Tag Archives: Anniversaries

2020: the Commemorative Year

One of the major themes of this blog has been how we remember history: what we choose to remember, what we choose to celebrate (or exploit), and what we choose to forget or ignore. This year promises to be very interesting in the realm of “anniversary history”, with two big commemorations crowding the calendar: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising American women after a long, long struggle. I don’t think anything else—certainly not the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise (1820) or the 300th anniversary of the South Sea Bubble (1720)— can compete with these epic events. Yet looking ahead at the succession of initiatives and events designed to commemorate these two markers, I am struck by one notable difference: the Suffrage Centennial seems to be a truly national movement, with major events in Washington, D.C., every single state, and many localities as well, while the Mayflower anniversary seems much more restricted: to Massachusetts, and even to the descendants of the Pilgrim passengers. This might just be my American perspective: the Mayflower commemoration certainly has a broader geographic scope, incorporating Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. My perception might also shaped by the fact the Suffrage Centennial is already very much in full swing, so we shall see.

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Plans for the Suffrage Centennial have clearly been in the works for years, and their most dramatic manifestation was three major exhibitions in Washington: Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote at the National Archives Museum (May 10, 2019- January 3, 2021), Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote at the Library of Congress (June 4, 2019-September, 2020), and Votes for Women: a Portrait of Persistence  at the National Portrait Gallery (March, 2019-January 5, 2020). As you can see, the last exhibition ends this weekend, but there is a companion catalog with wonderful essays and images. These exhibitions are just the beginning of a wave of suffrage remembrance and interpretation, washing over the nation: the website of the Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative is a great place to go for events and resources but every state seems to have its own central site as well, linking to institutional and local initiatives. Here in Massachusetts, Suffrage100MA, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, sponsors features like the “Suffragist of the Month” at the Commonwealth Museum, but is hardly the extent of commemorative activity: the Massachusetts Historical Society had a very visual exhibit entitled “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote up over last summer, the Boston Athenaeum has an ongoing “Eye of the Expert: (Anti) Suffrage program focused on items from its collection, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard will feature Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote from March 23 to October 3, 2020, and there are local events all around me commencing next month. This very layered exploration of the coming of universal suffrage has been extremely comprehensive, examining the complexities of the struggle, divisions of class and race, and all sorts of attendant aspects (and materials!)—and there’s a lot more to learn and see.

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pixlr_20200101133156977Ace of Spades card (verso and recto) from a c. 1915 deck published by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Boston Athenaeum.

By contrast, the coming commemoration of the Mayflower’s arrival doesn’t seem very layered or very national: there are no events in Washington that I could find. The official US website for the commemoration is Plymouth400, Inc., which reports that the April 24 Opening Ceremony will be a two-hour event of historical content, musical headliners, interpretive readings, choreographed movement, original productions, and visual narratives to create a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule will be introduced, and the first items will be placed inside by special guests. Honoring the past and celebrating the future, each of the commemoration themes – exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, immigration, and thanksgiving – will be presented in creative ways. Invited participants include state and federal officials, representatives of the UK, The Netherlands, colony partners, and many more. Besides this extravaganza, it’s all about the ship: the Mayflower II (1957), which has been under repair in Mystic, Connecticut for several years. The newly-restored ship will sail to Boston for a maritime festival in May (docking right next to the Constitution, which should look cool), and then proceed home to Plymouth via Provincetown for more festivities in both ports. I do see references to attendant exhibitions on Pilgrim women and the Wampanoags on the Plymouth400 site, but nothing like the diffusion of inspired initiatives associated with the commemoration of suffrage.

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screenshot_20191231-154733_chromeThe Mayflower II seemed to be more of a national story in 1957; on the stop in Provincetownfrom Boston to Plymouth, there will be a “reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact and VIP reception”.

The Plymouth400 website might not be comprehensive but it is all we have to go on; it is also, very decidedly, not a resource, with minimal effort toward edification. When compared to the much more impressive official British commemoration website Mayflower400 it is exposed for just what it is: a Chamber of Commerce production. After watching all of the poignant expressions of remembrance associated with the commemoration of each and every phase of World War One over the past few years, I am not surprised to see the sophistication, earnestness, and creativity of the British commemoration of the Mayflower voyage, which will include the opening of a Mayflower Trail through and outside Plymouth, multiple exhibits, public art and music projects, living history events, a muster, festivals, illuminations, a religious history conference, and even sporting events. The website links to resources and is itself a resource, with digital maps exploring the sites associated with the Mayflower itself and every single passenger and crew member. It brings all these people to Plymouth and then to America ( some via Leiden): why can’t we have something similar that shows where they went once they got here? As I am not a Mayflower descendant, I am forming the opinion that if I want to feel a real connection to those who left England in 1620 I had better make my way to Plymouth in Devon rather than Plymouth in Bristol County.

