In Which I Try to Understand the Peabody Essex Museum’s Current Exhibition on the Salem Witch Trials

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located here in Salem, deserves considerable credit for engaging in and with the history of the city’s trademark event, the Salem Witch Trials, in a series of exhibitions featuring authentic documents and objects beginning last year and continuing this year with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. For several decades prior, the PEM ignored the trials, and by association, the flocks of tourists who converged upon Salem because of their escalating exploitation. During this time, I always hoped that the PEM would offer some sort of exhibition to counter the commodified interpretations of the trials (or some essence thereof) which reign in Salem, and it has. Last year’s exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials 1692, was a little spare, but the authenticity of its items and the straightforward manner in which the story was told was striking, especially in the context of schlocky October Salem. But this year’s exhibition is……much more murky: I simply don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from it, both in terms of “reckoning” and “reclaiming,” especially the former. Connecting the past to the present is a complex task, or maybe I’m just missing the links made, so I thought I would “write it out”.

Judge Jonathan Corwin’s Trunk: Corwin was a justice on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and his Salem house is now known as the “Witch House”.

I briefly visited this exhibition shortly after it opened in September, and returned yesterday with several students in my freshman seminar on the Trials: they are going to be writing reviews for our class, so we’ll see if they have grasped it better than I! There are three parts to Reckoning and Reclaiming. You enter into the world of seventeenth-century Salem, armed only with a map and a very brief panel introduction to the trials, and represented by objects or “material manifestations” belonging to people swept up in the trials: Judge Corwin’s trunk (above), victim John Proctor’s sundial, a loom belonging to one of the members of the accusing Putnam family, embellished with symbols of counter-magic, as well as documents related to the legal process of the Trials. The second part/room takes you, via a timeline on the wall and more primary-source documents, through the more focused prosecution of victim Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich and into the present, represented by a glittery black dress from her descendant Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection entitled “In the Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692.” Still in the present, you (we) move on to the last part of the exhibition: photographs of modern witches by Frances F. Denny, who is also a descendant of a Trial participant, Judge Samuel Sewall, as well as a woman prosecuted for witchcraft in Boston in 1674, from her series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.

Edward Payson’s Testimony on behalf of Elizabeth How(e).

All the constituent parts of this exhibition are interesting and well worth your time, but how are they connected? And who is doing the reckoning and the reclaiming? The exhibition, or us? I discern responses on the part of descendants McQueen and Denny but I always though reckoning and reclaiming were a bit more intensive activities. I looked up both words in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to get some guidance.

Reckoning: The action or an act of giving or being required to give an account of something, esp. one’s conduct or actions; an account or statement so given. Also: an occasion of giving or being required to give such a statement; a calling to account. A calling to account! That’s it: so who is being called to account in this exhibition? The afflicted girls, the judges, the people of Salem? Nope, no reckoning on their parts is in evidence. Survivor Philip English’s 1710 statement “What a great Sufferer I have been in my Estate by reason of the Severe prosecution of me & my wife in that Dark Time”, as well as the 1712 petition for compensation by the daughters of victim Elizabeth Howe are included in the exhibition, but not the apologies issued by accuser Ann Putnam, members of the jury, and Judge Samuel Sewall. We can read the poignant testimonies of those who spoke up for the accused (and these are my favorite objects of the exhibition) but the swift, even jarring, movement into the present makes it seem as if redemption is not possible in the past. Before I saw this exhibition, the use of the word “reckoning” in its title was enticing to me as I thought we were going to be presented with an historical view of how people who lived through the Salem Witch Trials wrestled with what they had experienced in its aftermath, but we are not presented with a full accounting.

