Category Archives: History

Stepping off in Salem

I browsed through a few promotional publications issued by the Boston & Maine Railroad Company a century and more ago this past weekend and was reminded of just how integral the train was to Salem’s economic and cultural life at the time, and well after. In 1909 New England Magazine emphasized the former in an interesting article called “The New Salem” which charts Salem’s transition from seaport to manufacturing center: “its railroad facilities (it is on the main line, Eastern Division of the Boston & Maine railroad, and has direct lines to Lowell and to Lawrence, which are great coal-carrying roads), are unexcelled, for its manufactured products can be loaded into box cars and sent with expedition to any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, where standard gauge rails run, without transfer”.  Boston & Maine emphasized their economic role in slimmer, more ephemeral publications, but their illustrated guide books, highlighting the shore, the mountains, and “picturesque” New England, tended to focus on their ability to effect cultural connections. Down East Latch Strings; or Seashore, Lakes and Mountains by the Boston & Maine Railroad. Descriptive of the tourist region of New England (1887), Here and There in New England and Canada (1889), and All along Shore: a booklet descriptive of the New England coast (1907), all issued by the “General Passenger Department” of the Boston & Maine, were clearly oriented towards “the vacationist’s enjoyment”. These books have instructive descriptions of what the vacationist should look for in each town once he or she steps off the trains, wonderful illustrations, and great maps—I could look at these railroad maps forever. All trails seem to lead to Old Orchard Beach or North Conway, but there’s lots to see along the way—or on the way back.

Train touring collage

Train Touring DE LATCHSalem was one recommended stop along the eastern line up to Maine in the 1880s–but Old Orchard Beach was really the place to be in the summer. Bird’s Eye and route maps are always included and tipped in.

Train Tour 5

Train Tour Map 1902

The chapter on Salem in Moses Foster Sweetser’s Here and There is a fascinating mix of past and (1887) present, with a slight reference to the witchcraft “delusion” and much more emphasis on the China Trade and Hawthorne: before the 1892 Bicentennial Salem hadn’t quite evolved into its Witch City identity. Sweetser refers to Salem as a “mother-city”, and notes its somewhat-faded grandeur as well as its current vitality: “Of late years there has sprung up a new Salem within the old, a metropolis for the adjacent populous towns of Essex South, with active manufactories, richly-endowed scientific institutions of continental fame, and a brilliant local society, made up in part of cultivated immigrés from Boston, who find here the choicest advantages of urban life in a venerable and classic city”.  I love this observation—it contradicts what I think is the mythology of a long decline for Salem and it also sounds like now (although the émigrés are coming more from Cambridge and Somerville than Boston).

Train Tour

Train Tour 4 The North and South Churches in Salem, and the “Old Witch House” in Here and There in New England and Canada (1889): I’m not sure the Witch House ever looked like this!

Sweetser departs Salem for points north “passing out from the castle-like stone station of Salem, the cars rumbling into the the long, dark Salem Tunnel, for half a century happily known as the “Kissing Bridge” of this route, and the locale of more than one bright osculatory poem”. Well there’s one avenue for further research—and once again I wonder, why did we tear our depot down?

Train Tour 6


Harbor Views

Among my collection of Salem stereoviews I have very few of the coastline or harbor, preferring structures to nature, always. But Salem’s coastline–and especially its harbor–has been built almost from its founding as both a settlement and a working port, so I’ve started to look for some shoreline stereoviews. I haven’t had much luck in terms of items for purchase but the other day I dipped into the digital collections of the American Antiquarian Society and came up with several harbor views unknow to me–the only one I was aware of is the first one by Frank Cousins, the others are new (to me) perspectives. These are all undated but I think they are from the late 1880s and early 1890s: it is notable that I’m searching for “Salem Harbor” but finding very few images of the “working” harbor, which would have consisted of rotting wharves by this time. The images below portray a harbor of leisure: the Willows, beaches, docks for day trips. Salem was emerging as a tourist destination at this time because of its carefully-crafted history, but also because it could tap into the draw of the New England seashore. No one wants to see those old wharves at this time, but fortunately artists like Philip Little were capturing them for posterity.

Salem Harbor Stereoview Cousins “Pennsylvania Pier” by Frank Cousins, from his “Salem in 1876” series, which was published in the early 1890s.

Salem Harbor Stereovew 6

Salem Harbor Stereoview 7 Collins Cove “Collins Cove” is written on the back.

Salem Harbor Stereoview 8

Salem Harbor Stereoview 4

Salem Harbor Stereoview Naugus Head “Salem Harbor from Naugus Head”.

Salem Harbor Stereoview 2

Salem Harbor Stereoview 5

Salem Harbor Stereoview 3 This last view is the most rare and mysterious: no date, no photographer, no publisher. I think it is from the end of the Willows looking back towards Salem on the Beverly Harbor side but am not sure—any other ideas?

All Stereoviews courtesy the American Antiquarian Society.


Victorian Slum Sightseers

Years ago I remember enjoying historical-reality series like The 1900 House, Frontier House, and Colonial House, but I’m not having quite the same response to the current representative of this genre, Victorian Slum House. Two shows in, I have spent most of my watching time trying to figure out what bothers me about the premise and the presentation, rather than enjoying the process of “historical” immersion. I’m usually a fan of creative approaches to history, and I think “historical empathy” is a worthy, if unattainable goal, but there’s something about this particular series that is troubling me. I thought I’d use this post to isolate my concerns.

Victorian Slum House Cover

I’m sure you can guess the premise even if you haven’t seen (or heard of) the show: several 21st-century British families of different composition are installed in a meticulously-recreated slum house in London’s East End (actually Stratford) to play out the working- and living-conditions of the 1860s through the 1910s each week in survival-of-the-fittest fashion. Among the families there are ties to the East End of the past and what appears to be a very earnest desire to “know” and “understand” their ancestors by living their lives for a few weeks. There have been very few pop-up historians so far, but nevertheless lots of historical information is put out there for context: the high price of food, the importance of piece-work, the constant in-migration into London leading to ever-increasing rents and density, mechanization, globalization and (in weeks to come) political empowerment. The cast talks about the filth all around them, and we see some of it, but we don’t see the darkness and we can’t smell the smells: the communal outhouse is shown only (so far) as a place where kippers were smoked.

Victorian Slum House

Victorian Slum House 8

Ultimately two very random references surfaced in my brain: one quite silly and the other more serious. Everyone does everything on their beds, together, so I was immediately reminded of all those scenes of the Bucket family home in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. More seriously, the impactful words of E.P. Thompson, written in the preface to his classic tome The Making of the English Working Class (1963), kept surfacing in my mind: his intent to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. The enormous condescension of posterityThe English working class was rescued by a half-century of social historians, so now they are far more familiar and heroic to us, but perhaps another form of condescension has emerged in this age of history-as-entertainment: it’s more about us than it is about them.

Victorian Slum House 5

I do think the “cast” was earnest and well-intentioned, though rather craftily put-together by the producers: obviously the 21st-century bespoke tailor (above) was in the best position to succeed in the Victorian era: the administrative assistant, disabled professional golfer, and retired carpet-store salesman were not so well-equipped. And they threw an American in there too, who proclaims her interest in migration. Ultimately we’re only supposed to really experience “history” through these people, so we need to know what they are seeking. We know they have learned something when they shed tears: when they realize how hard their ancestors had to work or how close they are to the edge with no safety net beyond. These are the moments when we–the audience–are supposed to get it as well, as we put ourselves in their places. But the tears don’t last long, and are followed by smiles when the players admit they can go back to their comforts and devices. They are just historical tourists, and we are daytrippers.

Victorian Slum House 3

Victorian Slum House 7

Victorian Slum House 9

Scenes from Victorian Slum House watched from my comfortable parlor.


Out of the Closet

This is actually a post on Salem wallpaper, but there are so many anecdotes about long-forgotten patches of paper found in closets and cupboards by vintage wallpaper hunters/reproducers like Dorothy Waterhouse and Nancy McClelland that I thought I could get away with a more provocative title. A great example is “The Creamer” pattern manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Company in the 1930s after its discovery in the upstairs closet of a house (still very much standing) on Essex Street which belonged to the Salem stationer Benjamin Creamer. Before his untimely death in the early 1850s, Benjamin and his brother George were major stationers in Salem, supplying both writing papers and “room-papers” to their customers; George carried on alone from that date.

Salem Wallpaper Creamer

Salem Wallpaper 361 Essex

Salem Wallpaper Creamer Ad

“The Creamer”, manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Co., after a fragment found in the Nicholas Crosby House on Essex Street, home of the Benjamin Creamer family in the mid-nineteenth century; a trade card for Creamer Stationers.

I’ve checked in all (12) of my closets and found no remnants of rare French wallpaper, sadly: just dull old paint befitting a house that was once home to boarders and one very large family. But there are lots of other places to look for Salem wallpapers: Historic New England has digitized its extensive collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum of the Smithsonian maintains a treasure trove of wallpaper images online, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also have wallpaper samples among their digitized collections. And if you can’t find the original paper, images and descriptions of colonial reproductions in trade catalogs can also offer impressions of what once was, as well as verification of the importance of Salem as source. I love to look for and at old wallpaper for both aesthetic and historical reasons: it gives you the ability to imagine existing houses in earlier incarnations, and verifies the existence of houses that no longer exist. First the former.

Salem Wallpaper collage

Salem Wallpaper Capt Farlen House

Salem Wallpaper collage 2

Salem Wallpaper Nathaniel Hawthorne 1920

Salem Wallpaper collage 3

French block-printed paper, c. 1820-25, manufactured by Jacquemart & Bénard, originally in the Lindall-Gibbs-Osgood House on Essex Street, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; A fragment of paper taken from the upstairs chamber of the Capt. Thomas Farless House at 120 Derby Street, 1862, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; Two wallpapers associated with the Gardner-Pingree house: Zuber et Cie’s “Grinling Gibbons” and Nancy McClelland’s “Pingree House”, Cooper-Hewitt Collection and Hannah’s Treasures on Etsy;  “Nathaniel Hawthorne” wallpaper, c. 1920, once installed in the House of the Seven Gables, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; a Nancy McClelland catalog from 1941.

The wallpaper samples below were taken from houses that no longer exist: I had no knowledge of most of them so now I’ll have to go down another rabbit hole and find out everything I can about them! Just look at the first fragment below, from the Louisa Rhodes house on Essex Street (where was that?) and the collection of Historic New England: stunning. There are three Salem reproduction wallpapers manufactured by the venerable firm M.H. Birge & Co. in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, all from houses that are no longer standing. One pattern (the last below), simply called “Old Salem” is also in the Historic New England archive, which includes the extraordinarily detailed notationan old colonial paper……laid by J.W. Everill on Dr. Cook’s house in Norman St., Salem, Mass., Oct. 22nd and 25th, 1852. A notation on the old paper from which this was taken established its age in this country as 63 years. Yet, the fact that this sample was made in sections or black, and fastened together, offers evidence that it was many years older. No papers being produced in rolls or continuous strips until after the year 1790. This Louis XV paper with its Swiss influence comprises a vista of romantic scenes, medieval castles and crags above a river. The author gets a bit more fanciful here, but his observations are still interesting: In picturing Dr. Cook’s house, as it was in the old days when the Halls echoed with laughter, and wax tapers were in vogue, the customs of dress with the men in knee breeches with silver buckles and gold lace, women in trailing brocades and rare laces, not to overlook the powdered puffs, and the negro servants coming and going on household errands, all tend to show why the charm of coloring, as well as the decorative character and excellent drawing of this design prompted its appropriate use. But I thought it was laid in 1852, hardly the setting described above: maybe it was stuck in a closet until that time?

Salem Wallpaper Rhode House HNE

Salem Wallpaper Sible Hancock ST

Salem Wallpaper Elm and Charter

Salem Wallpaper Old Salem

Wallpapers from the lost Salem houses of Louisa Rhodes (Historic New England); Mr. Sibble of Hancock Street (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt); Mr. Holbrook’s house at the corner of Elm and Charter Streets (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt), and Dr. Cook on Norman Street (Birge’s “Old Salem”, Cooper-Hewitt and Historic New England collections).


Salem’s Trials

The registration for the one-day symposium organized in recognition of the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials is now open: Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692 is co-sponsored by the SSU History Department, the Essex National Heritage Area, and the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice , and will be held on June 10 (the execution date of the Trials’ first victim, Bridget Bishop) at Marsh Hall on the campus of Salem State University. All are welcome: we are hoping that the symposium will be both academic and accessible, introductory and interactive.

Salem's Trials Poster_04_17 Border

We’ve been fine-tuning the program for quite a while, and I think it now has the perfect balance of perspective, time, and place. I don’t want to speak for all of my committee members, but to me the title of the symposium, Salem’s Trials, refers not only to the Trials of 1692 but also to their continuing legacy: Salem seems to want to replay this event over and over and over again, for redemption and for profit. We will have a trio of Salem experts on hand, including my colleague Tad Baker, Margo Burns, and Marilynne K. Roach, as well as people with expertise in other areas and  disciplines to broaden the cultural context of 1692. There will be a panel on teaching the trials led by my colleague Brad Austin featuring area educators, and another colleague, Andrew Darien, will be enabling descendants to record their oral testimonies (I think descendants of “perpetrators” too, although we should use another word—accusers is better). Because the symposium is happening close to the dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge memorial, the recently-verified site of the executions, we really wanted to focus on space almost as much as time, and consequently we chose a geographer to give our keynote: Kenneth Foote, the author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. 

Shadowed Ground

There will also be a plenary panel on “The Making of Witch City” which we envisioned as historical but will likely veer into the present with audience participation. It seems like the present always bears on the past in any consideration of the Salem Witch Trials, a tendency that was definitely cemented by the observances of its last big anniversary, the Tercentenary of 1992. That year, Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel were present at the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, and the very first Salem Award was given to actor Gregory Allan Williams, who rescued a victim of mob violence in the midst of the “Rodney King” race riots in Los Angeles. All week long, I’ve been hearing anniversary reflections on these riots on the radio, and just last night the Salem Award Foundation awarded a new commendation, the Salem Advocate for Social Justice Award, to musician-activist John Legend at a packed event at Salem State University. Everything comes around again.

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

The 1992 Memorial off Charter Street by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler, courtesy Cutler Anderson Architects.


One Man’s War

Shifting to a more somber Caribbean story in commemoration of the beginning of the Spanish-American War, on this day in 1898. I thought I had the perfect source to draw upon for a puffy piece on Salem’s experience of this ten-week war: Harry Webber’s Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War (1901). After all, the author was a journalist for the Salem Evening News who traveled with the 8th Massachusetts Infantry to Cuba. But Webber was only interested in presenting the barest of outlines from a patriotic perspective: he did not dig deep and he also got a lot of thing wrong, including the name of Salem’s first and most celebrated casualty of the war, William Huntingdon Sanders. When I saw Sanders’ photograph captioned with the name Wellman H. Sanders, I promptly put Webber away and looked for some real primary sources.

Spanish American collage

William H. Sanders grew up on Chestnut Street, at #43. He loved sports and science, and attended both MIT and Harvard, from which he graduated in 1897. I’m not quite sure what he was up to in the year between his graduation and the outbreak of war, but he enlisted a few days after the declaration along with several like-minded friends, forsaking the Massachusetts 8th for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, which attracted a curious mix of southwestern cowboys and Ivy Leaguers like Sanders. Off they went to Texas for training, and then to Cuba, where Sanders saw action with Troop B, and served as Roosevelt’s orderly during the battle of San Juan Hill.  He is referenced by Roosevelt in his various regimental memoirs for his service, but also for his death, which came six weeks after San Juan on a hospital boat in Santiago Harbor.

Spanish American War Map

Spanish American War Stereo

Spanish-American War 3

The Boston Sunday Herald’s special section on the war on April 28, 1898 included this “Map of the Seat of War”, Boston Public Library; the Rough Riders departing for Cuba on the Yucatan and Roosevelt’s serialized war memoirs in Scribner’s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Roosevelt, along with all the short notices, reports that Sanders died of a “fever” but I wanted to know more, and it took some work to uncover the precise circumstances of his death. This is why I’m so angry with Webber, the “reporter”: he neglects to report one of the key aspects of the Spanish-American War and all of the wars before it: the fact that more casualties came from disease than from combat. Military historians, at least those that focus on the totality of war rather than just the reconstruction of battles, always stress the roles of environment and infection, generally dividing modern warfare into Eras of Disease (18th century–1918), during which infectious diseases were the major killer of armed forces, and Trauma (1941 to the present), in which combat-related fatalities prevailed. Sanders and his fellow soldiers were sent into combat armed for war, but defenseless against disease. The American casualties in both the Caribbean and Pacific theaters of the Spanish-American War numbered 3,289, of which nearly 3000 died from disease, including malaria, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever. This was realized at the time: Major-General William Shafter famously referred to his “army of convalescents”, and the newspaper articles published daily in July and August of 1898 reported on both the high incidence of fever among the troops–as well as its mismanagement– with great conviction and regularity. My favorite headline, from the Boston Daily Globe, August 12, 1898: Neglect of Brave. Busiest Officer in Santiago is General Incompetence. That very same day, which happens to be the same day that William Sanders died, Harper’s Weekly published an equally scathing visual indictment on its cover.

Spanish-American War Headline

Spanish-American War Harpers

While the general story was well-reported, I could only get at Sanders’ personal story through Harvard, or the Harvard Crimson in particular, which told the stories of all the Harvard men who fought and died in the war in a slim volume issued in 1899. Each Harvard volunteer’s story is derived from first-hand accounts, and Sanders’ is particularly poignant (and infuriating!):  Sanders was in all the battles of his regiment. He had many narrow escapes but was never wounded. He was always exposed, especially in the assault of San Juan Hill, when he was Colonel Roosevelt’s orderly. On July 6, Sanders had a slight attack of malaria, and a second more severe one on July 23. He was ordered to the General Hospital at Santiago on July 30. But no ambulance was sent for him, and accordingly his tent-mate Dean mounted him on a horse and took him to Santiago. But they could not find the hospital. Dean therefore left Sanders in charge of the steward at the Marine Hospital with the latter’s promise to have him taken to a hospital boat in the Bay before sundown. But the promise was not kept. Sanders lay on the piazza of the Marine Hospital for two days, feeble, without remedies or care. He was then removed to the ship Los Angeles. But it was too late. He died August 12, and was buried in Salem with full military honors. Indeed he was, on September 15.

Sanders Collage

The story doesn’t end there, however, as William’s father, Mr. Charles Sanders, would not let it end: he obviously asked questions: what happened at the marine hospital? what happened on the hospital ship? I know this, because he received at least one answer, from an anonymous nurse on the Los Angeles, which was published in all the Boston- area newspapers under the title Rough Rider’s Life Sacrificed on October 29, 1898. In said nurse’s opinion, I feel sure that his death was due to the lack of proper stimulants to bring him over the chasm between the time of his fever’s leaving and the return of his natural vitality. I am not a trained nurse, and did not know at the time what he should have had, and because of the inefficiency or drunkenness (or both) of the attending physician, proper restoratives were not administered in time. Inefficiency or drunkenness, or both! Since I’ve tried to be a bit journalistic in this post, I searched for an official rejoinder, but came up short. There’s no way William Sander’s service and death can represent the totality of the American experience in the Spanish-American War, but they do open up one window, and provide a necessary corrective to contemporary reports like Greater Salem in the Spanish-American War.


The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.


%d bloggers like this: