Category Archives: Salem

In Which I Try to Understand the Peabody Essex Museum’s Current Exhibition on the Salem Witch Trials

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), located here in Salem, deserves considerable credit for engaging in and with the history of the city’s trademark event, the Salem Witch Trials, in a series of exhibitions featuring authentic documents and objects beginning last year and continuing this year with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. For several decades prior, the PEM ignored the trials, and by association, the flocks of tourists who converged upon Salem because of their escalating exploitation. During this time, I always hoped that the PEM would offer some sort of exhibition to counter the commodified interpretations of the trials (or some essence thereof) which reign in Salem, and it has. Last year’s exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials 1692, was a little spare, but the authenticity of its items and the straightforward manner in which the story was told was striking, especially in the context of schlocky October Salem. But this year’s exhibition is……much more murky: I simply don’t understand what I’m supposed to take away from it, both in terms of “reckoning” and “reclaiming,” especially the former. Connecting the past to the present is a complex task, or maybe I’m just missing the links made, so I thought I would “write it out”.

Judge Jonathan Corwin’s Trunk: Corwin was a justice on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which presided over the Salem Witch Trials, and his Salem house is now known as the “Witch House”.

I briefly visited this exhibition shortly after it opened in September, and returned yesterday with several students in my freshman seminar on the Trials: they are going to be writing reviews for our class, so we’ll see if they have grasped it better than I! There are three parts to Reckoning and Reclaiming. You enter into the world of seventeenth-century Salem, armed only with a map and a very brief panel introduction to the trials, and represented by objects or “material manifestations” belonging to people swept up in the trials: Judge Corwin’s trunk (above), victim John Proctor’s sundial, a loom belonging to one of the members of the accusing Putnam family, embellished with symbols of counter-magic, as well as documents related to the legal process of the Trials. The second part/room takes you, via a timeline on the wall and more primary-source documents, through the more focused prosecution of victim Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich and into the present, represented by a glittery black dress from her descendant Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2007 collection entitled “In the Memory Of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692.” Still in the present, you (we) move on to the last part of the exhibition: photographs of modern witches by Frances F. Denny, who is also a descendant of a Trial participant, Judge Samuel Sewall, as well as a woman prosecuted for witchcraft in Boston in 1674, from her series Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America.

Edward Payson’s Testimony on behalf of Elizabeth How(e).

All the constituent parts of this exhibition are interesting and well worth your time, but how are they connected? And who is doing the reckoning and the reclaiming? The exhibition, or us? I discern responses on the part of descendants McQueen and Denny but I always though reckoning and reclaiming were a bit more intensive activities. I looked up both words in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to get some guidance.

Reckoning: The action or an act of giving or being required to give an account of something, esp. one’s conduct or actions; an account or statement so given. Also: an occasion of giving or being required to give such a statement; a calling to account. A calling to account! That’s it: so who is being called to account in this exhibition? The afflicted girls, the judges, the people of Salem? Nope, no reckoning on their parts is in evidence. Survivor Philip English’s 1710 statement “What a great Sufferer I have been in my Estate by reason of the Severe prosecution of me & my wife in that Dark Time”, as well as the 1712 petition for compensation by the daughters of victim Elizabeth Howe are included in the exhibition, but not the apologies issued by accuser Ann Putnam, members of the jury, and Judge Samuel Sewall. We can read the poignant testimonies of those who spoke up for the accused (and these are my favorite objects of the exhibition) but the swift, even jarring, movement into the present makes it seem as if redemption is not possible in the past. Before I saw this exhibition, the use of the word “reckoning” in its title was enticing to me as I thought we were going to be presented with an historical view of how people who lived through the Salem Witch Trials wrestled with what they had experienced in its aftermath, but we are not presented with a full accounting.

Reclaiming:  Wow, this is a word that has many meanings and forms! Everything from falconry to recycling. I think the meaning that is relevant here is this one: To reassert a relationship or connection with, or a moral right to; (now frequently) to re-evaluate or reinterpret (a term, concept, etc., esp. one relating to one’s own demographic group) in a more positive or suitable way; to reappropriate. Clearly the exhibition is emphasizing the reappropriation of the word “witch” in our time through the creations of Alexander McQueen and the photographs of Frances F. Denny (along with the words of Denny’s subjects, who are all very expressive and assertive). But what does this reappropriation have to do with the victims of 1692 who were not, of course, witches? Again, the shift from past to present seems jarring, and the connective thread very thin, essentially McQueen’s and Denny’s lineage (and there about a million descendants of Witch Trial victims out there). Denny’s portraits are compelling for sure, so much so that they seem to constitute another, separate exhibition, tied to the first only through a word (and a dress?).

The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until March 20.


