Category Archives: History

What About Fort Pickering?

I love commemorations: I have posted about them often here, particularly at the beginning of a new year like 2020, during which the long-planned commemorations (of the achievement of women’s suffrage, the Mayflower voyage, and the bicentennial of the state of Maine) didn’t quite go off as planned, obviously. As I spend much of my time thinking about the past, I relish any moment in which a more collective present is so engaged. In four years’ time, Salem is going to be thrust into a big commemorative year, even bigger than 2020 and hopefully more celebratory and reflective: 2026 will mark the 250th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution and the 400th anniversary of the first European settlement in Salem. Revolution 250 has been planning the regional observance of the Revolutionary anniversary for quite some time in a collaborative and dynamic manner, because “commemorations bring people together.” I think there is some Salem participation in this effort, but I’m really not sure. I’m even less sure about what is being planned for Salem’s 400th anniversary: when I look at the organizing that has been going on in two other cities facing big anniversaries, Portsmouth and Gloucester, I see much more organization than is in evidence here in Salem, but then again these cities’ 400th anniversaries are next year so they better have their acts together! Salem certainly has time, but from what foundation and inspiration will it proceed? Who is in charge and who is involved? What will “Salem 400” entail and hope to achieve? I google that term from time to time but all I get is this. Without a professional historical society or heritage commission to shepherd such an initiative, there is no doubt that the 400th anniversary of Salem’s founding will be a much more “top-down” initiative than that of its sister cities, or even its own Tercentenary, which inspired a multi-layered calendar of commemorative events and expressions, including a parade of 10,000 participants, pageants and performances, musters and medals, open houses, bonfires, and headlines in national newspapers.

Official Tercentenary Program, 1926: you can see some great photographs of the events here.

I can’t imagine 10,000 people turning out for a Quadricentennial parade in 2026! The past century has transformed history into a product in Salem, something to be exploited rather than contemplated or celebrated. A singular focus on 1692 seems to have deadened the city’s interest in nearly everything else, save for the occasional nod to the military or the marginalized. I’m not sure how anyone can engage in history in Salem, save for nostalgic facebook postings. The few references to plans and goals for 2026 seem to acknowledge this by emphasizing places over people, and the present over the past: foremost among them is Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s “Signature Parks Initiative,” which is “focused on planning and carrying out improvements and preservation work in six of Salem’s busiest and most beloved public parks and open spaces, ensuring that they will remain available and enjoyable for future generations to come: Forest River Park, Palmer Cover Park, Pioneer Village, Salem Common, Salem Willows and Winter Island.” Certainly this initiative is welcome, and will be beneficial to Salem’s residents (as will more trees, also a part of “quadricentennial planning”) but is it commemorative? Is it engaging, inspiring, and challenging the public, as opposed to simply providing for them? Maybe it is for some, or even many, but not for me: I want more history—and more humanity—in my quadricentenary. Compare Mayor Driscoll’s Signature Parks Initiative with the centerpiece of the Gloucester 400 commemoration: the 400 Stories Project, “a citywide undertaking whose goal is to collect, preserve, and share 400 stories of Gloucester and its people” from 1623 until 2023. The Project’s administrators invite Gloucester residents to “help us make history” by sharing their stories. This is a pretty sharp commemorative contrast between these two old Essex County settlements.

“Our People, Our Stories”: I wonder what the tagline of Salem’s Quadricentenary will be?

