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.
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 modern secular holiday that is Halloween has evolved in so many ways over the twentieth century that its “customs” would have been unrecognizable even a century ago. At that time, the focus was much more on divination than on horror: pumpkins, black cats, and witches were in the margins but for grown-ups, fortune-telling was in the forefront. There’s a long process of assimilation that creates Halloween–from harvest to Samhain to the eves of All Saints’ and All Souls days–but the evolving traditions of the harvest holiday converged most vividly in Scotland, and Scotch-Irish emigres transferred them to the New World, where they were subject to yet another process of assimilation. In his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, Robert Burns presents and annotates the customs of western Scotland: its longer title, The Merry Diversions of Halloween, encompasses an account of the Kale stalks–burning nuts–Catching sweethearts in the Stalk Yard–Pulling the corn–winding the Blue Clue–Winnowing the Corn–Sowing the Hemp Seed–And the Cutting of the Apple, with the Conclusion of these Merry Meetings, by telling Wonderful Stories about Witches and Fairies. Written in Scots and English, the poem requires some translation, but as the title relates, it all begins with cabbages, witches only come in at the end, and Halloween is more merry than scary. Over a century later, one of Ellen Clapsaddle’s most sought after Halloween postcards illustrates the Scottish/cabbage connection.
Kale or cabbage-pulling was a particular type of divination tied to one’s marital future: unmarried men and women would go out to the patch and pull up a cabbage, and then bring it back to the farm to uncover its stalk–and the characteristics of their future mate: old or young, tall or short, strong (straight) or weak (crooked). Then the stalks would be hung up in a public place to determine exactly who you would marry: if yours was placed third in line you would marry the third man who walked beneath it. Corn (wheat), nuts, apples—all the fruits of the earth–could reveal all sorts of things if you knew the rituals to tease out their secrets, but Halloween rituals definitely seem to focus on relationships. The cabbage patch customs do cross over the Atlantic (with variations) but the most popular crossover was definitely scrying, or mirror magic. In the modern era, scrying usually involves a crystal ball, but centuries ago it was more generally a process that involved water, glass and/or mirrors. Burns’ poem contains a line where a “wee” lass says I’ll eat an apple at the glass which refers to the custom of gazing into a looking glass in candlelight while eating an apple, which will bring forth the visage of your future conjugal companion, peering over your shoulder. There were lots of variations on this ritual, including one which incorporates three bowls of water (clean, dirty, empty) and a blindfold, and another which calls for the seeker to descend backward down the stairs with mirror in hand (sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary’s Curse”), and yet another in which the maiden flips an apple peel over her shoulder to see her future mate. All of these customs crossed over, but mirrors definitely dominated in modern America.
Mezzotint, 1830s, British Museum: “Place three Plates or other Dishes on the Table, one containing clean water _ another foul _ and the ghird empty _ If the lass [who is / blin]dfolded, put her hand into the clean water, she will soon get a young husband _ If into the foul water, she will […] / either an old man or a widower _ If into the empty dish, she will die an old maid. // Painted by Alexander Barron. // Engraved by E. Radclyffe.”; 1910 postcard, New York Public Library.
In America, there are fewer visual and literary references to the harvest (except for thoroughly-American pumpkins, of course, as well as apples) and encroaching witches–but all is still relatively merry in the world of turn-of-the century postcards. Things are changing though; the last young woman below looks scared–whether by the sight of the shadowy witch or her future husband, I do not know.
Of course the World Wars will change everything, but the more macabre and ghoulish nature of modern Halloween is hard to imagine when looking at these early 20th century postcards, which portray the holiday in either a whimsical or slightly sarcastic light (see below). But once traditions are torn from their geographical and cultural context and plunged into brave new worlds, their transformation can be frightful.
Good and bad husbands for Halloween: Rose Company postcards, c. 1900-1909, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
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.
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)
While taking a twilight stroll around Salem the other day, I was struck by the stature of a large house on Hardy Street, almost as if I was seeing it for the first time. That isn’t true; I’ve seen it many times, but there was something about the light and the stillness of its street (not far from busy downtown Salem) that made it a very compelling sight. It seemed so vulnerable, standing there without paint, stripped bare of artifice, until I looked a little closer. This is not an abandoned house, people are living here, and the first-floor resident has placed a wreath on the front door and pumpkins at the side (originally front) entrance. An engraved granite marker stands by, giving passersby the impression that this is someplace notable. I don’t know much about this house; it doesn’t appear in any of the standard sources of Salem architecture. I could probably find out a lot more if I researched it through probate and city records, but I don’t have the time to do that now–so I’ll just put it out there and see if anybody knows anything about it. It’s a curious, boxy, size: at first appearances it looks Federal, but I think it was built a bit later in the nineteenth century– though I could be wrong. It might have been transformed into a box through expansion–clearly at some point it was turned into flats, with the rather awkward exterior staircases in the rear. The main entrance, which is on the side, is beautiful, even (especially?) in its unpainted state.
Last year around this time (of course), the private sales site Joss & Main featured a “Destination Salem” shopping event, comprised of items chosen to conjur up the spirit of my fair city. I was pleased that the selections were not all kitschy witchy, but included some maritime, colonial and Federal (quotations around all terms, please) items as well. This year I’ve been looking out for another Salem collection, but instead the site curators have showcased Design Icon Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is certainly having quite a moment, with his big show at the Morgan Library & Museum! It’s hard to think of him as a “design icon” but he certainly was proficient at setting the scene. The curators of the Joss & Main collection seem to have gone in an exclusively dark and literal direction: all black and gray (think ravens and cats) and no red (think hearts, masques, and blood). I think I can do better.
The Salem and Poe collections actually share quite a few items: black-painted tables, windsor chairs, grey upholstery, raven-embellished pillows. There are some nice looking desks, although they’re a bit undersized (why is it that modern desks are so small and coffee tables so big?) I think the items below represent the Joss & Main portfolio quite well.
In putting together my Poe-inspired room, I took into consideration two influences. One is Poe himself who, oddly enough, did write an article on interior decoration, “The Philosophy of Furniture”, published in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1840. The other is my more imaginative conception of the Poe ambiance, based on my reading of his works: what I want my Poe room to look like rather than what he would have wanted his room to look like. We obviously have a much clearer vision of the former, and an illustration, as the reading room at the Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia is decorated according to the preferences laid out in “The Philosophy of Furniture”: silver-grey walls with lots of crimson and gold accents, landscapes and female portraits, no flowers, minimal window hangings (Poe seems to have had a disdain for swags, like most men I have known), the Empire furniture of his time. Taking all these preferences together, you get a pretty conventional mid-nineteenth century Empire room–I think I need a little bit more texture, a bit more drama, a Gothic air.
The Reading Room (and spooky basement) at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, recreated according to Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”.
Poe writes a lot about “arabesque” motifs in his “Philosophy” piece, and the importance of carpets, so I’ve picked the Jaipur “Narratives” carpet below for my Poe parlor, from Joss & Main’s inventory site: this rug has all of his favorite colors, it looks perfect to me. I would keep the Empire sofa that you see above (I already have one), but I am very inspired by the Gothic doors of Poe’s Reading Room, so I would look for some Gothic revival side chairs with a similar silhouette: the perfect one sold in a Doyle’s auction last year, but I need more! In front of the Empire sofa I would put a neo-Gothic table made of metal; there are no “period” coffee tables so you might as well go for something cool.
I love this gilded mirror from Christopher Jones Antiques, which is contemporary with Poe: it would go over the mantle of the dark marble fireplace, with two Argand lamps on either side: the pair below are perfect: they just went for $3500 at a Connecticut auction gallery last weekend.
Now all we need are some whimsical/literal accessories and finishing touches: footstools and/or drapes in this “Nevermore” fabric, a Poe pillow or two, Raven candles from Target on the mantle, interspersed with these amazing metal sculptures. A great, beating (ticking) clock. I’m not sure about paintings; Poe’s preferred landscapes are boring and (against his wishes) I would definitely have a textured wallpaper rather than plain painted walls. I’m torn between the Pugin wallpapers below, created in 1848 for a client named Lockhart, which might be too much with my rug, and something more silvery and spidery. My Poe parlor is a work in progress.
Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.
I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.
Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).
Many months ago I wrote about a small publishing company in turn-of-the-century Salem named the S.E. Cassino Company with a diverse list of publications that included Black Cat Magazine, a pulp fiction/short story magazine (which featured Jack London and Henry Miller among its authors) that was in publication from 1895-1923. The Cassino company acquired Black Cat after the unfortunate death of its founding editor in 1912, and moved its operations from Boston to Salem, at least briefly–and then there was a twenty-year run of really cute black cat Black Catcovers. I recently came across a treasure trove of these images, and because they are so so striking (and it’s October in Salem) I thought I would feature a series of them. The Cover Cat cuts a pretty conventional silhouette on the first 1895 cover, but as you can see on this series of October covers, he gets bolder with each passing year. My favorite is from 1907, with the squirrels. Unfortunately, I can’t find the artist (s) responsible for these covers; if anyone has any information, please pass it along.
October Black Cat Covers from the digital collection of an amazing magazine bibliographer, 1895-1913.
Much, much more unfortunately, I have very bad news about a real black cat: a kitten, to be more precise. This past Tuesday, someone stole a weeks-old black kitten named Sunshine (with an intestinal condition !!!) from our animal shelter here in Salem: this is just the sort of story that intensifies my dislike and disdain for October in the Witch City.
It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.
Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.
The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.
Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.
To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree: the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit: phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the MalleusMaleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer) a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.
The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.
It’s time for the obligatory Halloween decoration post; I can’t delay it any longer as we are well into October. Actually, even though I dislike Salem’s endless Halloween festivities in general, I like to see houses dressed up for the season, especially if the decorations tend more toward “harvest” than the macabre. One of the things I like best about living in a small city full of streets lined and fronted with old houses is “entryway decor”: people really make an effort in Salem, and not just on Halloween. I used to make more of an effort, but I think I’ve been in a funk since the antique planters on my front steps were stolen this summer–there’s just one replacement planter out there now, filled now-lackluster summer plants that I neglect terribly. I did manage to put some spiders on my door wreaths this weekend; they will have to suffice for me this Halloween.
The photographs below, taken on Federal, River and several streets around Salem Common, show homes of people who have made much more of an effort! As you can see, I have a preference for little pumpkins, preferably white, but orange will do–and I like whimsical Halloween decorations, even if they are store-bought: the eyeball lights in the yew below captured my attention, even in the daytime. If I were to give out an award for best decoration, I would give it to the raven–festooned white house on River Street: those birds made me stop in my tracks.
Just back from a quick trip to New York City, which overwhelmed me, as usual. It’s not just the size of the city and the buildings, it’s the details that overwhelm, on the (pre-World War II) buildings, and everywhere: the textures of the city. I need a week or so just to absorb a neighborhood, so the pictures below are just instant impressions of Brooklyn Heights and lower Manhattan, where I attended a very special wedding and a very indulgent (seven-course? I lost count) lunch. On the way out of town I did stop at the Met’s Interwoven Globe exhibit, which also overwhelmed me with its details and textures. Part of my return trip was quite leisurely as I took the Taconic Parkway and Route 23 into Massachusetts, but then I flew back to a very busy Salem on the Mass Pike. It’s really Witch City here now, which is overwhelming as well.
Brooklyn Heights and Lower Manhattan: the view from my brother’s apartment window, streets and windows in Brooklyn Heights, “Historia testis temporum” (History is witness to the Times) at the Brooklyn Historical Society, lower Manhattan, apples in the foyer of Bouley, where we ate lunch, a palampore (bed cover) and table carpet from Interwoven Globe.