Despite the Salem marketing memo, Halloween is the time for ghosts, not witches, who already have their Walpurgiseve. I don’t think any ghost story could be more appropriate for a Salem Halloween than that of the legendary “Spectre Ship of Salem” which was supposedly reported by Cotton Mather in his MagnaliaChristiAmericana, according to all the internet “sources” and their sources. I can’t find the original reference, however, only one nineteenth-century gothic tale which asserts that it is embellishing Mather and indeed provides its readers with all sorts of romantic detail: a young couple bound for Old England set sail from Salem sometime in the later seventeenth century aboard the Noah’s Dove only to be presumably shipwrecked and perpetually cast adrift, their ship (and themselves) appearing periodically as an “apparition in the air” to the startled souls of Old Salem (always just before sunset, of course). The story of the “Spectre-Ship of Salem” first appears in print in Blackwoods Magazine in the spring of 1830, is transformed into one of the poetic Legends of New England by John Greenleaf Whittier, and then reappears in prose form in American periodicals over the next twenty years or so: with its repeated references to the elusive Mather, it is actually a ghost story about a ghost story! Mather does write about a ghost ship in his grand New England history, and cites a near-contemporary letter as evidence, but it is a ship out of New Haven rather than Salem, wrecked in 1647 and “perpetually sailing against the wind” thereafter.
Cotton Mather (including map embellished by me, 1702), John Greenleaf Whittier (1831) and Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (1851).
Although his poem was penned early in his career, I suspect Whittier is responsible for the periodical popularity of the Salem spectre ship “legend” in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the fact that it could be linked to another spectral story increasing in appearances at the time, that of the Salem “witches”. It’s also so Hawthornesque. George Francis Dow commissioned the printing of a stand-alone edition of the Whittier poem in 1907, an act that was definitely in keeping with his other efforts to preserve/showcase/create colonial traditions. Ghost ships are the most global of eternal apparitions, so why shouldn’t Salem have one?
The Dow edition of the Spectre Ship of Salem, published in Salem in 1907; J. Flora illustration of a ghost ship from A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim (1965).
A new exhibition featuring the works of Hans Holbein the Younger opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum this week, and it will be traveling to the Morgan Library and Museum after the new year. It happens that this very week Holbein was very much on my mind: various of his works had popped up, as they always do, in several of my classes, and he appears in reference and image in the proofs for my forthcoming book as well. I have always depended on Holbein: his images have enabled me to illustrate so many aspects and avenues of my teaching fields, from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Scientific Revolution and everything in between. His 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors is a visual key to all three topics, and I generally devote an entire class to it.
National Gallery, London.
I’m not that special: anyone armed with the essential knowledge of the era’s cultural history could turn The Ambassadors into a class: there’s just so much in it and to it! This particular painting is not included in the Getty exhibition, but each and every Holbein painting has a tale to tell, even if it’s just a singular portrait with (deceptively) little embellishment. I suppose Holbein is best known for his paintings of the Tudor Court, and the exhibition includes the portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Richard Southwell as well as one of my favorites, that of Mary, Lady Guildford, the wife of Henry VIII’s comptroller, Sir Henry Guildford. Holbein was a great painter of women in general, and “capturing their character” (the subtitle of the exhibition) in particular, but I do wonder why he chose the stern Lady Guildford rather than the more amused one captured in one of the studies for the portrait. In either case, you can easily see that both Lady Guildfords are far from the serene Renaissance ladies we generally see: they are feisty and fun.
Frick Collection, St. Louis Art Museum and Kunstmuseum Basel; The Getty Exhibition.
Of course, students love the gossipy history of Henry VIII and his six wives, of which at least two were painted by Holbein. Students love anecdotes, and Holbein allows you to illustrate them. But you’ve got to be careful: an anecdote can be a dangerous thing, remembered better than the larger issue/trend/event it is designed to illustrate. A case in point is the “story” behind Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted when he was dispatched to Germany to render a likeness as Henry was considering the Protestant princess for his fourth bride in 1539. The story goes that Holbein was so charmed by Anne that he made her more attractive than she really was, thereby convincing Henry to go along with the marriage by proxy only to declare “I like her not!” and seek an annulment the moment he laid eyes on her in England. I don’t think Holbein had time to be charmed by Anne, and we can see that he lavished more attention on her dress than her face in the portrait. In any case, Thomas Cromwell the courtier, diplomat, and by now manifest Protestant had far more influence over the German marriage, and he lost his head over it in the next year.
Jane Seymour (KunsthistorischesMuseumWien), Anne of Cleves (The Louvre), and (perhaps) Katherine Howard (Royal Collection Trust).
The royal portraits are not included in the Getty exhibition, but there are several striking portraits of Tudor courtiers that I’m looking forward to seeing in person, including that of Southwell and an anonymous falconer or Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk. I also love Holbein’s portraits of merchants, who characterize his era in so many ways, and there are several in the exhibition though not my favorite, the Portrait of Georg Giese. It’s all in the details: Holbein enables us to grasp the practice of various endeavors with his little slips of papers, instruments and objects. He amplified the importance of literacy in his age as well as the ars nova of printing by including so many words in his paintings (so perfectly rendered: see Bonifacius Amerbach in the exhibition), engaging in printmaking himself, and designing printers’ devices and ornamental title pages. With Holbein we can also explore the roles of the Renaissance public intellectuals like Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam, the latter represented in the exhibition by both Holbein’s portrait and the title page engraving by Albrecht Dürer based on it. All of this is fairly straightforward stuff: I haven’t even delved into the next layer of Renaissance symbolism, in lavish display in many of Holbein’s works. Layers and layers of images, words, and meanings.
Portrait of a Gentleman with a Hawk, Mauritshuis; Portrait of Georg Giese, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Bonifacius Amerbach and device of printer Johannes Froben, Kunstmuseum Basel; the exhibition catalog, Holbein: Capturing Character, edited by Anne T. Woollett.
As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.
A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.
I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.
I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.
No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.
I think this might be the first time I’ve written up a “things to do” in Salem for Halloween, a holiday that lasts for at least two months here and seems to be on the way to becoming a year-long “celebration” with perhaps a month break for Christmas. I’m the ultimate Halloween Scrooge, I’ll never be able to get past the opportunistic exploitation of tragedy issue, and Salem has enough boosters already. BUT, this year is a bit different as I am teaching the Salem Witch Trials for the very first time, in a couple of seminars for freshmen designed not only the explore the historical event and its impact but also to introduce them to the requisite skills of critical thinking and effective discourse. None of my students are from Salem, so I want to introduce them to the city as well. They are excited to be here and the last thing they need is a Halloween Scrooge: every Thursday after our last class of the week they ask for weekend recommendations and it would terribly wrong for me to simply say LEAVE. They should form their own impressions about Salem in general and Salem in October, so here is my guide to helping them do that. It’s not just for students and those new to Salem: I get emails about October every year so I’m trying to address general queries as well.
Get the story straight and the lay of the land. Where to go for general orientation when there is no Salem Museum? The only option is the Salem Visitor Center on Essex Street, right in the midst of the sprawling Peabody Essex Museum campus. The Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and Essex Heritage: at present there’s not much there besides flyers, books for sale, banners, and restrooms, but you can purchase tickets and view the best introduction to the trials: Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence. We’ve spent the last month in class doing just that, but I still recommend this documentary to my students and anyone visiting Salem with the goal of learning more about the trials.
The Salem Armory Visitor Center and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Plummer Hall and Daland House adjacent: empty in the midst of much activity!
