Monthly Archives: August 2019

Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

Two years ago tomorrow,  the temporary location of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum shut down rather abruptly with a succinct notice of when it would be reopening but no reference to where. As the Library is the primary repository of documents relating to Salem’s history, there were concerns among scholars (including a friend of mine who was writing her dissertation based on materials in the Phillips and was quite suddenly shut out), but I don’t think the general public was too concerned: increasing inaccessibility in terms of hours–and then location—had been the trend for about a decade. I had never really depended on the Phillips for research or teaching (only this blog) so this was a big wake-up call for me:  I started thinking, what if it is not coming back? And then a few months later, in early December: the big non-announcement at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. The Phillips Library of Salem was no more: all of its holdings would be deposited in a giant Collection Center in Rowley, a half hour to the north. The special library—consolidated from collections of both the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute and housed in the spectacular purpose-built Plummer Hall on Essex Street—would now be part of a much larger modern warehouse of texts and objects located on a commercial strip of Route One. An Indiana Jones image formed in my mind, and the contrast between the genteel, accessible Plummer Hall and the post-modern former toy factory seemed too cruel, even discounting the distance factor.

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Early 2018 was all about resistance and defense: there was a very dramatic public forum at the Museum during which then-PEM CEO Dan Monroe justified his decision according to the priority of preservation: it was impossible to house these materials in Salem due to the deficiencies of the Plummer and adjoining Daland buildings and there was no other sufficient space in the city.  The “preservation vs. location” argument is still authoritative: with no discussion of why the PEM did not use the substantial monies donated to it for the library to improve and expand these facilities in Salem. Also still with us is the conflation of objects and texts, justifying the move to the Rowley storage center; the Phillips Library literally gets lost in this configuration. There was lots of press coverage in January, 2018: in both the Salem News and the Boston Globe, where a front-page story included the quote below from Mr. Monroe of which I just can’t let go. A “Friends of the Phillips Library” group, established right after the December 2017 Historical Commission meeting, expanded its presence on Facebook and eventually launched its own website, which remains the essential archive of this story.

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The official way forward seemed to be through a “working group” established by the Mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, and Mr. Monroe and including members of the city’s heritage organizations, most of which (with the exception of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Athenaeum) were silent during the uproar and remain so. Almost immediately the PEM announced a compromise: a reading room would be reinstated in Plummer Hall (although what would actually be in this reading room is still unknown), a Salem history exhibit installed next door, and rotating exhibits of Phillips Library materials would be installed in the main museum buildings down and across Essex Street. I don’t think we’ve really moved much beyond this agreement, but there were also discussions about digitization, as the focus on the historical collections revealed just how far behind the PEM was in such initiatives, despite misleading news stories to the contrary. Once the library collections were moved to Rowley, digitization of some of the Phillips’ most popular items began, and consequently we can now see Frank Cousins’ photographs of Salem in the 1890s at the Digital Commonwealth and a variety of interesting texts at the Internet Archive. I give all credit for this ongoing development to Collections chief and Library Director John D. Childs, as I remember him stating that digitization was a priority at the January 2018 forum, while Dan Monroe would only offer that it was “expensive”.

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Witch of New EnglandEntrance to the George Peabody Estate, “Kernwood”, in North Salem, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; just one Phillips text at the Internet Archive.

And that brings us to the biggest development in these two years: the retirement of Dan Monroe, effective this past July. The new director of the PEM, Brian Kennedy, is not only an experienced museum administrator, but also a scholar, who began his first day at the Museum with a staff meeting in East India Hall referencing the vision of the founders of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. This was encouraging to those of us on the outside, as the founders were overwhelmingly Salem men who believed that they were contributing to a repository of Salem history and culture, but we must remember that Mr. Kennedy is learning the lay of the land and that only one trustee on the PEM’s Board is a resident of Salem. The will of the founders—and successive donors—has always been the most pressing factor in my mind: I asked Mr. Monroe about “donor intent” at the January 2018 forum but he expressed no concerns. However, I’ve heard many, many, many concerns here (and in emails) from many of you. Both founder and donor intent can rise to the level of legal action, of course, and are administered within the purview of the office of the Attorney General. Very soon after the “non-announcement” of the move, we found the Essex Institute’s incorporation charter from 1821, which asserted specifically that its “cabinet” be situated in Salem. We assumed that this article was made null and void years ago, or at the very least through the merger of the Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, but apparently that is not the case.