So far the most conspicuous work of the Signature Park Initiative in Salem has been in evidence at Forest River Park in South Salem: one end of the park now features new public pools and trails along with an enlarged and renovated bathhouse while the other is slated for a dramatic alteration revolving around the exchange of the Colonial Revival reproduction “Pioneer Village” currently situated there with the YMCA camp formerly located at Camp Naumkeag in Salem Willows. The writing has been on the wall for Pioneer Village, built for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630, for quite some time as the City has neglected its buildings and landscape for decades and expanded the adjacent baseball field more recently. However, the exchange plan has hit a snag recently, as the City had to apply for a waiver of its own demolition delay ordinance before its own Historical Commission in order to remove the buildings at Camp Naumkeag, which was first established as a tuberculosis camp over a century ago. So far this waiver has not been granted, and a notable resistance to both the destruction of Camp Naumkeag and the relocation of Pioneer Village has emerged. I wrote about Pioneer Village at length last summer, and I have been rather ambivalent up until last month, when several admissions shifted me into the wary and possibly-even-opposed zone: I’m still thinking about it as I find it a particularly vexing public history problem! This is an ambitious plan: Pioneer Village is not simply going to be relocated but rebuilt and re-interpreted with the addition of a visitors’ center and a new focus on the relationship between the European settlers and the indigenous population of pre-Salem Naumkeag. This is an admirable goal for sure, but to my ears, the new interpretive plans sound vague, simplistic and ever-shifting, and above all, lacking in context. They are supposedly the work of the numerous consultants who have worked on the project, paid and unpaid and including several people whom I admire, so it might just be a matter of presentation, but there are several statements that I find concerning. In the first Historical Commission hearing, one consultant responded to the argument that Camp Naumkeag was itself an important historical site because of its role in public health history with an assertion that that role would enhance the new Pioneer Village’s focus on the virgin soil epidemic which devastated the indigenous population even before settlement, as if infectious diseases were interchangeable and detached from time and place! [“Pioneer Village Complicated by History,” Salem News, September 16, 2021] Several months later, the City posted its plans on its website, with this all-encompassing but yet incomprehensible statement of goals: increased access and visibility to the breadth of Salem’s history as represented by the breadth of the site’s history, including Salem Sound’s natural history, the original inhabitants, Fort Lee and the Revolutionary War, the Willows, Camp Naumkeag, and the Pioneer Village. So now it seems as if the newly-situated Pioneer Village will be utilized to interpret almost the entirety, or breadth, of Salem’s history, and in a space which the accompanying plan revealed will have parking for only ten cars. In terms of both interpretation and logistics, this is a flawed plan as presented: its reliance on the seasonal trolley for access is confirmation of its orientation to tourists over residents as well as its seasonal status, in contradiction to the breadth of its stated goals and costs.

The current Plan for the new Pioneer Village on Fort Avenue, on the site of the present-day Camp Naumkeag.

While at face value the inclusion of yet another long-neglected Salem historical resource, Fort Lee, looks like a good thing, I find it concerning. Why should Fort Lee be included in the interpretation of the faux Pioneer Village and not its very authentic (and far more important) neighboring fort on Winter Island, Fort Pickering? This is the guiding principle of the the 2003 study commissioned by the City and the Massachusetts Historic Commission, the Fort Lee and Fort Pickering Conditions Assessment, Cultural Resources Survey, and Maintenance and Restoration Plan: that the forts should be “restored, maintained and interpreted together [emphasis mine] as part of the Salem Neck and Winter Island landscape for enhanced public access.” To its credit, the City has begun a phased rehabilitation of Fort Pickering, but I see much less energy and far fewer resources committed to it than to the Pioneer Village project, which is perplexing given its authenticity and historical importance. Winter Island has served successively as a fishing village, a shipbuilding site, and in continuous military capacities from the very beginning of Salem’s settlement by Europeans to the mid-twentieth century.  The storied fortification which became known as Fort Pickering in 1799 was built on the foundation of the British Fort William, part of a massive effort by the new American government to fortify its eastern coastline beginning in 1794 under the direction of French emigré engineer Stephen Rochefontaine. Fort Pickering was manned, and rebuilt, on the occasions of every nineteenth-century conflict, and was especially busy during the Civil War. Another regional Rochefontaine fort, Fort Sewall in Marblehead, shines under the respectful stewardship of that town. Salem is so fortunate to have so much built history:  why can’t we focus our energies and resources on preserving and re-engaging with authentic sites, rather than creating new ones? (And could someone please find our SIX Massachusetts Tercentenary markers? Every other town in Massachusetts seems to have held on to theirs).

Talk about a site that can illustrate the BREADTH of Salem history: Winter Island was an early site for fishing and fish flakes (and even more substantial “warehouse” structures) as well as the location of Salem’s first fort William/Pickering. The Salem Frigate Essex (depicted by Joseph Howard) was built adjacent to the Fort in 1799, and Winter Island also served as the site of Salem’s “Execution Hill” in the later eighteenth and nineteenth century and of a Coast Guard air station from 1935-70. Members of the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARS, were stationed on the island during World War II. Rochefontaine’s 1794 plan and block house sketches and Frank Cousins’ photographs of the island and fort in the 1890s, Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. Marblehead’s Fort Sewall on the last day of December, 2021.


Salem Sustainability; or the Most Charming Memoir Ever

I came across a delightful short memoir quite by accident yesterday; it was so well-written and charming that I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to write about it today to get it out of my head! It’s not about any BIG thing or event; in fact, it’s about a very little thing, what we might call an accessory today, and something we might not have thought much about at all before the pandemic: handkerchiefs in general, and “bundle handkerchiefs” in particular. “The Bundle Handkerchief ” was published in The New England Magazine in 1896 by Elisabeth Merritt Gosse, a Salem native and emerging newspaperwoman, who would go on to have a very successful career writing principally for the Boston Herald. It must have proved popular as it was issued as an illustrated pamphlet a few years later: I would love to get my hands on this! It’s such a simple story of how people wrapped up their purchases or possessions in the nineteenth-century, in handkerchief bundles of all cloths: gingham and calico sold at Mrs. Batchelder’s or Miss Ann Bray’s shops, the ‘finest white India silk” for ladies’ hats, lawn, linen or muslin for more intimate garments, Madras for new gowns as they made their way home from the dressmakers’, and “pale pink and blue gingham plaids” for shirts and spencers. Yet it is also revealing: of what people are doing and buying and wearing in very specific detail. l learned about all sorts of shops and customs of which I was previously completely unaware in its jam-packed three pages.

The bundle handkerchief as art: Alfred Denghausen, 1936, National Gallery of Art.

Apparently one could not even enter this world properly (or be introduced to it) without a bundle handkerchief! Is this where the stork with the bundled baby comes from? According to Elisabeth, No Salem infant, even without the requisite number of great-grandfathers and grandmothers, could be considered to have been properly introduced to society until it had dangled in a bundle handkerchief from a pair of steelyards, while its weight was recorded in the family Bible at the end of the family pedigree. She also included her own childhood memory of accompanying the family servants, armed with “two great bundle handkerchiefs of coarse blue and white checked gingham” to Mr. Hathaway’s bakery on Sunday mornings after church to retrieve the baked beans and brown bread which had been placed in his cavernous oven the day before. Salem women packed their soldiers’ trunks with prayer books from Mr. Wilde and medicine chests from Mr. (not Mrs.?) Pinkham, as well a selection of fine new bundle handkerchiefs, and three of these, of dark red silk, with the name embroidered in one corner, came home in one soldier’s trunk, brought by a guard of honor; for Salem gave the first of the Essex County heroes who laid down their lives for their country in the war of the Rebellion, as she did in the war of the Revolution. I wonder if she is referring to her own father here, Lt. Colonel Henry Merritt, who was killed at the Battle of New Bern in March of 1862.

Not blue and white, but the best I could do: a recipe card from the 1950s; Mr. Hathaway’s Bakery or the “Old Bakery” (now the Hooper Hathaway House on the campus of the House of the Seven Gables) in its original location at 21 Washington Street, Historic New England; Elisabeth Merritt Gosse in 1905, upon the occasion of the dedication of a boulder commemorating her father’s regiment near Salem Common.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse recounts her last memory of a bundle handkerchief on the streets of Salem, wrapped around a book and carried by Mr. John Andrews in and out of the Salem Athenaeum, and observes that her title topic is as vivid a bit of color in Salem’s history as is Alice Flint’s silk hood, the frigate Essex, the North Bridge or even the House of the Seven Gables; and to speak of it calls up a long line of Salem’s sires and dames who took pride and pleasure and comfort in its use. [Another Salem memoirist, Harriet Bates or “Eleanor Putnam,” went even further: “The bundle handkerchief is as essential a figure in Salem history as the witches themselves.”] The bundle handkerchief’s time had passed in 1896, however, replaced by paper and string, prosaic, rustling, tearable, and to be quickly thrown aside and thrown away. This is not a good development in Elisabeth Merritt Gosse’s estimation, but as she died at the venerable age of 86 in 1936, we can at least be glad that she didn’t live long enough to see plastic.

Elisabeth Merritt Gosse was referencing the OLD Salem Athenaeum, now one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s empty buildings further up on Essex Street, but as I happened to be walking by the present one today, I snapped this photograph.


Venus Rising

As we enter/endure that season where hordes of tourists come to the Witch City for ghost tours, I’d like to celebrate some dynamic local history initiatives: over the past five years or so, there’s been a virtual Renaissance of African-American history, and consequently we know much more about how some REAL people lived and worked in Salem. Charlotte Forten, our city’s first African-American public school teacher, remains the focus of continuing commemoration at her alma mater, Salem State University, and is now the namesake of a relatively new city park. Her hosts in Salem, the Remond Family of Hamilton Hall, also have a park named after them, and a variety of real and digital resources documenting their entrepreneurial and advocacy activities is available at both the Hall and its website. Hamilton Hall was also the site of an exhibition on African-American enfranchisement by Salem United, Inc. this summer (soon to be on view at the Lynn Museum). The Salem Maritime National Historic Site has made a substantive commitment to regional African-American history in its recent interpretive initiatives, which include a general “History of Slavery in Salem” walking tour as well as more focused “Pathways in Freedom” and “Business of Slavery” digital tours.

