Category Archives: History

A Week to Remember

It’s a rare week in Salem that the Witch Trials are the focus of commemoration rather than commerce, and this week is just such a time: the combination of the 325th anniversary of 1692 and the completion of the new memorial marking the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge is creating a perfect storm of remembrance. Maybe I’m a bit more focused on it than the average person because I’m also teaching a graduate institute on early modern witch-hunting all week and moderating a panel on Proctor’s Ledge on Thursday, but I think many people in Salem and its environs will be thinking about the victims of 1692 this particular week. I find the timing very poignant: we had our 325th anniversary symposium on June 10, the date of the execution of the first victim, Bridget Bishop, but on July 19 the Trials intensified with the execution of five women: Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes. Even though more executions were to follow in August and September, July 19 was also a turning point in the village consciousness: if such a venerable and pious woman as Rebecca Nurse could fall prey to accusations of witchcraft, then surely anyone could. Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem will dedicate the Proctor’s Ledge memorial on Wednesday the 19th at noon, the Danvers Alarm List Company, the stewards of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, are hosting a commemorative event that evening, and Governor Charlie Baker has proclaimed the 19th Rebecca Nurse Day.

Week 5 Hill

Week Rebecca Nurse

I went by the new memorial this morning, a glorious Sunday, as I wanted to spend some contemplative time there—it’s a small neighborhood site so I’m sure Wednesday will be a bit more busy. I’m so grateful to both the city and the neighborhood for making this memorial happen, as well as to the Proctor’s Ledge team of historians and geologists and interpreters who were not going to be satisfied with a generic “Gallows Hill” (earlier “Witch Hill”) execution site. Gallows Hill remains a neighborhood, however, and I sure there are those who live there who fear that their community will be overwhelmed by the witch-trial tourism that overruns the city in the fall and has transformed the downtown tricentennial Witch Trial Memorial into some less than sacred space. I hope that doesn’t happen too. I find the two memorials to be very complementary; if fact, when I was looking at the new one this morning I kept thinking about downtown, especially with reference to a poem about the latter by Nicole Cooley, from her 2004 volume of poetry inspired by the victims–and resonance–of 1692, The Afflicted Girls.

Week Text

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The absence she speaks of seems somehow less present at Proctor’s Ledge (if absence can be less present).

Week Memorial

Week Memorial 2

Week Worst Day

The Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in Salem, to be dedicated on July 19, 2017.


Battle of the Bonfires

Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.

Bonfires Cabinet Card 1907

A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.

So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.

1. It’s all about the 1890sI’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3:  from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.

Bonfire 1898 collage

2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.

Bonfires 1903

Bonfire 1905collage

3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.

Bonfire BDG 1909

4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905:  never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.

Bonfire electricity collage

5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.

Bonfires 1922

Bonfire 1927 collage

Bonfire 1928 Lowell Sun

6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp) neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.

Bonfire Depression collage

7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill?  I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!

Bonfire 1928 Text Box


Red, White & Blue in the Newburys

I visited a friend up in Groveland yesterday and drove home in a very indirect way, east along Route 113 and south along Route 1A: I could have been home in a half hour or so but instead my return trip took several hours, because I had to stop and look at houses, of course. Much of my drive was through the Newburys: West Newbury, Newburyport, and just Newbury. These are all beautiful towns: Newburyport is the most bustling, and justly celebrated for its colonial and Federal architecture, but I’ve always been equally impressed by West Newbury, which is characterized by a line of beautiful classic colonials–interspersed with the occasional First Period house—all perfectly preserved. They’re all on Route 113, the main route between Newburyport and Haverhill and beyond–once obviously a country road running parallel to the Merrimack River but now pretty busy. There’s no sidewalk, so you have to look for spots to pull over and then walk alongside traffic until you reach the object of your adoration. Normally I don’t have time to do this, but yesterday I took the time.

Newbury Colors 9

Newbury Colors 10

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Houses on the West Newbury Training Field (+ World War I Memorial): two down, an amazing First Period house (which is actually light green).

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Newbury Colors

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Newburyport, all ready for the Fourth.


Preservation by Pencil

I often get asked if I’m ever going to write a book about Salem—and I always feel like the subtext of the question is or are you just going to keep dabbling on your blog? I always say no, as I’m not really interested in producing any sort of popular history about Salem and I’m not a trained American historian. I have a few academic projects I’m working on now and at the same time I like to indulge my curiosity about the environment in which I live, because, frankly, most of the books that do get published on Salem’s history tend to tell the same story time and time again. First Period architecture is the one topic that tempts me to go deeper: not architectural history per se (again, another field in which I am not trained), but more the social and cultural history of Salem’s seventeenth-century structures—especially those that survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How do they change over time? Why do some get preserved and others demolished? What was their perceived value, at any given time? Why do some houses get turned into memorials/museums/”monuments” and others disappear, forever forgotten? And (here’s the blogging angle): why are some of these structures preserved for posterity in photographic and artistic form and others not? This is a rather long-winded contextual introduction to my focus today: the wonderful house renderings of the Anglo-American artist Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892). Whitefield was an extremely prolific painter of landscapes and streetscapes, flora and fauna, and I’m mentioned him here several times before, but I recently acquired my own copy of one of his Homes of our Forefathers volumes, and now I need to wax poetic. I just love his pencil-and-paint First Period houses: they are detailed yet impressionistic, simple yet structural, and completely charming. I can’t get enough of them.

HFTitle Page

HF4

HF3

HF 8 Coffin House

HF Gloucester

There are five Homes of our Forefathers volumes, published between 1879 and 1889, covering all of New England and a bit of Old England as well: Boston and Massachusetts are intensively covered in several volumes. Whitefield clearly saw himself as a visual recorder of these buildings and was recognized as such at the time (a time when many of these structures were doubtless threatened): An 1889 Boston Journal review of his houses remarked that “We cannot easily exaggerate the service which Mr. Whitefield has rendered in preserving them”. Even though the title pages advertised “original drawings made on the spot”, implying immediate impressions, Whitefield put considerable research and detail in his drawings, intentionally removing modern alterations and additions so that they were indeed the homes of our forefathers. His process and intent are key to understanding why Whitefield includes some structures in his volumes and omits others. He includes only two little-known Salem structures in Homes: the Palmer House, which stood on High Street Court, and the Prince House, which was situated on the Common, near the intersection of Washington Square South, East and Forrester Street. There were so many other First Period houses in Salem that he could have included–Pickering, Shattuck, Ruck, Gedney, Narbonne, Corwin, Turner-Ingersoll–but instead he chose two houses which were much more obscure, thus rescuing them from perpetual obscurity.

Preservation by Pencil Collage

Homes of our FF LC

Already-famous First Period houses in Salem, either because of their Hawthorne, witchcraft, or Revolutionary associations: the Turner-Ingersoll house before it was transformed into the House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original situation, the Shattuck House on Essex Street, a sketch of the Corwin “Witch House” and the Pickering House. Whitefield’s single postcard of the Witch House in its original incarnation (it was then thought to be the residence of Roger Williams, an association that was later disproven by Sidney Perley).

The Palmer and Prince houses are mentioned in the Pickering Genealogy (Palmer) and Perley’s Essex Antiquarian articles, and apparently there’s a photograph of the former deep in the archives of the Phillips Library, but without Whitefield’s sketches they wouldn’t exist. He was drawn to them, I think, by both their age and their vulnerability: both would be torn down, with little notice, in the same decade that his sketches were published.

HF SALEM 2

HF Salem


The Lost Bungalows of Great Misery Island

Out on Salem Sound the other day, sailing in a beautiful boat, I looked over at one of the several islands that mark the entrance to Salem Harbor and tried to imagine what once was. Off Great Misery Island there is a calm maritime meeting place referred to as “Cocktail Cove”: while one imbibes off-island now a century ago drinks were served on the island, first at the Misery Island Club, which became the Casino Hotel in 1904, and also in private cottages: 26 in all. Most of the structures on Great Misery were swept away by a fire in May of 1926 (just before the season), and both it and its adjacent island, Little Misery, reverted to nature under the stewardship of the Trustees of Reservations. But for a quarter of a century or so, Great Misery was quite a happening place, and its cottages attracted the attention of contemporary shelter magazines. House & Garden and The House Beautiful featured several Misery Island summer houses on their pages in their “aughts” heyday,  all bungalows, and all the work of Salem architect Ernest M.A. Machado, an extremely enterprising young architect who died far too soon.