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screenshot_20200101-153517_chromeThe official British program and interactive maps on the Mayflower400 website, which also includes artwork that has been seldom seen (over here, at least), like Anthony Thompson’s 1938 painting The ‘Mayflower’ Leaving Plymouth, 1620 @Essex County Council.


Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

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It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


A River of Molasses

Today marks a big disaster anniversary in our region: the centennial anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, which killed 21 people, injured 150, and laid waste to several blocks of the North End of Boston. I don’t really have much to add to the narrative of events of that day, but I feel like weighing in anyway, primarily because this tragedy is the perfect example of unmoored history, lacking context and consequently inhibiting understanding for many. There’s a great book about this event (Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: the Great Molasses Flood of 1919) but whenever you bring it up in general company, people generally smile or laugh because molasses is trivial in our society; it’s akin to people being drowned—-or smothered?—in jello. But molasses was a major industrial product in 1919, recognized simultaneously as both beneficial and potentially dangerous but above all, vital. And when you look at what happened on January 15, 1919 with a historical perspective, it’s possible to see both major precedents and consequences.

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molasses page 2Headlines and pictures from the day after in the Boston Daily Globe and the Boston Herald: “Red Cross Ambulance and Nurses making their way through the River of Molasses”, Boston Public Library.

Molasses was not only much more integrated into our cuisine a hundred years ago, but its importance in alcohol production had intensified with the increasing demand for industrial alcohol, which entered a golden age of production following the passage of the 1906 Denatured Alcohol Act, permitting the production and sale of tax-free alcohol for industrial purposes. The author of The Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, including the processes of malting : mashing and macerating : fermenting and distilling alcohol from grain, beets, potatoes, molasses, etc., with chapters of alcoholometry and the denaturing of alcohol…., issued the year before the Great Molasses Flood, cannot contain it his enthusiasm for this development, which “opened the door of a new market for the farmer and the manufacturer”, as Alcohol leaped at once into fame—not merely as the humble servant of the pocket lamp, nor as the Demon Rum, but as a substitute for all the cheap hydrocarbon fuels,  and as a new farm product, a new means for turning the farmer’s grain, fruit, potatoes, etc…into that greatest of all Powers, Money. Molasses had long been lauded as feed for cattle, horses, and poultry, but now its uses seemed limitless, in everything from road construction to the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and munitions. The 1907 act provoked a wave of hastily-built distilleries, such as the Boston tank owned and “maintained” by the Purity Distilling Company, which began leaking almost immediately after its construction in 1915 and finally burst open four years later. But the North End flood was not the first molasses disaster: it wasn’t difficult to find stories of exploding tanks and bursting hogsheads in the first few decades of the twentieth century—and just in the Boston papers. There are far more stories about the “adulteration” of molasses, however (generally with tin): and thus it is easy to understand how regulation, of industrial construction, production, and labor, would emerge as a major consequence of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.

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molasses june 12 1886 boston heraldMolasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886. 

 

The Great Molasses Flood & Fluid Dynamics: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/science/boston-molasses-flood-science.html.

The Great Molasses Flood &  “Misunderstood History”: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2762


Fireworks for the Fifth

I’ve been immersed in seventeenth-century English instructional texts during my sabbatical, so it wasn’t difficult to find directions for fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night. Whether it was the foiled Gunpowder plot or the aspirational magnificence of the Stuart court, clearly there was demand for some very fancy displays in the air, on the ground, and in the water. One imagines that these flagrant displays would have been one more thing to irk the Puritans, if they were ever produced. Lots of fiery dragons (to highlight St. George), serpents and dolphins. I just love the idea of fighting fire with fire by celebrating with gunpowder, the key ingredient in all of the firework recipes in John Bate’s Mysteries of Art and Nature (1634), John Babbington’s Pyrotechnia. Or a Discourse of Artificial Fireworks (1635, is there any other kind?) and John White’s A Rich Cabinet with Variety of Inventions in Several Arts and Sciences (first published in 1651). The “Green Man” wielding the “firecracker” introducing Bate’s fireworks chapter is one of my very favorite printed images. Remember, remember.

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Dragons

Dragons Pyrotechnia 1635

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Bate's Fireworks Collage

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Fireworks CollageAll (embellished) illustrations from Bate (1634) with the exception of the Knight +Dragon (Babbington, 1635).


1918

I like to run through Salem’s larger cemeteries because I’m not the best runner so I really don’t want a (live) audience. Last weekend I did something to my back, so instead of jogging yesterday morning, I was walking around Greenlawn Cemetery rather awkwardly. I would not call this exercise, as I had to stop and read nearly every gravestone I passed by, and at one point, I found myself right in the midst of a collection of graves of people who had all died in 1918. They were not related; the only thing they had in common was the year of their death. None were very old, and most were quite young. Almost immediately—as I looked all around in this one little section of a large urban cemetery and saw that year everywhere I turned—I realized that this was a special moment, during which I could grasp just a semblance of how horrible that early fall was exactly 100 years ago, when young men were far away fighting a terrible war while also falling victim to a plague of influenza that was attacking the home front at the same time. I’m not sure that all the markers with 1918 inscribed on them testify to deaths by war or flu (although I will find out), but just for that moment, I could feel the magnitude of the loss–and assault—by both forces.

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The city of Salem has a “Veterans’ Squares” program through which intersections across the city are named after veterans who lived nearby. I happen to live near “Trask Square”, named in honor of Private George C. Trask, who died of pneumonia (often the end game of the flu) in Angers, France; his fellow Salemite Wallace C. Upton also died of disease much closer to home, in the Chelsea Naval Hospital. At precisely this time a century ago, influenza was raging in Boston and schools, churches, theatres, and even bars had been closed. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great blog post featuring the diary of a young Salem wife and mother named Edith Coffin Colby Mahoney whose life changed quickly from late summer outings to the Willows to notices of deaths and “epidemics everywhere” from August to September 1918. She was right: as least 50 million* people died of the “Spanish Influenza” worldwide and perhaps 5000 people in Boston, which was the third hardest-hit American city after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In a report issued on this very date in 1918, the U.S. Public Health Service records the number of Salem flu cases at 1500, confirming Miss Colby’s impressions recording in her diary on September 26: “Torrential rain for 24 hours beginning at 3am today, some thunder in the P.M.. Most depressing day after bad news from Eugene. He died at 6:40am. Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors. Theatres, churches, gatherings of every kind stopped. Even 4th Liberty Loan drivers parade postponed.”

And the city was still bearing the scars of the great fire just four years before……BUT the Red Sox won the World Series that year.

*I’m going with the CDC estimate; some are much higher. (https://www.cdc.gov/features/1918-flu-pandemic/index.html)

 


The Worst Day/Samuel Wardwell

I always think about the Salem Witch Trials in September, as the cumulative hysteria of 1692 was coming to a close with the execution of the last eight victims on September 22. Every year at this time I ponder a particular aspect of the accusations and trials, or a particular victim. There’s always a certain poignancy about this time of year in Salem for me—and others too I am sure—as the anniversary of the worst day comes just before the City descends full throttle into the celebration of Halloween, drawing on a very tenuous connection between the persecution of people who were not witches, and a modern holiday symbolized by stereotypical figures who are. So this is a nice week of reflection before the deluge. This month, and this week, I’ve been thinking about the sole male victim of September 22: Samuel Wardwell of Andover, who also happened to be the sole accused person to be executed after recanting an earlier confession. Wardwell had confessed, in detail, to entering into a covenant with the Devil almost as soon as he was accused: he implicated others as well and was in turn accused by his own wife and child. He was not a pristine character, but rather a real person: who made mistakes, and enemies. At the eleventh hour, and right up to the moment of his death, he recanted, and according to the famous narration of Robert Calef, Wardwell was still proclaiming his innocence on the gallows on this very day in 1692, when a puff of tobacco smoke from the executioner’s pipe “coming in his face, interrupted his discourse: those accusers said that the devil did hinder him with smoke”.

Wardwell Memorial

The devil did hinder him with smoke. Wardwell does sound like a bit of a rascal; I wonder if he had come to the conclusion that his confession would not save him because of his reputation in general, and his fortune-telling in particular. And so he recanted bravely, only to have his big moment marred by the Devil’s smoke! A tragedy in numerous ways. Wardwell seems like a regular seventeenth-century Englishman to me, rather than an abstract Colonial Puritan: across the Atlantic people were buying books of fortune-telling tricks, and demonic interventions were the stuff of ballads, rather than trials. The Devil was a capricious bogeyman in Old England in 1692, but in New England he was very, very real.

