The Making of Witch City, part Whatever

So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.

Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.

Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.

Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.

Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances! 

Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.

Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.

The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.


21 responses to “The Making of Witch City, part Whatever

  • Robin M

    Donna, you always find great clippings and photos for your stories!

    I’d like to add that Abner and Martha Goodell had two sons: George, who hightailed it out of Witch City; and Alfred, who stayed. Neither had surviving children. Alfred would have been devastated to learn that 4 Federal Street was torn down several years after his death, but he didn’t have the wherewithal to stop it or a plan for the building’s future after his death.

    By the sale of Abner’s library and the destruction of the Goodell home & jail site, the city of Salem lost the opportunity to have a world-class research library and a building with untold archaeological and historical discoveries waiting to be found.

  • Robin M

    Before it opened as the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon, people would knock on the Goodells’ front door asking for tours, just like they did at Jonathan Corwin’s house. But in the early 1930s, Mrs. Goodell discovered the 1692 “original bill for keep of witches” from William Dounton, Salem jailkeeper, that was found in a second-floor closet of their home. The document is now part of the Salem collection (not state collection) of witch trial manuscripts at Phillips Library.

    https://phillipslibrarycollections.pem.org/digital/collection/p15928coll7/id/137/rec/1

    Other “witch” papers on display were copies. The “curios” and “articles worn by prisoners” don’t appear to be dated to 1692/3.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    I enjoyed the story of your unearthing the work of Abner C. Goodell containing his contributions to the Salem witchcraft saga. Good that his works survive and also the pics of his home’s exterior and interior by Frank Cousins at the turn of the century. His office/den looks quite inviting.

    Amazing how many folks continue to believe in witchcraft and are titillated by “haunted” spaces. When I taught THE CRUCIBLE in high school, some students would ask, “But where were the REAL witches?”

    You mention that the episode continues to be the subject of dissertations. Last winter a young British graduate student contacted me after having read a small piece I had written on the witch spoons. He wrote:

    “I am a PhD candidate at the University of Kent and in my second year. What I’m doing is researching how the Salem Witch Trials have been commemorated and how and why they are connected to what is commonly referred to now as ‘dark tourism.’

    “I live in East Bergholt, Suffolk which is near to sites associated with the East Anglian Witch Trials…” I sent him a link to your talk at the SSU Witch City conference in June 2017. He expects to visit Salem this fall. The beat goes on.

    • Ralph

      Whether they realize it or not, our modern society still feels they need “Gods” and “Witches” in their lives.

      Except these days they are “Spiderman”, “Iron Man”, etc. And to be honest, these modern Demi-Gods are just as unlikely, if not more so, than Odin or Thor (the originals).

      People just enjoy stories of this sort.

  • Nancy

    Great article, Donna, as usual! Looking at your IG posts, and all the medicinal plants in your gardens (you have quite the green thumb!), I’m not sure that there’s not a little witch in you!

  • Ralph

    Your post, especially the pics of the Library, broke my heart.

  • Jacqueline

    I’ve been thinking about how history will view the global response to the pandemic, and perhaps more specifically, the American response to the pandemic, and thinking about how it may view it with a similar condescension to how many view historical events like the witch trials. Maybe that’s not an entirely fair comparison, but I wonder if it would be a way into thinking about it for your students.

    • daseger

      Could you explain a little bit more, Jacqueline–it sounds so interesting, but I’m not quite getting it! In general, just not taking these events seriously?

      • Jacqueline

        As you note, Donna, we sometimes look back on historical events as though we are far more sophisticated and the past was just a “simpler time”. This definitely seems the case for the witch trials, especially (“how ridiculous they believed in witches, that could never happen today”, etc.). There have clearly been any number of ways people have approached the pandemic, and while many people may follow the science, there are just as many who truly believe that the science is wrong. So while I imagine many students would not be in the latter school of thought, they may find it easier to understand that in many ways it’s about access to information and trusting sources of information. Which I imagine would be transferable to the witch trials: where you get your information, who you trust to be knowledgeable, etc. So, will history look at our response to the pandemic as having a similar “lack of sophistication”? I hope that clarifies my thinking a bit, but I am still working through it myself.

      • daseger

        It does, thank you! Given what we’ve been through over the past few years, I’m always looking for ways to incorporate information and media literacy and critique into my courses, but I wasn’t thinking about that for the witch trials seminar, but I see an opening!

  • Nancy

    Just think how many times the ex-President called any criticism aimed at him “witch hunts.”

  • SalemKatte

    We dismiss those who believe in witches as fools.

    Many dismiss those who believe in Gods as fools.

    A recent study has determined 25% of Americans believe in Reincarnation.

    https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/25-americans-believe-reincarnation/

    Until those beliefs result in actual persecution of others, why can we not leave well enough alone ?

    It cannot, ever, be proven whether Witches, or Jaweh, or Odin, etc exist. At least in this life.

    We may – or may not discover the truth in time.

    But why fight this now ?

    Respect the beliefs of others rather than belittling them.

    • daseger

      I certainly don’t; who’s fighting what?

      • SalemKatte

        All I am saying is that thate voices of the Religious, and those who oppose Rellgion, should all be heard with respect.

        Human Beings are all born, live, and die.

        Considering the enormous diversity of opinion in what constitutes Life Before Life, and Life After Death, it is quite likely that at least some beliefs are close to reality.

        Sadly, reality may be those who believe we have no souls at all. No before-life; no after-life. That would be depressing (at least to me)..

        Bottom Line:

        Listen and respect those with different beliefs than you.

        Try very hard not to condemn them. If they threaten your day-to-day life, try even harder.

        You may learn something, or at least be intellectually challenged.

        We are all n this together.

  • SalemKatte

    Do we know if Mr. Goodell was an avid adhrenet of any religion?

    That would be interesting.

    Even those who prefer the occult are really only looking for answers.

    I have read that many religions suffer their first major failures when horrible events occurr.

    The Black Plague significantly reduced the number of Christians in Europe – and not simply because so many died.

    The Holocaust likewsie challenged the faith of many Jews.

    I suspect that similar events have befallen many major religions over the millenia.

  • SalemKatte

    At any rate, Donna’s wonderful essay here on Mr Goodell has challenged me to discover more about this very intersting character.

  • SalemKatte

    Ok, who has a volume they KNOW Goodell owned.

    Did he have a particular label or stamp he placed in his books ?

    I spoke to Dan at the PEM this week, and he told me they own Goddell Books, but I dod not press him on how they know that.

    Sadly, I have nothing I know of in my collection from him.

    Does anyone?

  • SalemKatte

    Now that this wonderful piece on Goodell has been published, how about Henry Theriault ?

    Many of us knew him, and visited him at his shop “The Sea Witch” on Derby (now Captain Dusty’s ice cream).

    It saddens me that this esteemed collector from the latter 20th century seems to be forgotten.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: