Category Archives: Current Events

Two Nights in Salem

As you might imagine, my teenage stepson is not at all sympathetic to my I don’t want to see tacky & exploitative witchcraft “attractions” attitude in October so we have ventured downtown for the last couple of nights.The weather has been warm but rainy so there weren’t that many people milling about but we did avoid the more commercial sites. I think I first took him to the Salem Witch “Museum” when he was six or seven and he thought it was ridiculous then; so he has no desire to return now, thankfully. On Thursday night we went to a few shops on the way to one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s monthly themed PEM/PM evenings, which are always great.This month’s theme was “Moon Landing”, in reference to their brand new exhibition “Lunar Attraction”, which is just the kind of multi-media, multi-genre, multi-era, and multi-perspective presentation that I always enjoy. We spent a lot of time watching the colorized version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) that was playing continuously, but I found many of the exhibit items almost as captivating.








The Peabody Essex Museum on Thursday evening past: atrium and “Lunar Attraction” exhibits, including screen shots from A Trip to the Moon; Beth Hoeckel’s “Campground” collage from her ongoing series “Point of View”; Scott Listfield’s “To the Moon”, 2004, a Japanese moon rabit, and Edward Holyoke’s ink illustration of a solar eclipse, 1713.

On our way over to the Museum we stopped in at the Salem Arts Association, where there were works both timeless and ephemeral and seasonal-macabre, some more witty than others. I liked these little coffins in the window and a “Vampire Test”mirror; my stepson liked a map of the United States divided into regions which have Waffle Houses and regions which do not.That came home with us.



On Friday night, before the deluge we had later and the PBS documentary on the making of Hamilton, we went to the House of the Seven Gables for one of their seasonal experiences, “Legend of the Hanging Judge”, in which actors play out different roles relating to the witch trials in the rooms of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace: the author himself was in residence, consumed with guilt, as his ancestor is the title character. The one good thing about Salem’s crass commercial Halloween tourism is that it gets tourists through the doors of real museums like the Gables, although I fear out-of-town sausage sellers make more money.


The Gables at Night. I can never get a good night shot–was trying for the contrast of garden and house and this is the best I could do!

Of Pumpkins and Politics

I’ve spent the last few days up in York, far away from the maddening crowds in Salem. This strategy of exiling myself from Witch City in October as much as possible is working well so far. Do not be fearful of my title: I’m certainly not going to weigh in on this terrible election. But I do like to discuss politics as a historical and social phenomenon occasionally, and this weekend the consequences of our long national nightmare weighed heavily on me. It was a beautiful, golden weekend, with harvest festivals everywhere I went in southern Maine. In York, the entire spectrum of the community was assembled with tents and tables on the green before the First Church and Town Hall: representatives of local businesses, nonprofits and civic groups mingled with with colonial reenactors and festival attendees. The happy Democrats were there, but the Republicans, either due to embarrassment or division, were nowhere to be found. Their absence made me very sad, not for the sake of partisanship but for community: I grew up in a world where the important standards and goals were engagement and civility and discourse, and I fear that world is no more. I remember the Democrats’ table and the Republicans’ table being side by side, prompting a healthy, happy exchange; I remember holding a sign for my candidate and that of his opponent, while my neighboring, “opposing” signholder went for coffee for both of us.

Of course these sentimental/sad thoughts did not stop me from taking in the local color, which was very autumn-hued, and it’s always comforting to look at beautiful old houses, which have seen worse than this (maybe?)







York Village Pumpkin Patch and Marketfest this weekend, and some of the open houses of Museums of Old York:  Jefferds’ Tavern (c. 1750), the Emerson-Wilcox House (exterior and interior, c. 1742) and some militiamen in front of the Old Gaol (c. 1720). Below:  a bit further out: Hancock’s Warehouse on the River, a favorite house on Pine Hill Road heading towards Ogunquit, the McIntire Garrison (c. 1707) on Route 91, and two Historic New England properties, the beautiful Hamilton House (c. 1785)  and Sarah Orne Jewett  (c. 1774) House, both in South Berwick.






Salem and “Dark Tourism”

For a while I’ve been wondering where Salem fits into the academic field of “Dark Tourism”, a term coined by Scottish tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and utilized by a succession of authors, operating from a variety of perspectives and within several disciplines, over the past thirty years. There is even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research (at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK), and its director, Philip Stone, has crafted the most succinct definition of a concept-in-progress to date: ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’. While this certainly sounds like October in Salem to me, it could also apply to many heritage tourism sites: Civil War battlefields, World War One cemeteries, concentration camps—much of Dark Tourism literature is concerned with the memorialization of the Holocaust. Certainly one could call a visit to the 9/11 Memorial an expression of Dark Tourism, and maybe even the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit. Dark Tourism is about death and suffering, but it can also be about remembrance and awareness.



The abandoned town of Prypiat in Ukraine, now a stop on the Chernobyl tour, ©Getty Images; Charter Street Cemetery in Salem.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think the majority of Salem’s witch businesses or tourists are focused on remembering the names and experiences of Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd and  Elizabeth Howe. They seem to be indulging in a sub-category of Dark Tourism called “Fright Tourism” (which itself seems to be a sub-category of Morbid Tourism–and there are many other sub-categories, such as “grief tourism” and “disaster tourism”–as well as a more academic umbrella term, Thanatourism ) identified by Westfield State geographers Robert S. Bristow and Mirela Newman, in which the authors compare two major Halloween destinations: established Salem and Romania, emerging center of Dracula tourism. They conclude that “the fantasy afforded by Salem or the one proposed in Romania is basically harmless to the visitor, yet may degrade the quality of life for the local population”. While I find no argument with that statement, I’m as focused on historical memory as economic infrastructure in Salem (probably more so) so I’m looking for a more comprehensive, cultural analysis. At this point, I’m not sure that the literature of Dark Tourism is going to satisfy me, but two titles just might: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South. Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era and Stone’s and Richard Sharpley’s The Darker Side of Travel: the Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.

The more I delved into this literature, the more I realized that Gettysburg (rather than Romania!) might be the best comparison for Salem so I would love to hear any insights about the tourism scene there, and I also think it may be all about GHOSTS. A post on the Gettysburg Compiler, a great blog written by the students and staff of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, really resonated with me when I read it a while ago. The author, Susan Johnson, writes about her experience at a Civil War conference panel on Dark Tourism. On the panel was a ghost tour leader in Gettysburg, who tacitly implied that the Park Service’s efforts to portray complex historical interpretations to the public were too mentally exhausting for the average tourist, who, instead of wanting to engage with the big questions of Civil War history, would rather have fun learning about the Civil War through the means of a ghost tour. One of the main points the panel argued was that Dark Tourism was the new way of tourism, a “fun” and “spooky” way for tourists to engage with the past. I left the panel disgusted by the macabre fascination with death and the exploitation of the very real suffering of men and women living from 1861-1865 to sell a few tickets and walk around town at night with a goofily-clad individual holding a lantern and telling ghost stories that usually are not true. Bingo, just substitute 1692.



Looking for some insights into Dark Tourism, “haunted heritage”, and Salem (always Salem!). The travel writer J.W. Ocker lived as one of us last October, so this book should be interesting–it’s just coming out now.

The First Day of Fall

The First Day of Fall was much like the last day of Summer: warm, sunny, dry. But it was not humid, for which everyone was thankful, I’m sure. It certainly was a long hot summer, and a season of discontent for many. Fall always brings fresher air and perspectives, and in Salem, larger crowds: the city is already busy, and will get busier with every passing day through Halloween. I took a long walk when I got back from school looking for the new and notable, both of which are easy to find these days. There was definitely a calm-before-the-storm feeling in the air: I plan on hiding in my house or getting out of town for most of October (following this event, which looks like fun, and is long overdue) after my full immersion last year, so this felt almost like a last walk on a first day.



fall-doors-church Lots of color around town, even though the leaves haven’t turned yet….



fall-window-leaves  Still green…..




