Category Archives: Salem

The Golden Goose

Last week Salem’s new Heritage Trail, or at least the foundation thereof, was revealed with a report to the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and the launch of a new website. The outgoing “Red Line” has long been the object of derision, as it was a play-to-play route which made no meaningful distinction between the Salem Maritime National Historical Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum. Concerns about the sign pollution which plagues downtown Salem and the now-common understanding that “redlining” refers to housing segregation apparently inspired the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, to put together a working group comprised of “stakeholders” representing Salem’s organizations, institutions, businesses and local government (but not, notably, neighborhood groups) to reconfigure the existing trail as something “new.” The end result will be a gold line running through downtown Salem, and very nice signs which will mark the stops along the way, including……………….the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum.

Believe me, I’m pretty tired of screaming into the void about how Salem values (or doesn’t) its long and notable history. I also realize that the people who have transformed a small subsection of this history into a valuable commodity have clearly won the day, as many of Salem’s heritage organizations, including Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Historical Society, the Essex Heritage National Commission, and even the Salem Maritime National Historic Site had representative members in this working group, so are clearly supportive of this new trail. But this is a really important time for Salem, with its 400th anniversary only a few years away and so many of its historic houses shuttered, including the entire Essex Street Block campus of the Peabody Essex Museum. So I have a few things to say, of course! I’ll try to be as succinct and straightforward as possible: after some consternation I have limited and organized my thoughts (which might take the form of pleas) into three main points:

      1. Forprofit sites cannot be heritage. Salem’s heritage is a public good, not a private commodity. Packaging an historical event into a dramatic presentation creates an “attraction,” not a museum. Packaging a tragic historical event into an attraction is troubling if not enacted with great care, and the dated figures employed by the The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum evoke more mockery than empathy. These attractions have no place on an officially-sanctioned “Heritage Trail”; I don’t think any for-profit site does. Call the trail something else: my friend Joe suggested the “Tourism Trail.” I would have no problem with that: it’s the equivalency of an actual historic site like the House of the Seven Gables or the Charter Street Cemetery or the East India Marine Hall (all sites on the trail) with a manufactured attraction that troubles me, especially as the latter are so obviously exploitative. The creators and consultants of the new Heritage Trail realize that there is an issue here, so they have come up with criteria that Salem sites which hope to be listed on the trail as it expands must meet. Here they are, included as Appendix B in the “Salem Heritage Trail Recommendation and Project Recap” report prepared by the consultant company MuseumTastic for Destination Salem and presented to the SRA:So, much of this seems fine, certainly the themes are great (more on them below), and the criteria professional. I’m having some difficulty envisioning the logistics of the vetting process, but will leave that to the experts. What does concern me, however, is the disassociation of “site” and “building” as referenced in #3 on. As you see in my graphic above, the Salem Witch Museum, the most profitable of the for-profits, is referred to as the former East Church, which is presumably how it made the cut. Why the East Church is deemed “historic” is beyond me, aside from its imposing Gothic Revival style: certainly it is no more historic than the nearby houses of ultra-philanthropist George Peabody and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, or the birthplace of the illustrious Benson brothers across the Common. When I asked why and how the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, also located in a former church (built by the Christian Scientists and not the East Church parishioners), was included on the trail, I got this response from the Executive Director of Destination Salem: The Witch Dungeon Museum and Lynde Street are the site of early fortifications. English settlers knew that their presence in Salem immersed them in a web of global conflicts. Fearing reprisals from the indigenous people they were displacing and attacks from other colonial powers, the colony of Massachusetts erected a fort near this spot in 1629. Samuel Sharpe came from London with cannons to assume command of the militia. The first fort was probably made of tall wooden palisades, with extensions jutting out to prevent flanking. In the following decades, further fortifications were built along the Salem coast and a palisade was built along the western end of town. The early, feared attacks never happened. The East Church built a chapel on Lynde Street in 1897 and The Witch Dungeon Museum opened in the building in 1979. Visitors can watch a live-action reenactment of a witch trial and tour a recreation of the grim prison where the accused were kept. So basically: because a long-gone fort was once on the site of the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, it qualifies for the trail? I don’t think I need to spend too long discussing the implications of this “standard.” In a city as old as Salem, every structure downtown was built on the site of something else: there are layers and layers and layers. The Witch Dungeon Museum’s storefront sister “museum” on venerable Essex Street, the Salem Witch History Museum, could claim that it sits on the site of Salem’s first printing house or any number of historic structures and thus qualify for the new Heritage Trail. Perhaps the cumulative criteria above could mitigate against this, but it does not appear to have done so with the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum: I think we need to be honest about where we are leading people—and why.