The West India Goods Store, one of the “stops” on the “Business of Slavery” tour of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

This is all very exciting; such cross-institutional initiatives almost compensate for Salem’s lack of a historical museum, at least in reference to this one aspect of the city’s history. With so much focus on African-History in general, and in the immediate pre- and post-emancipation periods in particular, discoveries will doubtless be forthcoming. Another initiative is both a literal and metaphorical expression of this rising interest in African-American history: the restoration of several graves long neglected in the Howard Street Cemetery. The graves of Prince Farmer and his wife Mary, Samuel Payne, and Venus Chew have been lifted up and repaired, so that the lives of these three distinguished Salem African-American residents are once again marked. This important work was a pro bono, close-to-the-heart project of the two gravestone conservators who make up Epoch Preservation, Rachel Meyer and Joshua Gerloff. As far as I know, the only thing that the Farmers, Mr. Payne, and Mrs. Chew have in common besides their final (segregated) resting place is the fact that they all died in the 1850s. Farmer and Payne were both respected businessmen and by all accounts quite wealthy; Chew died in the Salem Almshouse at the very end of 1852, despite a life of hard work. She was the victim of marital misfortune, despite her very public attempts to defend herself and her property. Venus Thomas Chew was born in nearby Lynn to Peter Thomas, “a free Negro man” and Lavinia/Lucretia Trevet, “a mulatto girl,” in 1779 (The Marblehead Museum has a wonderful history of her famous tavern-keeping sister and brother-in-law here). She married Henry Chew, a mariner, in 1801 and they had at least three children before they separated, by her account, in 1819. They never lived together again, but remained married and thus entangled: this was problematic for Venus as she was clearly the most consistent wage earner. She “declared her independence” in September of 1841 but lost a legal case brought on my her husband’s creditors’ attempts to empty her bank account a year later. She wouldn’t be free of Henry until his death in 1848, and over the next few years her moves from Lemon to Dearborn Street and finally to the Salem Almshouse indicate that she was never completely free.

Notices in the Salem Gazette, 28 September 1841; the segregated listing in the Salem Directory, 1842; “Caleb M. Ames vs. Henry Chew & Trustee, November 1842, in Reports of Cases Argued and Determined by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, ed. Theron Metcalf, Volume V (1858); Salem houses associated with Venus: 198 North Street, built for Henry Chew and apparently financed by Venus, 15 Dearborn St. and 18 Lemon Street; Massachusetts Report of the Commissioners of Alien Passengers and Foreign Paupers (1852; I have no idea why Venus was considered “Alien” or “Foreign”).

I went over to see Rachel and Josh of Epoch Preservation and a few other history-minded people on this rainy afternoon for a toast to Venus, and the Farmers, and Samuel Payne (“once a slave, but the last 17 years a resident of Salem. He was an industrious, honest man, and by strict attention to business had acquired a good estate, and a full share of the confidence of the citizens of Salem” in the words of his touching obituary) upon the completion of the restoration of their graves. We toasted with Joe Froggers, the famous molasses, rum and seawater cookie invented by Venus’s sister Lucretia for visitors to the Marblehead tavern which she and her husband Joseph Brown operated for many years. Cheers to these hardworking people that came before us, as well as to the historians, educators, preservationists and restorers whose hard work sustains their memory and memorials.

Venus T. Chew, Died December 31, 1852, Aged 73. Josh Gerloff and Rachel Meyer stand behind their work. Joe Froggers (made by Josh!)


Hudson River Valley Highlights

I’m just back from almost two weeks staying at my brother’s house in Rhinebeck, New York, right in the middle of the Hudson River Valley. I’ve seen a lot, and have many beautiful photographs to upload here, but I’m not quite sure how to curate them: no theme is emerging other than wow, there’s so much here. I’ve been to this region quite a bit over the past few decades, and I thought I knew it, but this longer stay has convinced me that I do not, really. You know I’m not really interested in nature (apart from its harnessing) so it’s not about the River for me, it’s about the houses and the towns, the built environment. Do I organize my hundreds of photos of structures and streetscapes by family (the Livingstons are everywhere), by chronology, by origin (Dutch vs. English), by size (the two cities of Kingston and Hudson on the west and eastern sides, surrounded by smaller towns and “hamlets” and the larger cities of Poughkeepsie and Tarrytown to the south), or by style? Mansions or private residences? Shops, or more particularly, shop windows (which seem to be curated here to a level we haven’t seen in Salem since the 1950s)? One theme which might work is that of stewardship, which I always think about when I’m in the midst of a region as architecturally and institutionally rich as this valley, but that will take some work and as I have officially entered the last week before classes that means I have SYLLABI looming: better stick to highlights!

Mansions and Cottages:

The stunning Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis for the Paulding and Merritt families over several decades beginning in 1838 and later acquired by Jay Gould, whose daughter left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; neighboring Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving; Wilderstein in Rhinebeck and a detail from its stables; Montgomery Place and its stables, now the property of Bard College.

 

A Decayed Mansion with much potential: The Point, or Hoyt House, at the Mills Mansion/Staatsburg State Historic Site, Hyde Park.

There are several impressive structures on the vast riverfront acreage of the Staatsburg State Historic Site, including the Classically columned Mills Mansion, but I only had eyes for the Hoyt House on my hike. Designed by Calvert Vaux before his Central Park partnership with Olmsted, it just looks perfect, despite its decay (or maybe because of it?) The Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance, of which my brother-in-law Brian is a director, is raising funds for the Hoyt House’s restoration and potential repurposing as a center of traditional craftsmanship training—talk about stewardship! I’m wondering if this cottage on the main road outside of the park is tied to the estate, as well as this adjacent entrance?

 

Alexander Jackson Davis’s furniture: almost everything is arched.

Chairs, beds, mirrors, even tables, so there is no “head” of the table: all at Lyndhurst.

 

Private residences: both vernacular and very high style—-all sorts of styles.

A Foxhollow Farm cottage, more contemporary board and batten, and two houses in Claverack to the north (I spent a lovely hour or so inside the white brick Hillstead, at the gracious invitation of Bruch Shostok and Craig Fitt); all sorts of restorations going on in Hudson; the lighthouse at the entrance to Kingston’s harbor.

 

And shopping! Mostly at Hudson, a bit at Kingston (Grounded) lured in by creative shop windows (which we need more of in Salem). History was in the windows too.


Revolutionary Jersey

I turned my return trip from a mid-Atlantic family/research weekend into a day trip focused on New Jersey’s Revolutionary history which is, of course, plentiful. I had been to the battle sites of Princeton, Trenton, and Monmouth before, but never to Morristown, so that was my focus. And I snapped a few photos at Monmouth as well, just because I was driving by and everything was so green. But mostly I was in Morristown, where General Washington located two winter encampments during the Revolution, in 1777 and 1780. The town’s location was strategic then, and convenient now, not too far from either New York City or Philadelphia. It has a lot to offer the tourist seeking historical places, but its vibrant downtown is evidence that it is not altogether focused on the past: destinations that deliver for both visitors and residents are always the best. There are blue and red markers near the sites of Revolutionary structures that are no longer there, and the sprawling Morristown National Historic Park encompasses those that survive. So while we don’t get to see Arnold’s Tavern, Washington’s headquarters during the first encampment, we do get to see the beautiful Ford Mansion, where he spent the second, during the coldest winter on record, in comparative luxury (though with a lot of other people). We also get to see the Wick farmhouse and land at Jockey Hollow, which was transformed into one of the country-in-formation’s largest settlements with the encampment of some 13,000 soldiers. Actually I was going to spend more time and get a true Revolutionary perspective by returning to Princeton and Trenton, but I got sidetracked by a pretty little town in the center of the state, Cranbury. It served as the encampment for Washington and his troops prior to the Battle of Monmouth in late June of 1778, and so set the theme for my little daytrip: encampments rather than battlefields. I must admit though: Cranbury’s houses were so great I would have spent time there regardless of any Revolutionary connection, and so you have to too!

The Monmouth Battlefield and nearby Cranbury; the last cute house is home to the Cranbury Historical & Preservation Society–everywhere I go there are city historical museums or societies and Salem is very conspicuous in its lack of one!