Essex Institute Incorporation

And so at the invitation of Mr. Michael Harrington, former Congressman and present owner of the Hawthorne Hotel who has taken a very active interest in this “case”, a group of concerned citizens, heritage professionals, and local political leaders met with Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff this past eventful July. It was a great meeting to which I was privileged to be invited. Ms. Healey listened intently to us over several hours, and explained the process by which the PEM has to petition the court to be released from the above article, a process that is overseen by her office. Apparently the PEM has not initiated this process (at least formally) yet, but can at any time, and presumably will (although they haven’t indicated that they were bound by any restrictions to date, so I’m wondering if things will just continue as they are). I voiced all of the concerns I’ve written about and heard here at this meeting, as well as my belief that the removal of the Phillips Library will cause economic harm to Salem over the long run, as the city has no professional historical society or museum to take its place. When history is only for sale, money determines everything: the topic, the take, the truth.

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I’m not sure what will happen now; obviously the Attorney General’s office is invested in this issue but it has been for some time. The Peabody Essex Museum is focused, with good reason, on opening its brand new wing at the end of September and branding itself as the #newpem. No doubt Mr. Kennedy is preoccupied with that, and with learning all about his new institution. Not only has the new wing been completed recently but substantive renovations to both the interiors and exteriors of the Plummer and Daland buildings are ongoing: the 1960s “stacks” addition has been shorn off, and many wonder where the Phillips materials could be housed if they were returned to Salem. The PEM had a viable plan for the expansion of the Phillips Library in these buildings and in Salem, but that plan was abandoned in favor of the new wing and Collection Center in Rowley.

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So I think that’s where we are, but any good summary should also include what remains to be seen, or what I still don’t understand. After two years of immersion in this very singular issue: these are the concerns, problems, and questions that still linger in my mind:

  1. I don’t understand why the City didn’t try harder to retain our history. It’s been dawning on me for some time that this entire proceeding reveals more about the City of Salem than the Peabody Essex Museum. Recently I’ve heard that the City’s tourism office, Destination Salem, plans to focus on genealogy or “roots” tourism over the next few years. This makes sense on one level, as this is the most dynamic trend in the tourism industry currently and Salem is Ellis Island for many Anglo-Americans, but it makes no sense on another, as Salem has no genealogical records because they are all in Rowley.
  2. I don’t understand how the Phillips Library is going to survive as a library in Rowley: a real library, with regular patrons, events, talks, exhibits and a sense of community. I can understand how it will exist as a repository, but not a library. Every research library I’ve ever worked in–the Folger, Houghton, the Massachusetts Historical Society—is an active gathering place, but I can’t see people gathering at that sterile place in Rowley. It’s a professional operation to be sure, and researchers will go there to do their research, but that’s about it. I guess that’s what the PEM wants, as the promise to offer exhibitions of Phillips collections is being kept, with a Hawthorne exhibition opening next month in the new wing, in Salem.
  3. Speaking of comparable research libraries, I don’t understand why a “Harvard Depository” system cannot be utilized with the Phillips Library, retaining the offsite Collection Center as a storage facility from which materials can be retrieved and brought to the MAIN Library, which could be reinstated in the Plummer and Daland buildings on Essex Street in Salem. This would solve the storage issue and retain the traditional space, place, and role of the Phillips Library, and it could be operated as an accessible facility that would serve researchers and the general (curious) public. I’m sure there’s a reason why this can’t happen, but I wish I knew what it was, as it seems like the reasonable solution to a layperson like me, and one which would benefit all parties: the PEM, the City of Salem, and the Phillips Library itself.

The Pope said Nope

Last night we went to see Six at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; I bought the tickets, but my husband accompanied me willingly. I simply could not resist a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII and it did not disappoint in its fluffy, fun feminism. The performance was certainly not a deep (or long) dive, but it was interesting in its distillation of the essential character of each woman, whether based on fact or fiction. Each queen had her say (or song), but the entire performance was a collective concert; midstream my husband said it reminded him of Josie and the Pussycats! The musical’s writers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, are younger than us so they were inspired by different pop princesses: Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Rhianna, Ariana Grande, Alicia Keys.

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WivesBeard Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Henry and his six wives have been the focus of many popular culture expressions for decades, even centuries: none of them will ever die. What’s interesting to me about re-envisioning is how it reflects on the society which is doing the re-envisioning and what gets distilled down as the universal “truth” of whatever or whomever is being recalled. In the case of the former, the King is nowhere to be seen on the Six stage: obviously he is the elephant in the room but he’s not there in this #metoo moment, this “her-story” (I hate that word; I almost lost the job I now hold because I told the hiring committee I would not teach a course on the books titled “Herstory” as history was about people). It’s all about the women and even though they look and sound very contemporary their characterizations are pretty traditional: Catherine of Aragon is the steadfast queen who says “no way” to Henry, Jane Seymour is “the only one he really loved”, Anne of Cleves is the one who got away, with a very nice annulment settlement, Katherine Howard is the precocious teenager with very poor judgement owing to an abusive past, and Katherine Parr is the grown-up survivor. I’ve heard this all before many times, and there’s a nice spotlight on the court painter Hans Holbein, including the old yarn in which he is sent to Germany to paint the miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves before her betrothal to Henry, and falling in love with her, made her more beautiful than she really was and so raised the King’s expectations to an extent that she could not meet, as well as entire song, “Haus of Holbein,” right in the middle of the performance. The one Queen I did not recognize was Anne Boleyn: she’s a plucky party girl in Six, with many, many references to her unfortunate death, including her showcase song, “Don’t Lose Ur Head”. She does get one of the best lines of the night when narrating her long road to royal marriage, when “the Pope said nope” to the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. But there’s no conviction in Anne, or any of the wives really: it’s hard to inject religion into a pop concert. The conceit of the show was that these women would compete—through their stories–for the title of who suffered the most at Henry’s hands, but near the end they decided they were all in it together, so we didn’t get to clap for our favorite Queen. I was relieved, as I was torn: I know Henry’s first queen suffered the most, but my very favorite, forever, is his last.

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Six Poster

Six Wives BookAll the wives, plucky Anne, personal Tudor history from the last century, and Hans Holbein re-envisioned by Alys Jones.


Boats and Bells

This past weekend was beautiful, with just a touch of autumn chill in the air and no discernible humidity. I spent Saturday painting my front fence, which is just about the most social thing you can do in a small city, and Sunday we went to one of my favorite annual Salem events, the Antique & Classic Boat Festival, and then to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site for its commemoration of 1619, the year that enslaved African-Americans officially first set foot in North America. The very clangy bell of the site’s reproduction East Indiaman Friendship (back at Derby Wharf after many years in dry dock for repairs, but still missing its masts) rang out for several minutes, along with bells across America, at precisely 3 pm. We had planned to go out on our own boat, but it was just too breezy, so we were seaside (or harborside) wanderers all day long, which was not very difficult duty.

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Just some boat shots which I’m not really equipped to annotate—my favorite was the Half Circle, second to last above, a 1954 pocket cruiser. Between the boat show and the bell-ringing, we stopped at the Derby Street gallery of local artist Paul Nathan–more boats were there and these really cool eyes. The onto the Friendship.

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The Dark Side of Old Salem

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.

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This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor:  If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popular The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

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Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!