        Mannequin City: mid-20th century interpretive “technology” reigns in Salem’s for-profit witch “museums” which have no incentive to innovate, as the City delivers visitors right to their doors; Witch Dungeon Museum hanging mannequins.

      2. The Trail is too restricted geographically. Salem has been a tourist destination for over a century, and there are previous incarnations of the Red Line, which was stamped on the City in the 1980s. (People seem to think that the big turning point in Salem’s tourism history is the filming of the television show Bewitched in 1970s, or at least that’s the story the rationalizes the placement of the Samantha statue in Salem’s most historic town square. But that’s clearly not true: it was the Haunted Happenings festival, initiated by the Salem Witch Museum in the early 1980s, that created our modern Witch City). All the pre-1980 trails were much longer, and included more Salem neighborhods and sites, including the entire McIntire District showcasing architecture, South Salem showcasing Pioneer Village and many more sites in the Downtown and Derby Street districts. If it really is going to tell Salem’s story in a comprehensive and authentic way (and accomodate all those themes!) the Trail has to branch out considerably. One of the reasons I find it so objectionable to direct people to a witch business on the basis of a seventeenth-century fort that is no longer there is the fact that Salem has a seventeenth-century fort that has been left to rot on Winter Island.
      3.  Salem tourism brochures from the 1950s through the 1980s: not until the last decade was the Heritage Trail restricted to downtown and the “story” increasingly restricted to witches. Love the sentiment of “traveling through history in Salem.”
      1. 3. A Plea for Authenticity & Creativity: I don’t really have enough to go on to speak to technology or  interpretive issues, but from what I can read I am struck by the relative conservatism in terms of the conceptualization of the entire trail: I expect more from a process of “strategic revisioning;” I don’t see any revisioning at all actually. Maybe that’s coming? This trail could have been recast as a “walking museum” as some cities have done (Memphis!), and thus accomodate both heritage and for-profit sites (in a pop culture category: the history of witchcraft tourism in Salem IS part of our heritage unfortunately) as well as the Peabody Essex Museum’s shuttered sites which are outfitted with “PEM Walks” interpretive audio “postcards“: why not integrate this ready-made interpretation into the Trail? Salem doesn’t have a history museum so a thoughtfully-constructed walking museum could really compensate for this deficiency: this approach could also add some chonological development to the trail, which is completely missing. Authenticity is everything in this digital, virtual age, which is why it is imperative to emphasize the unique geography and history of Salem with real places rather than artifical ones: besides the for-profit sites, I am also troubled by the selection of the new Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street as a location to highlight Salem’s African-American history: African-Americans (including Charlotte Forten) did not live or work anywhere near it! And as I’ve written about before, the park has been “colonized” effectively by the Real Pirates Museum, which tells the story of pirates (some real, some not) from Cape Cod. More appropriate places to tell the stories of Salem’s African-Americans are Derby Square (which is on the Trail) where a variety of vibrant black businesses were located, and Hamilton Hall, where Salem’s Remond family lived and worked. Actually, a wonderful interpretive location for interpreting African-American history would be Higginson Square, which runs parallel to Derby Square: to tell the truth, the Remonds spent at least as much time at 5 Higginson Square as Hamilton Hall, and Charlotte spent considerable time there too. There could be some kind of creative installation there, which brings to my last point/question: why is Salem’s very dynamic creative community so absent from this revisioning project? My very favorite urban heritage trail is actually that of Asheville, NC, in which stories of the city’s past residents, both well-noted and not-so well-known, are woven together through public art, including commissioned sculptures and pre-existing artifacts. Lke all the best heritage trails, Asheville’s was a process of considerable community engagement: it is a work in process that is still engaging the community. That could happen here too, but only with the realization that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders” in our city’s Heritage Trail.
      2.  Higginson Square, 1893, Nelson Dionne History Collection, Salem State Archives and Special Collections. A big flatiron to highlight Asheville’s Flatiron building. It begs the question: no Parker Brothers site for Salem’s new Heritage Trail?