Old and New courthouses; can’t wait for the new “Hotel Salem” on Essex Street with its rooftop bar–finally an aesthetically appealing design!




Odd Fellows Hall; Emporium show window; the Salem Farmers’ Market in full swing.

Drawing down the Moon

One artist whose work I have admired for quite a while but never really knew how to contextualize in a topical or thematic way is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). He seems to be one of those people who was not of his time. I guess you would call him a Victorian artist, but he reacted against his dynamic age by creating rather romanticized, even primitivized (if that is a word) landscapes and pastoral scenes, in several mediums. I find much of his work–particularly his early work– very appealing yet hard to pin down: some of his paintings look and feel as if they could date from either the early seventeenth century or the late nineteenth. The monochromatic drawings which he called “blacks” (the first two images below) look strikingly modern to me, and deliberately designed to illustrate the effects of moonlight. I was looking and thinking about the Harvest Moon over the past few nights and suddenly one of these popped into my mind. So I looked up his works at the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few other places, and found that my memory was correct: this was a man who could really draw (down) the full moon–and its crescent counterparts as well. The then-nineteen-year-old’s biblical inscription on the last drawing below is both timeless and timely: The / moon / also to / rule by night / for his mercy / endureth / for ever. Thou crownest / the year / with thy / goodness.

The Harvest Moon: Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene' c.1831-2 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’ c.1831. Tate Britain


Samuel Palmer, Nocturnal Landscape with Full Moon and Deer, c. 1829-30. Victoria & Albert Museum


Coming from Evening Church 1830 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, Coming from Evening Church,  1830. Tate Britain


Samuel Palmer, A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star,1830.  British Museum


Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1833. Yale Center for British Art


Samuel Palmer,Christmas, or Folding the Last Sheep, 1850( Etching; second state of five). Metropolitan Museum of Art


Samuel Palmer, Harvest Celebration, c. 1824 (Leaf 20, ink drawing from a sketchbook). Victoria & Albert Museum

Conflagration Commemoration

Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures  organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.

Fire of London St Pauls

Fire of London model Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images;  the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.

Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people?  Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.

Griffier I, Jan, c.1645-1718; The Great Fire of London, 1666

Fire of London print BM Griffier

Fire of London print BM after Griffier2 BM

The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).

Window Boxes & Wooden Boats

This past weekend was very busy in Salem, with the monthly Derby Square FSA market and the annual Jazz and Soul Festival, the Antique and Classic Boat Festival, and the New England Kayak Fishing Tournament all happening. My husband participates in the latter so I seldom saw him–kayak fishing is serious business! I wandered around on my own not really wanting to commit to a crowd, but as we missed the antique car meet last week I knew I had to see the boats. This summer’s very hot and humid weather seems to have finally lifted, so I took the long way there and back and snapped some photographs of window boxes, which are overflowing just about now. I love this first one, it’s a basement window box on Botts Court: a perfect adornment for an urban old house! Great shutters too.


windowbox 3

window box 6

window box 7

window box 8

On to the boats. Usually I go for the Chris Craft, but there wasn’t one this year. A Wagemaker runabout came closest to that standard, but my favorite boat of the festival was something a bit more exotic: a Norwegian sailboat, or “Bindel Faering Nordland” built in the 1960s and named Kanin, after the Norse god of cute and fluffy rabbits. With its carved bow and stern, it reminded me of a Viking ship, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The biggest boat was a 62′ foot “Commuter” built in 1923: it was rather difficult Miss Asia in one photograph. Boats such as these were utilized by their wealthy owners to commute from New York or Boston to their summer cottages in Newport or some other “gold coast”, and then down to Florida for the winter. An amazing display of craftsmanship, restoration effort, and wood on the water by Miss Asia and all of her fellow festival boats.

wooden boat 20

wooden boat 17

wooden boat 12

wooden boat 13

wooden boat 14

wooden boat 16

wooden boat 7

wooden boat 8

wooden boat2

wooden boat 11

wooden boat

wooden boat 19

Kanin, Miss Asia, and their dockside neighbors at the 34th annual Antique & Classic Boat Festival.

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