Dark Old Salem

That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act,  Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.


On the Tavern Trail

I remain obsessed with colonial taverns, an obsession that stems from 1) the fact that Salem has several establishments called “taverns” which are not really taverns; 2) the loss of one spectacular tavern and “denaturing” of another on one of Salem’s most venerable and now saddest streets, and 3) my desire to learn how to create digital historical maps. I searched through this unwieldy blog of mine (which needs an index) and see that I’ve posted on taverns several times before, but here I go again. This particular post was prompted by a walk down Boston Street, once and still a major entryway into Salem, with many historic structures still standing—though much altered as “spotty” zoning has long been the rule. I don’t think that this street has been paved for decades, so it’s sort of a minefield if you’re in a car, so walking is preferable. Last week’s obsession was cemeteries, and so I wanted to see an old cemetery that is situated on the Salem-Peabody line on Boston Street: the Old South Cemetery, in which many members of the Trask family of Salem are buried as they owned considerable land in this area. As soon as I saw them all lined up in the cemetery, I thought of the “ancient” Trask family homestead which was once nearby, which for many years operated as the Black Horse Tavern, and on my walk back I passed by a much altered building which once served as the tavern of Daniel Frye: its McIntire interior woodwork and Zuber wallpaper was stripped out in the 1920s and sold to the Saint Louis Museum of Art, and now it is tattoo parlor with a fake palm in front, right next to a new housing development distinguished by a mishmash of architectural styles and liberal use of plastic.

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Tavern Black Horse

Tavern Trask Interior

Tavern Trask Chest

20190819_104539Boston Street in the 1890s from the Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives as the Phillips Library, via Digital Commonwealth; the Trask Homestead/Black Horse Tavern on Boston Street—exterior and interior—in 1901, New England Historical and Genealogical Register Volume 55; the Symonds Chest which was once in the front parlor of the Trask homestead/Black Horse Tavern, Yale Digital Collections; 94-95 Boston Street, once Frye’s Tavern, now partly a tattoo parlor.

I’ve been working intermittently on a series of digital maps which can present Salem’s colonial history in a visual format and contain a lot of information in this blog: the end goal would be one map with many layers like this great prototype here. The work is slow as I’m on a steep learning curve with the software, and there is also a lot of content to uncover: so far I have working maps on Salem churches, houses where enslaved people resided, and taverns. The first topic is easy enough to research, but I need a lot more information to present the extent of slavery and hospitality in a substantive manner. There were a lot of taverns in colonial and early-19th century Salem, both licensed and unlicensed—and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to locate all of the latter! Despite the warning of the pastor of the First Church that “drunkards are excluded from the kingdom of heaven”, the number of taverns in Salem appears to have increased steadily over the century from 1670 to 1775, with many anecdotal complaints against their “excessive number” in the town records. According to Sharon Salinger’s Taverns and Drinking in Early America, “as a whole, Essex County averaged one tavern for every 219 people….[but] Salem town averaged one tavern for every 80 persons, a slightly higher proportion of drinking houses than the larger ports.” I’ve still got quite a bit of work to do to find all those taverns, but this is my working map:

Tavern Map

Tavern Key

It took me quite a while to figure out all the various “Ship” taverns and the myriad tavern names attached to the buildings I have labeled “Essex Place” in my key; I’ve got a lot of tavern-owner names, but not all the locations. Some of the descriptions fuel my obsession: the famous Sun Tavern is described as “rough cast”, or covered in rough plaster in which pebbles and glass shards were embedded in ornamental patterns, and I would love to find an image of the “Great Tavern with many peaks” which was said to resemble the Bradstreet House on Essex Street, itself transformed briefly into the Globe Tavern. Because I can’t find my perfectly-preserved tavern in Salem, I often look for them on road trips. Yesterday I drove west along part of the closest approximation of the old upper “Boston Post Road” between New York and Boston: routes 20, 9, 67, and 20 again from Waltham to Springfield. Along certain stretches of this route–the non-urban and suburban ones—you really feel as if you are on the old Post Road, a feeling that is intensified by the eighteenth-century mile markers along the way. I was looking for taverns but got a bit distracted by the markers: you would expect both to be in clear view but I was looking with 21st century eyes and often they were a bit “hidden” or off the beaten path. But that just makes the journey more alluring.