So those are my three main points but I do want to say a bit about the “future” of Salem’s heritage, which is kind of a funny phrase: isn’t heritage about the past and how can it have a future? Well, heritage has a past, a present and a future: we’re dealing with the present now. After the Executive Director of Destination Salem gave her presentation to the SRA last week, there were a few questions from the board (which only has authority over signage downtown, not content, so I was suprised to see this engagement), including, “why so much witch stuff?” (I am paraphrasing). She answered: (I’m still paraphrasing but this is very close) “well, 85% or our visitors come for the witch trials so we have to give them what they want.” I have no doubt that this is true, because we don’t have a heritage trail that showcases our Samuel McIntire mansions or our Revolutionary resistance or our 445 Revolutionary privateers or our industrious inventors or our treasure- (and history-) hunting Mormons or our dashing Civil War officers or our zealous abolitionists and suffragists or our amazing artists and craftsmen or our brave warriors on both the battle and home fronts or any of our immigrant communities as far as I can see. Maybe all that is coming, but it is clear to me that witchcraft-based tourism is only going to become even more pervasive in Salem if some sort of structural change does not occur because it is self-perpetuating. Destination Salem has always been a thoroughly professional, accessible and effective tourism office, but I’ve never understood how it came to be in charge of heritage, because for me, tourism and heritage are not necessarily the same thing. But in Salem, I guess they are. I suspect that the same old scenario which governed the creation of the first Heritage Trail was present here: the City did not invest enough effort or money, and so left it to the business owners, who quite logically advanced their own interests. So let’s just call it the Tourist Trail, or take advantage of this (golden) opportunity to do something more—and better.


After the Fire: a New Salem Saltbox

I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.

Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.

A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.

There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.


Landmark Lineage

I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely  something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and  designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)

LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;

 2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.

 3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.

Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.

For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.

Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark store which closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.

Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.


Local Color: Salem June 2022

This is going to be an odd post which will start out sweet and end up a bit sour, but I can promise you that it will be colorful throughout. There’s one aspect of Salem’s history that I never seem to be able to cover completely, despite the longevity of this blog: its horticultural history. Salem was really famous for its horticulture a century or so ago: you can’t browse through a stack (or a database) of house and garden magazines from the first half of the twentieth century without encountering articles on the “old–fashioned” gardens of Old Salem. Several really notable cultivators and landscapers lived here, and one still does! There is continuity: the city still has some wonderful private and public gardens: among the latter are the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens, which are open to the public. There are so many flowering trees and to see in Salem just while walking down the street, especially at this time of year or a bit earlier. So I’ve got some nice photos from the past two weeks or so, and that was going to be the exclusive focus of this post: a parade of colors in Salem for Pride month! But, stuff happens, and in the middle of this very a trouble man painted the Bewitched statue in Town House Square red, setting off a wave of national headlines and local commentary. So I think I’ll add Samantha to this colorful mix. But first: Ropes and Derby:

Salem in June: the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion garden is really more of a high/late summer garden, but the Derby House garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic site is perfect in June.

My garden can’t really compete but I do want to show you my lady’s slippers and I really like the meadow rue that blooms at this time of year. I’ve thinned out my rose bushes, because they just don’t earn their keep in my small garden, so I only have the best bloomers and they are putting on a show right now. This the lady’s mantle time too: I’ve been training my younger cat Tuck on a leash, and the minute he gets it on he goes right for it, so you can see pre-bloom last week and bloom this week. Then there is the vertical garden at the new downtown condo building named Brix (not a fan of this building but I do like its exterior embellishments), peonies from around town, an impressive plant for which I need an identification outside the Peirce-Nichols house (baptisia?) and more roses, on Cambridge Street.

So that brings us to more unnatural color: blue trees and a red Samantha. In the side yard adjacent to the Peabody Essex Museum, the trees have been painted bright blue, a very bright royal blue. This is the 27th international installation of the artist Konstantin Dimopoulos’s The Blue Trees, an “environmental call to action” with watercolor which will fade with time. Very striking, especially at this time of year. With no manifesto and paint that was certainly not biologically-safe, a homeless man spray-painted the upper part of the Bewitched statue a few blocks away in downtown Salem in the middle of this past week. Red Samantha didn’t last long; indeed I’ve seldom seen a quicker response by the City. By the end of the day she was cleansed and a gofundme account set up to restore her to her former “glory”. For those of us in the never-Samantha camp, it was hard to bear the comments on social media protesting this act of vandalism as “disgusting” and “disrespectful” because that’s just how we view the statue: as disgusting and disrespectful to the victims of the 1692. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. As the story created regional and national headlines that night and the next day, I just couldn’t bear the use of the word “landmark” applied to this horror: a landmark should be something that one points to with pride, not embarrassment, which is generally how I feel every time I pass by Samantha. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll praised the quick cleanup by her public services team and opined that “Samantha brings a degree of joy and whimsy to our downtown and has become a landmark location for thousands of visitors to Salem each year” but such craven capitalization on suffering remains incomprehensible to me. To return to my color theme (and lighten up things a bit), there was also a difficult juggling act for those who did not want to praise vandalism by any means, but at the same time thought that Samantha looked better draped in red. Anything could improve that eyesore, and I always see red when I gaze in her direction.

