Category Archives: Salem


Nearly every year, someone from “outside” writes an opinion piece on the exploitative, hypocritical, and tacky nature of Salem’s month-long celebration of Halloween which is pretty much ignored here in the Witch City. Last year, there was a riveting piece by a Huffington Post columnist, and this year we have a column by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, who just happens to have a book coming out about the Trials entitled The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff’s piece has a great title, “First Kill the Witches. Then Celebrate Them”, and asks the key question, “How did Salem, Mass. repackage a tragedy as a holiday, appointing itself Witch City in the process?” but offers few new insights in the way of an answer. It’s the same old inevitable story, told time and time again: economic decline, Arthur Miller, Bewitched, entrepreneurial “Museum” owners, shopkeepers, and Wiccans. She really dwells on the dreadful Samantha statue (which I don’t think Salemites take a seriously as we perhaps should) and concludes that “You can leave Salem today without a hint of what happened in 1692; in a sense we’ve moved from tragedy to farce without the pause for history in between”. At first reading, this seems like a great line, but I’m not sure about the use of the collective “we”, nor of the reference to history–as the Salem Witch Trials is one of the most intensely researched topics in American history. Every year we get a new Salem book or three or four, while notable trials in Europe during the same era have yet to receive even sufficient attention. Yet we seem to learn very little, or just want to read the same old (inevitable) story, over and over again. I haven’t read Schiff’s book yet–it comes out this week–but I did read her preview article in The New Yorker last month and found it to be rather….conventional, and quite dependent on the well-worn path of context and causality charted by historians like Richard Godbeer, Mary Beth Norton, and my colleague Emerson Baker (and generations before them). Nevertheless her publisher asserts that the book is “historically seminal” and I keep seeing the words “masterful” in initial reviews. The word “new” crops up a lot too but it seems like the same old story to me. In terms of novelty, I’m a bit more interested in the book that seems to be paired and compared with Schiff’s Witches in reviews due to their coincidental, opportunistic publication dates, Alex Mar’s study of contemporary Paganism, Witches in America. The most recent scholarly publication, Benjamin Ray’s Satan & Salem. The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, seems to be getting squeezed out by these two blockbusters, although it was published earlier in the year.

Colburn Illustrations

Witches 2015

Martha Coburn’s illustrations for Stacy Schiff’s Oct. 25, 2015 column in the New York Times: “First Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them”. Just three witchcraft titles published in 2015.

There is a great review of Schiff’s work by a historian who I really admire, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in the Wall Street Journal which praises the author on her narrative abilities and contemporary allusions but faults her on her knowledge of the historical context: he observes that  “Her knowledge of the 17th century is less secure than her grip on journalistic topoi.” Indeed it is difficult to develop mastery of personages as diverse as Cleopatra, Véra Nabokov, and the victims of Salem. Despite the glut of Salem Witch Trials studies, Fernández-Armesto believes we have room for one more: “We still need someone to do for 17th-century Salem what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did for 14th-century Montaillou in his work on the Cathars”. That would be a dream as Montaillou: Promised Land of Error is indeed one of my favorite books, but I don’t think Salem–the city, the “problem”, the industry–is ready for that kind of definitive l’histoire totale: “we” need to continue our search for the “real” story and feeding the beast.

Montaillou Cover

The Town Dyer’s House

My interest in Salem’s historic architecture has been narrowed down over the past few years that I’ve been writing this blog: while I still appreciate most of our city’s older (let’s be generous and say pre-World War II) structures, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with its oldest buildings in general and those that were demolished in particular. I’ve developed a somewhat peculiar fascination with “lost” houses, a demolition expert of sorts!  I’m constantly wondering why some houses are deemed too important to be swept away and others were leveled with little comment. My focus in this post is a house that was almost as famous a “Witch House” as the actual “Witch House” that still stands at the turn of the last century, yet it was demolished with little or no opposition that I could detect. The Samuel Shattuck House, built by 1680 just a few steps away from the Jonathan Corwin/”Witch House” on Essex Street, actually had a more direct tie to the Trials that the latter: the accusations and testimony of its occupants, a dyer named Samuel Shattuck and his wife Sarah, led directly to the conviction and execution of the first victim of 1692: Bridget Bishop. This poor widow, not quite as notorious as depicted by a succession of historians who confused her with the tavern-keeping Sarah Bishop, nonetheless had several encounters with the Shattucks, bringing them oddly-sized scraps of lace for dyeing–perhaps for a poppet? The affliction of their son convinced them that she was up to some mischief, and so they testified with considerable detail and vehemence, even though these encounters had occurred twelve years previously. Bridget Bishop was executed on June 10, 1692, despite her consistent affirmations of innocence.

Jump forward two hundred years later, when the Bicentennial of the Trials was stirring up a cauldron of commemorative and commercial products: witch spoons, postcards and plates. Contemporary Salem guidebooks typically featured several Trial-related sites at this time:  the Witch House, supposedly the site of interrogations, Gallows Hill, the site of the executions, and the Shattuck House, a “scene of the crime” as well as the source of allegations. My major window into the world of lost Salem houses, photographer Frank Cousins, marketed his print of the “olde” Shattuck House with the label it was through evidence of the Shattucks that Bridget Bishop was convicted as a witch.

Cousins Shattuck House DUKE

Shattuck House and Gallows Hill

Shattuck House Salem BPL

Frank Cousins photograph of the Shattuck House, 315-317 Essex Street, in the 1890s and the same photograph in The Visitors’ Guide to Salem, Essex Institute, 1895; another late nineteenth-century view, Boston Public Library.

It was so notable in 1895, and 1897, and 1900, but by the end of 1902 it was gone, demolished to expose to view only the two huge chimneys….showing the clam shell clay in which the brick was laid before the days of stone and mortar according to the brief notice in the Boston Evening Transcript on October 30, 1902. No notice at all that I could find in the Salem papers! And so despite its Witch Trial connections, the Shattuck House passed quietly in the night (like the Hunt House, the Parkman House, and the Ruck House before it), only to be replaced by an indistinct Colonial Revival structure that served in a variety of capacities (Gainsborough’s Photography Studio when I came to town) before it succumbed to condo-izaton.

Shattuck House Salem

Boston Evening Transcript clip, October 30, 1902; sketches of the Shattuck House from Nooks and corners of the New England Coast by Samuel Adams Drake (1905) and The Romance of Old York by Herbert Milton Sylvester (1909).

Witch Houses

Central to Salem’s evolution as the Witch City was the Witch House, a first-period structure that was the residence of one of the Trials’ judges, Jonathan Corwin. It was referred to as the Witch House back in the nineteenth century, when it housed a number of businesses–a longstanding drug store, later an antiques shop–and looked quite different than it does today, but it really became the Witch House when its evolving image was published on variant postcards from around 1900 on. The Corwin House acquired its seventeenth-century look in the middle of the twentieth century through a “restoration” under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb, and was opened to the public as the official “Witch House” by the city of Salem in 1948. As I’ve written about this House and its history before, I want to widen its context today by featuring some other Witch Houses, near and far, past and present, material and immaterial. There are at least two other houses in Essex County which were identified as such on postcards from a century ago, a time when there was a limited effort to turn the entire region into “Broomstick Country”. This was historically correct–the “Salem Witch Trials” were indeed a regional phenomenon–but commercially tricky, so Salem eventually claimed its exclusive title as the one and only “Witch City” with the Witch House.

The Old Witch House--Scene of Examinations at Salem. Illustration from Columbus and Columbia (Manufacturers' Book Co, c 1893).

Witch House Salem 1905

Witch House Danvers

Witch House Rockport 1910

Salem’s “Witch House” in 1893 (Columbus and Columbia Manufacturers’ Book Co, c 1893) and 1905: the George Jacobs “Witch House” in Danvers in 1907 (located in what was then Salem in the seventeenth century) and Rockport’s “Witch House”, also known as the “Old Garrison House” and still standing, in 1910. Supposedly two brothers from Salem built this house as a refuge for their accused sister or mother (depending on the source).