Choose your tour carefully.Walking tours are the best way, and really the only means, for the student/visitor to get both the lay of the land and the Salem story, but it’s important to know which Salem story you want to hear. I have no idea how many walking tours are offered now: I was walking down Charter Street the other afternoon (a relatively short street) and I encountered six, encompassing amplified guides each surrounded by 30+ tourists. It felt like a gauntlet. It’s impossible not to hear what guides are saying as you walk down the street, and they are spinning very different tales. So this is an opportunity for consumer research. Use the crowd-sourced tourism review sites: they are very illuminating. I’m taking my seminar students on their own walking tour in November, but I’m sure many of them want to go on ghost tours now and are are too afraid to ask for recommendations from me: I have none, so I would just tell them (and any visitor so-inclined) to do their research. There are a few below-the-radar historical and architectural tours that I’d like to mention here, however. Dr. Donald Friary, the former executive director of Historic Deerfield who now lives in Salem, is giving two focused tours of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored by Essex Heritage, and you can also book tours with him (and other guides) here. Two other tour companies which seem to be offering more intimate and focused (cultural and architectural) experiences are here and here.
In addition to Dr. Friary’s tours, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site offers several audio and digital tours of their site; The tour group in Derby Square above is about the average Salem size in October: this particular guide was doing a great job explaining the changing coastline of Salem while keeping their rapt attention: I’m sure I couldn’t do that!
Salem museums are not created equal.Salem has only two museums which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, whose core standards are available here: the Peabody Essex Museum and Historic New England’s Phillips and Gedney Houses. Actually the small museum administered by Essex Heritage out at BakersIsland is also accredited, but I doubt that very many October visitors are going to make it out there and it is closed for the season. The word museum is used very loosely in Salem, so beware: this is another realm for which online reviews will be helpful. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum decided to engage with the Witch Trials by offering its first exhibition on the events of 1692 in quite some time, and it was truly wonderful to see objects and texts which I had only read about for the first time. This year, the PEM is continuing its engagement with TheSalemWitchTrials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. I’m a bit confused by this exhibition so I’m going to go back again myself as well as with my students, but I will say that, once again, the authenticity of the objects and texts is striking when contrasted with so much faux in Salem, and I know from reading all these reviews that authenticity is something that very many Salem visitors are seeking. Historic New England offers a bit of specialty programming for both of its Salem properties in October: just the other day I went to a stirring presentation of Poe poems at the Gedney House, and the Phillips House is presenting WickedWednesdays for children.
Poe at Gedney House by TheaterintheOpen: these performance are over but remember, remember for next year. They use the house really well.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Charter Street Cemetery. A big change here in terms of stewardship, so I can recommend a visit to these important, sacred sites. In past years, they were both overrun, but a partnership between the Peabody Essex Museum and the City of Salem has created a more protected and interpretive environment, based at the adjacent first-period Pickman House. The cemetery has been restored very carefully, and it’s really one of the most poignant places in Salem. Unfortunately the tackiest attractions in Salem are adjacent, literally blowing smoke into the cemetery, but that’s the reality of Salem in October: poignant and tacky.
Films. There are many opportunities to see timely films in Salem during October: on the Common, at the recently-revived CinemaSalem, on the patio of the East Regiment Beer Company. I’m looking forward to a screening of the animated House of the Seven Gables at Cinema Salem on the 28th in an evening sponsored by the Gables which will also feature a Q and A with the creator/director, Ben Wickey.
Just walk around: I suspect that my students just want to walk around in the midst of the packed Instagram crush that is downtown Salem, although a few of them did express concerns about the density of the crowds last weekend. So for them, and any visitor seeking a bit more space, I would recommend just walking around the neighborhoods: in the McIntire District, adjacent to the Common, along and off Derby Street. There’s lots of beautiful houses to see, many decorated for the season, and lovely gardens behind the Ropes Mansion and Derby House. I’m hearing that the Haunted Happenings Marketplace, now on Salem Common, is a bit more carefully curated than in years past, so I might even venture over there today (a Saturday!) on foot, of course: opinions may differ about the character and impact of Salem’s Halloween, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to discourage driving dramatically: traffic and parking are just too scary.
Derby and Ropes Gardens, Federal Court, and WAY further afield on Lafayette Street.
I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.
The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.
Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of CountryLife.