The Blue Trees of Konstantin Dimopoulus; and a fleeting Red Samantha.


Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.


The Eminent Antiquarian

I have been meaning to post on the most eminent of Salem’s antiquarians, Henry FitzGilbert Waters (1833-1913) for a while, but I kept finding more information about him and thought I’d wait until I had the total picture: but clearly he is one of those people for whom references will always appear and it will be impossible to draw the total picture unless one is doing so in the form of a longer piece or even a book. His papers are at the Phillips Library in Rowley, so that might be an interesting project for someone, as genealogy is so popular right now and he is clearly one of its pioneering professional practicioners. But for (or from) me, just a little introduction. Salem produced a succession of eminent antiquarians—-Joseph B. Felt, Sidney Perley, George Francis Dow—so calling Henry F. Waters the most eminent is a big statement, but I think he was: his combinantion of intense genealogical research and incessant collecting gave him a very public status in the later years of his life, and after. And he was the New England Historical and Genealogical Society’s first “foreign agent!” In the obituary written by his friend and Harvard classmate James Kendall Hosmer for the January 1914 issue of the NEHGS’s Register, Hosmer calls Waters “the most eminent antiquarian of his time, perhaps of all times,” so I am just following suit.

Waters in his uniform at the beginning of the Civil War (he served with Co. F, 23rd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers until he came down with rheumatic fever followed by yellow fever and then in hospitals after his recovery) and in the facing pages of his publications; portrait by Salem artist Isaac Caliga in the bottom right corner.

Waters grew up in Salem and went on to Harvard and service during the Civil War, after which he returned to his native city and dabbled according to Hosmer: he “was engaged not earnestly in educational work, collected old furniture, and pored over old documents.” He lived with his parents and unmarried brothers at 80 Washington Square, a c. 1795 McIntire mansion on Salem Common which belonged to his mother’s family (the Townends—who seem to be the reason for his ability to dabble, though his father was a judge). This house was obviously very important to him, as it was his primary residence for his entire long life, but I believe that another “house” was even more important to him: Somerset House in London, a grand classical building on the Strand which is now an arts center, but was the principle probate records repository during Waters’ lifetime—and long after. Waters went to London for the first time in 1879 with his friend Dr. James A. Emmerton (a medical doctor who also preferred to dabble) and they dove into these and other records, looking for anything and everything that might pad the pedigrees of New England families. They were very successful, and published genealogical “gleanings” in both the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute and the Register. Requests for more research were forwarded to both institutions, and in 1883 Waters returned to London as the first salaried “agent” of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society. He remained there (with occasional trips back home) for the next 17 years, during which he traced the lineages of just about every Salem mercantile family and established a national reputation through the continual publication of his genealogical research in journals and books as well as his detailed ancestries of John Harvard, Roger Williams, and George Washington.

80 Washington Square in the 1890s, Frank Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; Somerset House in London, Rudolph Ackermann, 1809, British Library; An Examination of the English Ancestry of George Washington: Setting Forth the Evidence to Connect Him with the Washingtons of Sulgrave and Brington (1889).

Waters is credited by his contemporaries with “historical” discoveries as well as genealogical ones: I’m always a bit suspect of archival “discoveries” as that word slights the efforts of archivists, something I am always reluctant to do! But Waters brought several seventeenth-century maps to light, at least over here, including what became known as the “Winthrop-Waters Map” of the coast of Massachusetts c. 1630 and a colored map of Boston Harbor in 1694 which he had copied, as well as Samuel Maverick’s Briefe discription of New England and the severall townes therein: together with the present government thereof (1661) which had been purchased by the British Library several years before his arrival in London. I really think we should term these American discoveries, but they are very much in keeping with Water’s role as a retriever of textual and material heritage.

Copy of “A Draught of Boston Harbor: By Capt. Cyprian Southake, made by Augustine Fitzhugh, Anno 1694;” made for H. F. Waters, Esq., from the original in the British Library, copyright New England Historical and Genealogical Society.

