fire”. For some reason, the “strangest” trick is how to “seeme to cut a piece of Tape into four partes, and make it whole again with words”–and this takes quite a bit of detailed description. All the tricks do, really: in addition to being quite the magician, Hocus Pocus Junior was an exceptional technical writer.

Hocus Pocus 16353

Hocus Pocus 16354

Hocus Pocus String

Pages from Hocus Pocus Junior. The Anatomie of Legerdemain, Or, The art of jugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise (1635 edition, Library of Congress).


Holy Horseshoes

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Dunstan (909-988) has been much on my mind lately, even though his Feast Day (May 19) is months away. He has popped up in both of my classes coincidentally and then I rediscovered the most charming little book that focuses on his most enduring claim to fame: the horseshoe as protective talisman. Dunstan was the most popular early medieval saint in England by far and many things contributed to his legend and popularity. In his time, Dunstan served in every high-ranking position within the English church: Bishop of London and Worcester, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was a dedicated servant of the Church but also an adviser to Kings–this dual role was not quite perceived as a conflict of interest at this time, but it provoked envy on more than one occasion. Dunstan clearly had the political skills to mentor princes and effect an ambitious program of monastic reform, but he was also skilled in the arts and crafts: whenever he retreated from the world to Glastonbury (where he was brought up), he kept busy in humble solitude, as a scribe, a painter, an instrument-maker, a silversmith, and even a blacksmith. It was during these times that Dunstan’s legend was crafted through duels with the Devil–who tried to tempt him on more than one occasion. Dunstan defeated the Devil not with words but with tools: when the Devil (disguised as a beautiful woman) tried to lure him away from his forge while he was working (piously) one day, Dunstan waited until his tongs were red hot and then seized the Devil by the nose, and when the Devil appeared as a weary traveler in need of hospitality and a new shoe for his horse, Dunstan duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of Satan. Before he removed the nails, which were causing the Devil considerable pain, Dunstan made him promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and with one stroke of the Devil’s pen a utilitarian object was transformed into a talisman. Talk about muscular Christianity!

Dunstan 1

Dunstan harp

Dunstan

Dunstan shoe

Dunstan 5

Dunstan last arms

HOrseshoe p 22

Centuries later, with more whimsy than reverence, Edward Flight and George Cruikshank presented the story of St. Dunstan, the Devil, and the lucky horse-shoe in The True Legend Of St Dunstan And The Devil; Showing How The Horse-Shoe Came to Be A Charm Against Witchcraft by Edward G. Flight with eight woodcut illustrations by George Cruikshank, engraved by J. Thompson, London, 1871. And here I see that my own horseshoe is pointed in the wrong direction!


Eight Firebrands

September 22, 1692 was an unfortunate verification of that trite proverb that it is always darkest before the dawn: it marked the worst day of the Salem Witch Trials and the beginning of their end. Eight victims were executed that day: Ann Pudeator and Alice Parker of Salem, Martha Corey of Salem Farms (Peabody), Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker of Andover, Wilmot Redd of Marblehead, Margaret Scott of Rowley, and Mary Easty of Topsfield. Theirs were the last executions: Massachusetts Governor William Phips dissolved his specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer a month later as both the hysteria and confidence in its procedures had dissipated. But on September 22 the Devil was still very much present in Salem: in More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700), Robert Calef reports that the cart, going to the hill with these eight to execution, was for some time at a set; the afflicted and others said that the devil hindered it, etc. and just after the executions, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes of Salem remarked that “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there!”

PicMonkey Collage

Illustrations from Winfield S. Nevins, “Stories of Salem Witchcraft,” The New England Magazine Volume 5 (1892).

