Category Archives: Current Events

A Half-Hour at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial (on Halloween)

November 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We actually had a lovely night with a steady succession of trick-or-treating families coming to the door: all happy and excited and exceedingly polite (while low-flying helicopters circled overhead, continuously). Halloween night is always a small compensation for the month of Halloween celebrations that we endure here in Salem, at least for me. During the day, I walked over to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street because I wanted to see how the site was affected by the limitation of visitors to the adjacent Old Burying Ground. Just last week, the city announced that the cemetery would be limited to 100 people at a time, a policy that was was heralded in a Boston Globe article with the great title: “Salem to Visitors: Don’t Change Diapers and Eat Ice Cream on Gravestones”. The cemetery is really part of the Memorial in the sense that the gravestones of the latter bear silent witness to the cenotaphs of the latter, so diaper-changing and ice cream-eating tourists give the message: we don’t care what happened to those people in 1692. A less carnival-esque atmosphere next door would give the opposite message presumably. During my half-hour on Charter Street (bear in mind this was a Tuesday, not a Saturday) I did see a much more solemn cemetery, but the carnival was still going on within the Memorial, including: ice-cream eating tourists sitting on the bench-cenotaphs, a large tour group, three staged photo opportunities (all of which involved sitting on the cenotaphs or wall behind), and a wedding (after which all the people in the adjacent tour group clapped enthusiastically, of course). All in 30 minutes, no more.

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Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

Costume rowlandson500

Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

Costume collage

Costume masqueradecarniv00wand_0053

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Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

Costume collage 2

The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

Costumes 1920

Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Exorcising my Anecdotes

We are now in the midst of Salem’s annual Haunted Happenings celebration, marking the fortuitous link between the tragic events of 1692 and that second-most festive of holidays, Halloween. I think this year’s festivities began sometime in September, and the calendar is packed through October 31: tonight is the annual parade, which used to be the kick-off event event but is now late to the party. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’ve never been able to see the connection between innocent victims and festivity, but believe me, I’m in the minority, and the majority definitely rules on this matter in Salem. I was going to skip my annual rant this year because it is getting tiresome (for me as well as others, I’m sure) but this was a big year for witch-trial remembrance connected to the observance of the 325th anniversary of the Trials, and I heard several things in its course that I just can’t forget, so I thought I’d use this post to process a few anecdotes. Readers and followers of the blog have increased by quite a bit over the past year (for which I am very grateful!) so I also want to offer these new viewers some orientation: even though my blog is called streets of Salem, this is not the place to go for event listings and coverage of all the things going on in the streets of Salem in October–you should click over to Destination Salem or Creative Salem if that is what you are seeking. These are both very comprehensive and informative sites that serve as great guides to Salem happenings in October or throughout the year (because a lot does happen throughout the year). I cannot be your October guide because I will be either hiding in my house or getting out of town. Well, obviously that is an exaggeration: I must work after all, I will sneak out on mid-week mornings because Salem is very beautiful at this time of year, and there are several cultural events happening this month that I don’t want to miss. But after my re- and full immersion into the experience of Haunted Happenings a few years ago, I realized that I needed to keep my head down and my mind on the victims of 1692—or anything else.

So before I leave this subject for another year, here are the assertions which I have been contemplating ever since I first heard them. I know; I am a bad historian to utilize only anecdotal evidence, but this is a blog, not a book. These moments have lasted with me because I think they speak volumes.

Cotton Mather promoted Wonders of the Invisible World in the London papersThis fact (Mather’s publisher did put a notice for Wonders in several London papers in December 1692 and February 1693) was uttered by the executive director of Salem’s “Most Visited Museum” and a major beneficiary of Haunted Happenings, the Witch Museum, in the context of a panel discussion on the Proctor’s Ledge site in July of this year. There was a general discussion of how the Trials had became sensationalized over time, and this was her response, meaning, in essence, it began then–we’re not first. I thought it was rather astonishing to hear Cotton Mather, the contemporary apologist for the trials, used as a role model!

Cotton Mather Quinton Jones Cotton Mather and the Witch of Endor, by the extraordinary and eccentric Salem artist Quinton Oliver Jones (1903-1999), who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Salem Athenaeum.

I have no doubt Elizabeth Montgomery the person would have spoken out against injustice in 1692, had she been here at the time. And her character, Samantha, DID just that !  This was a comment in response to a letter in the Salem News (not by me!) in opposition to the Bewitched statue, essentially asking why this statue of a fictional television character was located in Salem. Apparently the statue is not of Samantha Stevens, but Elizabeth Montgomery, who was an advocate for social justice….but nevertheless Samantha did stand up! What can you say in response to such thinking? Does real history even exist?

Bewitched Thanksgiving I must be honest: this a THANKSGIVING episode of Bewitched; I couldn’t find an image of Samantha at the Witch Trials so Plymouth had to stand in–but Puritans are Puritans, right?

You need a licenseThis happened just the other day: one of my colleagues, who is teaching a First Year Seminar (required for all freshmen at our university) on “Hamilton and Salem” took his students on a walking tour of Salem so that they could learn about, you know, Hamilton and Salem. Standing in front of old Custom House on Central Street and explaining what the (then-waterfront) looked like in 1800 when Hamilton did in fact visit Salem, a man came up to him and asked him which tour company he worked for. When my colleague replied that he was a history professor at Salem State taking his students on a walking tour, the man replied:  you can’t do that; you need a license (and stop blocking the sidewalk). My colleague (with a Ph.D., two books, and 15+ years of teaching under his belt) didn’t quite grasp that this man was trying to get him to stop teaching, so the man repeated himself, assertively: Stop. You need a license.

Exorcising 5 No teaching here!

The commodification of history has its costs. No doubt there are benefits too: the official line is that Haunted Happenings revenues offset taxes and many downtown businesses report that the Halloween season is the time when balance sheets move from red into the black. We hear about the benefits of Haunted Happenings a lot, but never about the costs, literal or otherwise. I can’t speak to the former, but in reference to my anecdotes I see: a declining historical empathy, a declining historical understanding, and…..increasing restrictions on free speech? (perhaps this is going too far but I find the last anecdote simply chilling, though I was relieved to read that unlicensed teaching is actually allowed in Salem). Certainly our ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue is limited by the constraints of official boosterism when questioning public policy is interpreted solely and simply as threatening private livelihoods and the collective refrain is embrace or retreat, love it or leave it–and stop whining.

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Exorcising 4 A joyful walk down Federal Street yesterday (Salem IS beautiful at this time of the year–do come during the week, if you can)–but then I went downtown and saw that the Museum Place Mall has been renamed the Witch City Mall.


Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

Weather Historic Storms of NE

I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

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Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

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Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


Posters (and More) @ the PEM

In my recent post on the Phillips Library, I deliberately excluded any commentary on the Peabody Essex Museum, but most of the commenters did not. Any large expansive institution inserting and asserting itself in the midst of a small city like Salem is going to incur a lot of commentary, and the Peabody Essex Museum is not an exception. I wanted my post to focus on Salem’s material heritage, so I excluded its enveloping institution, but in fact my feelings towards the Peabody Essex are mixed. I understand that in order to be successful, the 1992 merger of the former Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem had to result in a completely new museum, rather than a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of the two former institutions. That has happened: the Peabody Essex is new, and dynamic, and thriving. I do miss the dusty Essex Institute a bit, just because I like those sorts of institutions, and I think Salem needs a historical society/museum run by professionals for passion and preservation, rather than profit. But I know it is never coming back. However, its archive, the Phillips Museum, must come back. And meanwhile, the Peabody Essex is here, and expanding like a force of nature: one must embrace it. I appreciate many things about the PEM: its collections, its community programming, even its shop. It is a constant resource for me as both a curious individual and a teacher. But just as I want to see more of its historical records, I want to see more of its collections–and it seems to me that the showcase, display, and interpretation of the PEM’s permanent collections are deemed secondary to the mounting of blockbuster exhibitions time and time again: DRESSES, HATS, SHOES. The first great expansion of the relatively new PEM over a decade ago was explained in terms of the need to have more exhibition space to display the Museum’s collections, as is its current project, but in the interim we have seen lots of DRESSES, HATS and SHOES (and several months of McIntire and Gould, to be fair).

At present, the PEM has two blockbuster exhibitions on view coincidentally: the summer-long exhibition Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style and It’s Alive, a showcase of classic horror and science fiction movie posters from the collection of Kirk Hammett. When I first heard about both, I thought, oh no, posters and posters taking up precious gallery space (away from the permanent collections): ephemera. But I have visited Ocean Liners several times over the summer and I think it comes very close to the “glocal” vision first expressed at the time of the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum: local history with an enhanced global context. It is maritime history ramped up several notches, encompassing art, history, culture, and style. There are posters, of course, but wow, several of them speak volumes in terms of their impact and message. It’s Alive just seems like a collection of movie posters to me, not really an exhibition, but if I were a curator at the PEM with October hordes passing by my door, I wouldn’t have turned them down either!

PEM ExhibitionsPortholes and eyes at the PEM.

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PEM Clyde

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PEM Murals

PEM Fashion

PEM Luggage

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PEM Enlist

PEM Enlist LOCJust a few items from Ocean Liners, which also includes some amazing ship models of which I don’t seem to be able to take a good photograph. Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilders on the Clyde: Riveters (1941) is amazing! The panel from the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic is displayed in full majesty, altar-style, in the midst of renderings from other pre-World War I ships–this was an era in which the interiors were certainly not streamlined. I never knew there was Titanic “recreation diorama” for tourists just a couple of years after the disaster! This Fred Spear Enlist poster from 1915, showing victims of the Lusitania sinking, really stopped me in my tracks–the last image is from the Library of Congress. 

PEM EX CATS

PEM EX Wallpaper

PEM Exhibitions KarloffMy favorite posters from It’s Alive, on either side of some very atmospheric wallpaper.


Late August in Salem

My calendar version of the photographic “golden hour” is late August: everything seems warmer and softer, yet somehow more vivid. It’s not as hot and humid and you can feel a touch of fall in the evening breezes. Cotton-sweater-weather. The days seem precious because they are numbered, not so much by the end of summer (I firmly believe that the end of the summer comes in late September–especially now) but by the beginning of the fall semester, which I have experienced my entire life except for one year. It’s been such a busy summer for me that these last few slow days of August are especially welcome–I’m not doing much with them except for existing really: casual deadheading, aimless walks, leafing through magazines, cocktails. That’s about it. Because I was so busy this summer, fall is going to seem tame by comparison, so maybe the golden hour will be a bit longer than usual.

Late August in Salem:

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Late August Trinity

My August garden is basically white at this time of year…Trinity outside and in….the peaking Ropes Garden……………

Late August butterfly

Late August Ropes

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The real Golden Hour, out in Salem Harbor….and off Marblehead….

Late August Harbor 2

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Late August Harbor

whimsical posters for the Salem Farmers’ Market by Jesse Ciarmataro of H5P Creative Studio….and one of Marice Prendergast’s Salem paintings, which capture the spirit of this time of year.

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Late August Farmers Market

Prendergast Salem Cove

Farmers’ Market posters, Jesse Ciarmataro/ H5P Creative Studio: Maurice Prendergast, Salem Cove, 1916, National Gallery of Art.


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