On to the material. Waters’ lifetime closely coincides with the rise of Colonial Revival culture in New England, although he had a headstart on collecting: Hosmer and other observers state that he was able to get the good stuff before antiquing became fashionable and New England became picked over. The authors of the first books on American antiques all referred to him, and Dr. Irving Lyon, the author of the popular and influential The Colonial Furniture of New England is positively deferential, showcasing seventeenth-century chests, a desk and a chair, and other items from the “Waters Collection.” It was clearly all about the seventeenth century for him; I presume he believed that Salem’s Federal-era furniture was appreciated sufficiently in his day.
Furniture from the “Waters Collection” in Irving Lyon’s Colonial Furniture of New England; Essex County cabinet, c. 1670-1710, from the collection of “noted” antiquarian Henry F. Walters, Yale University Art Gallery; An English chair brought to America in the 1630s from Walters’ collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This was a man who was appreciated during his lifetime, and after, but I think there is still more to discover and emphasize about him. We could embellish his role as Colonial Revival “influencer”: former Peabody Essex Museum curator Dean Lahikainen emphasized this role in relation to Salem artist Frank Weston Benson in the PEM’s 2000 Benson exhibition. Waters had tutored Benson and his brothers who grew up nearby on Salem Common and several of Benson’s paintings featuring interiors included items from the Waters collection or inspired by it. I think that Waters’ educational roles are a bit underemphasized: he was a gentleman tutor for sure: but he also held formal teaching positions at different times in his life and served on the Salem School Committee. His family is very interesting: he proudly served in the Massachusetts Massachusetts 23rd and in the medical corps, but several of his Waters cousins owned and operated plantations in the south—in Georgia and Louisiana (The Waters Family papers at the Phillips Library in Rowley will yield many “discoveries”, I am certain). And there is also more to say about his genealogical methodology, which I think would be of interest to contemporary genealogists. Salem is projecting a strong and rather stodgy heritage profile during the dynamic Gilded Era, and Mr. Waters was one of its most prominent exemplars.


Salem as Historyland

For the most part, this blog has been an academic release for me rather than academic engagement: I consider most of the history I’ve offered up here more pop-up than professional. But there is one academic field with which I have been engaging (mostly in the form of learning) continuously: the history of tourism. This is a relatively new field, emerging in the 1990s, but also a very interdisciplinary and important one, involving social, cultural, and economic factors interacting at local, regional, and global levels. There’s a Journal of Tourism History, several academic book series, and an emerging taxonomy: the general category of Heritage Tourism, for example, can be broken down into more specialized endeavors: literary tourism, thanatourism (also called Dark Tourism, focused on visitation to sites of death and suffering), legacy (genealogical) tourism. Salem became a tourist designation in the later nineteenth century, and from that time its projections have included all of these pursuits. With the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials in 1892, witches started appearing everywhere, but Nathaniel Hawthorne represented stiff competition in the opening decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904 and the opening of the House of the Seven Gables in 1910. Over the twentieth century Hawthorne waned and the witches ultimately triumphed, but at mid-century there was a relatively brief span when Salem and its history were both perceived and presented more broadly, as an essential “historyland” which one must visit in order to understand the foundations of American civilization. The major periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Time, Life, American Heritage and National Geographic, presented Salem not only as a Puritan settlement, but also as an “incubator” of both democracy and capitalism with the events of 1692 subsumed by those larger themes.

I think I need to explain and qualify my use of the term “historyland” before I continue, as I’m not using it in the perjorative way that it has come to be used in recent decades: idealized history theme park where one can escape the present and have fun! The “American Way of History” in the words of David Lowenthal. Its meaning evolves, but I am using it first (more later) as it was initially applied: to a region in which much happened and much remained as material legacy to what happened. It emerges in the 1930s as a very specific reference to the area encompassing Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: I believe a section of Virginia’s Route 3 is still called the “Historyland Highway.” Virginia was so great at marketing itself as Historyland (an example is upper left in the above graphic—some chutzpah to claim that the “nation was preserved” in Virginia!) that other states, like nearby Maryland and North Carolina, started using the term as well. I’m sure that every state on the eastern seaboard was jealous, and the term was extended geographically, chronologically, and conceptually when a Historyland living history park focused on the logging industry opened in Wisconsin in 1954. In the next decade, National Geographic started using the term more generally in reference to national landmarks, in the succession volumes to its popular Wonderlands guides. I don’t want to romanticize the word or its meaning too much: the history that characterized these historylands was overwhelmingly European, narrative, and a bit too focused on colonial costumes for my taste, but at least it was place-based. I can imagine that the civic authorities would have been just a bit wary about the impact of for-profit attractions peddling a story that was not Salem’s in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the presence of so many non-profit local history museums like the Essex Institute, the Peabody Museum, Pioneer Village, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clearly that is not a concern now. In characteristic fashion, National Geographic focused on the site-specific aspects of Salem’s past and present in its September 1945 issue, focused on the Northeast. Its industrial base has created some “drabness,” but “this prosaic, utilitarian present is more than matched by an extraordinarily insistent and romantic past. Salem is literally a treasure house of early American landmarks, relics, articles, and documents of historic interest, all easily accessible and within a small area. The little city is fairly haunted by these still-visible evidences of its illustrious position, first as progenitor of the great Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later as a mistress of the seas. Unlike some larger cities of venerable age, in which population grew apace, it was unnecessary for Salem to tear down and rebuild: thus a larger proportion of memorable objects remains undisturbed.” Wow: a city which retains its treasures, was focused on preservation, and haunted by its still visible-past rather than made-up ghosts! What we have lost.

