A Grave Matter

The most telling–and troubling–details about an incident this past weekend in which a young homeless man started digging up an 18th-century grave in Salem’s oldest cemetery were the comments from “a large group” of onlookers, who thought the act might be part of a performance. Given the proximity of the Old Burying Point on Charter Street (and the Salem Witch Trial Memorial) to the fogged-in alley of the Salem Witch Village, who could blame them? Indeed the Village advertises graveyard tours on its website, since “We are fortunate to have on our premises the Charter Street Burying Point or Old Salem Burying Point, America’s second oldest cemetery”. I guess it is their cemetery–who knew?

Grave Matters Charter Street

PicMonkey Collage

I did a little bit of genealogical research so I could return a modicum of humanity/dignity to those whose graves were desecrated–apparently the digger (armed with “archeological tools”) believed they were his ancestors. Nathaniel Silsbee, Jr. was a member of the third generation of a Salem family that became quite wealthy and notable after his death. He was a housewright and joiner who lived near the wharves and also held land in North Fields and was married twice over his long life, first to Hannah Pickering and then to Martha, who survived him. I hope they rest in peace from now on.

 


Just one (re)Discovery

In my ongoing quest to put Christopher Columbus in context, both in and outside of the classroom, I’m offering up one of the most vivid visual sources of early modern Europe–and a brilliant example of Renaissance projection and propaganda:  the Nova Reperta of Jan van der Straet (better known as Stradanaus), a series of 24 etchings illustrating all the “discoveries” of the era. Stradanaus (1523-1605) began his career as a designer of tapestries and fresco artist in the service of the Medici family in Florence but expanded his reach considerably after 1570 as a draughtsman and designer of prints which were engraved and published all over Europe by several  Antwerp publishers in huge numbers. The Nova Reperta (“New Discoveries”) series, celebrating (and proclaiming) Renaissance innovations in art, science and technology, was first published in 1580 and reprinted numerous times thereafter. The images are striking and consequential, but so too are the captions, which either defend an age-old practice as a contemporary discovery or herald what truly is “new”, although there’s a bit of equivocation when it comes to the New World: Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci share in the acclaim, which is to be expected in this age, but there is a rather unexpected variation in the use of the terms “discovery” and rediscovery. A rare example of Renaissance humility?! The title page presents the major achievements of the age, with America (discovered by Columbus and named by Vespucci) projected as just one of many discoveries, including gunpowder, the printing press, an iron clock, the Brazilian guiacum wood cure for another American discovery—syphillis–distillation, the silkworm, the stirrup, and a magnetic compass, most of these things invented either well before–or outside of–Renaissance Europe.

Nova reperta

The sequence of images of America are referenced both in terms of rediscovery and discovery: “Americus rediscovers America–he called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake” (one of the first “Europe awakes the world” images–note the roasting leg in the background); “America rediscovered: who is able with mighty heart to fashion a song worthy of the majesty of these events and discoveries?”; “Christopher Columbus of Liguria, overcoming the terrors of the ocean, added to the Spanish crown the regions of almost another world that he discovered, 1492″; “Americus Vespucci of Florence, in a marvelous expedition to the west and to the south opened up two parts of the earth greater than the shores which we inhabit and known to us in no previous age, once in which by common consent of all human beings is called by his name, Americus, 1497.”

Nova reperta 2

Nova reperta 3

Nova reperta 4

Nova reperta 5

Images taken from the Posner Center at the Carnegie Mellon University Library:  NE674 .S8 D53 “New discoveries; the sciences, inventions, and discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as represented in 24 engravings issued in the early 1580’s by Stradanus.”

 


The Eagle has Flown

I woke up Tuesday morning to a cherry picker just outside my bedroom window. This is nothing new–I live right next door to Hamilton Hall, which is regularly the site of either events or renovations which might require such equipment. This particular cherry picker was there for a very special reason, however: to facilitate the removal of the wooden eagle affixed to the hall’s facade which is attributed to Samuel McIntire, Salem’s renown Federal-era architect and woodcutter. The Hamilton Hall eagle is–or was– in fact the only in situ exterior McIntire carving, and therefore one incredibly valuable bird. But it has been exposed to the elements for two centuries now, and requires restoration and preservation, which can only happen off the wall. (A replica will eventually be installed in its place). So that’s what the men in the cherry picker were doing, very carefully. I had to run to class, so I wasn’t able to capture the exact moment when the eagle was “liberated”, but from the vantage point of my third-floor guest bedroom I did manage to get some good befores-and when I returned later that afternoon I got the after: bricks that haven’t seen the light of day in several centuries!

Eagle 022

Eagle 027

Eagle 032

Eagle 036

Eagle 051

Eagle 101

A few more McIntire eagles, (obviously) detached from their original perches and consequently preserved for posterity: the (first) Custom House eagle, now at the Peabody Essex Museum, a beautiful eagle that was made for the cupola of the Pickman-Derby-Brookhouse house on Washington Street by McIntire between 1786 and 1799 and removed prior to that structure’s demolition in 1915 (now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and an eagle carved by McIntire for the cupola of the Lynn Academy in Lynn Massachusetts, circa 1804.

Eagle PEM

Eagle MFA

Eagle from the cupola of Lynn Academy, 1804

 

Sign for U.S. Custom House, 1805. Carved by Samuel McIntire, painted and gilded pine. Peabody Essex Museum, 100754, gift of Joseph F. Tucker, 1907. Photograph by Dennis Helmar; Gilt white pine eagle, Museum purchase with funds donated by a Friends of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, The Estate of Gilbert L. Steward, Sr., Mrs. Ichabod F. Atwood and Mrs. Elaine Wilde,  The French Foundation in memory of Edward V. French, The Seminarians, and an anonymous donor, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;  Eagle from the cupola of Lynn Academy, 1804, Carved by Samuel McIntire, Lynn, Massachusetts, painted pine, Courtesy of Lynn Museum and Historical Society.


 


One Woman’s War

As part of the World War I centennial commemorations which are slowly taking shape in the US and in full flight over there in Europe, the Massachusetts Historical Society has assembled an exhibition entitled Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, the centerpiece of which are the nearly 250 photographs taken by Newton textile heiress Margaret Hall, who left her comfortable life in the summer of 1918 to take up work at a Red Cross canteen in France. Hall was 42 at the time, but she had been a history major at Bryn Mawr, and it is very clear to me–from both her photographs and their captions and the letters assembled in the accompanying book Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: the World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall (ed. by Margaret R. Higonnet with Susan Solomon)– that she felt honor-bound to record the devastation of the Great War. And that she did. Her photographs, which have all been digitized on the MHS website, fall into roughly three categories: life at the canteen, troop movements, and the ravages of war–the latter images include the French countryside, leveled cities (Ypres!!!! Verdun), and the battlefields, which look like wasteland and are labeled as such. She takes us (literally) into the trenches and shows us all the captured German ammunition: my favorite image is of a celebratory Paris at war’s end where a pile of German guns is topped by a triumphant French rooster. Hall takes care to show both life and death in the closing months of the war, and from her American perspective she clearly grasps the fact that this was the first world war, bringing men (and women) from all over the globe to live (and die) in France.

Just a few of Margaret Hall’s photographs:

One woman's War I

French troops on the march.

One woman's War 2

“Miss Mitchell in her Garden”: Hall’s colleagues at the Red Cross canteen in Châlons-sur-Marne.

One woman's war 3 Six Nationalities

“Six Nationalities” at the Canteen.

One Woman's War 4 Our Sausage Balloon

“Our Sausage Balloon”

One Woman's War 5 Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral, “France triumphant rising out of her ruins”

One Woman's War 7 Verdun

Outside Verdun.

One Womans War 5 Americans

Americans.

One Woman's War 8 Cemetery

“U.S.A. National Cemetery, Romagne–Argonne, June 1919″.

One Woman's War 9 Cock

 “Cock crowing for Victory“, Paris 1919.


My Dear Girl

I am absolutely charmed by the physical appearance of a recently-preserved “lost” letter from Paul Revere to his wife Rachel dated a few weeks after his famous April 1775 ride. Its existence has been known for some time, and it was published as a transcription in Elbridge Henry Goss’s Life of Colonial Paul Revere (1891), but the actual document had been presumed lost until very recently, when a box was donated to the Paul Revere House in Boston which included the letter, in a long-folded condition that showed its age. Now digitized and preserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center and returned to the house to which it was first delivered, the letter is a visible symbol of the power of primary sources: it is one thing to know what a document says, it’s quite another to see the author’s handwriting. It’s much more intimate (and powerful), especially if the expression includes an endearment like “My Dear Girl” and proceeds to details like a request for linens and stockings. At the end of the letter Revere includes a note to his son, informing him that “It is now in your power to be serviceable to me, your Mother, and your self” and signing off  “Your loving Father, PR.”

Revere Letter

Reveres

Revere House 1930s

The Letter at the Northeast Document Conservation Center website, where you can see a sequence of images illustrating the preservation process; Paul and Rachel Revere and two 1930s images of their house: an etching by W. Harry Smith, Smithsonian Institution, and a linoleum engraving by Stanley Scott for the Federal Art Project, Boston Public Library.


