Category Archives: Salem

Liberation Day

November 1 is Liberation Day in Salem: the long Halloween is over, quite suddenly it always seems, and the city is returned to its residents. I’m in much better spirits than last year because of my boyc0tt of downtown Salem: the image of the Witch Trials Memorial turned into a food hall is somewhat faded from my mind. It’s comforting to know that in this month, and the months leading up to next September and October, civic resources and energies will be liberated from propping up the seasonal Halloween industry and thus enabled to focus on promoting Salem’s less-ephemeral attributes. As usual trick-or-treating generally mollifies my feelings about Halloween as the kids are so cute, but still, I’m glad it’s over (again).

My favorite trick-or-treaters (or costumed people who walked past my door–sorry, the pictures of an entire Game of Thrones crew and the Swiss Family Robinson (I think?) did not come out well).

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My feelings today, illustrated : “Liberty Triumphant” (against oppression) in the Revolutionary war and World War I (Library of Congress) , joyful skipping by Harold Edgerton (© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), My cat Trinity at peace.

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The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.

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Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.


Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


Two Nights in Salem

As you might imagine, my teenage stepson is not at all sympathetic to my I don’t want to see tacky & exploitative witchcraft “attractions” attitude in October so we have ventured downtown for the last couple of nights.The weather has been warm but rainy so there weren’t that many people milling about but we did avoid the more commercial sites. I think I first took him to the Salem Witch “Museum” when he was six or seven and he thought it was ridiculous then; so he has no desire to return now, thankfully. On Thursday night we went to a few shops on the way to one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s monthly themed PEM/PM evenings, which are always great.This month’s theme was “Moon Landing”, in reference to their brand new exhibition “Lunar Attraction”, which is just the kind of multi-media, multi-genre, multi-era, and multi-perspective presentation that I always enjoy. We spent a lot of time watching the colorized version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) that was playing continuously, but I found many of the exhibit items almost as captivating.

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The Peabody Essex Museum on Thursday evening past: atrium and “Lunar Attraction” exhibits, including screen shots from A Trip to the Moon; Beth Hoeckel’s “Campground” collage from her ongoing series “Point of View”; Scott Listfield’s “To the Moon”, 2004, a Japanese moon rabit, and Edward Holyoke’s ink illustration of a solar eclipse, 1713.

On our way over to the Museum we stopped in at the Salem Arts Association, where there were works both timeless and ephemeral and seasonal-macabre, some more witty than others. I liked these little coffins in the window and a “Vampire Test”mirror; my stepson liked a map of the United States divided into regions which have Waffle Houses and regions which do not.That came home with us.

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On Friday night, before the deluge we had later and the PBS documentary on the making of Hamilton, we went to the House of the Seven Gables for one of their seasonal experiences, “Legend of the Hanging Judge”, in which actors play out different roles relating to the witch trials in the rooms of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace: the author himself was in residence, consumed with guilt, as his ancestor is the title character. The one good thing about Salem’s crass commercial Halloween tourism is that it gets tourists through the doors of real museums like the Gables, although I fear out-of-town sausage sellers make more money.

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The Gables at Night. I can never get a good night shot–was trying for the contrast of garden and house and this is the best I could do!


What became of the Pineapple House?

There was a large Georgian house in Salem referred to by all as the “Pineapple House” for its prominent door decoration. It was built by Captain Thomas Poynton at some point between 1740 and 1750 on Brown Street near Salem Common, and later moved to an adjacent court off the main street. Today neither the house or the court exist: I’ve been trying to determine what happened to both with little success! According to the Genealogical Memoir of the Driver Family (1889), the frame of the house was brought from England by Captain Thomas Poynton, husband of Mrs. Hannah Poynton (Bray), in one of his own ships as early as 1740. This house still stands in 1887, in a most excellent condition, but not on its original site, having been moved some hundred feet to make room for a house built for Mr. Stephen Ives (no. 40 Brown Street) whose heirs are the present owners of the Pine Apple House. My hero, the photographer-preservationist Frank Cousins, took several photographs of the house and its famous doorframe in the 1890s and 1910s, and I can find references to its existence as late as 1923. It came down sometime after that, and after the door frame (with pineapple) was donated to the Essex Institute, where it was installed in the Phillips Library.

pineapple-house-cousins-duke-ulThe Captain Thomas Poynton House, 7 Brown Street Court, Salem. Photograph by Frank Cousins, Urban Landscape Digital Collection, Duke University Library.

Captain Poynton was a Loyalist, proudly whitewashing his chimneys and incurring the wrath of an angry mob which attacked his house in 1775, breaking many windows and inspiring him to depart for England. He left his wife behind (this happened so many times in Salem! What a great dissertation topic), and never returned to America. Mrs. Poynton seems to have been everyone’s favorite aunt, and she was devoted to the upkeep of the pineapple atop her front door, which apparently also came from England, painting and regilding it annually and ensuring that the curtains of her second-floor window never obscured its profile.

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Two views of the Pineapple/Poynton House doorway by Cousins; as illustrated in the Essex Institute’s Visitors’ Guide to Salem, 1895;  the door frame and pineapple in the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute, Detroit Publishing Company postcard, after 1912.