Photographs of Salem from the September 1945 issue of National Geographic, obove, and from America’s Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (1962) below: the Witch House, secret staircase at the House of the Seven Gables, and Pioneer Village.

This total package, “treasure house” characterization continued to define Salem’s representation in national periodicals over the next two decades, during which Life, Time, and even Ladies Home Journal came to the city to take it all in: the Custom House and Derby Wharf, the House of the Seven Gables, Pioneer Village, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Court House with its pins, the YMCA with its small Alexander Graham Bell display (see above), the recently-restored Witch House, and Chestnut Street. (And everything was open all the time! Peirce-Nichols, Derby, all those houses we can seldom enter today).  But change was coming, to they ways and means by which we interpreted the past as well as to Salem. From the late 1960s, the meaning of “historyland” took on a more negative meaning and associated “living history” attractions began to fall out of fashion, a trend that culminated with Disney’s disastrous Virginia pitch in the early 1990s. And then Samantha and her Bewitched crew came to Salem, allegedly showing it the way forward: tell one story rather than many and focus on private profits rather than civic pride. The Salem Witch Museum demonstrated that that path could be very successful, and so everybody else jumped on board: the public sanction of “Haunted Happenings” eventually transformed Salem into a full-time Witch City and undermined those institutions which were trying to tell other, or more complicated stories. Many of Salem’s textual treasures have been transferred to Rowley, but I guess we are compensated by the real pirate’s treasure from the Whydah? In recent years, the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, has attempted to broaden its appeal by taking advantage of the popularity of genealogical research/travel with its Ancestry Days (next week: see schedule of events here) but I wonder how far that initiative can go when most of Salem’s genealogical assets are in Rowley. Perhaps no structure represents Salem’s transition into a modern historyland, with all of its current connotations, better than the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion, once merely an “early home on an old street” and now the Hocus Pocus house. If I were a true historian of tourism, I could explain this transition in social, cultural, and economic terms, but I’m not there yet. Nevertheless, Salem is the perfect subject for this dynamic field: we’ve already seen some great studies, and I’m sure we’ll see more.

The Ropes Mansion in the May 16, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, and October 2021.


Pirates were Pirates

So I’ve been preoccupied with pirates for about a week, ever since the new Real Pirates Museum opened up in Salem adjacent to Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street. My preoccupation was fostered by initial outrage at the apparent pirate takeover of this relatively new park dedicated to a prominent abolitionist and educator: colorful murals of the pirates within rise about the very minimalist park in a manner which I found dissonant and even offensive. I saw red: this was another Samantha statue moment for me. It wasn’t just the murals: the Real Pirates sign and entryway is centered on the park and there is obvious intent to integrate the attraction with the park. What could be the rationale? I looked through the meeting minutes of the two boards which were charged with approving the walkway, signage, and murals, the Salem Redevelopment Authority and the Public Art Commission, and found some interesting statements from the project manager for Real Pirates to the latter. He connected piracy and abolitionism (and past and present) through an effusive focus on piratical egalitarianism: “the concept of the murals is to portray the values of maritime history honored in Salem today as represented by the jolly roger, a symbol once condemned by nations that enslaved and exploited human beings and now seen as a symbol of what may have been the most democratic and egalitarian society of its time and by five portraits of historic individuals who sought freedom from the oppression and intolerance of their time.” The Commission approved the murals with one condition: that the pirates be disarmed.

Pirate values? That’s the connection? Motley crews in the Golden Age of Piracy shared the same values as Charlotte Forten in the nineteenth century and even Salem today? This seemed a little over the top and brought me into the realm of the Real Pirates Museum, a place I didn’t really want to go: it’s a private business and who am I to tell them what they should or should not be doing? But still, this is a lot of public projection, literally and metaphorically. I’m very familiar (especially after doing a deep dive over this past week) with the historiography of Atlantic piracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and others have emphasized the socio-economic structures which churned up so much piracy and cast pirates themselves as working-class heroes challenging the various hierarchies of the British Empire during its most craven period, when it was armed with the asiento granting monopoly privileges to supply the Spanish Empire with enslaved labor. Pirates were clearly challenging this evil empire, and doing so with diverse and meritorious crews, but pirates were also pirates: practical, opportunistic, violent. Pirates were not roving abolitionists. While it is true that the large crews of Edward Thatch or Thache, the notorious Blackbeard, might have been as much as thirty percent African at one time, it is also true that when he captured the French slaver La Concorde in November of 1717 with 455 enslaved Africans in its hold he returned the vast majority to its deposed captain for transport back to the slave market in Martinque. La Concorde became his flagship briefly, renamed The Queen Anne’s Revenge: slave ships were popular among pirates as their architecture suited piratical purposes perfectly, but liberating human cargoes was not their business. In the words of David Cordingly, “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…” (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 34). They were also disarmed, just like the Real Pirates mural figures.

Anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, whose wreck was discovered in 1996. The Queen Anne’s Revenge Project is an absolutely wonderful site, where discoveries, treasures, and topics are discussed regularly relative to the ship in particular and piracy in general.

So that brings us, and me, to the Real Pirates Museum in Salem. Real Pirates is the sister museum of the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod: both are based on the sensational underwater archeological discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, another slaver turned pirate flagship, off the eastern coast of the Cape in 1984 by Barry Clifford. I’ve always heard that the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck, but I believe that the Queen Anne’s Revenge has since been authenticated as well? In any case, the Whydah Gally was captured in the Caribbean by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew on her maiden voyage in 1716 and utilized to capture a succession of prizes until she ran aground off Wellfleet in the following year. Bellamy perished along with most of his crew, a young, dashing, democratic Robin Hood who seems to have acquired the most romantic reputation of any Golden Age pirate because of his storied relationship with a Cape girl, Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett, who may or may not have existed (If she did exist, she was certainly not named Maria, a very Catholic name in very Protestant Massachusetts). Here is how the project manager of Real Pirates described these two in his submissions to the Salem Public Art Commission, as their murals were going to be, and are, very prominent:

Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood” of pirates, who had suffered as a common sailor, and was determined to assert his inherent human right to organize with others of similar conviction to form his own nation that would oppose by force other nations that had derived their wealth from the sale of human beings and from the murder and exploitation of the common person.

Maria Hallett, who as a single mother was thrown out of her home, banished from civilization and then accused of being a witch and yet never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation.

Much of these characterizations seem to be made up of whole cloth, and when I read them, I really didn’t want to visit a museum pushing romance over reality: even if “Maria Hallett” existed, or is a composite of several women who existed, how in the world can one know that she never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation (salvation?)? But I’m really upset about the park, so I knew I was going to write more, and if I was going to write more I knew I might end up criticizing the museum because of these over-the-top, thoroughly anachronistic statements of egalitarianism, dignity and love rather than its own exhibits, which is not fair. So off I went to see the Real Pirates. Before I left, I wanted to check the photography policy, so I went to the website, and there I saw something very interesting: I was not headed for merely a pirate experience, but a pirate and witch experience!

This is not the pitch on Cape Cod, I can assure you: this is a special Salem pitch. And obviously this is why there’s so much emphasis on Maria Hallett, who became known as the “Witch of Eastham” over her long legendary career. I quickly became more fixated on this than the “Pirates as Social Justice Warriors” claim, especially as I did not see over-reach in that area in the exhibit’s interpretation. It was disappointing, because my experience there was primarily positive: the staff was friendly and informative, it’s a very well-designed space, there’s a good introduction to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and there are authentic artifacts from the Whydah. When you have Real Pirates and real treasure why feature a fake witch? I think this focus is a mistake, although to its credit, the exhibition does present all the Maria theories rather than the “fact” of her existence. I shook that fictional witch off, because I was enjoying my conversation with one of Real Pirates’ managers, who is a graduate of our MA program at Salem State where she wrote her thesis on pirates! She was full of plans and ideas, for both interpretation within the museum and engagement outside: she seemed to have put more substantive thought into how to feature and honor Charlotte Forten than most people associated with the City of Salem, even though that is not her job. (I still think it’s a stretch, and an uncomfortable one at that, but go for it) And then I got distracted by the nautical instruments displayed, as there’s a whole chapter on them in my book: I thought they were rather boring to write about actually but now I don’t seem to be able to get enough navigational dividers! That’s the key: the authentic objects. Historical authenticity is sadly at a premium in touristy Salem, and the Real Pirates Museum can distinguish itself by keeping it real.