A Samuel McIntire Sofa

There is an extraordinary auction coming up in a few weeks at Skinner featuring the art and antiques of a Beacon Hill couple. Among the maritime and China Trade paintings and colonial furniture is an amazing c. 1805 mahogany sofa attributed to Salem’s Samuel McIntire, described as carved with a “crest with rectangular panel and shaped flanking panels, all with punchwork ground, the center panel with basket of fruit, the shaped panels with flowers and scrolls, above leaf-carved arms and turned waterleaf-carved supports, all on turned tapering legs” and listed with an opening bid of $15,000 and an estimate between $30,000-$50,000. So this is obviously well beyond my reach, but I still love it, even its upholstery (which I know is not supposed to matter but still).

I had been focused singularly on sofas for much of this year, having made the decision to replace the two settees in my front parlor with one larger couch. I wanted a Sheraton sofa, perhaps not a period piece but some later reproduction, with the (less-embellished) straight lines and legs of the McIntire sofa above. If they’re not attributed to McIntire, they are actually affordable! But I lost out on a few auction bids and then changed direction: my husband wanted something comfortable in that room after sitting on settees for so long, and I had to admit to myself that I really wanted to be able to take a nap in this room, which gets lovely light in the late afternoon. So we ended up with a couch from the 1990s (I think): its straight lines seemed to accommodate any adjacent style and its down cushion is really comfortable and nap-able. I’m pleased with my choice but the sight of this McIntire sofa sent me back into Sheraton musing. I rounded up some more McIntire sofas for fun: not a difficult task as everyone who has one wants the world to know it. There are McIntire sofas in many of the major American museums, in the White House, in the Texas Governor’s Mansion, and of course in the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem. I’m not sure what the market is for one of these precious pieces now, but a decade ago the very similar Silsbee family sofa sold for over $111,000 in a Christie’s auction, so it will be interesting to see what this Skinner lot fetches.

Sofas attributed to Samuel McIntire of Salem in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Clark Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Winterthur, the White House (the central hall in 1963, photograph from the White House Historical Association) and the Texas Governor’s Mansion. And below: my new/old very Non-McIntirish couch: you can see I went in a very different direction!


The Spectre Ship of Salem

Despite the Salem marketing memo, Halloween is the time for ghosts, not witches, who already have their Walpurgis eve. I don’t think any ghost story could be more appropriate for a Salem Halloween than that of the legendary “Spectre Ship of Salem” which was supposedly reported by Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana, according to all the internet “sources” and their sources. I can’t find the original reference, however, only one nineteenth-century gothic tale which asserts that it is embellishing Mather and indeed provides its readers with all sorts of romantic detail: a young couple bound for Old England set sail from Salem sometime in the later seventeenth century aboard the Noah’s Dove only to be presumably shipwrecked and perpetually cast adrift, their ship (and themselves) appearing periodically as an “apparition in the air” to the startled souls of Old Salem (always just before sunset, of course). The story of the “Spectre-Ship of Salem” first appears in print in Blackwoods Magazine in the spring of 1830, is transformed into one of the poetic Legends of New England by John Greenleaf Whittier, and then reappears in prose form in American periodicals over the next twenty years or so: with its repeated references to the elusive Mather, it is actually a ghost story about a ghost story! Mather does write about a ghost ship in his grand New England history, and cites a near-contemporary letter as evidence, but it is a ship out of New Haven rather than Salem, wrecked in 1647 and “perpetually sailing against the wind” thereafter.

Cotton Mather (including map embellished by me, 1702), John Greenleaf Whittier (1831) and Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (1851).

Although his poem was penned early in his career, I suspect Whittier is responsible for the periodical popularity of the Salem spectre ship “legend” in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the fact that it could be linked to another spectral story increasing in appearances at the time, that of the Salem “witches”. It’s also so Hawthornesque. George Francis Dow commissioned the printing of a stand-alone edition of the Whittier poem in 1907, an act that was definitely in keeping with his other efforts to preserve/showcase/create colonial traditions. Ghost ships are the most global of eternal apparitions, so why shouldn’t Salem have one?

The Dow edition of the Spectre Ship of Salem, published in Salem in 1907; J. Flora illustration of a ghost ship from A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim (1965).


The Rebecca Nurse Homestead

As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.

A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.

I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.

I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.

No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.


A British & Bucolic Gaze on Salem

I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.

The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.

Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of Country Life.


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!)


Salem in (water)color, 1939

Salem set the style standard in the first half of the century when Colonial Revival ruled, ruled, and continued to rule: right up to World War II and then beyond, according to the dictates of shelter magazines. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, you can find photos of Salem houses and house parts in issues of The House Beautiful and House & Garden from nearly every year: after that Salem is not quite as “present” but still around. Much of the attention shed on Salem is a result of two people I’ve written about here time and time again, Mary Harrod Northend and Frank Cousins, and after their deaths in the mid-1920s a Salem publicist-successor did not appear, yet “Old Salem” (rather than the “Witch City”) endured as the quintessential New England seaport. I’ve shared every Salem feature in these two particular periodicals from the teens and twenties in past posts, but not too many from the 1930s. A few weeks ago I came across some Salem images from a 1939 issue of House & Garden which were so striking that I knew I had to track down the original copy rather than rely on a digital version, and when it arrived I was not disappointed. This was an issue devoted to New England in all its glory, and Salem plays a central role. There is an interesting architectural introduction by Frank Chouteau Brown, some charming infographics that indicate that the Federal style had not yet been identified (???) but was rather referred to as the “Late Georgian,” and then some lovely watercolor vignettes of the interiors of several Chestnut Street Houses, the Gardner Pingree House, and the House of the Salem Gables by students at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which is now the Parsons School of Design.

