Tag Archives: books


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


Pyewacket: lots of cats named “Pye”, why? If you’re of a certain age (born in the 60s at the very least) you might associate this name with the 1958 Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak film Bell, Book and Candle, in which the modern sexy witch Novak had a Siamese familiar named Pye OR the children’s book by Rosemary Weir titled Pyewacket published a decade later. The origin of this name goes way back to the seventeenth century, when the notorious and self-proclaimed “Witchfinder-General” Matthew Hopkins tried several women for witchcraft (among many others) who claimed to have a number of “imps” or familiars in their service, including Holt, Ilemauzar, Pyewackett, Pecke in the Crowne, Grizzedl Greedigutt, Jarmara, Sacke & Sugar, Newes, and Vinegar Tom. All of Hopkins’ “discoveries” are proudly proclaimed in the 1647 pamphlet THE Discovery of Witches: IN Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEVV HOPKINS, Witch-finder. FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME.

Pyewacket Life

Pyewacket finally

Pyewackett Hopkins 2

The pamphlet reports that in March 1644 there were some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in …. a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome. Holt appeared “like a white kitling”, then Jarmara, “who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly, and said he suckt good blood from her body”. Next was Vinegar Tom, “who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore”. Sacke & Sugar appears like a black rabbit and Newes, a polecat, and the rest of the imps, including Pyewacket, are not identified, so among them we only have one cat, Holt (kitling is an old form of kitten). I have searched in vain for Pyewacket references in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and found none: the author of the 1950 play on which Bell, Book and Candle was based, the English playwright John van Druten, must have plucked Pyewacket out of semi-obscurity and associated the name with a cat, because by that time, everyone knew that familiars were feline.

Wakefield the Watcher

There’s definitely a dark side to Nathaniel Hawthorne, manifest in many of his works. After browsing through a recent bilingual edition of his short story “Wakefield”, included in the first edition of Twice-Told Tales in 1837, I think that would be my candidate for most haunted Hawthorne tale. It’s not just that the story–about a London husband who walks away from his wife and home only to take a flat one street over from which he can stalk (or “haunt” in Hawthorne’s words) her for twenty years–is a bit eerie, the illustrations in this particular edition are extremely evocative. They are the work of Spanish illustrator and artist Ana Juan, whose award-winning work has graced books for both juvenile and adult audiences as well as more than twenty covers of The New Yorker.



Juan’s images accentuate the creepiness of the story but you can only grasp Wakefield’s self-imposed alienation–Hawthorne calls him the “Outcast of the Universe” –by reading the text, which is very short, more of a sketch than a story. It would be nice if we could “see” things from Wakefield’s perspective (outside the home, just as Juan gives us a view of his impact inside the home), but Hawthorne won’t go there: the outcast is just wandering around, apparently unmotivated, except when he spies on his “widowed” wife. Consequently he emerges as a soul-less Peeping Tom, “spell-bound” in Hawthorne’s estimation, essentially a ghost as “the dead have nearly as much chance or revisiting their earthly homes as the self-banished Wakefield”. But in a completely “unpremeditated moment” Wakefield does decide to return home (probably because he’s standing outside in the rain and it looks warm inside) and we are robbed of his reception: I wish that either the author or the illustrator had show us that, but Hawthorne proclaims that “we shall not follow our friend across the threshold”.

Wakefield Streets Ana Juan

Wakefield Ana Juan illustration

Wakefield Ghost Ana Juan

Wakefield Watches

Wakefield Juan

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.

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 of course 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.

An Endicott House for Sale

There is no more venerable and ubiquitous name on the North Shore of Boston than Endicott, after John Ende(i)cott, the first (also 10th, 13th, 15th & 17th)  governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There are Endicott streets, parks, schools, and many houses that have some sort of connection to this illustrious family, whose members married into other notable Massachusetts families to produce generations of ship captains, benefactors, and statesmen. A particularly passionate Puritan who famously desecrated the English flag because it bore the cross of St. George and persecuted Quakers and merrymakers with zealous intent, Endicott has been memorialized by Nathaniel Hawthorne as “the severest Puritan who laid the rock foundation of New England”. There are several houses in Salem still standing in which his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descendants lived, and now one of them is for sale. Formally called the Smith-Crosby-Endicott house as it was built by Benjamin Smith and Captain Nicholas Crosby in 1788-89, 359 Essex Street was the home of Captain Samuel Endicott and his heirs for most of the nineteenth century. It’s a perfect Federal mansion, complete with a large Colonial Revival carriage house out back–way out back. I have long loved this house, and if I hadn’t just had a conversation with my husband about our need for a smaller house I might prod him to make a move. I don’t think we need eight bedrooms! I had always heard that this house had a ballroom but I don’t see one in the listing–well, I suppose we don’t really need one of those either.

Endicott 006

Endicott 002

Endicott 008

359 Essex Street Salem

Endicott House 1902


359 Essex Street in Salem today and in 1924 , from the Memoir of Samuel Endicott; William Allen Wall (1801-1885), Endicott and the Red Cross, 1851. New Bedford Whaling Museum: Gift of Flora B. Pierce, 1987.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,303 other followers

%d bloggers like this: