The Aesthetics of Ancestry

I’m still simmering with anger and frustration over Salem’s “new” “Heritage” trail, confined to the downtown, anchored by commercial establishments presenting the sad tale of 1692 with pathetic mannequins which inspire laughter rather than learning, marked by a line of yellow paint applied in an egalitarian manner to both new concrete and old brick. All of my original objections are still standing, but they’ve had almost a year to fester. I’ve lost faith in so many people and institutions: city councillors, various public officials, even fellow historians and organizations which I thought were committed to the preservation and presentation of Salem’s rich heritage. I don’t see any understanding of what heritage tourism is in the realm of official or quasi-official Salem, much less any desire to follow its path. Indeed I wonder what heritage means to the people who have put together this heritage trail.

The words in the graphics above illustrate my concerns: a recent review of one of the two commercial institutions featured on the trail, the Salem Witch Museum, and some definitions of heritage by the Center for Heritage & Society at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I find the review to be very representative of those that the Salem Witch Museum has received, but of course, I am biased. There are certainly much better reviews, and there are also those which are substantive indictments: you can read them for yourself at the Tripadvisor site. But even many of the good reviews point out the dated nature of the presentation, the fact that the attraction is not a “Museum,” and its blatant commercialism. What is fascinating to me is that these reviews go back years (the Salem Witch Museum recently celebrated its 40th anniversary) and they are very repetitive, yet still the people keep coming and the dated dioramas endure: this is the most successful business in Salem, I believe, certainly the most successful attraction. There’s no attempt to update or improve the presentation, and why should there be? The people keep coming. But what does this institution have to do with Salem heritage and why does it have to be on the Salem Heritage Trail? The Witch Trials are certainly part of Salem’s heritage, though not, I would argue, as large a part as the City of Salem presents them to be—but that argument is certainly a lost cause! But is a dated diorama how we want to acknowlege this tragedy? Is there anything public or in any way reflective of the inclusion of the Salem Witch Museum on on the Salem Heritage Trail? The Salem Witch Museum will continue to be successful, no doubt, regardless of its inclusion on the Heritage Trail, so why can’t this one trail represent a more public and thoughtful presentation of Salem’s heritage in the fullest sense of the word? (I will never get an answer to this question)

I am not a tourism naysayer; I simply respect the past and want both Salem’s visitors and residents to experience its heritage in a layered and an engaging way. As I am writing this, I am looking up Chestnut Street as the Salem Trolley is making its way down, and I’m glad to see it. At least the tourists on board are exposed to more of Salem’s material heritage. It remains absolutely mystifying to me why the Salem Heritage Trail would not include the city’s oldest and largest Historic District, home to the Pickering House, the Phillips House, Hamilton Hall, the Salem Athenaeum, the Ropes Mansion, the Quaker Burying Ground, and streets of beautifully-preserved houses. There are no shops or restaurants or witch “attractions” over here: could that be the answer? Unfortunately the selection of paint in general, and that striking shade of yellow paint in particular, made the exclusion of residential historic districts a foregone conclusion: I know that most of my neighbors would welcome more walking tourists, but I doubt that many of them would like to see that yellow line run in front of their houses. The trolley is running past houses associated with a trio of brothers from a famous Salem family, the Bensons, and I’m wondering if the tourists on board are hearing anything about them, because I think their lives and works are representative of several important strands of Salem’s heritage. I’m sure Frank Weston Benson (residing at 14 Chestnut, 1862-1951) is getting a mention, as he was a pretty famous artist in his day, producing accessible paintings in a light-filled American Impressionist style as well as a succession of distinctive etchings primarily focused on wildfowl. His younger brother Henry (1866-1942) lived around the corner on Hamilton Street and served two terms as Salem’s mayor as well as the president of Salem’s largest business, the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. But I think it’s the brother between them, John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), who is more evocative of an enduring Salem heritage, even though he seldom lived here in his adulthood (though he did design the massive and fantastic Colonial Revival mansion at 30 Chestnut Street).

A 1943 self-portrait by John Prentiss Benson and photograph of his younger self in Salem; Captain Samuel Benson of Salem as depicted by his grandson, John Prentiss Benson and Benson’s copy of “Reaper of Salem, S. Benson, Master, painted originally by Antoine Roux. All of the images and much of the text from this point on is taken from a lovely book entitled The Artistic Legacy of John Prentiss Benson, which was edited and published by the husband of Benson’s granddaughter in 2003. It’s really fabulous–with lots of family pictures and anecdotes.

I’ve never really appreciated maritime art, but I saw a painting that I really liked last week and looked at the signature: John P. Benson! I thought he was an architect by profession and an artist by hobby, but I was wrong: he had two careers, first architecture, then painting. This one painting took me down a rabbit hole of John P. Benson paintings, and I found some really lovely Salem ones, inspired by his birthplace and his heritage, primarily his descent from Captain Samuel Benson, of Reaper fame. All three Benson brothers plus their siblings grew up in an Italianate house which once faced the Common, on a site which is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel. Frank’s predisposition towards an artistic career was evident pretty early, as was John’s, but apparently there could only be one artist in the family so their father steered the latter towards the more practical architecture. He went to Paris for training, and returned to a job at the prestigious New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White before setting up his own partnership. By all accounts, Benson had a successful architectural practice focused on the greater New York area, while living in Plainfield, New Jersey and later Flushing, New York with his wife Bessie and their four children. He retired from architecture in his later 50s and began painting full-time, primarily in his studio at a house called Willowbank in Kittery, Maine. He was prolific, and even though he had not lived in his native city since his departure for Paris, a notable number of his paintings are of Salem ships and harbor scenes.

Ship Eliza of Salem, Salem Coal Wharf, and Derby Wharf, John Prentiss Benson.

I particularly like a series of paintings which Benson produced as murals for his son Philip’s Cohasset home, entitled Salem Harbor memories. I trust that they still survive and I wish they could be on public view, because they are a perfect illustration of a family’s heritage and the endurance of a city’s heritage: it’s so interesting that these images were in the home of a man (Philip) who was not born in Salem, who never lived in Salem, but still saw Salem as part of his heritage. I’m not a fan of the witch trials vs. maritime history either/or debate as I believe that Salem’s heritage is both plus MUCH more but these maritime views are so poignant, especially in their invocation of memories which we can “enjoy, regret, and learn from” at the same time. Believe me, I know that the Benson brothers cannot compete with the suffering mannequins of the Salem Witch and Witch Dungeon Museums of the Heritage Trail. I think there are some other Chestnut Street stories that might be able to do so, but that’s not my point or my concern. If this trail was called the “Tourism Trail” or the “Witch City Trail,” I would have no concerns. But it isn’t: it’s called the Heritage Trail. So I ask my fellow Salem residents: does it represent your heritage?

A Memory of Salem Harbor, in Cohasset.

14 responses to “The Aesthetics of Ancestry

  • Jacqueline Lemieux-Bokor

    Hello, I was introduced to your blog by Helen Sides many years ago and I always enjoy your content. I totally agree with your perspective. Salem is so rich in history, culture and architecture. It needs to be preserved and celebrated. Also, it is so important that the story of Salem be told honestly and not sold out to support commercial ventures. We are all better when we know history.

  • stacey m ristuccia

    I could not agree with you more. What is in a name? Everything! Though, let’s remember that the tourist for lovely Chestnut Street perhaps is a different kind of tourist than the yellow liners. Be careful what you wish for, a yellow line down your sidewalk is one thing, crowds chatting below your bedroom window or peeking into your home to get a glimpse is another. The saying goes- give them what they want. But if they only know 6, how can they know 8?

    I’ve only lived here a short time and my past examples of residence – Andover, Brookline, Harvard, are not tourist towns but all are rich in heritage and this is celebrated in each. I for one, would like you to post a story about how you envision salem. If you had the magic wand- what would be?

    • daseger

      Well we really do have a lot of tourists on Chestnut and I don’t mind them (except tours at night): they seem so happy and amazed by the architecture! But I think you’re right about what they are coming to Salem for. That’s a great idea: I will do that for summer: there’s a post here called “My Salem Museum” which I put together after the PEM shipped the Phillips Libary up to Rowley that is kind of like that, and the first thing I would do if I had a magic wand would be to establish a real Salem History Museum for sure.

  • William Legault

    To answer the question. No.I would like very much to share this on the Salem Digest website.

  • Dorothy V. Malcolm

    This article is spot on, fantastic. Thanks, Donna, for keeping us grounded and somewhat sane.
    Soooo tired of all the witchcraft rubbish Salem spews that denigrates this once, fairly-preserved place, even if it didn’t have the “dark arts,” the incongruous tourist trade, and monstrosity-type buildings and businesses now being built. $$$$$$

    Where, oh where is Salem?

    — Dorothy
    I do love maritime art and own a beautiful painting of the Reaper of Salem by our own Racket Shreve.

  • Caroline May

    I was bornin Salem, 3/4 of a century ago, and have lived in more places than you want to know. Whenever I tell someone where I’m from originally, my answer is always, “Salem, Massachusetts, and no, I am not a witch.” My heritage is the French Canadians who populated the neighborhoods around St.Joseph’s and St.Anne’s Churches, my education was at Ste. Chretienne Academy. Sometime before WWII, my father Raymond Tetrault and his partner Bernard Goldberg opened Bernard’s Jewelers , which closed after 75 years of business, when my brothers decided it was time for them to retire. Though they carried fine dinnerware, lamps, watches and all kinds of fine jewelry, they told me that diamonds had always been their “bread and butter,” and that internet companies underselling them had ruined their business. If I meet people from the North Shore and I mention “Bernard’s,” I always hear, “We loved Bernard’s!” or “My husband bought my engagement ring there!” or “My whole family shopped there.We knew we could trust them.”
    My brother Tom did a sketch of a witch for the Beyer company, which made decorative holiday dolls that they sold in their giftware department. That witch was an instant hit. I have one of my own who haunts my house around Halloween. I did a search on eBay and saw that people still want them and will pay “big bucks” for them.
    I applaud your efforts to focus more on the “real” history of Salem, and enjoy reading your blog. Do you know if they mention on those bus tours that Salem was at one time the largest harbor in the country? Do they take them to the House of Seven Gables? Do they get any “real history?”
    Thank you and keep up the good work!

  • Laurie Albury

    Thank-you so much for fighting this important fight! I so dislike what our city has chosen to emphasize as Salem history. Yuck! I have been to the witch museum once and will never go back. I never understand the long lines of people waiting. My family has lived in various parts of Salem ( French Canadian in Castle hill and Irish in Salem Willows ) I live in the willow’s neighborhood now and feel grateful to still have a connection to Salem history. I wonder how long it will take before we can stop this downward slide into crazy (mostly incorrect) witch history as the only focus for Salem!

  • paull61

    I completely agree with your comments, Donna. Salem has always been such an unusually fascinating small city. And it’s history, or heritage if you prefer, is so much more than just the events of 1692. But the way Salem has been turned into a cheesy circus in the last couple of decades is truly sad, particularly the silliness in October, which many want to cash in on, but all year long now. Unfortunately, in the U.S., if anyone stands to make money on something, that always seems to override any other concerns. And one can’t help but wonder, in regard to local politicians and public officials, exactly what kind of deals were made to benefit some of these more commercial establishments?

  • Louis Sirianni

    So well stated and so true.
    Every word and sentiment resonates.
    Thank you

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