The pineapple continued to be well maintained until its detachment and donation, but the rest of the house was expanded considerably in the rear (see above), enabling its transition into “tenement” status in the later nineteenth century. As indicated above, it was moved, and then sometime (1920s or 1930s?) it disappeared, leaving only its famous pedimented doorway and Cousins’ photographs behind.

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Brown Street Court (just below #49) on a map in an undated Essex Institute brochure titled “A Tour of Salem”; Brown Street  Court today (I think!)–looking towards the Church of St. John the Baptist on St. Peter Street.


Salem Lots: the Beautiful and the Damned

I’m always checking upcoming auctions for Salem things and over the next week there are some beautiful items coming up for sale, representing the very best of golden-age craftsmanship in Salem, as well as one crafted-but-creepy item, which I’ll leave for last (as it is definitely least). Next Tuesday evening up in Portsmouth, Northeast Auctions is holding an auction featuring five lovely Salem lots, including a Samuel McIntire chair, and a drop-leaf table from the school of Nathaniel Gould. Could this rather low estimate on the chair be correct? Perhaps if there is light turnout (then why am I posting this?) and I do without (new clothes, books, food) for a while I could get it! There are a pair of “similar” mirrors and a great silhouette of Dr. Treadwell of Salem—I presume this is the elder Doctor John Dexter Treadwell (1768-1833) rather than the younger Doctor John Goodhue Treadwell (1805-1856, after whom the Treadwell Library at Massachusetts General Hospital is named), but I could be wrong.

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At Northeast Auctions next week: a mahogany shield-back side-chair, carved by Samuel McIntire; Queen Anne mahogany single drop-leaf table, Salem, Nathaniel Gould School; One of two similar Massachusetts gilt-wood and eglomise mirrors; Full-length silhouette of Dr. Treadwell at Salem, Massachusetts.

Here in Massachusetts, An upcoming auction of books and manuscripts at Skinner Auctions includes an edition of a Salem-published book which I’ve written about before: Daniel Cady Eaton’s two-volume Ferns of North America (1877-1880). I have seen these volumes before, and the illustrations by J.H. Emerton and C.E. Faxon are truly beautiful.

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At Skinner’s Fine Books and Manuscripts Auction on October 30:  Daniel Cady Eaton’s Ferns of North America.

Okay, now for the creepy lot pertaining to the damned. I made a shocking discovery this afternoon as I was browsing around, a KKK money clip manufactured by Salem’s venerable Daniel Low & Company, the producer of the famous Salem witch spoon! And that very familiar image, is right there on the back. This…….artifact is among the lots in the Omega Auction Corporation’s Jewelry and Collectibles auction down in Florida tomorrow–there’s not much information in the auction listing and I was not inspired to do any research. I almost wasn’t going to include it among these lovely lots, but it is Salem-made, and history is not just made up of beautiful things, unfortunately.

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Omega Auctions, Hialeah, Florida:  a money clip with KKK and Salem Witch insignias SUPPOSEDLY made by Daniel Low & Co., Salem (see comments below, on the trail!)


Municipal Monsters

In what has become a pattern for me, I was looking for something quite particular, when I came across something that diverted me from my path altogether, this time in the online catalog of the American Antiquarian Society. The item in question was an image–a political cartoon from circa 1845 which depicts a gluttonous Boston consuming the smaller cities of Massachusetts, including Salem–and it immediately commanded my attention, not just because of the Salem reference but also because the “insatiable [urban] monster” depicted reminded me of an underlying perception in early modern Europe, if not before, of the emerging city consuming the countryside. You can easily understand this allegory, given the conspicuous growth of cities in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, paired with an equally conspicuous urban death rate. Apparently this was an issue in America too: though the sentiment seems more economic than demographic on this side of the Atlantic, on both continents it was not only about consumption, but also corruption.

monster-boston-1845 ‘A Nightmare Dream of a Patriotic Politician of the Interior’, c. 1845, American Antiquarian Society

I’ve never been able to find a great image of the emerging “Londonopolis” in the seventeenth century when that term was first used (in the title term of James Howells’ Londinopolis an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain, 1657). London more than doubled its population over the seventeenth century, but only later do any “monstrous” depictions appear. Southern England, with London at its center, is the sea monster supporting Great Britain in the late eighteenth-century maps created by Robert Dighton and published under the title “Geography Bewitched”.

municipal-map-london-geography-bewitched-bmRobert Dighton, ‘Geography Bewitched or, a Droll Caricature Map of England and Wales‘, published in London by Bowles & Carver, 1793, British Museum.

It is not overwhelmingly obvious unless you make several connections, but the depiction of a country gentleman apparently escaping that “Sinners Seat”, Whitehall Palace, whose inhabitants ended up in a monstrous hell, captures the moral divide between rural/urban and virtue/vice. The sheer corruption of city hall (the American Whitehall Palace) was never more accentuated than in the anti-Tammany Hall cartoons in wide circulation in the later nineteenth century, in which Tammany is either an octopus or a tiger, preying on the people of New York City and state.

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monster-tammany-tiger-lc‘Sinners Seat’, published: Rob. Walton[London] (At the Globe and Compasses at the west end of St. Paules church & Bon. Church Yard), Wellcome Images; J.S. Pughe, Boss Croker as an octopus consuming City Hall and beyond, Puck Magazine, 1901; S.D. Ehrhart, ‘The Tiger’s Prey’, Puck Magazine, 1913, both Library of Congress.


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