Monthly Archives: October 2015

Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.

Salem:

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Fall Windows

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My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

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Fall Immersion 13

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Fall Immersion 15


Cakes for Souls and Spouses

Some day, some night, I swear I am going to offer the hordes of Halloween trick-or-treaters that darken my door traditional soulcakes rather than Kit Kats or Butterfingers: now that would be asking for a trick! I think about doing this every year but never follow through: I’m too scared of the consequences, I think, or lacking in confidence in my ability to produce some decent looking cakes. I have already purchased my requisite 1400 pieces of candy so I’ll probably chicken out this year too. Soul cakes are often described as a cross between a biscuit (in the English sense, or an American cookie) and a scone, and sometimes as shortbread: there are lots of recipes available on the web, many adopted from early modern cookbooks. If I were going to go for it, I would probably go with one of the two recipes available here, my go-to source for food history. I suppose that the cakes are more appropriately distributed on All Saints or Souls Day (November 1 and 2), but no one will be coming to my door then: Salem will be returned to its residents! In any case, my Halloween cakes would be perfectly respectable with recognition of the pre-modern Hallow-Tide, which covers all three Hallowed days: from All-Hallows Eve or Halloween on 31 October through All Saints and All Souls Days. These Christian days were superimposed upon earlier Pagan holidays and traditions, creating a period in which the dead and the living were particularly close, and could affect one another’s fate. The medieval Christian view was that this was a time that the living should be working to get the dead out of purgatory, so bells were run, prayers were said, and gifts were given–in the form of cakes disbursed to bands of “soulers” who went from house to house singing ancient souling songs and offering prayers for the dearly departed. After the Reformation and the disappearance of a soul-packed Purgatory in most of Protestant Britain, souling evolved into outright begging, and eventually (jumping the Atlantic) into trick-or-treating. If there was no English Reformation, I wonder if we would all still be giving out soul cakes? Probably not.

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Seventeenth-century Souls, simply existing and ascending directly to Heaven without stopping at Purgatory–they don’t need any prayers or cakes! (Karel van Mallery after Jan van der Straet, Antwerp, 1609 and Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis sesualium pictus, Nuremburg, 1658 , both Wellcome Library Images); Shropshire Soul Cakes, from a recipe available here, and a more modern Halloween cake on an early 20th century postcard.

Another cake long associated with Halloween in parts of the British Isles, most particularly western Scotland and the Isle of Man, is dumb- cake, very simple, salty grain and water cakes baked in the fire by unmarried women at midnight, with the aim of revealing their future spouses. While holding the pan, they were said to recite an ancient rhyme—Two must make it, two must bake it, and two must break it— and afterwards their future mates would be revealed in their dreams. Presumably the word “dumb” is a variant of “doom”, the Old English word for fate or destiny, although I’ve also read that the girls were supposed to remain mute while they baked the cake (then how would they recite the rhyme?). This kind of “divining for husbands” takes many different forms (cabbage-pulling, mirror-gazing) on both sides of the Atlantic, and survives in the form of various cultural expressions into the twentieth century.

Dumb Cake Play 1907

Halloween cake postcard

Title and first page of the play entitled The Dumb-Cake by Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce, London, 1907, and an early twentieth-century variant of a dumb cake on a postcard from the same era.


Overkill

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

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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


Turnip Ghosts

There is a great quote from the prolific and eminently quotable British writer G. K Chesterton about ghosts–or really belief– in general which references turnip ghosts in particular: I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. This is from a column in the Illustrated London News in 1936: the assumption is that his audience would immediately understand the phrase “turnip ghost”, and as they were British, they probably did. An American audience would and does require some translation. A turnip ghost refers literally to a Jack o’lantern made out of a turnip (but I would also include turnip-headed scarecrows)–something out there in the fields that was not a real ghost but that could create fear–a bugaboo (the best word ever). Old World turnips predated New World pumpkins as the material of choice for All Hallows Eve Jack o’lanterns, and remained predominate for some time, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. And you can easily see why: turnips are scary.

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Turnip Seed Packet Ghosted

Turnip Jack o’ lanterns from Work of Fiction (+directions); my own ghosted turnip seed packet.

The turnip-headed scarecrows are equally eerie: they turn up on Halloween postcards from the early twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, but are not exclusively tied to the holiday. Turnips just easily lend themselves towards anthropomorphic expressions.

Turnip Halloween Card

Turnip Head Howl's Moving Castle

Turnip Head Shakers

Vintage Halloween card, c. 1920; the Turnip-head scarecrow from  Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; Vintage salt & pepper shakers available here.

I bought some turnips the other day–larger ones from a farm up north and smaller ones at our farmers market–with the intent to carve them into something scary, but I’m not sure I can do it–even with Martha Stewart’s assertive advice. They don’t have the soft insides of a pumpkin, and they are much more diminutive. I might chicken out and merely draw on them, because I’m not sure that I want to put in the time and effort: every single time I’ve carved out a pumpkin it has been stolen days before Halloween, and I’m sure my little turnip lanterns would be even more vulnerable!

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Martha Stewarts Turnips

My turnips and Martha’s creations: I might just settle for the turnips (and radishes) in a dish decoration, lower right. See a very scary traditional turnip Jack o’lantern here.


The Town Dyer’s House

My interest in Salem’s historic architecture has been narrowed down over the past few years that I’ve been writing this blog: while I still appreciate most of our city’s older (let’s be generous and say pre-World War II) structures, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with its oldest buildings in general and those that were demolished in particular. I’ve developed a somewhat peculiar fascination with “lost” houses, a demolition expert of sorts!  I’m constantly wondering why some houses are deemed too important to be swept away and others were leveled with little comment. My focus in this post is a house that was almost as famous a “Witch House” as the actual “Witch House” that still stands at the turn of the last century, yet it was demolished with little or no opposition that I could detect. The Samuel Shattuck House, built by 1680 just a few steps away from the Jonathan Corwin/”Witch House” on Essex Street, actually had a more direct tie to the Trials that the latter: the accusations and testimony of its occupants, a dyer named Samuel Shattuck and his wife Sarah, led directly to the conviction and execution of the first victim of 1692: Bridget Bishop. This poor widow, not quite as notorious as depicted by a succession of historians who confused her with the tavern-keeping Sarah Bishop, nonetheless had several encounters with the Shattucks, bringing them oddly-sized scraps of lace for dyeing–perhaps for a poppet? The affliction of their son convinced them that she was up to some mischief, and so they testified with considerable detail and vehemence, even though these encounters had occurred twelve years previously. Bridget Bishop was executed on June 10, 1692, despite her consistent affirmations of innocence.

Jump forward two hundred years later, when the Bicentennial of the Trials was stirring up a cauldron of commemorative and commercial products: witch spoons, postcards and plates. Contemporary Salem guidebooks typically featured several Trial-related sites at this time:  the Witch House, supposedly the site of interrogations, Gallows Hill, the site of the executions, and the Shattuck House, a “scene of the crime” as well as the source of allegations. My major window into the world of lost Salem houses, photographer Frank Cousins, marketed his print of the “olde” Shattuck House with the label it was through evidence of the Shattucks that Bridget Bishop was convicted as a witch.

Cousins Shattuck House DUKE

Shattuck House and Gallows Hill

Shattuck House Salem BPL

Frank Cousins photograph of the Shattuck House, 315-317 Essex Street, in the 1890s and the same photograph in The Visitors’ Guide to Salem, Essex Institute, 1895; another late nineteenth-century view, Boston Public Library.

It was so notable in 1895, and 1897, and 1900, but by the end of 1902 it was gone, demolished to expose to view only the two huge chimneys….showing the clam shell clay in which the brick was laid before the days of stone and mortar according to the brief notice in the Boston Evening Transcript on October 30, 1902. No notice at all that I could find in the Salem papers! And so despite its Witch Trial connections, the Shattuck House passed quietly in the night (like the Hunt House, the Parkman House, and the Ruck House before it), only to be replaced by an indistinct Colonial Revival structure that served in a variety of capacities (Gainsborough’s Photography Studio when I came to town) before it succumbed to condo-izaton.

Shattuck House Salem

Boston Evening Transcript clip, October 30, 1902; sketches of the Shattuck House from Nooks and corners of the New England Coast by Samuel Adams Drake (1905) and The Romance of Old York by Herbert Milton Sylvester (1909).