Wardwell and the Devil

Wardwell the Fortune Teller

Devil Men in the Moon Cruikshank

Devil Man and the Moon, CruikshankStrange News from Westmoreland, 1662-1668; A Merry Conceited Fortune-Teller, 1662. Over a century later, George Cruikshank’s satirical illustrations for The Man in the Moon (1820) seem to mock contemporary descriptions of the executions on September 22.


Hawthorne Summer

Every single year I think about Nathaniel Hawthorne in the first week of July, as his birthday was on July 4, but this particular summer he—or his inspiration–is everywhere in Salem as this year marks the 350th anniversary of the house most closely associated with him: the House of the Seven Gables. In some ways, the Gables is as much of a creation as the story after which it was named, but it’s still a 350-year-old house overlooking the harbor, and therefore a standing symbol of Salem’s multifaceted past: in this year when so much of the city’s historic fabric has been removed by the Peabody Essex Museum I believe that its existence–and the role it plays in our city today–is more important than ever.

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Gables Harvard 1910The newly-restored House of the Seven Gables, 1910, Harvard Fine Arts Library Postcard Collection

Not only does the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association serve as a solicitous steward of this iconic house, it maintains a packed schedule of programming, continues to fulfill the social welfare mission of its founder, Caroline Emmerton, and partners with other regional institutions to interpret and present Salem’s history and culture. Even though its focus is limited necessarily, in many ways it is as close to a historical society as we have in this “historic” city. Both the organization and the House stand as authentic and educational antidotes to Salem’s more sensationalistic offerings. And again–given what has happened to Salem over this past year, it’s more important than ever that the city’s existing historical organizations work together to shore up—and celebrate–our heritage. So I’m particularly happy to see the first big Hawthorne event of the summer: an ambitious and aptly-titled public reading called “Enduring Hawthorne: A Marathon Reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter”, a collaboration between the Gables, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Heritage National Area on June 7 in front of the Custom House. The following weekend, Salem State University will screen the first film of a three-film series based on Hawthorne novels at Salem Maritime’s Regional Visitor Center, with a preceding symposium in which English faculty will discuss the historical context of The House of the Seven Gables. Then we will see the 1940 film, with The Scarlet Letter and Twice-Told Tales coming up on successive Wednesdays in July–with Q & A sessions after both. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter (1934) were apparently shot in then recently-constructed Pioneer Village, so I’m pretty excited to see that film in particular.

Summer at Salem State July 2018_Web Version

Scarlet Letter 3 Still from The Scarlet Letter, 1934. Pioneer Village?

With August comes Gables Fest: Celebrating 350 Years of Stories and Songs, a day-long event on the 4th which will take attendees on a musical “journey” through the history of the Gables (with food and drink) and a collaboration with another historic site celebrating a big anniversary this year: the Marblehead Museum’s Jeremiah Lee Mansion, built in 1768. Through “Architectural August” there will be architectural tours, visiting member events, and a comparative focus on these two structures built a century apart.

Interesting Houses collageFrom Burroughs & Company’s Interesting Houses of New England, 1915: with a photograph of the Gables before its restoration/recreation.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. (Proverbs 22:28)


The Golden Age of Pageantry

My title does not refer to the made-up medieval era but rather to the first decades of the twentieth century–when civic pageants reigned on both sides of the Atlantic! Datewise, we’re right in the midst of the anniversaries of Salem’s two great historical pageants: on this day in 1930 a replica of the seventeenth-century ship Arbella docked at the newly-constructed Pioneer Village with “Governor Winthrop” and his entourage on board, and seventeen years earlier tomorrow an equally elaborate pageant began its first performance at the gothic Kernwood estate in North Salem: the “Pageant of Salem” to benefit the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association. Both events represent a significant investment of time, money, energy and resources by enthusiastic Salemites: while the 1930 event had the imprimatur of the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission, the 1913 Pageant was organized by an executive board comprised of members of the relatively new Gables Board of Directors (including Gables founder Caroline Emmerton of course) which managed to draw in anyone and everyone: Sidney Perley served as “Historical Censor”, Jean Missud conducted the band, and well-known Salem artists Frank Benson, Philip Little and Ross Turner provided illustrations for the program.