Farther afield, Witch Houses don’t have anything to do with witch trials: they just look like the sort of gothic structure that a romanticized witch might inhabit, like the Spadena “Witch’s” House in Beverly Hills, California, a storybook-style house built in 1921, or the famous Carl Van Vechten photograph of a long-lost “Witch House” in rural Maine during the Depression. The fairy-tale witches of the nineteenth century had created a more whimsical images of their houses in the twentieth, and clearly gables were seen as integral architectural details, so it is quite suitable that Salem’s Witch House would soon be enhanced with several.


Witch House Van Vechten

Witch House Pyle 1887

Witch House Key Nielsen 1921

The California “Witch’s House’ in its original Culver City location, courtesy Beverly Hills Heritage; Carl Van Vechten, “Witch House”, 1936, Library of Congress; the Prince visits the Witch’s House in Howard and Katharine Pyle’s The Wonder Clock: or, Four & Twenty Marvelous Tales, Beind One for Each Hour of the Day (1887); The Witch’s confectionary cottage from Hansel and Gretel, by Kay Nielsen (1921).

Even farther afield in terms of both space and time is the woodcut print of a Witch House from the later sixteenth century by an anonymous English artist. This image, quite unusual as witches were generally depicted outside, in the wild, at this time, is often cited as appearing in the Swiss theologian Thomas Lieber (Erastus)’s Two Dialogues Concerning the Power of Witches (1579), but as Charles Zika points out in The Appearance of Witchcraft. Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe, the image appears to have been simply inserted into a 1579 English edition. Another fantasy house, although in this case it’s more about the exit than the architecture!

Witch House 1590

Zombies on the Streets of Salem

A pack of zombies infiltrated Salem on this past Saturday, “landing” at Collins Cove and making their way through downtown, along the Common and Essex Street, into Derby Square to Derby Wharf. It wasn’t quite an invasion, but more of a parade: they had a police escort (as well as a hearse and banner) and did not really proceed in that distinct zombie shuffle (?): I suppose that would have taken too long, so they just walked. I really don’t mind zombies: even though they are often disgusting, at least they are creative, and they’re not out to make a quick buck like all the witches around town (of course they have no zombie “forbears”–that we know of–on whom to capitalize). One little stroll on a sunny Saturday and they’re gone, although a few will, no doubt, linger until the end of the month.

Zombie Arrival

Zombies 1

Zombies 2

Zombies 051

Zombies 062

Zombies 073

Zombies 066

A little scuffle at the corner of the Common, but most of the zombies were peaceful paraders, like the lovely family above. Derby Square in the clear.

Handsome Heifers and Copious Carrots

Harvest time is Fair time, and in our region that means the Topsfield Fair, which advertises itself as the country’s oldest and dates its origins to a cattle show sponsored by the newly-formed Essex Agricultural Society in 1820. I found an interesting pamphlet (An Address Delivered Before the Essex Agricultural Society: at the Agricultural Exhibition in Danvers [and]  The Trustees’ Account of the Agricultural Exhibition at Danvers, October 16 and 17, 1821) about the fair’s second occasion that lists its award-winning cultivators, crafters, and exhibitors and was surprised to see quite a few Salem names among them. Then as now, Salem was pretty urban in comparison to the surrounding communities, but its northern and southern jurisdictions were still “fields”, so I suppose there was still sufficient acreage to compete with farmers from the more rural communities of Essex County.  Here are the big Salem prizewinners of 1821:


Breeding Sows: Mr. Elias Putnam of Danvers won best ($8) but Mr. Jonathan Osborne of Salem won second best ($5).

Bulls: Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his “deep red bull of two years old”. Noted also are his “very handsome” heifers.

Cows: Mr. John Barr, Esq. awarded first prize ($15) for his seven-year-old “bright red cow”; Mr. Aaron Waitt, Esq. awarded third prize ($5) for his six-year-old “light red cow”.

Domestic Manufactures: (Salem residents dominated in this category, I must say, although it seems to have been an exhibition rather than a competition).

Imitation Beaver Hats: from Major Samuel Mansfield’s Factory, Salem: water-proof, highly recommended for beauty and economy:  “they exhibit an admirable imitation, formed by the skillful use of cheap materials–the nap of muskrat is laid upon lambswool bodies, which are stiffened with gum shellac”.

Imitation Merino Shawls: by Mrs. Thompson of Salem. Cotton and wool carded together, rich colors, exhibiting “great taste and skill”.

Imitation Leghorn Bonnets: from Miss Mary Raymond of Salem “the happiest imitation in point of color”.

Beautiful specimens of Vitriol and Alum” : from the Salem Laboratory (must research this).

Carpeting: “a well-executed piece of Venitian carpeting” from Mrs. Dwinnel of Salem and “Gobelin-worked Crickets” by the young Misses Page of Danvers are praised–what are Gobelin-worked Crickets????????????

The Ploughing Competition: this seems to have been the highlight of the exhibition, but the root vegetables (see below) received much commentary as well. Benjamin Savory of Newbury won, but Mr. Ezekiel Hersey Derby came in second, with his team of oxen driven by Henry Barrich, ploughman, who ploughed 36 furrows, 6 inches deep, in 70 minutes, “very handsomely”.

Crops: here the Salem farmers seem to be disadvantaged, but John Barr won the barley competition, and Salem dominated the exciting carrot competition:

First Prize ($15) to Mr. John Dwinnel of Salem: 360 bushels raised on a half-acre. Mr. Dwinnel also received second prize for his potatoes.

Second Prize ($10) to Mr. James S. Cate of Salem: 276 bushels raised on a half-acre.

Fourth Prize ($5) to Mr. Ezekiel H. Derby, Esq. of Salem: 256 bushels raised on a half-acre.

There seems to have been intense interest in root and fodder crops at this time, so there were also “claims” or documented harvests of certain crops including rutabaga and “mangel wurtzel”, a kind of beet. Mr. Derby submitted a claim for the latter: reaping 287 bushels of the crop from a half-acre of land, “twice-ploughed and received a slight dressing of manure”, along with Russian radishes and Swedish turnips. The seed was sown on May 23, 1821, and the crop harvested between October 27 and November 3rd. The Salem surveyor came out to verify the claim.

Such information in this report! It makes me want to abandon my ongoing exploration of cultural and social history and become an old-fashioned agricultural historian! It’s no surprise to any Salem historian to see Ezekiel Hersey Derby so oft-mentioned in this account, however, as there is an amazing painting of his family farm in South Salem by the Salem émigré artist Michele Felice Corné dated from about 20 years earlier in the collection of Historic New England. I walk by the former site of this farm (basically Lafayette and Ocean Streets) on my way to work, and generally I think about what it looked like before the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but now I have an entirely new pastoral perspective.

Corne Derby Farm 1800

Cornè, Michele Felice (1752-1845) Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm, c. 1800, Cogswell’s Grant, Historic New England. This painting is also notable as it represents the artist and his friend, Salem’s famed architect and woodcarver Samuel McIntire, in the lower left-hand corner adjacent to the fence.

The Little Locksmith

Several years ago, one of my favorite readers, and bloggers, told me about a book written by a Salem author called The Little Locksmith, but for some reason I didn’t pick up a copy until just this past week–and I spent the cold and windy weekend reading it. This was quite an experience, as this is a memoir that puts our indulgent modern memoirs to shame in its ability to present an engulfing narrative of suffering (or perhaps I should say not suffering) and survival. The Little Locksmith was published in 1943, several months after the death of its author, Katharine Butler Hathaway, who was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis right here in Salem in 1895, when she was five years old. For the next ten years, she was confined to her bedroom and strapped to a board “like a specimen butterfly” in the hope that her spine would grow straight. She emerged not only hunchbacked, like the little locksmith that used to come to her Salem home (on Lafayette Street, sadly swept away by the Great Salem Fire of 1914), but also severely stunted, a very wise young woman in a child’s body. One would imagine that she would look back on this childhood with horror, regret, and even anger, but she does not, instead we read of “joyous” days:  Though my back was imprisoned, my hands and arms and mind were free. I held my pencil and pad of paper up in the air above my face, and I wrote microscopic letters and poems, and made little books of stories, and very tiny pictures, I sewed the smallest doll clothes anybody had every seen, with the narrowest of hems and most delicious little ruffles. I painted with watercolors and made paper dolls and dollhouse furniture out of paper. Paper was the nearest thing to nothing in the way of material, and yet it was possible to make it into something that people would exclaim over and fall in love with. It was something precious made of nothing.” 