Cover and illustrations from the June 1939 special New England issue of House & Garden. No Federal?

 

The Barstow West and Pickering Dodge Shreve Houses on Chestnut Street.

 

Parlors and Bedrooms of the Gardner-Pingree House of the Peabody Essex Museum.

 

Parlor and Dining Room of the House of the Seven Gables.

 

These rooms look so lively in these images: the interpretations really emphasize color and texture over pristine period perfection. There are some black and white photographs in the issue as well, like the one of the John Ward house below, but I don’t think they can compete with color. The magazine also aims to be a resource, so there’s a listing of all the historic houses in Salem and their hours of operation, which were far more extensive than today. You could go into the Peirce-Nichols House every afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday all year long, and the Gardner-Pingree and Derby houses every day!

The Ward House and notice for the Second Chestnut Street Day, 1939.


Summer Sunday Stroll in Salem

Sometimes I try to look at Salem as a tourist, a casual tourist taking a stroll, rather than with my historian/resident intensity. It doesn’t work for long, but I can pull it off for a few hours. I haven’t been home for very many weekends this summer, and I’m about to depart for two weeks in the Hudson River Valley, so I decided to take a long walk around Salem on a humid August afternoon, taking only pretty pictures (no new buildings). Two happenings inspired me: the annual antique car meet on Chestnut Street sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House (which did not happen last year and so I was REALLY looking forward to it) and the bountiful gardens around town, the products of our very rainy July.

I just love the juxtaposition of old cars and old houses at this car meet, which gets bigger and better every year.

More natural color: the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens are bursting with blooms at this time of year; the former is a formal annual garden, the latter a Colonial Revival garden of traditional plants: they are actually quite complementary. The Ropes is maintained by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) and the Derby garden by the Salem Maritime National Historic site: I appreciate these perpetual gifts to the community by both organizations.

Ropes and Derby Gardens.

It was definitely phlox time in both gardens, and Derby was abuzz with bees and butterflies. While I am grateful to the PEM for the Ropes Garden (as well as the open Ropes Mansion), even the casual tourist is going to notice their other properties around town and wonder what’s going on there? Can I get in? The grounds of Peirce-Nichols have always been wide open, now they are closed (but not locked) and I can’t remember the last time I was in there or Crowninshield-Bentley. Ok, stepping outside of my casual tourist mode (I told you it doesn’t work for long): every time I walk by the newly-restored Daland and Plummer buildings on Essex, right next to the Visitors Center, I can’t help but think: why can’t the Salem Museum go here? The buildings are so beautiful, so convenient, and apparently empty. Why can’t the PEM install their recent Witch Trial exhibit in there, along with the wonderful “Salem Stories” still on display across the way, and the Bowyer sundial, the Pickman codfish, James Emerton’s Paracelsus apothecary sign, various Derby items, the rooster weathervane from the former East Church, maps, photographs and paintings by Salem artists, among many other things and create a contextual introduction to Salem history for the those tourists who do not come dressed in Halloween costumes in the middle of August? And residents too! A girl can dream.

The PEM’s Peirce-Nichols, Crowninshield-Bentley, and Daland houses + Plummer Hall, the previous location of the Phillips Library.

Back on the tourist trail. I must say: Essex Street east and west on either side of the pedestrian mall is looking pretty good these days: some nice restorations, street gardens, and window boxes. One thing that the casual tourist might not notice, but I sure have, are some improvements in the hardscape downtown: there are several islands which have been neglected for years which are newly-planted and newly-mulched, like those across from the old Custom House, below. Central Street is further embellished by two beautiful shops, Emporium 32 and Diehl Marcus & Co. Back up on Essex and further down, I checked out the newly-restored First Period Daniels House, apparently the “Oldest Bed and Breakfast in the US,” and then walked down to Derby Street.

Shop window installation by Salem artist Meg Nichols of Mink Studio, reflecting the PEM’s summer exhibition, In American Waters: the Sea in American Painting. Central Street shops, Essex Street wreaths, and the Daniels House.

Derby Street feels like the realm of the House of the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, both of which I’ve written about many times, but in the midst of the latter is my favorite little street, Palfrey Court, lined by the Derby Garden, several Georgian buildings, and St. Joseph’s Hall as well as the former “Rum Shop” (another building that needs a purpose!). I just love this little street: when I stand in the middle of it looking down towards Derby and the water, I get a better sense of Salem’s maritime-mandated streetscape than anywhere else. It’s the mix of buildings, the narrowness of the street, the absence of cars. Up ahead is the (relatively) new location of the Salem Arts Association, a perfect spot with lots to see inside.

Palfrey Court and the Salem Arts Association.

And returning home for the golden/cocktail hour!

 


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).


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