It has always seemed to me that the Reverend Noyes, who was associate pastor of the First Church in Salem Town, has escaped indictment for his rather involved role in the Trials. Of the participating pastors, Samuel Parris and Cotton Mather seem to get a lot more blame and attention, but Noyes seems to have been an eager attendant. Earlier in 1692 he had tangled with Sarah Good during her trial, calling on her to confess to witchcraft and prompting her famous reply that  I am no more a Witch than you are a Wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink, a curse that was later incorporated into Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables in varied form. Noyes called Martha Corey’s witchcraft “apparent” and went after Alice Parker with zeal. Later in life Noyes (who is always described as a rather corpulent bachelor) apologized and repented for his involvement, which might have gotten him off the hook–but at least Frank Cousins refers to him as “rabid”.

September 22 is my own personal day of reflection and remembrance for the victims of 1692: typically I read some of their testimonies, wander over to the Witch Trials Memorial, and then up to Gallows Hill–a vaguely-located place then and now. The downtown Witch Trials Memorial, designed by Maggie Smith and James Cutler and installed for the Tercentenary of the Trials in 1992, is wonderful in every way, but even at this time of year, just before Witch City shifts into high gear, it feels encroached-upon to me: a little island of propriety in a sea of vulgarity. So I like to go up to Gallows Hill–or hills. We know that the victims of 1692 were hung somewhere up there (see Calef’s first quote above), but not precisely where, which I think is a good thing. An elevated area along the western border of Salem, the Gallows Hill area features rocky ledges, rather barren soil, and woods interspersed among older houses and a 1970s residential development named “Witchcraft Heights”. The site where the victims were executed was thought to be the most elevated spot, in what is now Gallows Hill Park, in the nineteenth century, but the research of Sidney Perley in the early twentieth seems to have shifted the location to a smaller copse of ledge and trees down below–a rather forlorn lot behind a Walgreen’s parking lot–nearly the same location where the Great Salem Fire began a century ago. Both locations–the park above and the copse below–are actually rather forlorn and very still, so they are nice places in which to reflect and remember with little danger of encountering a fried-dough-eating sexy witch.

Worlst Day Scribners Popular History

Worst Day 013

Worst Day 019

Witch Plat

Witches’ Hill, encompassing Gallows Hill, Salem, including the Park above and the “Gallows Plat”, below, behind the Walgreen’s parking lot on Boston and Proctor Streets. Illustrations from Scribner’s Popular History of the United States, William Cullen Bryant, et. al., 1892, and Sidney Perley’s article “Where the Witches were Hanged”, Essex Institute Historical Collections 57 (January 1921).

 

 


Crafting a Colonial Salem

There are many people who have contributed to the creation and projection of Salem’s image over the last century and more, beginning with the rather solemn portrayals of Nathaniel Hawthorne and proceeding through the material-based photographs and writings of Frank Cousins and Mary Harrod Northend towards the Witch City profiteers of our own time. But perhaps no one was more avid and energetic in these efforts than George Francis Dow (1868-1936), a prolific author and editor, secretary of the Essex Institute (now absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum), director of the museum of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), and the principal force behind Salem’s recreated colonial settlement, Pioneer Village. It’s difficult to categorize Dow: he was not a trained historian but this was no obstacle to his efforts and achievements. Generally he is referred to as an antiquarian, which is a rather antiquated word now. He certainly possessed the technical expertise of a preservationist. Above all, I think, he was an interpreter and an admirer of the colonial past. When he was 30 years old, he simply quit his job at a wholesale metal company in Boston and began to indulge his passion for the colonial history of Essex County full-time, with rather impressive results: a succession of books (The Sailing Ships of New England,  Whale Ships and Whaling, The Arts and Crafts of New England,  Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, just to name a few titles), the installation of pioneering period rooms at the Essex Institute, the relocation and restoration of the seventeenth-century John Ward House, and “Salem in 163o: Pioneer Village”, erected for the 300th anniversary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1920 (at the age of 52) he married Alice G. Waters, one of the co-editors of his four-volume edition of The Diary of William Bentley and a long-time librarian at the Essex Institute (so romantic!).

I often think about Dow when I come across one of his books, but most especially whenever I go to Pioneer Village, which still survives as America’s first living history museum, predating Colonial Williamsburg by several years. The village was meant to be a temporary installation for the Tercentenary celebration but Dow and his associates (principally architect Joseph Everett Chandler) put so much effort and thought into its design and construction that it remained a tourist attraction well into the 1950s. Shuttered for several decades thereafter, it deteriorated precipitously, but was restored in several sequences by devoted Salem museum professionals in the later 1980s and after 2007. This past weekend, I went to the village for the first-ever “Salem Spice Festival” and began thinking about Dow’s work–and vision–again. The village is much changed from its original appearance, as will be immediately obvious by the contrasting photographs below. But it’s all in the details: in several structures the colonial craftsmanship which Dow so admired and strove to recreate is still in evidence, almost 85 years later.

Dow 005

Pioneer Village 1 Ryerson

Dow 015

Pioneer Village 3 Ryerson

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Pioneer Village 4 Ryerson

Dow 031

Pioneer Village 6 Ryerson

Dow 019

Dow 036

Pioneer Village, Forest River Park, Salem in the 1930s and today, including the Governor’s “Fayre” House interiors: period photographs from the Ryerson & Burnham Archives Archival Image Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (several of which were used in Dow’s Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony). Dow’s narrative of Pioneer Village can be found in the journal he edited for the Society of New England Antiquities: “Old-Time New England”,”A QUARTERLY MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO THE ANCIENT BUILDINGS, HOUSEHOLD FURNISHINGS, DOMESTIC ARTS, MANNERS AND CUSTOMS, AND MINOR ANTIQUITIES OF THE NEW ENGLAND PEOPLE”; Volume XXII; JULY, 1931; Number I. Sadly, the reproduction Arbella, which carried John Winthrop’s expedition to “Salem 1630″, has not survived, but Leslie Jones captured it in all its glory for the Boston Globe in 1930.

Arbella

 

 

 


Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

pepper - lg

Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


Blending Past and Present

Thought the first examples of the technique date back to the nineteenth century, composite photographs of past and present have become quite the thing in this internet age. For at least the last decade photographers have been blending vintage images with contemporary views to create captivating–and attention-grabbing– results. I think modern “rephotography” can be dated to the 2004 History Channel “Know Where you Stand” campaign based on the photographs of Seth Taras, but recent composite creations have focused more on locations than events, bringing historic preservation (or the lack thereof) into focus. Just this past weekend in Newport, I saw Past Meets Present: an Exhibit of Composite Photographs at the Newport Historical Society, an exhibit timed to coincide with the city’s 375th anniversary. Photographer (and preservationist) Lew Keen believes that his images “promote appreciation of Newport’s historic streetscapes” and “suggests that our role as caretakers of these remarkable treasures has not been without some losses—and encourages us to do better for the future.”

thames-now-and-then

Thames Street [Newport], Now and Then, Lew Keen

I’m inspired and wish I could create similar images for Salem, but neither my photography or photo-shopping skills are up to the challenge. I did play around with some of my favorite photos of Norman Street in the 1890s and today (you can see the original, individual images here and here), but they’re not quite right: I’m more of a contraster than a blender, so hopefully someone more skillful will create some better composite creations of Salem scenes past and present.

Composite Norman

Norman Street composite

Until that happens, we have lots of composite photographs of other urban streetscapes to amaze and inspire, including Marc Herman‘s New York images (The Daily News On-Scene, Then and Now), Shawn Clover‘s amazing images of San Francisco in the wake of its 1906 earthquake and today, Paris in 1900 fused with contemporary images by Golem13, Harry Enchin‘s Toronto “timescapes”, and the haunting images of old and new London generated by the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app. Perfect matter for social media, these images have given natives, visitors, and distant admirers of these cities a lot to think about:  in a word, change.

Herman Brooklyn 1961

Clover

Paris1900-golem13-Bourse

Enchin Queen Street

Bow Lane London

A Brooklyn Gas Explosion in 1961 and today, Marc Herman/ San Francisco 1906 and today, Shawn Clover/Place de la Bourse, Paris, 1910 and today, Golem13/Queen Street, Toronto, past and present, Harry Enchin/Bow Lane, London, Museum of London

 

 

 

 


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