Pageant 1930 collage

pag 3 collage

While the impact of the Tercentenary Pageant was more lasting, as its set, Pioneer Village, became the first “living history” museum in the United States and remains open today, the 1913 Pageant of Salem seems somehow more creative to me–or at least its program presents it as such. It certainly had a longer story to tell: from Naumkeag to “The Salem of the Present reviews the Past and looks forward to The Future”. Yet both extravaganzas shared many similar features, as the format for historical pageants seems to have been quite standardized by this time: a quick review of David Glassberg’s American Historical Pageantry opened up a world of comparative context for me in which professional associations, journals, and guidebooks devoted to pageantry literally set the stage. Pageants had elaborate staging and costumes, a succession of “episodes”  to move the story forward, attempts to personalize the “spirit” of the time and place and symbolize major themes and lessons, and audience participation–or at least the request thereof. Both Salem pageants featured all these general attributes, and more Salem-specific ones: the Native Americans are just waiting, waiting and waiting for the Europeans to come, gazing off into the water: all is well once the latter arrive, of course. For Salem, 1630 it’s all about the world in which Winthrop arrives with the Massachusetts Bay Charter in hand; while the 1913 Pageant of Salem has to transport its audience from the misty and superstitious days of the seventeenth century all the way up to the dawn of the twentieth—through the very romantic nineteenth. This must have been quite a performance (or four): I would especially have liked to have seen prominent businessmen “Knights” bearing inscriptions of the virtues of an ideal Salem, while the very peaceful personification of the City also took the stage.

American Historical Pageantry

Arbella

Tercentenary Cavalcade

Dress Up collage

Last collageLeslie Jones photograph of Arbella “arrivals” on June 12, 1930, Boston Public Library; with the Winthrop Charter in hand, a “Charter Cavalcade” en route from Salem to Boston in 1930, Dionne Collection, Salem State University Archives & Special Collections; Scenes from the 1913 Official Pageant of Salem Program.


March On

The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest monthIt certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it:  you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.

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March Harpers 1895

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March Inland Printer 1896

March Black Cat

March 1897

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March Scribners 1905

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March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.


A Folio for the Worst Day

September 22: the first day of fall, and the worst day of the Salem Witch Trials, I am aware of both markers every single year. The beginning of the end. In successive posts on this day over the years, I’ve tried to focus on remembrance of the eight victims, the last victims, who were executed on this day 325 years ago: Ann Pudeator and Alice Parker of Salem, Martha Corey of Salem Farms (Peabody), Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker of Andover, Wilmot Redd of Marblehead, Margaret Scott of Rowley, and Mary Easty of Topsfield. Looking over these posts, I see one big change: we finally have a memorial at the execution site on Proctor’s Ledge. No longer do I have to wander around the Gallows Hill area in search of the sacred spot (like so many before me). It’s been an incredible year of remembrance really, with our anniversary symposium and the dedication of the new Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, at which my colleague Emerson Baker, so instrumental in the verification of this site, asserted that we need less celebration in October and more commemoration and sober reflection throughout the year. I am not hopeful that Salem will see less celebration in October (or now—the celebration seems to start earlier every year), but those who seek more sober reflection now have two memorials at which to meditate: the downtown Witch Trial Memorial turns into a food court in October so head to Proctor’s Ledge if you are so inclined.

Memorial Collage The two memorials: Proctor’s Ledge this summer; downtown in October 2015.

One does not need a memorial to reflect, of course: words and images work just as well for me. The other day I rediscovered a slim (and dusty) volume in my library which I hadn’t seen for years: The Witches of Salem, a “documentary narrative” edited by Roger Thompson, with amazing linocut illustrations by Clare Melinsky. Like all Folio Society books, it’s a beautiful book, encased in its own hard-case slipcover: I think it was a gift but I don’t remember from whom! The Witches of Salem is an an annotated compilation of primary sources with a chronological format, and a good introduction to the Trials. There’s nothing really new here in terms of information, but Melinsky’s illustrations enhance the presentation in myriad ways: aesthetically, of course, but also contextually. They strike me as a cross between Ulrich Molitor’s first woodcut witches from the later fifteenth century and the chapbooks issued in the eighteenth century—after Salem–which featured deliberatively-primitive images to suggest just how backward belief in witchcraft was. To my eye, the illustrations look more European than American but there are some very familiar scenes….

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So much suffering on this day 325 years ago, before and after. We do have our memorials here in Salem, so I suppose that gives us free rein to milk the Trials for all they are worth. The worst day, the beginning of fall, the beginning of the ever-longer, ever-bolder Haunted Happenings: they all converge. Even the stately Peabody Essex Museum, which has always been above the fray, has joined in the celebration, moving their monthly Thursday PEM/PM event to Friday this month: September 22.

Appendix:

 A really good article about the “holiday creep” of Haunted Happenings and Salem in general by someone much more objective than I!  http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/salem-and-the-rise-of-witch-kitsch    


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