So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.
Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.
Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.
Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.
Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances!
Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.
Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.
The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.