Witch Houses

Central to Salem’s evolution as the Witch City was the Witch House, a first-period structure that was the residence of one of the Trials’ judges, Jonathan Corwin. It was referred to as the Witch House back in the nineteenth century, when it housed a number of businesses–a longstanding drug store, later an antiques shop–and looked quite different than it does today, but it really became the Witch House when its evolving image was published on variant postcards from around 1900 on. The Corwin House acquired its seventeenth-century look in the middle of the twentieth century through a “restoration” under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb, and was opened to the public as the official “Witch House” by the city of Salem in 1948. As I’ve written about this House and its history before, I want to widen its context today by featuring some other Witch Houses, near and far, past and present, material and immaterial. There are at least two other houses in Essex County which were identified as such on postcards from a century ago, a time when there was a limited effort to turn the entire region into “Broomstick Country”. This was historically correct–the “Salem Witch Trials” were indeed a regional phenomenon–but commercially tricky, so Salem eventually claimed its exclusive title as the one and only “Witch City” with the Witch House.

The Old Witch House--Scene of Examinations at Salem. Illustration from Columbus and Columbia (Manufacturers' Book Co, c 1893).

Witch House Salem 1905

Witch House Danvers

Witch House Rockport 1910

Salem’s “Witch House” in 1893 (Columbus and Columbia Manufacturers’ Book Co, c 1893) and 1905: the George Jacobs “Witch House” in Danvers in 1907 (located in what was then Salem in the seventeenth century) and Rockport’s “Witch House”, also known as the “Old Garrison House” and still standing, in 1910. Supposedly two brothers from Salem built this house as a refuge for their accused sister or mother (depending on the source).

Farther afield, Witch Houses don’t have anything to do with witch trials: they just look like the sort of gothic structure that a romanticized witch might inhabit, like the Spadena “Witch’s” House in Beverly Hills, California, a storybook-style house built in 1921, or the famous Carl Van Vechten photograph of a long-lost “Witch House” in rural Maine during the Depression. The fairy-tale witches of the nineteenth century had created a more whimsical images of their houses in the twentieth, and clearly gables were seen as integral architectural details, so it is quite suitable that Salem’s Witch House would soon be enhanced with several.

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Witch House Van Vechten

Witch House Pyle 1887

Witch House Key Nielsen 1921

The California “Witch’s House’ in its original Culver City location, courtesy Beverly Hills Heritage; Carl Van Vechten, “Witch House”, 1936, Library of Congress; the Prince visits the Witch’s House in Howard and Katharine Pyle’s The Wonder Clock: or, Four & Twenty Marvelous Tales, Beind One for Each Hour of the Day (1887); The Witch’s confectionary cottage from Hansel and Gretel, by Kay Nielsen (1921).

Even farther afield in terms of both space and time is the woodcut print of a Witch House from the later sixteenth century by an anonymous English artist. This image, quite unusual as witches were generally depicted outside, in the wild, at this time, is often cited as appearing in the Swiss theologian Thomas Lieber (Erastus)’s Two Dialogues Concerning the Power of Witches (1579), but as Charles Zika points out in The Appearance of Witchcraft. Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe, the image appears to have been simply inserted into a 1579 English edition. Another fantasy house, although in this case it’s more about the exit than the architecture!

Witch House 1590


The Pumpkin Pouncer

Even though we have all lived together for several months, we are still adjusting to our newest cat, Trinity, and she to us. She’s either in constant motion or a state of complete collapse, like a youngster, which she is. She had a litter out in the wild before she was even a year old, and they were all rescued by our local shelter: the kittens were adopted first and then she came to us in late June, newly-fixed, and still very much a mother, in nesting mode. Not a scrap of fabric was safe in the house all summer–clothing, dishtowels, throws, even pillows—were carried up to my husband’s closet. If the door was closed, she would simply make a pile until it was open. Her beloved pink blanket, brought with her from the shelter, was always in close proximity. About a month ago, the fixation on fabric seemed to dissipate, but now she has a new focus:  pumpkins. Not real pumpkins, velvet ones, which I have been collecting for some time (before they became fashionable). Large or small, wherever they happen to be situated, she pounces on them, tears at them, carries them upstairs and then drops them from the second-floor landing to the entrance hall below, and scatters their insides (rice) on the floor, furniture, and even the dining-room table. At least she’s moved on from her fabric/kitten fixation (either that or she was a very bad mother).

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