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Tavern Pease Forbes AAS

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Taverns and markers along the old Boston Post Road in central Massachusetts: the Golden Ball in Weston, Wayside Inn in Sudbury (easy to find!), Pease Tavern in Shrewsbury (and in a c. 1900 photograph by Harriette Merrifield Forbes at the American Antiquarian Society), where the markers were very easy to find, markers in Leicester, East Brookfield and West Brookfield, where “Ye Olde Tavern” is still very much alive and open. There was also a beautiful house for sale right at the head of West Brookfield common, which fulfills all my tavern fantasies–there’s even a ready-made post for the sign.


The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

Charter Street Forbes

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Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

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Charter Cole

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Charter James Jeffrey

The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


A Cemetery under Siege

The Agenda for the meeting of the Salem Cemetery Commission tonight includes a “Recommendation to Close Charter Street Cemetery during  October”. I support this recommendation, and urge others who do so to either attend the meeting or forward their thoughts to the Commission. Here is my letter.

I urge the Salem Cemetery Commission to authorize the complete closure of the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street during the month of October, when it is clearly exposed to unrelenting population pressures which threaten its vulnerable monuments and landscape. Certainly it is within the discretion of the Commission to authorize this closure and provide access to those who formally request it on a much more limited basis. Salem already has one closed cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation grants municipalities wide latitude in their recommendations for library stewardship, particularly for historic cemeteries located in urban areas. The City of Boston has closed nine of its 16 historic burying grounds.

The City of Salem is to be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years, including the ongoing restoration work at Charter Street funded by the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the safeguarding of this investment is certainly an important justification for the closure of the cemetery during October. Another reason, equally compelling, is the opportunity for the City to express reverence for a site that is not only historic, but sacred. The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.

As an educator, it concerns me to see any historical resource removed from public access. I wish that the Charter Street cemetery could serve as an authentic counterweight to the dramatic excesses of Haunted Happenings where visitors could learn from real remnants of the past but that can’t happen in an environment of crushing crowds and rampant irreverence; instead it is utilized as a textual backdrop for photographs at best and for more active endeavors at worst. Over the years, I have seen people eat, drink, sit, lie, jump, dance and skype on or near graves in Charter Street; I didn’t see the infamous diaper-changing incident but was not surprised. It’s lovely to trail behind individuals and families in April or June or even September as they read the inscriptions and revel in the sheer weight of the past that is so very evident in our most ancient cemetery, but that’s not possible in October. October in Salem is a time for a quite different type of revelry, and the Old Burying Point should not be its scene.

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20190812_125514The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.

Charter Street Linden Tea FlickrThe Old Burying Point in October via @Linden Tea on Flickr.

Update: last night the Cemetery Commission voted to continue the matter to its September 10 meeting. The Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries submitted a proposal to the Commission which you can see on their website: https://www.salemcemeteries.org/. This proposal calls for the Old Burying Point Cemetery to remain open during the week and be restricted to approved tour groups on the weekends. I have great respect for the Friends group, which has been advocating for better interpretation and preservation of the downtown cemeteries for several years, but I think I’ll stand by my statement and plea for complete closure during October: I have simply seen too much disrespectful behavior in the cemetery and I have the luxury of speaking only for myself rather than having to mitigate between different vested interests as the Friends group does. To me, Charter Street is a cemetery, rather than an “attraction”, and I think we owe the Dead and their families more respect than we do tourists accommodation. But Charter Street is also a public space, and a public process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to weigh in must govern its use, so I’m grateful to the Cemetery Commission for overseeing this process, and to all parties for their input.


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