Little Locksmith Katharine Butler Hathaway

Little Locksmith cover

Little Locksmith House Pen

Katharine Butler Hathaway (1900-42): from the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, where her papers are located; a first edition of The Little Locksmith (1943); the Mark Hatch House in Castine, where she lived from 1921-1931, Penobscot Marine Museum.

This ability to discern, appreciate, and make things that are precious stayed with her for the rest of her life. After she emerged from her Salem bedroom at aged 15, her “horizontal life” leaving her misshapen yet somehow also enchanted, she was off to Radcliffe, New York City, Paris, and Castine, Maine, where she found a neglected old house which she crafted into a precious touchstone. The Little Locksmith is really about this house and what it means to her more than anything else, which makes it even more fascinating for materialistic me. Her ability to describe places and what they mean to her is captivating: the chapter where she describes her family’s return to a sultry September Salem from their summer residence in Vermont is probably my favorite, as the sounds of crickets and steps on the brick sidewalks of Salem are the sounds that I always notice when I return home from up north. Upon her marriage to Daniel Hathaway of Marblehead, she is forced to sell her beloved Castine house, but they move on to settle in an old brick house in Blue Hill, Maine, which becomes yet another charmed setting for her, unfortunately her last.

A “Scribbling Woman” from Salem

Two Salem-born authors competed for best-seller status in the 1850s, but it wasn’t really much of a competition: Miss Maria Cummins’s Dickensian novel The Lamplighter: or An Orphan Girl’s Struggles and Triumphs (1854) far outpaced Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) in this decade, and after. Hawthorne’s classics did well in their first year of publication–selling over 6000 copies each–but 73,000 copies of the more ephemeral Lamplighter were purchased in the first year of its appearance, second only to a book penned by another female author from the same publishing house, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These successes prompted the penning of a famous letter to his own publisher, William Ticknor, by a petulant Hawthorne in 1855 in which he complained that “America is now wholly given over to a d——d mob of scribbling women” and “I should have not chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse–worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.” I don’t think Hawthorne is merely venting to his publisher, but also prodding him to be a bit more marketing-minded, as Cummins’s and Stowe’s more enterprising publisher, John P. Jewett of Boston, issued their works in multiple editions and formats for diverse audiences. All the editions of The Lamplighter that I have seen are rather lavishly illustrated, and there were also “tie-in” products like musical compositions and picture books. The protagonist of The Lamplighter, the orphan Gerty Flint, consequently becomes rather famous while her creator remains quite literally anonymous: Cummins published three more books (by “the author of The Lamplighter”) before her premature death at the age of 39 in 1866: only in later editions does her name appear on the title page. I’m not really a fan of this sort of sentimental fiction, but I’ve tried to read The Lamplighter a few times without much success: the prose stopped me once, and then I found out what would eventually happen to little Gerty’s kitten and I just didn’t want to go there………….

Cummins Curwen House Salem Essex Street

Lamplighter broadside LOC

Lamplighter Music

Lamplighter Sales 1854


Lamplighter 1914

Cummins Obituary NYT

Frank Cousins photograph of the Samuel Curwen House, the birthplace of Maria Susanna Cousins, formerly at 312 Essex Street and moved to North Street in 1944 (it is now home to Historic Salem, Inc.); broadside advertising The Lamplighter from the John P. Jewett Company of Boston, 1854, and two musical tie-ins from the same year, Library of Congress; Sales figures for 1854 from The New York Times, December 20, 1854; 1884 and 1914 editions from 1884 and 1914, La Maiden en Noire; Miss Cummins’s obituary from the New York Times, 1866.


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