The encampment focus is one which highlights civilian as well as combatant experiences and sacrifices. At the Georgian Ford Mansion in Morristown, you cannot help but think about Theodosia Ford, who offered her gracious home to General Washington to serve as his headquarters in 1779, two years after her husband died during another winter quartering, with 35 soldiers in the house. During Washington’s occupancy, which included his wife Martha, five aides-de-camp, 18 servants (the NPS is not forthcoming on how many were enslaved), assorted guides and occasional dignitaries also in residence, Mrs. Ford and her four children were restricted to two rooms. At Jockey Hollow several miles away, the surviving Wick house, a very New Englandish structure built about 1750, would have been surrounded by small soldiers’ cabins built from 600 acres of the farm’s timber, while Major Arthur St. Clair of the Pennsylvania brigade quartered in the family home. They all endured through the “Hard Winter” together. Numerous monuments and plaques testify to the sacrifices of the Revolutionary soldiers who occupied Morristown at one time or another; I think the contributions of the Revolutionary citizens of Morristown should be marked as well. But perhaps they already are, by the witness houses still standing almost 250 years later.

The National Historic Park at Morristown, encompassing the Ford Mansion and Washington’s Headquarters Museum (one of the first NPS museums, designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1937), as well as Jockey Hollow. Some exhibits inside the Museum, including an altar-esque presentation of an Edward Savage portrait of George Washington. The park does not include the Jabez Campfield House, c. 1760, but it’s just down the road from the Ford Mansion: this is the scene of the courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Schuyler in 1780, so it’s now referred to as the Hamilon-Schuyler house! The Wick house and its grounds, which are beautiful, including reproduction soldiers’ cabins and a wonderful herb garden maintained by the Herb Society of America. Like New England, New Jersey is very green this summer.


The Making of Witch City, part Whatever

So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.

Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.

Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.

Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.

Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances! 

Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.

Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.

The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.


“Certified Historians” of Salem

Salem has been packed with tourists from late spring and all summer, despite the odd hot/wet weather: I’m very happy for all of our shops and restaurants after the challenges of the pandemic but getting a bit annoyed by what I’m hearing in the streets from the increasingly-unavoidable tour guides in my path and in my neighborhood. I live near downtown Salem so I should expect to be right in the heart of it all, but actually walking tours in our neighborhood are a relatively new phenomenon. I think about three years ago I first noticed them, and I was glad to see them, because I assumed that people were interested in all of the things that brought me to Salem: architecture, a very layered and diverse heritage, some great stories about very interesting people. The tours have really escalated this year, both in terms of frequency and the amount of people, and while several of them do seem to be featuring all of these things, most are definitely not. So while I’m still glad to see them in my neighborhood, I really wish I didn’t have to hear them. Clearly there is a spectrum of walking tours offered in Salem, and I don’t want to share the wealth of detail until I’ve done my due diligence, but every day I am amazed to hear just how many buildings are haunted in Salem, where our tragic history has ensured that ghosts are all around us.

This is a big and important topic. Walking tours must represent a large percentage of Salem’s tourism economy if the people on the streets are any indication. Their popularity is a natural evolution for a city that deems itself “historic” but has no credible historical museum to offer its visitors. I have a lot a questions and a lot to learn: I pitched articles to two periodicals, one academic and one popular, a month ago and both were accepted, so I’m going to be walking and digging around over the next few months. Just to see the lay of the land, I started with the visitor reviews on the tourism sites, and two things popped out for me: the concern with authenticity (of place) and credibility (of interpreter) among the tourists who left reviews. Let me start out by saying that the overwhelming majority of reviews left by Salem tourists are positive: I hope this is the same for our beleaguered restaurants! People seem to want stories, the spookier the better, and the Salem tour guides are giving them what they want. But even in the very positive reviews, there are lots of comments about sites: parking lots, intersections, modern buildings which are the sites of structures associated with the Witch Trials which are no longer there. There’s a marked disappointment among reviewers that they can’t see authentic historic sites, which explains the popularity of the Witch House and the Old Burying Point on Charter Street. It also explains why tour guides are bringing tourists to Hamilton Hall, right next door to where I live, which is a beautiful, authentic historic site with a very rich history. BUT (again, with exceptions), once they bring these tourists to the Hall, they simply tell a generic tale about the Witch Trials in front of it, even though it was not built until more than a century after they occurred. Believe me, I’ve been out in my garden and I can’t avoid these presentations: I hear the “Back to back and breast to breast, they are dancing their souls to hell” speech from the minister of the South Church which once stood across the street and then it is straight into the witch trials. This is a building rich in African-American history due to the long residence and activism of the Remond family: there is presently a (free!) exhibition on slavery and enfranchisement and this past weekend I watched as several tour groups refrained from even entering the building, with its doors wide open. And these tours don’t even walk down Chestnut Street to explore its wonders: they turn around and go back downtown! Slight exaggeration here, but this is akin to taking a few steps down the Champs-Élysées and no further. I’m always tempted to run out there and say “keep going!” but so far I have refrained; however, I did buy this sign at an antique show about a month ago and and hung it on my front fence.

Now the status and issue of “certified historians”. Apparently all public guides are licensed by the City of Salem (along with auctioneers, junk collectors, drainlayers, and “transient photographers” among other contractors). I think this must be fundamentally a safety issue, but it’s not entirely so with guides as they must take and pass an examination on Salem history. So the City is authorizing and credentialling not only practice, but also content. This is clearly apparent to tourists: they seem to praise guides for their storytelling abilities first and foremost but they also point out that they are “certified”. I have several questions about this process, because now we’re in the terrain not just of my neighborhood, but of my discipline, and my profession. Do all public guides take this examination–even those who drop in by bus for an afternoon or work for out-of-town strictly-haunted tours? How does administration and enforcement work? And why, in a city that references diversity and inclusion as often as possible in nearly all of its public communications and stated priorities, is the test for its “history” guides based on texts which are dramatically dated and reflective of “scholarship” limited to the dashing deeds of old white men? One of the texts which guides “study” was first published in 1880! There is no mention in the Visitors’ Guide to Salem or Chronicles of Old Salem to the Remonds, to Charlotte Forten (or any notable women, of any color, with the exception of Caroline Emmerton, of course) to Salem’s active abolitionist and reform movements, to the vast majority of Salem’s artists and authors, and to the succession of immigrants whose efforts and cultures have shaped the city over time. Frances Diane Robotti’s Chronicles of Old Salem (1948), attempts to offer up some global context for Salem’s dynamic commerce with the observation that “under Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal, Portuguese mariners reach the Gulf of Guinea and discover—and import to Portugal—the true Negro, thus initiating the modern African slave trade” but fails to mention the Desire, which left Salem in 1637 carrying Native American captives and returned months later with the first enslaved Africans brought to the northern English colonies. This dated “content” is reflective of the lack of seriousness with which the City approaches the interpretation of Salem history; indeed everyone I ask about this examination seems to think it’s just a big joke. So I ask: why does it exist?

Salem “history” in 1880—and today.

 

Appendix: This is an ongoing project for me so I’ll be posting more, but I wanted to add an appendix to this particular post about licensing and certification. Salem clearly has licensing but not certification—that ridiculous test can’t possibly credential, despite tourists’ perceptions. Two cities which have more evolved systems are Charleston and Savannah, both of which got rid of their mandatory certifications, but instituted (and encourage) voluntary ones. Court cases, referencing the First Amendment, influenced both decisions: Charleston seems reluctant but Savannah is extremely enthusiastic about its voluntary certification process and has produced a stellar manual which you can access here. Charleston has a comprehensive manual too, but you’ve got pay for it. Compare the Savannah manual to the Salem “study materials”! The Savannah system and materials were developed at the initiative of the tour guides themselves: this could certainly happen in Salem too as local, professional guides are clearly concerned about quality control. I just don’t know how you keep the ghost tours out with a voluntary system, or whether you would want to, as they are clearly popular (well I would want to, because I can’t get out of their way).


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


A Vexillogical History of Salem

What am I writing about? Flags for the July 4th weekend of course: I had to look up that word and thus am using it, despite the fact that it is somewhat intimidating and I could easily have chosen something easy and alliterative like flags of our forefathers. But once I discover a new word, I want to use it, so here we are: vexillology is the study of flags, and like many other aspects of life (including food, drink, architecture, industry, and myriad forms of material and intellectual culture) Salem’s flag history is so notable that you can almost tell its history through flags: we have a famous colonial flag defacement, a Revolutionary symbol, many claims of “first flags” in foreign ports, a notable expression of Civil War resistance, and lots of other interesting flags which illustrate particular trends and times. Salem’s vexillogical history is a a variation on the device used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Grandfather’s Chair, which told the tale of the “Endicott Flag” in vivid detail.

A fanciful view of Endicott ordering the defacement of the English Ensign by cutting out its cross of St. George, Ballou’s Pictorial, 1855; Some flag illustrations from So proudly we hail : the history of the United States flag (1981) by William R. Furlong and Bryan McCandless.

Flag history is often “patriotic history” which of course is a contradiction in terms, so there is a lot of lore and legend that needs to be cut out, just like St. George’s cross. It’s best to stick to the primary sources. John Winthrop reported that on 5 November 1634, “At the court of assistants complaint was made by some of the country (Richard Brown of Watertown, in the name of the rest) that the ensign at Salem was defaced, viz. One part of the red cross taken out. Upon this, an attachment was awarded against Richard Davenport, ensign-bearer (who was ordered to cut out the cross by John Endicott), to appear at the next court to answer. Much matter was made of this, as fearing it would be taken as an act of rebellion, or of like high nature, in defacing the king’s colors; though the truth were, it was done upon this opinion, that the red cross was given to the King of England by the pope, as an ensign of victory, and so a superstitious thing, and a relique of antichrist.” Certainly Endicott was not alone in these sentiments: popery and the cult of the saints were right at the top of the “traditions” or relics which were the focus of intense Puritan opposition in both old England and New England. The “crossless flag” did not really take root, but symbols like the pine tree began to appear on banners in the next century, both within and without the cross, eventually inspiring the famous “Appeal to Heaven” flag of Washington’s Cruisers. There were so many interesting regimental flags used during the American Revolution, but the only one I would find with ties to Salem is that of Major Israel Forster of Manchester-by-the-Sea: there are several extant examples, one in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum (see above) and the other which sold at auction in 2014. There are no references to the Forster flag in the PEM’s digitized catalog and collections, and I’m also curious about a flag with one star and many stripes which was long displayed in the Essex Institute’s Plummer Hall: I don’t know why it is often so difficult to find objects that were in the old Institute in the new PEM!

The Historic Forster Flag at Doyle’s auctions, 2014; 1915 postcard featuring the “mysterious” flag in the Essex Institute.

The history of the recognition of the American flag seems very intertwined with that of Salem’s maritime history: all the old-school maritime historians assert that the first time the US flag was spotted in many Asian and African ports was on a Salem ship. This would be a great topic for an academic paper, perhaps even a dissertation: you can certainly assess how important flying the flag was in all sorts of contemporary images, like George Ropes’ Launching of the Ship Fame (1802). The flag you see here, with its circle of stars, represents a common configuration in the nineteenth century up to the Centennial, but there was no standard, official design for the (expanding) stars and stripes until 1912 so there were all sorts of interesting arrangements up to that time. The Fame flag is very similar to that in a watercolor painting memorializing the American prisoners of the War of 1812 who died in the massacre at Dartmoor Prison in 1815, among them nine Salem sailors. About a decade later, a young Salem sea captain was gifted a flag by a group of Salem ladies for his first overseas voyage in command: this was William Driver, who made his Salem fortune and then retired early to Nashville, where his brothers operated a shop. He brought his flag with him, displayed it proudly until the onset of the Civil War, and then hid it in the attic until Union troops captured the city. His “Old Glory” became the symbol of resistance and triumph, both during and especially after the Civil War. What comes after is a bit more complicated, because there are actually two Old Glory flags: a large banner in the collection of the Smithsonian which is generally accepted as “official” and a smaller one in that of the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum. It is quite clear, however, that a Salem-made flag was at the center of both storms at sea and on land.

George Ropes, The Launching of the Ship Fame, 1802, Peabody Essex Museum; Memorial to the victims of the Dartmoor Massacre, Dowst Family, Skinner Auctions; “Old Glory” at the National Museum of American History.

A few sought-after 13-star flags with Salem provenances have surfaced over the past few decades, including one which belonged to shipmaster Parker Brown and the so-called “Hancock & English” flag from the Mastai Collection, a period flag which was modified by the addition of the 1880 presidential candidates which once graced the cover of Time magazine (July 7, 1980: second from right in top row, below). There was a considerable expansion in the commercial use of the flag over the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was a favorite banner for Salem’s entrepreneurial merchant/photographer/author Frank Cousins, who featured flags and political souvenirs in his shop, and advertised his wares with flag posters and trade cards. From the Centennial on, it’s all about parades as well, which called for a variety of festive flags. Salem excelled at one particular form of July Fourth celebration in the twentieth century—bigger and bigger bonfires—and flags were always on top of these impressive constructions: this has always struck me as a bit problematic as presumably they would burn. A blaze of glory, perhaps.

13-star Salem flag, Heritage Auctions; Frank Cousins Bee-Hive flag, Bonsell Americana; 1896 parade flag, Cowan’s Auctions; July Fourth Bonfire, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.


Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.