A REAL Anchor.


Pirates Plunder Charlotte Forten Park

What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.

Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.

There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?

Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.


The Power of Juxtaposition

The Peabody Essex Museum has opened a new integrated exhibit of items from its American and Native American collections entitled On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America and I made my first visit last weekend. This is an “ongoing” exhibition, which I guess means permanent, and I’m glad it is going to be on view for some time as it offers quite a lot to take in and think about: there are new things to see but even familiar items are cast in a new light through their arrangement. While the exhibition explores various themes relating to “being and belonging in America” its overall curation is what captivated me on this first viewing: it seemed as if there were a succession of cascading vignettes crafted from the artful juxtaposition of both like and unlike objects. Juxtaposition is a powerful way to engage and to teach: I use contrast and comparison quite a bit in class but I wouldn’t call my efforts artful. In contrast, On This Ground’s presentations cross genres and time very fluidly, right from the beginning when a video featuring Elizabeth Solomon, a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, is contrasted with the original Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1628-29 through which King Charles I claimed the land of her ancestors (I have to say that the Charter actually belongs to the Salem Athenaeum, which placed it in storage at the Essex Institute long ago; the PEM seemed to develop an interest in exhibiting the Charter only when the Athenaeum was seriously considering selling it in 2006, so it’s great to see it as one of the opening exhibits of this important new exhibition.)

The juxtapositions are not always so jarring: each culture gets the opportunity to tell its own stories as they cycle through history, as exhibit text proclaims that “history is not linear” repeatedly. Then there is convergence, but there are intra-cultural juxtapositions too: I particularly liked the contrast of proximity between the works of two of Salem’s most well-known sculptors, William Wetmore Story (Marguerite) and Louise Lander (Evangeline), as the latter was explicitly slandered by the former. And the Hawthornes are in close proximity, as they also shut their doors to Miss Lander. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of Salem’s even more famous “people’s sculptor,” John Rogers, in real life (clay), so it was great to see The Wounded Scout: its sentimentality was a good match for what I think is a new acquisition by the PEM (in honor of recently-retired curator Dean Lahikainen), Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s The Pillory Scene from The Scarlet Letter (chap. 12, p. 185-188), 1860.

But there are also some starker contrasts which are illuminating: with context but also aesthetically, including two “political teapots” placed side by side (“Stamp Act Repeal’d, 1760s & Nuclear Nuts Teapot Variation #13 by Richard T. Notkin, 2001), a very fancy dressing table paired with some equally fancy boots, and so many aligned portraits. The internal “windows” of the gallery space open up some interesting juxtapositions as well.

There were two aspects of the exhibition that remain rather “unsettled” in my mind, one very general and the other very particular. So of course I have to go back and settle them! It seemed to me as if the Native American objects came from a much broader geographic region, but that just might be my parochial perspective. And once again (for the 99,000th time) I am troubled by the Salem Witch Trials. I was really excited when I read the thematic label for the “Heroes & Histories” section of the exhibit, especially the opening line if the same stories are repeatedly told, whose stories are we missing? That’s Salem in a nutshell: we just keep telling the same story! So I kept going, and there’s the same old story of the Salem Witch Trials in (very familiar; TOO familiar) images, objects and texts. I just don’t understand how a(nother) Tompkins Harrison Matteson painting represents a “new way of looking at the past.” The most recent historiography of the Salem Witch Trials has focused on Salem as a “frontier” society: wouldn’t this be a relevant perspective to explore here?

This was just one discordant corner of this sweeping exhibition, which otherwise struck a pitch-perfect balance of the familiar and the new for me. The two paintings which captured my attention for the longest time were one which I was quite familiar with (Alvan Fisher’s Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818) and one which was brand-new to me (Bahareh and Farzaneh Safarani’s Twilight Reincarnation, 2018). I like to orient myself in the past through the former, while the latter simply delighted me with its fleeting window shadows, so much so that I forgot to contextualize the painting altogether.

On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America: ongoing at the Peabody Essex Museum.


%d bloggers like this: