The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.
I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.
Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.
Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.