My husband, myself, and my stepson can rarely find a movie we all want to see together: the latter is 16 so of course all summer movies are made for him, but I can’t stand the bombastic computer-generated imagery and violence and the predictable scripts. When Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, we all wanted to see it and so went together last week: a rare occasion. We did not return home together, however, as I had to run out less than halfway through! It wasn’t that it was bad–it was actually riveting–but also just too painful for me to watch all those men on the beach, so exposed and so vulnerable. I knew the Armada was coming but I couldn’t wait for it.
It’s ridiculous I know, but I think I prefer the Mrs. Miniver version of Dunkirk, in which the gentleman-architect Mr Miniver takes his pleasure craft (conveniently docked in front of his Hollywood-perfect expansive English cottage) out into the Channel and returns only slightly battered (and bearded) a few days later. During his absence, Mrs. Miniver battles a downed Nazi in their kitchen. She wins, of course, but the Director William Wyler gives him a speech intended to bolster the Allied effort (by the time the film was released in 1942, the United States had already entered the war, but during its production Wyler was concerned about American isolationism): We will bomb your cities…Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here! Combined with all other “inspirational” details in the film, including the bombing of the Miniver house, the heartbreaking death of their new daughter-in-law, and the village vicar’s closing sermon, it’s no wonder that Joseph Goebbels was afraid of it.
It was acceptable to make propaganda films in the 1940s: today things must be as real as (technically) possible and sometimes that is unrelenting, at least for me: I fear my stepson is inured due to a steady diet of video games. I would like to see the Dunkirk miracle play out so I think I’ll have to steel myself to go back and see this film again, but in the meantime I’ll occupy myself with more distant records of this epic event, in paper and a paint. The Imperial War Museum in London has many photographs (including several of the Germans moving in after the evacuation), oral histories, and paintings of Dunkirk among its collections, although after I spent some (digital) time with these memorials I realized they weren’t that distant after all.
I’m almost done with a long stretch of rather intense work, obligations, and events, and feeling grateful to the friends and family who supported me while I was in the midst of it. I should feel grateful more often I think, and so I was trying to expand my present state this morning as I was considering my various “debts” in my third-floor study: and there, sitting on an old family desk (a gift from my aunt for which I am very grateful), alongside some ribbon embroidered with elephants and a hand-carved elephant head (gifts from a very good friend and a former student, to both of whom I am also grateful) lay the most notable benefit of blogging I have received to date: a hand-written manuscript memoir written by Mary Jane Derby Peabody for her grandchildren in 1880 given to me by a lovely lady from Maine who enjoyed my post on the Salem native and artist. It’s a beautiful book: a precious gift to the grandchildren, and also to me.
Old Times for Young Eyes is a charming memoir of a Salem childhood, full of family, houses, furnishings, servants, teachers, teas, flowers, gardens, schoolgirl maps, and the fright we were in when there was alarm at night that the British has landed at Marblehead during the War of 1812! She wants her grandchildren to know all about the Derby family, and includes reproductions of her own painting of her childhood home on Washington Street (formerly on the site of the Masonic Temple) as well as the grand but short-lived Derby Mansion overlooking Salem Harbor. With her teenaged years, the setting moves to Boston, and Mary Jane describes that city in the 1820s in both words and pictures–it looks unrecognizable in the latter. I love everything about this book: the cover, the binding, the writing, the personal perspective and point-of-view, the details and the purpose.
Cover details and dedication…developing her love of botany…..gathering flowers for pressing on Gallows Hill…..Mary Jane Derby Peabody and the Washington Street House of her childhood….the Derby Mansion, “built by Elias Hasket Derby, your great-great-grandfather, in 1780”, Boston notes and drawings.
I’m not quite sure why I’ve waited so long to post on this book; I’ve certainly been grateful since the moment I received it! I suppose it may be because of a note that Mary Jane included on the memoir’s title page: Privately written for the family only by M.J. Peabody AELXXIV 1881. “Privately” gave me pause, as does only, but the book had already left the family’s possession and was acquired by my benefactress at a yard sale. I intend to pass it on to a Salem archive–not sure which one yet–because both its story and its lessons (this is a grandmother’s memoir after all) should be preserved. I particularly like her assertion that it is important for young people to have beautiful things around them, which her life story illustrates.
Wise words from Mary Jane Derby Peabody (1807-1892).
It’s a rare week in Salem that the Witch Trials are the focus of commemoration rather than commerce, and this week is just such a time: the combination of the 325th anniversary of 1692 and the completion of the new memorial marking the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge is creating a perfect storm of remembrance. Maybe I’m a bit more focused on it than the average person because I’m also teaching a graduate institute on early modern witch-hunting all week and moderating a panel on Proctor’s Ledge on Thursday, but I think many people in Salem and its environs will be thinking about the victims of 1692 this particular week. I find the timing very poignant: we had our 325th anniversary symposium on June 10, the date of the execution of the first victim, Bridget Bishop, but on July 19 the Trials intensified with the execution of five women: Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes. Even though more executions were to follow in August and September, July 19 was also a turning point in the village consciousness: if such a venerable and pious woman as Rebecca Nurse could fall prey to accusations of witchcraft, then surely anyone could. Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem will dedicate the Proctor’s Ledge memorial on Wednesday the 19th at noon, the Danvers Alarm List Company, the stewards of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, are hosting a commemorative event that evening, and Governor Charlie Baker has proclaimed the 19th Rebecca Nurse Day.
I went by the new memorial this morning, a glorious Sunday, as I wanted to spend some contemplative time there—it’s a small neighborhood site so I’m sure Wednesday will be a bit more busy. I’m so grateful to both the city and the neighborhood for making this memorial happen, as well as to the Proctor’s Ledge team of historians and geologists and interpreters who were not going to be satisfied with a generic “Gallows Hill” (earlier “Witch Hill”) execution site. Gallows Hill remains a neighborhood, however, and I sure there are those who live there who fear that their community will be overwhelmed by the witch-trial tourism that overruns the city in the fall and has transformed the downtown tricentennial Witch Trial Memorial into some less than sacred space. I hope that doesn’t happen too. I find the two memorials to be very complementary; if fact, when I was looking at the new one this morning I kept thinking about downtown, especially with reference to a poem about the latter by Nicole Cooley, from her 2004 volume of poetry inspired by the victims–and resonance–of 1692, The Afflicted Girls.
The absence she speaks of seems somehow less present at Proctor’s Ledge (if absence can be less present).
The Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in Salem, to be dedicated on July 19, 2017.
I’ve got a lot going on for the rest of this month, so I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to post, except for the easy stuff maybe: gardens and cats, the occasional door. No long historical or architectural ramblings for a while; instead I’ve got to focus on the events and offerings of a new initiative of my university: Summer at Salem State, which encompasses both academic institutes and community events on successive Thursdays in July, all tied to the common theme of social justice in recognition of the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials. Here’s the poster for the community events, all of which are going to be held at the Salem Maritime Visitor Center in downtown Salem and are free and open to the public.
The first event, coming up this Thursday, features Salem native and documentary filmmaker Joe Cultrera and Boston Globe Spotlight reporter Michael Rezendes, is focused on the sexual abuse crisis within the Archdiocese of Boston in particular and the process of “uncovering truths” in general. I first met Mr. Cultrera years ago when my department sponsored a screening of his documentary Witch City, about the intensification of witchcraft tourism in Salem coincidentally with the 1992 tercentenary of the trials, and I can testify that he is very adept at uncovering truths. Witch City captured some of the most telling quotes from the two people with the most vested interests in a witchy Salem, Official Witch Laurie Cabot, who claims that the victims of 1692 “died for our freedom”, and Salem Witch Museum owner Biff Michaud, who has quite a lot to say in the film: the witch trials are “the sizzle of the city….I don’t think that we commercialize it at all. We give the people what they want. The witchcraft hysteria of 1692 is no different than the Holocaust in 1942. Is it more important to lose 19 of those lives on Gallows Hill than 6 million in Europe? In any case, they’re dead”. I’m really looking forward to more uncovered truths in Cultrera’s film Hand of God, which will be screened prior to the discussion between the filmmaker and reporter Rezendes, who knows quite a bit about the particular subject matter and the general quest, obviously.
Boston Globe investigative reporter Michael Rezendes and Mark Ruffalo, who played him in the Academy Award-winning best picture for 2016, Spotlight.
Next week is all about witches, or should I say those who were accused of practicing witchcraft, and died after their conviction, and are therefore forever identified as witches. I’m teaching a one-week intensive institute on “Witchcraft in the Atlantic World”, which I’m hoping will emphasize the connected and comparative histories of witch-hunting on both sides of the Atlantic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Too often the historiography is separate, so I consider this a rather daunting task, especially in the all-day, one-week format. Thank goodness I have some great texts (we’re going to focus on primary sources in general and trial testimony in particular) and help from my friends, particularly Emerson Baker, author of The Storm of Witchcraft. The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience. Dr. Baker is one of the members of the team that verified the Proctor’s Ledge site (below Gallows Hill–long called “Witch Hill” in Salem) as the location of the execution of the victims of 1692, and the dedication of the new Proctor’s Ledge Memorial is happening on Wednesday the 19th, followed by our second “Thursdays in July” event on July 20th featuring a panel on the process of verification and memorialization. What a week!
Our last community event, on July 27, focuses on contemporary wrongful convictions. A screening of the film The Exonerated will be followed by a discussion between journalist and Salem Award recipient Anne Driscoll and Sunny Jacobs and Pete Pringle, both of whom were wrongly accused and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and exonerated, later to meet and marry. Theirs is an incredible story, with (again) very particular, personal, and universal resonance.
My takeaway from the weekend’s garden tour in Salem is a renewed appreciation of structure in the garden: fences, pergolas, pillars and garden sheds were everywhere in evidence, and both the small and large gardens were oriented towards the architecture of their adjacent houses. I’ve always been a bit more botanical-based, but now I find myself desperately wanting a little garden house! It was a very eclectic tour, ranging from very small gardens on River Street to a palatial garden on Chestnut, with a beautifully structured classical garden on Federal Street in between. We toured in the morning, well before a torrential downpour in the later afternoon–which must have stranded lots of people under available porches, or some other convenient structure. As for plant material, there was mildew-free bee balm, very well-kept roses, lots of vines, and lavender that is much more lush than mine. As always, I feel grateful to the gardeners/homeowners who put themselves out there and allowed us all to trespass for a while.
Salem Gardens (+sheds) on River, Federal and Chestnut Streets.
I’m looking forward to the Salem Garden Club’s biennial tour tomorrow, “A Stroll through the Garden’s of Salem’s McIntire District”, which will take place right in my neighborhood. All proceeds go towards the club’s community beautification projects, which are numerous and conspicuous! My garden was on this tour a while ago, early on in my knowledge of gardening in general and relationship with this particular garden, so I remember thinking “July–that’s so late” when they gave me the date. But several ladies assured me that Salem gardens peak in July. When the date for the tour came up, my garden was indeed peaking. I was happy about that in one way, but sad in another–I decided that I didn’t want my garden to have just one peak but rather to “crest” through the summer. So I changed its constitution a bit and brought in more plants picked for their leaves rather than their flowers. Right now the mallows are flowering, the meadowsweet just popped, and the first of the daylilies–but the roses are in a funk and the lady’s mantle is done. Something weird is going on with my bee balm–lots of powdery mildew which I’ve never seen before. But the border plants, germander, calamint, and veronica, are finally established and doing just fine. It’s all a bit subtle, which is what I’m going for, but I’m sure that tomorrow we will be able to peak in on gardens that are really peaking!
I had a wonderful Fourth of July yesterday: pretty much perfect in every way. The weather was wonderful (not-too-hot, sunny, low humidity), the company charming, the events engaging, the food was great, the fireworks AMAZING, and I got to take an afternoon nap in the midst of it all. Just a perfect day. It started out with the traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence on Salem Common, then it was off to the Willows for the (again, traditional) Horribles Parade (rather tame this year in terms of political satire but I appreciated the historical perspective), then back home for lunch, and an hour or so of one of my favorite classic Revolutionary War-era films, The Devil’s Disciple (1959),followed by the aforementioned blissful nap, during which my husband and stepson were out checking our traps for a bounty of HUGE lobsters. Drinks in the garden, then off to Salem’s newest restaurant, Ledger, for the best burger I’ve ever had. We then made our way along Derby Street through huge crowds assembling for the fireworks to a friends’ harborside house, where we watched the most amazing fireworks display I’ve ever seen. Really. Across the harbor, Marblehead and more distant Nahant were setting off their tiny little displays and the BOOM, Salem blew them out of the water! I’m just exhausted in the best way possible (despite the nap) so the photographs will have to tell the story, although they can’t capture the full-blown experience of the fireworks, of course.
July 4th: our house festooned, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, Willows cottages ready for the parade and the Horribles Parade, The Devil’s Disciple (very clever script by George Bernard Shaw and wonderful performance by Laurence Olivier), just one day’s lobster harvest, Ledger, so-named because it is situated in the former Salem Savings Bank, the Custom House morning and night. Below: FIREWORKS.
Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.
A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.
So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.
1. It’sallaboutthe1890s. I’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3: from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.
2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.
3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.
4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905: never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.
5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.
6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp)neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.
7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill? I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!
I visited a friend up in Groveland yesterday and drove home in a very indirect way, east along Route 113 and south along Route 1A: I could have been home in a half hour or so but instead my return trip took several hours, because I had to stop and look at houses, of course. Much of my drive was through the Newburys: West Newbury, Newburyport, and just Newbury. These are all beautiful towns: Newburyport is the most bustling, and justly celebrated for its colonial and Federal architecture, but I’ve always been equally impressed by West Newbury, which is characterized by a line of beautiful classic colonials–interspersed with the occasional First Period house—all perfectly preserved. They’re all on Route 113, the main route between Newburyport and Haverhill and beyond–once obviously a country road running parallel to the Merrimack River but now pretty busy. There’s no sidewalk, so you have to look for spots to pull over and then walk alongside traffic until you reach the object of your adoration. Normally I don’t have time to do this, but yesterday I took the time.
Houses on the West Newbury Training Field (+ World War I Memorial): two down, an amazing First Period house (which is actually light green).