Reclaiming:  Wow, this is a word that has many meanings and forms! Everything from falconry to recycling. I think the meaning that is relevant here is this one: To reassert a relationship or connection with, or a moral right to; (now frequently) to re-evaluate or reinterpret (a term, concept, etc., esp. one relating to one’s own demographic group) in a more positive or suitable way; to reappropriate. Clearly the exhibition is emphasizing the reappropriation of the word “witch” in our time through the creations of Alexander McQueen and the photographs of Frances F. Denny (along with the words of Denny’s subjects, who are all very expressive and assertive). But what does this reappropriation have to do with the victims of 1692 who were not, of course, witches? Again, the shift from past to present seems jarring, and the connective thread very thin, essentially McQueen’s and Denny’s lineage (and there about a million descendants of Witch Trial victims out there). Denny’s portraits are compelling for sure, so much so that they seem to constitute another, separate exhibition, tied to the first only through a word (and a dress?).

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 20.

9 responses to “In Which I Try to Understand the Peabody Essex Museum’s Current Exhibition on the Salem Witch Trials

  • Anne Whidden

    Completely with you on this one. I’d even go so far as to say the title of the show is deceptive. A random collection of objects and not much of a tread between them. Let alone a redemptive thread.

    • daseger

      Interesting, Anne—and succinct! Maybe I would have got there in my second or third draft. Still struggling with this exhibition, but maybe I’m thinking too much.

  • Nancy

    A wonderful article, Donna, and I’ll throw in my two cents’ worth. Just thoughts, mind you. The word “reckoning” suggests “coming to terms with.” Heaven knows Salem has been coming to terms with the horrors of 1692 for some time, either by sweeping it under the rug or blowing it up into some kind of Salem circus. And still Salem is reckoning, as evidenced by even your discussions of Salem and witches. By exhibiting actual objects related to the people involved in the trials, it becomes more real to the public, making the realities of that time tangible, the people and their beliefs, real. “Reclaiming” is a wonderful word to use! Salem needs to reclaim the truths surrounding the trials. The truths have gotten so far away from the realities that it’s time to reclaim what happened. That’s not easy to do, as so much has been written about it, so many theories posed, that the “reckoning” is still happening, in a sense! It may all boil down to the word “witch.” To the people of Salem in 1692, witches were very real, as was the Devil. People did, in fact, practice “witchcraft,” as evidenced by the carvings on the beautiful tape loom on display (I would love to own that!). Hex marks, witch’s cakes, herbal remedies—all of these kinds of things were used in connection to their beliefs (and fears). So, by redefining (reclaiming?) “witch,” the people of Salem and its visitors can begin to understand the events of 1692 and its connection to practicing witches today.
    There. Now I’ve muddied the waters even more. 😉

    • daseger

      No, no I think you’ve made it more clear! I like your summary and analysis. I am not sure I would call counter-magic “witchcraft” in the demonic sense that 17th people understood it, and I still don’t really see how the modern witches relate to those accused of witchcraft in 1692, but otherwise your connections are apparent to me.

  • Brian Bixby

    PEM, and a fortiori Salem, have managed to “reclaim” the WORD “witch” forward into today’s pop culture, where witches are cartoonish villains, “Bewitched,” Wiccans, and the like. But they’ve failed to reclaim the CONCEPT of witchcraft as understood in 1692 (which is one of Nancy’s point, comment above).
    I was thinking about this last year when I read Almond’s 2012 book on the Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 and subsequently read the romanticized novel of same, Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches” of 1849. How did we get from the history to the novel? And how would one have explained to the novel’s readers how to get back to the history, and why the novel is so far off?

    • daseger

      Thanks Brian, and again Nancy, I do think this is what’s bothering me but I didn’t really express it in the post, except to use the word “jarring” twice: this big gap from 1700 to 1970 or so! Salem’s Trials do indeed go through that same Pendle process but it is seldom acknowledged or explained.

      • Nancy

        I agree that it’s a huge span of time that is just skipped over. But I wonder: the idea of witchcraft after the Salem Trials just sort of died out. After the “apologies,” and some restitution, crying “witch!” just wasn’t happening. The shift in thought from evil as an outside force to something that is an individual responsibility definitely had something to do with it. “The Devil made me (or you) do it” lost its footing. And so did the Puritans. If I were on the board of P.E.M., I would concentrate on their belief systems and what role they played before, during, and after the trials.

  • Nancy

    P.S. There’s a great article in December’s (next month’s) Early American Life Magazine that addresses this somewhat.

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