While combing through the digital archives of national newspapers in search of allegorical and political references to the Salem witch trials, I found the perfect little story for this “closing” week of Salem’s never-ending Halloween season and the upcoming election: a notice in the New York Times for a Roosevelt campaign rally to be held on Gallows Hill in Salem on Halloween, 1932, during which several witches would be hung in effigy. I am not making this up: here’s a clip of the article, in its still- distinctive Times font, from October 23, 1932:
Where do I begin? How could this POSSIBLY have seemed like a good idea??? I know this is Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, but he’s still an experienced politician at this point. What about the line “inasmuch as the executioners are to be part of a Democratic rally, the witches will represent things Republican”? Did the Democrats really want to paint themselves as executioners with Republicans as their victims? What about the visuals? Was FDR going to look on with that broad smile? Certainly it is Campaign 101 to never let the candidate be in close proximity to a gallows–especially one with hanging effigies. I know it was the depths of the Depression and bread and circuses and all that, but what an odd use of the word “pageant”! And last but not least, Gallows Hill was where the accused witches were hung in 1692, not 1690.
Fortunately for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this event never happened: it got rained out, by one of those fierce Halloween storms similar to those that we’ve experienced over these past few years. Roosevelt, in the midst of a frenetic campaign swing through New England, stopped in Salem on Halloween anyway and gave a speech before a crowd of 5000 supporters in the Salem Armory, publicly expressing his regret that he couldn’t have gone up to Gallows Hill (frankly, this would have been difficult for him, given his disability, even without the rain and mud–again, it just wasn’t a good idea). Stories from the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe from the following day (November 1) fill in the details. In the latter, the candidate’s son James called the Salem crowd “wonderful” and said that both he and his father were sorry that the weather had prevented the hanging in effigy of the three witches, “Depression, Privilege, and Bunk”, on Gallows Hill. In the Herald, the Governor reveals himself to be under the spell of confusion which maintains that Salem’s accused witches were burned rather than hung. Nevertheless, just a week later he was elected our 32nd president, for the first time.
The newspaper coverage of Roosevelt’s Halloween visit to Salem: images from the Boston Globe, and text from the Boston Herald, both November 1, 1932. Impossible to think of even a politician braving Salem’s Halloween crowds today!