American Gothic

The British Library’s blockbuster Gothic exhibition, Terror and Wonder:  the Gothic Imagination opened yesterday across the pond, complete with a (rather suspect-looking) vampire-slaying kit. I like the title: that’s just what makes Gothic literature so compelling, the combination of fear and curiosity. Horror is something else entirely: it’s just repulsive. Gothic is humanistic; horror is not. I hope to see the exhibition myself but it has already inspired me to think about my favorite examples of American Gothic literature: I can’t go back to the eighteenth century, where Terror and Wonder begins with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, because I haven’t read anything by the man whom everyone identifies as the first Gothic author, Charles Brockden Brown, so my list begins with Edgar Allen Poe and then proceeds rather conventionally: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, The Yellow Wallpaper, the amazing short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which I read for the first time just last week, several stories by Ambrose Bierce, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (I know–it’s very British but he was born American), anything by Flannery O’Connor (I know–southern Gothic deserves its own special categorization, but I’m only really familiar with Flannery, the namesake of my first cat), and also pretty much anything by Shirley Jackson:  I particularly like We have always Lived in the Castle (1962). Just a short list as my fiction-reading has been limited, for the most part, to an earlier phase of my life, but I would love more suggestions for the years to come.

Gothic

Gothic Gables Folio Society

Gothic Gillman

Gothic Bierce (1893)

American Gothic James

Gothic O'Connor

American Gothic Jackson

Harry Perkins illustration of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart (1923), from the “Terror and Wonder” Exhibition at the British Library; Francis Mosley illustration from the Folio Society’s edition of the  House of the Seven Gables; Title Page of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman), New England Magazine, 1892; Ambrose Bierce’s collection of short stories (1893); Penguin English Library edition of Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw; Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories; and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).


Dancing Witches, Disciplined

Everything is seasonal, and for those of us that live in Salem the Witching Season begins on October 1st. You can feel everyone getting ready, getting on guard, as our city turns into Witch City. Tomorrow night is the grand Haunted Happenings parade, sponsored by the Salem Chamber of Commerce, of course. The carnivalesque atmosphere is apparently good for business, so we’re all supposed to forget that we are trading on a tragedy. I can never do that, so I’m kind of annoying to be around in October: this is my fair warning for new readers not yet exposed to my October rants. Despite the fact that I disdain absolutely everything about Halloween in Salem, I do like all the other seasons, and I also have an intellectual interest in the creation of Witch City, which definitely took some time–at least a century, maybe more. I’ve explored many of the contributing ingredients here before (including witch spoons, German witches, witch postcards, witch plates, and the Witch House), but there is a lot more that can be added to the mix. Casting witches in a celebratory environment is really nothing new: in the late medieval and the early modern periods they were stereotypically depicted in a hedonistic way: partying and dancing and whirling in wild abandon. One of the most graphic texts on early modern witchcraft, Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608) presents dancing as a key ritual of demonic homage, as do many other contemporary texts. Witches dance with the Devil.

Witch Dance Guazzo

Witches Dance 1720 Wellcome Library

Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, 1608; Wellcome Library woodcut illustration, 1720.

Most people stopped believing in witchcraft in the nineteenth century but yet still witches danced, in more of an entertaining (as opposed to threatening) way. The best example of the “romantic” dancing witch is of course Niccolò Paganini’s Le streghe (‘Witches’ Dance’), composed about 1813. The subject matter, combine with  Paganini’s seemingly “unnatural” skills on stage, created another variation on the Dance with the Devil:  perhaps his virtuosity was the result of a Faustian pact!  When the Witches’ Dance was published in the middle of the century, Paganini actually assumes the traditional position of the Devil on several sheet music covers. The popularity of Paganini and his Witches’ Dance inspired many variations on the theme, musical and otherwise, including one by Salem’s famed band leader, Jean Marie Missud (1852-1941), the (very) long-time director of the Salem Cadet Band: March of the Salem Witches (1896).  Appropriately for Salem, which by that time had marshaled witchcraft as a marketing tool, and for the March’s commissioner, the Winslow Lewis Commandery, Knights Templar, Salem witches marched rather than danced to this particular tune.

Witch Dance Paganini

Witch Dance Paganini 2

Witch Dance 1909

Salem Witches

Witches March Music JMM

The Celebrated Witches’ Dance transcribed for the Piana Forte by Wm. Vincent Wallace, William Hall and Son, New York, 1852, Library of Congress; J. DeLancey, Witches’ Dance. Grand Galop de Concert, 1909, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Jean M. Missud, “March of the Salem Witches” Sheet Music, Journal of Antiques and Collectibles and Digital Library of America.

 

 


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