The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.

20 responses to “The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

  • Andy Perrin

    Could you define “presentism” for those of us just tuning in?

  • simonjkyte

    It is where you take present day attitudes and inflict them on the past to my mind. But the past sometimes also inflicts lingering attitudes into the present too I think.

  • daseger

    Oh, sorry, Andy–probably should have done that above! But Simon is essentially right: interpreting past events with present values. It often takes the form of judging the past: “they” were so (superstitious, ignorant, backward, etc….). I like the historian Lynne Hunt’s essay for the AHA: “Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards…..”

    • Andy Perrin

      Thanks, Donna and Simon!

      Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior

      Given who is in the White House right now, somehow I don’t think many are likely to fall into that error at the moment, unless they are truly oblivious.

  • Judy Rosentrater

    We visited this past summer the site of the Salem executions and were extremely emotionally moved. I have seen pictures of the proposed new landscaping and I don’t have a good feeling about this. The site should remain untouched, but this is just my opinion.

    • daseger

      I understand your feelings, Judy. It has remained untouched for many years. I’m not sure how I feel about the new memorial, frankly. In addition to this symposium, there will be a special event at the Salem Maritime Visitors Center exclusively on Proctor’s Ledge–I believe that date is July 20, and I will announce it here.

      • Judy Rosentrater

        Hello again…..thank you for responding to my comments. Wondering how, if any, clout you yourself have as to how much change in the landscaping is done at the site. By the way, love your historical blogs and column regarding Salem.

    • Andy Perrin

      Yeah, I went behind the Walgreens last spring and tried picking up trash on the hillside. I only brought one bag, and even after I filled it, there was plenty of junk left on the ground. I don’t know what they’ve done to the site now, but it’s got to be better than rain-filled plastic bags.

  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna, excellent piece. I wait to hear more about the June 10 event …

  • Alan Lord

    I remain a bit apprehensive of how the memorial at Proctor’s Ledge is going to play out. Perhaps sometme in the future Walgreens will opt to sell their building to the city and – subsequently – the city/state turning it into a exhibition facility for both witchcraft trial & the university’s archive on Salem photographs, etc.

    • daseger

      I would be more in favor of a subtle, dignified sign and a clean-up and leave it at that, I think!

      • Alan Lord

        I wholeheartedly agree with you, Donna. Whether or not it will ever remain quiet and dignified, only time will tell.

        Some time ago, you mentioned your concern in regard to the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street. I believe the current situation at that site – especially during the Halloween season – could very well serve as prima facie evidence for making the case to proceed very carefully with the Proc
        tor’s Ledge site.

      • daseger

        Agree totally!

  • Chris Dowgin

    What about the 1811 Witch Hysteria and the closing of the Old Gaol?

  • Witch Trials Symposium June 10 2017 | Streets of Gallows Hill

    […] of Violence and Tragedy“. Other presenters are yet to be announced, but according to the Streets of Salem will include: teaching the trials; European comparisons and context; a panel on the making of […]

  • Miranda Corcoran

    I’m very late to the conversation here, but I thought you would be interested to know that in his essay “The Crucible in History”, Miller mentions being inspired by Starkey’s book. Also, the poet and playwright William Carlos Williams has a play called “Tituba’s Children” where he actually quotes Starkey at length. Williams’ play is also a great example of presentism because he also uses the trials to critique McCarthyism.

    • daseger

      Thank you, Miranda! I think I’ve got the Miller reference somewhere, but I didn’t know about the Williams play—I’m certainly going to check it out.

      • Miranda Corcoran

        The Williams play is definitely a strange interpretation, but it does predate The Crucible by a few years, which is interesting in itself. Great blog, by the way ☺️

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