Tag Archives: Local Events

Anniversary History 1914

I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.

From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history:  this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global  “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.

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Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War:  In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums:  ©IWM (Q2903).

 


Salem Film Fest 2014

Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!

Salem Film Fest Maidentrip

Galapagos Affair

Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.

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Sun and Ice in Salem

A beautiful winter weekend for the 12th annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival.

There were lots of people downtown: I have no doubt that this Salem Main Streets event helps the restaurants at a quiet time of year (although Salem’s restaurant scene seems to be flourishing anyway); I really hope that it helps the shops too. The wine and chocolate tasting that kicks off the weekend is always such a crush that I skip it, but I would never miss the ice sculptures.

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Seeing yellow:  this tree was full of fat yellow-breasted birds–finches? Mr. and Mrs. Pac-man; the Miles Ward looked especially lovely to me today.

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It’s rather difficult to photograph ice, especially if there’s no background….my favorite sculpture is definitely that of the Salem Diner, acquired by Salem State University last summer and newly-reopened. On the way back home, I noticed that the Joshua Ward house is for sale: this is where George Washington slept when he visited Salem in 1789.

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Snow Showers

I really grasped the term snow showers yesterday afternoon when we had a flurry with the softest, biggest, snowflakes that I have ever seen. It seemed too warm for snow, but snow it did, for several hours in the early afternoon. Huge snowflakes fell, melting almost as soon as they hit the ground, yet we still managed some accumulation of the white stuff and this morning it is snowing again. All is calm, and white.

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Estate Sale

In the midst of all the festive houses decorated for the Christmas in Salem tour stood one cold and dark house, its contents spilled out and “displayed” for all to see and buy: this is the Captain John Collins house, beautifully situated on Turner Street with the House of the Seven Gables in front and a boatyard in back. All of the architectural authorities date this house to circa 1785, but it has that boxy (rather than rectangular) shape that gives me pause, or testifies to later additions. It has been in need of paint for quite some time, but inside it was relatively pristine–in need of work certainly, but possessing great bones. I could never be a good antiques picker because estate sales are a bit intimate for me (and here the sheets were still on the bed, literally), but this particular one offered me an opportunity to get into a house I’ve often wondered about, so I could not resist. My friend Carol and I wandered all through the house, focusing more on the architectural details (great paneling,distinct mantels, beautiful doors and floors, finely-plastered ceilings still in quite good shape, old wooden storm windows) than the stuff (although we did admire a 1950s roaster), and from a third-floor bedroom I gazed out at Salem Harbor (looking over the House of the Seven Gables), a view that Captain Collins must have taken in (without all those wires) many times. The word on the street is that the house has already sold, and I suppose condominiums are on its horizon.

The Captain John Collins House this weekend and in the mid-20th century, MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System).

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Estate Salem Capt John Collins House 1785

Interior views, and looking outside:

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Christmas in Salem 2013

The Christmas in Salem house tour, Historic Salem, Inc.’s major fundraiser, has been an annual tradition in Salem for over 30 years. It alternates between neighborhoods from year to year, and this year’s tour–Ports of Call–is centered on Derby and Essex Streets in the eastern end of the city. I’m always impressed with the effort that goes into this tour, as well as the generosity of the owners (and I speak from experience here–it’s quite a commitment), but of course it’s all about the architecture. Ports of Call suggests a maritime theme, but for me, this year’s tour was all about architectural diversity–as I walked through a succession of houses that included McIntire’s perfect Gardner-Pingree House and a stunning modernized house on Salem Harbor filled with the “souvenirs” of a global life well-lived with a bunch of super-insightful friends, I was, once again, blown away by Salem’s architecture. The tour is on today, so if you’re in our area you should go.

Starting out at Gardner-Pingree (1805):

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Some amazing floors at 91 Essex Street (1868):

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The very creative owners of Two Curtis Street (c. 1731), short on space but quite attached to their piano, turned their dining room into a “lounge” situated in its quadrilateral addition!:

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Various vignettes and views of the Captain John Hodges House (c. 1750):

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Captain Hodges himself, and exterior decorations of the house:

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26 Hardy Street (built 1851): a Christmas display with Lenin bust, and the dining room overlooking Salem Harbor. So much to see I was overwhelmed!

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Purple glass doorknob leading into the Sarah Silsbee House (c. 1807); “Three lobstermen” in a Derby Street shop window).

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“Burglarious Tools”

The police blotter headline caught by eye–Salem Police Nab Alleged Copper Thief on Flint Street–because, frankly, copper downspouts are far too vulnerable in Salem (and I have one right on the street!), but as I read the details, one particular phrase really captured my attention: At 10:18 a.m., police responded to a report of stolen copper down spouts on Flint Street. [The alleged thief] was arrested on charges of larceny over $250, malicious destruction of property valued above $250 and possessing burglarious tools. Burglarious!!! Is that really a word? Burglarious tools!!! I can only imagine. Is there a precise definition–lots of things could be considered “burglarious tools”, I should think. And is there really a law against possessing them apart from using them?

Well I went right to my legal history colleague who directed me to the statute to answer these questions. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (along with several other states) does indeed have a statute regarding burglarious tools among its General Laws (Chapter 266, Section 49):

Whoever makes or mends, or begins to make or mend, or knowingly has in his possession, an engine, machine, tool or implement adapted and designed for cutting through, forcing or breaking open a building, room, vault, safe or other depository, in order to steal therefrom money or other property, or to commit any other crime, knowing the same to be adapted and designed for the purpose aforesaid, with intent to use or employ or allow the same to be used or employed for such purpose, or whoever knowingly has in his possession a master key designed to fit more than one motor vehicle, with intent to use or employ the same to steal a motor vehicle or other property therefrom, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than ten years or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars and imprisonment in jail for not more than two and one half years.

I’m no lawyer, but the key words here must be “knowing”, “knowingly” and “with intent”: you can’t just arrest someone for having a toolbox in their possession. I know that Massachusetts has long taken theft seriously (it was a capital crime from 1715 to 1839) but I presume that the “burglarious tool” law came later, maybe in the late nineteenth century, when there seems to have been a preoccupation with more deliberate, strategic, involved crimes, requiring some serious tools. I found an interesting article in the May 1874 issue of  Manufacturer and Builder on “Burglar’s Tools” which seems to present their manufacture as the dark side of the industrial revolution, and there are several other contemporary publications which seem to be a less preoccupied with the perpetrators than their paraphernalia (and, as several commentators have pointed out, more prescriptive than preventative!)

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Burglarious Tools

Manufacturer and Builder, 1874; Aftermath of a Bank Robbery in Montreal, New York Graphic, January 9, 1875 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery);“Bank Burglars’ Outfit”, from George Washington Walling, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern, 1887.


Has Salem sold its Soul?

One last Halloween-related post (I promise!) on this All Souls Day:  since it is a recurring theme of mine, I feel compelled to feature the Huffington Post columnist Greig Lamont’s stinging critique of the Witch City:  “Selling your Soul in Salem”. I’ve read it before, heard it before, said it before, but I welcome Lamont’s compelling indictment. You would think he had more at stake, because he contrasts the bygone grandeur of Salem with its wholesale descent into tacky revelry in a particularly passionate way, beginning with soul-searching and ending with soul-selling: Once the house of New World glory, Arthur Miller discovered inspiration in Salem’s story. Today, there’s nothing to be found but a soul-selling despair in this home of American kitsch.

My favorite line, because it describes scenes I see again and again, even in my sleep it seems, comes in the middle of the piece, when Lamont contrasts the city’s glorious past with its vacuous present: today Salem has been reduced to prostituting itself to oddballs in costumes who gawk at gravestones and hanker formuseums” filled with broomsticks and bric-a-brac. For all its magnificent past, today it degrades itself by pandering to those whose zenith is having their photograph taken with a transvestite Dracula next to a guitar-playing zombie – and whose nadir would be to actually learn something new.

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What does this have to do with what happened in 1692?


Cultural Costumes

If I could set aside the whole capitalizing-on-the-deaths-of-innocents thing, I might like Halloween in Salem a bit more if the costumes were more creative. I buy a cartload of candy, and have to jump up every minute, and what do I see? The same old witches, princesses and superheroes. Very few DIY costumes that display any sort of imagination or creativity. You do see some interesting adult outfits in the second wave that takes over after 8:30 or 9 (standing out in a sea of slutty costumes) but these people are walking right by my door (Thank God!) on their way to downtown. If we have to be the Halloween capital of the world  I think we should have higher sartorial standards.

I was looking around for some inspiration from the past, as usual, and most of the bespoke Halloween costumes I came across were a little creepy—bags over the head with slits for the eyes and mouth: ghost, scarecrow or Klansman? So I went to the treasure chest that is our university archives and found the cutest costumes ever–these kids are not dressed up for Halloween, but rather for some sort of cultural awareness educational activity at their school. I think they look adorable, though I imagine that dressing your kid up as an Eskimo today might be considered a bit politically incorrect–still, these are visual reminders that children in the past had to create and animate, rather than purchase or plug in.

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Children in costume at Salem State’s Horace Mann Laboratory School in the early 20th Century: an Eskimo, a little Dutch girl, Red Riding Hood, and characters from Alice in Wonderland, Salem State University Archives Flikr. Pretty imaginative backdrops too.


The End is Near

The end of Haunted Happenings, that is: the month-long Halloween “celebration” of Salem’s apparently fortuitous role as the site of one of the most notorious witch trials in history. For many, Salem is Witch City all year round, but that becomes its exclusive identity in October. There’s a constant stream of traffic into and around the downtown for most of the month, especially on the weekends, and people troop around, many in costume, looking for things to do and see:  they are clearly not interested in architecture (my neighborhood is packed with cars, not people), or real history (the Salem Witch “Museum” and the Salem Witch History “Museum”, among others, can meet the demand for simple narratives and mythology), nor serious food (stands selling fried dough and sausages line Essex Street). I’ve never understood the allure of Haunted Happenings, either from the perspective of the city or the tourists, but Salem has been selling itself as the Witch City for more than a century now (the witch below is on the cover of a 1904 guide book) and it is not going to stop, so if you love the other side of Salem you just hunker down and get through it–and now the end is in sight.

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I could show you lots of more pictures of crowds and cars, along with people taking their pictures with the various grotesque creatures that line the streets—or the Samantha from Bewitched statue–and the long lines in front of psychic parlors, but another way to convey what it’s like to live in Salem during October is through news headlines:  these three (from the Salem Patch) caught my attention in the past few weeks:

Salem Psychic Studio Accused of Taking $16K to Remove Curse (October 16)

Help Find Sick [Black] Kitten Stolen from Salem Animal Shelter (October 18)

and my favorite:

Salem Police Look for Axe-wielding Man Wearing Gas Mask (October 23)


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