Sailing to the Misery Islands, passing the Fame along the way–off Great Misery.

Misery Sailing

Misery Fame

Misery Today 2

Ernest Machado’s buildings on Great Misery: the Clubhouse/Casino (MIT Archives); the bungalow of Mrs. Charles Steadman Hanks (Mary Harrod Northend, “Some Seacoast Bungalows”, House and Garden, June 1905), “Ye Court of Hearts” (The House Beautiful, June 1905), the bungalow of Mr. George Lee, “The Anchorage” of Mr. George Towle (The House Beautiful, June 1909) , and “The Bunker” of Mr. Jacob C. Rogers (The House Beautiful, June 1906).

Misery Island Club

Misery Hanks collage

Misery Island Lee Bungalow

Misery Bungalow 2

Misery Bungalow 3

Misery Bungalow Bunker

Misery Bungalow Bunker 2

All of these Misery Island bungalow-owners lived on the mainland, either down in Boston or somewhere on the North Shore (Rogers was the last private owner of Samuel McIntire’s majestic Oak Hill, where the Northshore Mall now stands, or should I say sprawls), but they also owned summer houses along the Gold Coast: these cottages were for the weekend! The magazine articles accompanying these images emphasize the simplicity of the island bungalows, but it was a very deliberate, and very occasional, ethic. For about a quarter century, Misery was a Gilded Age playground, complete with shooting range and golf course, perfect for Harvard senior “Robinson Crusoe” picnics and reunions. Its moment might have been even shorter: social register references seem to appear with much less frequency in the teens and twenties, and then this very social chapter in the island’s history closes much more abruptly with the 1926 fire.

Misery club Bonston Post June 25 1902

Misery Reunion 2

Misery Fire collage May 8-10 1926 Boston Daily Globe

Misery Today

Misery Salem Harbor 2Newspaper reports of the 1902 Harvard reunions (Boston Post, June 22-25, 1902 ) and 1926 fire (Boston Daily Globe, May 8-10, 1926); Great Misery today, and home in Salem Harbor on a glorious early evening!


Scorched Earth/A Lost Salem Garden

Since I went in deep for the centennial anniversary of Great Salem Fire of 1914 a few years ago I have this date imprinted in my mind: I woke up this morning and my first thought was oh no. So much was lost that day—houses, factories, civic buildings, churches–as the fire devoured several wards of Salem. The recovery effort, which seems remarkably swift and efficient to me, focused primarily and rightfully on rebuilding, but there was an implicit concern for the loss of landscape as well, and so parks were planned and trees replanted. There was one notable Lafayette Street landscape that was lost on forever on that day, however: the garden of George B. Chase. There was no effort to reconstitute this creation; instead the large lot became the site of the new Saltonstall School, which rose from the ashes of the fire pretty quickly. The Chase Garden was indeed fleeting, but fortunately we have two great sources to remember it by: the wonderful 1947 guide book Old Salem Gardens, published by the Salem Garden Club, and several photographs in the American Garden Club’s Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian.

Chase Old Salem Gardens

Chase Old Salem Gardens 2

Chase Garden collageJust one of my many copies of the invaluable Old Salem Gardens (1947) with the Chase garden entry; the location of the Chase garden on the 1874 and 1891 Salem Atlases.

The Salem Garden Club ladies who produced Old Salem Gardens, chief among them Club President Mable Pollock, took great care to include historical information and personal reminiscences whenever possible, greatly enhancing the research value of their compilation:  this is no little pamphlet! We hear all about the Chase Garden from the “discussive and chatty” Miss Chase, who grew up on the property, as her memories are transcribed onto the page. She tells us about the beds of ostrich ferns and rhododendrons in the immediate proximity of her family house, above which swayed purple beech and weeping birch trees, and a “large bed containing 72 plants of Azalea mollis bought from Lewis Van Houtte of Belgium”. In the spring there was white narcissus poeticus, followed by red salvia. Laburnum and althaea screened the large vegetable garden, which included salsify, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, summer squash, tomatoes, onions and corn: the seed of the latter [came from] a cousin, Benjamin Fabens, and was called “Darling’s Early”. It was most satisfactory in every way, for the ears were not too long, and they had deep kernels and a small cob; the husk was quite red, as were the blades….it was the sweetest corn ever eaten at that time. Continuing along towards Salem Harbor along a box-bordered path, we “see” fruit trees and more exotic trees and shrubs, including a very notable varieties of magnolia and viburnum which particularly impressed repeat visitors from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Near the back of the garden were beds of roses, and a cutting garden of annuals and perennials, encircled by yet another row of shrubs and trees, including the oldest growth on the property, a locust grove, which nature had planted. All swept away on one day: June 25, 1914.

Chase Garden

Chase Garden AAG 1904 Smithsonian

Chase Garden After

Chase Garden After 2Views of the front and back of the Chase Garden (including Mr. Chase himself on the bench), 1904, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution; Ten years later on Lafayette Street: postcard views of the Fire’s immediate aftermath from the (commemorative???) Views of Salem after the Great Fire of June 25, 1914 brochure issued by the New England Stationery Company.


In-Vested

Yesterday I was treated to a very special tour of the China Trade gallery and basement of the Peabody Essex Museum by a distinguished and generous curator, and while I was able to snap lots of photographs (exhibition items, packing and conservation materials, amazing things in storage, including a whole subterranean gallery of ship models, some in their original Peabody Museum cases) I came away thinking about just one item, a portrait of Captain William Story by the Chinese artist known in the west as “Spoilum” (Guan Zuolin). The Story portrait stuck with me for two reasons. I had just been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter, which disses Story as one of the venerable figures, sitting in old–fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, ill voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms–houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew at the receipt of custom, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom–House officers. By all accounts this is an unfair characterization of Story, who was ending his storied maritime career with a post at the Custom House as Weigher and Gauger, but you can read about his long career here. The other reason I was so taken by Story’s portrait is far less weighty: once again I wondered, why is his hand in his vest? This is a portrait by a Chinese artist who probably knew nothing of that western convention—or perhaps Spoilum was such a popular artist precisely because he did.

Story PEM

Story Spoilum

Importing Splendor gallery wall at the Peabody Essex Museum with portrait of Spoilum’s Portrait of William Story, c. 1804; close-up from MIT’s “Envisioning Cultures” website.

Everyone seems to associate the hand-in-vest/waistcoat pose with Napoleon but many such portraits predate those of the little emperor. Why put the hand in this position in an expression of apparent disablement? Or is it cloaked power? Then there are the rather spurious theories of Masonic hidden hands or attempts by the artists to lessen the challenge of rendering hands by painting just one. Apparently it was simply a dictate of genteel behavior, handed down from the ages of Greece and Rome (which explains the pose’s eighteenth-century origins, in that most neo-classical of centuries). If it was a question of gentility, you can see how the pose would appeal to merchants and sea captains, self-made men who perhaps wanted to appeal a bit more polished for posterity.

Piggot

Young Mariner

George_Washington,_1776

Spoilum Cranstoun

Portrait of a Western Merchant

American Sea Captain Dutch School

Ships Model PEM

Pre-Napoleon in-vested sea captains (+ General Washington): Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of Captain John Pigott, c. 1752, LACMA; John Durand, Portrait of Young Mariner, ca. 1768–1772, collection of John and Judith Herdeg; Charles Willson Peale, General George Washington, 1776, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Chinese-export Reverse Painted Mirror of Captain John Cranstoun, c. 1785, Bonhams; Spoilum, Portrait of Western Merchant, c. 1785, “Envisioning Cultures at MIT; Portrait of an American Ship Captain (Purported to be Captain John Thompson of Philadelphia who engaged in the China trade), c. 1785, Sotheby’s + in the basement of the Peabody Essex: what a treat!


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