Monthly Archives: January 2016

This Time with Dignity

Exciting history news today, and no, history news is not a contradiction in terms. A century-old theory about the execution site of the victims of the 1692 Witch Trials has been verified through a combination of historical, archaeological, and geological analysis by my Salem State colleague Emerson Baker and his fellow members of  The Gallows Hill Project, which includes SSU Geology Professor Emeritus Peter Sablock and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, as well as local museum professionals, scholars, and writers. Following the assertions of local historian Sidney Perley over a century ago, the team supplemented eyewitness testimonies and material evidence with “ground-penetrating radar and high-tech photography” to verify that the actual Gallows (a sturdy tree or trees) was not located at the apex of the rocky hill in the northwestern corner of Salem known as Gallows or Witch Hill from time immemorial, but considerably below and closer to the main route out-of-town (Boston Street) in a rocky copse of trees called Proctor’s Ledge. It has also been confirmed that there are no human remains on the site, verifying various tales of the recovery of the victims’ bodies by family members under cover of darkness. You can read more about the participants and the process here and here.

Salem Atlas 1897 State Library of MA

Salem Witches PC SSU

The long-assumed execution site, “Witch Square” on the top of Gallows Hill, and the newly-verified site, on Solomon Stevens’ property below, on the 1897 Salem Atlas, State Library of Massachusetts; a “Ye Salem Witches on Gallows Hill” postcard from the 1910s, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Proctor’s Ledge is a terrible place, appearing cursed by its tragic history, both in the seventeenth century and the twentieth, when it was the wellspring of the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Currently it is a wooded and trashed wasteland behind a Walgreen’s parking lot on busy Boston Street, fortunately purchased and preserved by the City of Salem in the 1930s as “Witch Memorial Land” but essentially left untouched while commercial and residential developments grew up around it.

Proctor's Ledge 002

Proctor's Ledge 004

Proctor's Ledge 006

The verification of the execution site is exciting to me, both professionally and personally. I’ve done a lot of work on the late medieval era and the Black Death, and this is a field in which collaborations between history and science have been profoundly revealing–and interesting. I’m not such an innocent that I believe that history is always about the pursuit of the truth, but if and when it is, science can help us open the “black box”. Personally, this announcement has also renewed my hope that we–the City of Salem–can acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials in a dignified and historical way: not as a lesson about tolerance today but simply and respectfully as a tragedy for the individuals who lost their lives in the past, and not as an event to exploit, but rather as an episode to solemnize. I’ve been rather depressed since Halloween: the images of people trashing the downtown Salem Witch Trials Memorial and adjacent Old Burying Point, combined with the lack of any meaningful response by city officials to whom I appealed to make it stop, have left me soul-searching about why I would want to live in a place that has such little respect for the dead. Frankly, I still don’t have much confidence in the City Council, but Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s pledge that “Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today in a largely residential neighborhood” is hopeful. At the very least, the neighbors and relatively distant location from downtown– combined with the site’s rather chilly atmosphere–should deter the transformation of Proctor’s Ledge into another Witch City prop.

Calm Descends 367

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.


Losing our Way?

One of the latest looming commercial developments in Salem is a proposal for a new showroom facility by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing and HVAC parts, on an abandoned lot adjacent to its large brick building on Bridge Street. The lot was long occupied by the Universal Steel and Trading Company, which stored and processed scrap metal on the site, creating a contaminated cauldron from which they simply walked away, leaving the City to clean up the mess. Once the site was cleaned up–a process that took several years–the City put the parcel up for sale, and F.W. Webb was the only bidder. The public process by which the City divests itself of the site and the Webb proposal is reviewed by various city boards commenced last week, and consequently both the big picture and the little details are starting to emerge. Regarding the former, the jury’s still out for me–of course the proposed new building appears blandly “modern” and appears to have no connection to the existing Webb building–but this section of Bridge Street is not distinguished by structures of great architectural integrity. Where the terraced gardens of Federal Street houses once sloped down to the North River used car lots have more recently and characteristically occupied a filled-in Bridge Street, so you can argue that anything is an improvement. There are two “details” that do concern me at this point in the process, however: 1) the not-so-veiled threat inherent in the F.W. Webb proposal documents: this new building will allow us to remain in Salem and; 2) the loss of venerable public “way”called Beckford Way. This public path once accessed the riverfront but is now a trail to nowhere; nevertheless, it is still public property and will cease to be if the Webb proposal is approved.

Path 009

Webb Building

Path 001

Beckford Way

Bridge Street 2016 MA Boating and Fishing Access

NOW: The current Webb building on Bridge Street and the adjacent lot, now cleaned and paved, on which the company wants to build a new showroom building; rendering of the proposed new building and Beckford Way alongside the lot. A current map of Salem, with no Beckford Way.

I looked into the history of Salem’s public ways a bit, primarily by examining maps of the city in 1820, 1851, 1903 and 1916 in the Norman B. Leventhal collection at the Boston Public Library. It was an interesting exercise, through which you could clearly see the disappearance and/or transformation of myriad ways, courts, and even streets by projects that were both public and private. The nineteenth century privileged the train while the twentieth century was all about the car; the pedestrian lacked advocacy in both centuries. Sewall Street, once lined with houses, became a parking lot for the YMCA and adjacent developments; Liberty Street was absorbed by the Peabody Essex Museum just a decade ago. Now all of Salem’s “ways” exist only in condominium developments built out on Highland Avenue: they’re not even really part of the city.

Salem 1820 BPL

Bridge Street Before LC HABS

THEN: Jonathan Saunders map of Salem, 1820, clearly indicating Beckford Street’s access to the North River, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; a map of the terraced gardens of Federal Street (a bit further west from the Webb property) before the River was filled in for the railroad and Bridge Street extension, HABS, Library of Congress.


The Mysterious Miss Hodges

For some time, I’ve been curious about a pair of beautiful daguerreotypes by the esteemed Boston photography studio of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes (1843-1863) featuring a lovely young woman identified only as “Miss Hodges of Salem”. All of the Southworth and Hawes photographic portraits are riveting, but these are particularly so: they are large, whole-plate images, they were insured by the partner photographers, and both were retained by members of the Hawes family long after the dissolution of the partnership. The description for the daguerreotype in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum reads: The Boston partnership of Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait daguerreotypes in America for a clientele that included leading political, intellectual, and artistic figures. Nothing is known today about Miss Hodges, but Southworth and Hawes made two costly whole-plate portraits of her for their studio collection, suggesting that she was sufficiently well-known – or sufficiently photogenic – to warrant displaying her likeness in the front-room public gallery.

Miss Hodges MFA

Miss Hodges MET

Miss Hodges of Salem, c. 1850: (1) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (gift of Edward Southworth Hawes in memory of his father Josiah Johnson Hawes); (2) Metropolitan Museum of Art (gift of I. N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937).

So which was it: well-known or photogenic? Well I’m not entirely sure, because Miss Hodges is somewhat mysterious, but I think it is the latter. I think “Miss Hodges of Salem” was Sarah Ellen Hodges, born in 1823 to Joseph Hodges and his wife Elizabeth Shipman Hodges, both of old Salem families. There are a couple of other candidates, but Sarah is my best bet. If she is indeed our Miss Hodges, she never married, and lived with family members and then alone in a boarding house on Bridge Street in Salem from 1883 until her death in 1895. The extended Hodges family was old and prosperous, with a succession of Salem sea captains dating back to the seventeenth century, but Joseph Hodges seems to have been a bit of a black sheep and I think money might have been a problem. His family of seven, including Sarah and her four siblings, moved around every few years according to the Salem city directories: from one old family home to another on lower Essex Street. And then there is this very curious entry in the Genealogical Record of the Hodges Family of New England, Ending December 31, 1894 by Almon D. Hodges (1896):

Joseph Hodges is said to have been so small at birth that he was put into a silver tankard and the cover shut; but he grew to be a very large man, like most of his race. When Gen. Washington visited Salem, Oct. 29, 1789, the babe Joseph (then 13 days old) was held up at the window to see him. Joseph Hodges was a shipmaster in his younger days, but retired early from active business. He met his death through an accident. He was walking on the railroad bridge at the northern end of the tunnel when a train of cars came on the bridge behind him. He was large and heavy and unable to escape by running, so he crouched at the side of the track, but was knocked to the flats below and died a few minutes after he was taken up.

Early retirement? Hit by a train? By sheer coincidence (?) his wife died by accident on the railroad, near the northern end of the tunnel twenty years later, according to Sidney Perley’s History of Salem (Volume III). Have these two railroad deaths–both at the northern end of the tunnel– been confused? I hope so! In any case, there are other hints that the Hodges were at most a tragic family, or at least one that did not adjust very well to Salem’s nineteenth-century transition from commerce to industry. Sarah was the only one who didn’t marry or get out of Salem, and I have no insights into what she might have done with her life. She and her siblings inherited a mere half of a house among them after their mother’s death in 1883, which they quickly sold, and then she appears to have lived alone until her death. The daguerreotypes might have been one of the highlights of her life, if indeed they depict her.

Millard Fillmore Southworth and Hawes

A Daguerreotype of President Millard Fillmore taken at just about the same time as those of Miss Hodges. It is about half the size of hers, and sold for over $10,000 at a 2005 Skinner auction.


Epiphany Eclipsed

Why do we “celebrate” Christmas so spectacularly and ignore its closing act, Epiphany? How did Christmas come to overshadow Epiphany so completely? Well of course we know the answer to this question: crass commercial consumerism, beginning in the Victorian era. But before that, it was all about Epiphany, one of the earliest Christian feast days. Consider this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the Adoration of the Magi, one of thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting this moment when the world, represented by the Three Magi/Kings/Wise Men, came to view the Christ child in his humble birthplace. Here we see nothing less than the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his Son, Jesus Christ, before the Kings and the world. It’s a really big moment, and one that medieval and early modern Christians wanted to think about, hear about, and see time and time again. I like this particular painting not only for its aesthetic qualities but also the familiarity and intimacy of its setting: Italian Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio made this moment even more familiar and intimate by painting themselves and their patrons right into the scene!

Adoration of the Magi

Botticelli_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Zanobi_Altar)_-_Uffizi

Adoration_of_the_Magi_Spedale_degli_Innocenti

Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery (with Botticelli in the right lower calendar and all of the Medici clan present); Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-88, Spedale degli Innocenti (with Domenico facing us in the midst of his patrons, on left).

It’s quite possible that the underestimation of Epiphany is apparent only from my western (American) Protestant perspective, but apart from its theological importance, there are many customs and traditions associated with Epiphany and Twelfth Night, its more secular incarnation, that would seem to lend this holiday towards more popular celebration (or exploitation): elaborate feasting, including a variety of Kings’ Cakes, containing beans, slips of paper, or Baby Jesus charms, wassailing, frolicking, dancing, gift-giving, marking homes with blessed chalk. Many of these Twelfth Night activities have been appropriated by Christmas in the modern era, especially here in the United States, where Santa Claus seems to have vanquished St. Nicholas, the Three Kings, and even the Italian “Christmas Witch”, la Befana, who delivers presents (or coal) to children on Epiphany Eve rather than December 24. Although given her identity rather than her occupation, I suppose it is only a matter of time before she finds her way to the Witch City.

Twelfth Night Feast 1662

Epiphany Coles 1888

Epiphany Le Petite Journal 1914

REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Havicksz. Steen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Epiphany. Illustration from Holy Seasons of the Church by E Beatrice Coles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1888); a Spanish Epiphany custom illustrated in Le Petite Journal, 1914; the famous “Befana Regatta” held every January 6 in Venice.


History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

History by HBO 5

Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

HBO History Collage 2

HBO History Collage 1

Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

Looking Forward to………

New Year’s Day is for taking down the Christmas Tree, lying around recovering from the night before, and making lists of things to do and see for the New Year. I have quite literally been in bed since Christmas with the most dreadful flu/cold I’ve ever had, so I’m still too weak to take down my tree and I spent last night sleeping (blissfully, for the first time in a week) so there is no need to recover from excessive food and/or drink. So I’m all about looking forward today…and taking baby steps out of bed. Like every New Year, I have lots of personal hopes and goals for this year, some of which (hopefully the majority) will be attained and some of which will not, but this is a less soul-seaching list of happenings I’d simply like to see in the coming year. After this past week, this relatively passive agenda is about all I can manage!

1 &2. Dutch Treats. Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through January 18) and Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (Peabody Essex Museum, February 27-June 5).

The MFA show is consistently described as “groundbreaking” and I’ve been meaning to see it for months, but now I only have a few weeks to attain this goal! I am imagining that it would be somewhat complementary with the upcoming PEM exhibition: two sides of the Dutch Golden Age. But regardless of themes, it’s always a treat to see assemblages of Dutch art from this amazing era.

Berckheyde Baker MFA Exhibition

Asia in Amsterdam PEM Exhibition

Job Berckheyde, The Baker, about 1681, Worcester Art Museum, from the Class Distinctions exhibition, MFA, Boston; Jan van der Heyden. Room Corner with Rarities, 1712, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, from the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition, Rijkmuseum and Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. Look at that Armadillo!

3. Shades of Blue. Cyanotypes: Photographys Blue Period (Worcester Art Museum, January 16-April 24).

This is the first major exhibition of cyanotypes, photographs made with a technique invented by John Herschel in 1842 which involves treating paper with an iron-salt solution under the sun, producing a distinctive Prussian blue tonality. Cyanotypes were very popular in the nineteenth century, but the genre survives today and the exhibition encompasses both past and present.

Cyanotypes

Anna Atkins cyanotype from the Worcester Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period.

4. Surreal Prints. Beyond Bosch: The Afterlife of a Renaissance Master in Print ( Harvard Art Museums University Research Galleries, January 23-May 8).

This exhibit was organized by curators at the St. Louis Art Museum and incorporates several Harvard prints of Bosch, who is always fascinating. And more so than paintings, prints are a window into whatever age produces them, and I’m always looking for Renaissance perspectives.

Bosch Patience

Hieronymus Bosch, “Patience” print, from the St. Louis/Harvard exhibition, Beyond Bosch.

5. Beyond Botticelli. Botticelli Reimagined (Victoria and Albert Museum, March 5- July 3).

I’m going to be in London in March, and while much of my time will be in the streets and with students, I’m going to break away for a few exhibitions, including Botticelli Reimagined at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I’m just as fascinated by the impact of the past on the present–particularly the “enduring impact” of creative forces that are both individual and “traditional”–as I am in the past, period, so this is right up my alley.

Botticelli Reimagined

Venus, after Botticelli, 2008 by Yin Xin, part of the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

6-10. I’m running out of energy so I’m simply going to list my last four “must-see” events without too much elaboration or illustration–follow the link for more information.
6. 350th Anniversary of the Great London Fire. I hope to be in London in the summer too, and am looking for some fire commemoration events–so far, I’ve got the Museum of London’s Fire, Fire! exhibition on my list.
7. First Folio Tour. 2016 is also a big anniversary in the world of Shakespeare as it marks the 400th anniversary of The Bard’s death. There are lots of commemorative events on both sides of the Atlantic, including a 50-state tour of the First Folio of his printed plays: see the Folger Library site for details.
8. Great Gardens. I am absolutely determined to take advantage of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program this year, in which special private gardens are open to the public on specified days. I never get the schedule and only find about openings when it’s too late to take advantage. Not this year.
9. Recovered Art. As I indicated in my recent book list post, I find art thefts endlessly fascinating. I don’t know if the pilfered paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum will ever be recovered, but six N.C. Wyeth paintings stolen from Maine have been returned and are the focus of a fall exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art:  The Great N.C. Wyeth Caper.

10. Christmas in Newport. I miss the apparently-stunning Christmas decorations in the mansions of Newport every year and am determined to see them next (this) year!

Appendix:  The Huffington Post mapped out the year in exhibitions as well, so if you’re more of a modern art aficionado, check out their list.

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