Tag Archives: books

Stepping off in Salem

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

Train touring collage

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

Train Tour 5

Train Tour Map 1902

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

Train Tour

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

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

Train Tour 6


Victorian Slum Sightseers

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

Victorian Slum House Cover

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

Victorian Slum House

Victorian Slum House 8

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

Victorian Slum House 5

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

Victorian Slum House 3

Victorian Slum House 7

Victorian Slum House 9

Scenes from Victorian Slum House watched from my comfortable parlor.


Pink Portfolio

Certain times of the year are just defined by colors: early May reads pink to me, with touches of white (and green of course) for contrast. It’s all the flowering trees and shrubs and the pink version of one of my very favorite plants, Bleeding Hearts. Spring has been rather chilly here in Salem so far, and this is a really busy time on the academic calendar, but the quest for pink gets me out there on the streets, and in some cases, in (public!) backyards. The sloping garden behind the Peirce-Nichols house, for example, is Bleeding Heart heaven, and while I found no pink (though sometimes lilac can pass) behind another PEM house, the Gardner-Pingree, I did find a rabbit, so I’m including him/her too–along with a photograph of some absolutely beautiful pink borscht from a new bedside book which I bought more for its colors than its recipes: Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape (Assouline, 2017).

Pink and White 8

Pink and White 7

Pink and White 5

Pink and White 6

Pink Bleading Heart

“Papplerose” (which looks like Bleeding Hearts to me) drawing by Dagobert Peche (Austrian, 1887-1923); watercolor on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Pink and White 4

Pink and White2

Pink and White 3

Pink and White

Pink and White 3

Pink Tulips

Pink and White georgia-o-keeffe-cookbook

Drawing of pink and white tulips by Tommi Parzinger, ca. 1930; graphite on paper, Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt Collection; borscht from Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe: Recipes, Art & Landscape by Robyn Lea.


The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

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

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

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

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

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

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


A Scalping in Salem

As today is “Salem Women’s History Day” as proclaimed by our mayor, I thought I should write about a “notable” Salem woman. I’ve certainly featured lots of Salem women here, including accomplished authors, artists, and activists, some prominent socialites, a few domestic heroines, and even an accused murderess, but there are lots more stories to tell. When considering my options, one particular woman kept popping up in my mind, or rather I couldn’t get her out of my mind: Hannah E. Leary of Cross Street, a carding machine operator at the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company in the late nineteenth century. To my knowledge, Hannah did not write anything, or paint anything, or organize anything of note, but she did suffer a tragic, terrible accident in the summer of 1894 which is perhaps representative of the challenges of daily working life for many Salem women at this time. And that makes her notable. On a hot day in late July, Miss Leary’s hair was caught in a carding machine, effectively “scalping” her: the suffering that she experienced on that day and over the next week was chronicled daily in the pages of the Boston Post, giving her a notability that her fellow workers, both male and female but all un-maimed, lacked.

Leary Collage

Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co 1890s Cousins First reports on the scalping of Hannah Leary, Boston Post, July 27, 1894; the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, popularly known as Pequot Mills, in the 1890s, Frank Cousins.

The reporting is very detailed, and thus hard to forget. Hannah never lost consciousness although many around her fainted. Her bloodied scalp was retrieved from the machinery and she was conveyed to the Salem Hospital on Charter Street (after a considerable time, as the hospital’s one and only ambulance was in Swampscott). There the doctors began the delicate task of re-attaching her scalp to her head with the hopes that it would “knit”. We are informed that Hannah is one of the oldest women workers at the Mill, at age 43, and that her employment began when she was 15. We are also informed that she normally wore her long hair braided and pinned, but that on this particular day she did not. Reaching down to pick up something under the machine, she was caught in its mechanical death grip, an occurrence that has happened many times before, the paper tells us. Every day over the next week the Post checked in on her condition: things look bleak as we read one lurid headline after the next, and then we read that “she may live”, and no more—I guess she ceased being news.

Leary Collage 2 Daily Reports on Hannah’s condition in the Boston Post, August 1-5, 1894.

Some context: these industrial accidents happened all the time. I went through all the regional newspapers trying to determine Hannah’s fate and read about worker after worker falling, losing fingers, being scalded or burned or blown up. The “scalping” reports definitely receive the biggest headlines. Hannah’s doctors are almost blasé about her injury (it happened to a girl last year), and she had suffered another mangling earlier in her career. Everyone knows about the big industrial tragedies, like the Pemberton Mill collapse of 1860 or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 or the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, but the daily toll on individual workers seems relentless. I am also struck by how neglected Salem’s industrial and labor history is: it’s as if we’re caught in a colonial Groundhog Day where we have to repeat the same stories again and again and again. My colleague at SSU, Avi Chomsky, has focused on industrial relations in this era for both a book chapter (in Salem: Myth, Place and Memory by my other colleagues, Dane Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz) and an exhibition  on the Pequot Mills Strike of 1933, and more recently, Jacob Remes has examined workers’ organization in the aftermath of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 in Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. There is a lot more work to be done, however, to put Hannah’s story in a more comprehensive context: the “mill girls” of Salem stare out at us in the photographs of Lewis Wickes Hine but we don’t know much more about them than their names.

Scalping collage

Factory Women Lawrence More:  reports in the North Adams Transcript and  Fitchburg Sentinel, 1899, 1903 & 1913; Factory women photographed in the Workforce Washington Factory in Lawrence, MA, March 27, 1903, Lawrence History Center.

And what of Hannah? Because of her tragic accident she does emerge from the pack of “typical old-maid workers” in the words of pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson, but only in bare outline. The newspapers abandoned her as soon as it appeared that she would recover. She returned to her sister’s house on Cross Street, but not to work. She died four months later of a “tumor in the uterus”, still only forty-three years old.


Howard Pyle and Salem

Spring break week and I’m going nowhere, unfortunately. Yet I am actually content to have the extra time to catch up on a backlog of administrative and academic work, with the freedom to follow a few wandering trails as they come my way. Last night I was working out some of the details of the forthcoming symposium on the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials that my department is co-sponsoring (Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692–June 10, said details to follow) when I came across one of my favorite illustrations by the golden-age illustrator Howard Pyle: A Wolf had not been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years.  The “making of Witch City” is one of the topics that we will be examining at the symposium, so I wondered what role Pyle might have played in this evolution. And so symposium planning went by the wayside as I pulled up as many of his illustrators as possible: wolfs and witches, along with Puritans and Pirates, were some of Pyle’s favorite subjects. This was a pleasant diversion as I’ve always enjoyed Pyle’s work, and not altogether indulgent: he was of an era (coinciding with the decades on either side of the 2ooth anniversary of the Witch Trials) when the image of the Salem witch was imprinted in the public mind in both pictures and words, and that’s why many of the images below look so very familiar.

Pyle The Salem Wolf_0000

pylewitch1

Pyle witch2

Pyle Flock of Yellow Birds

Dulcibel collage

Pyle Broomstick Train

Pyle collage 2

Salem images by Howard Pyle: title page of “The Salem Wolf”, Harpers Monthly Magazine, December 1909; “Arresting a Witch” and “Grany Greene falleth into ill repute”, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, December 1883;  “A Flock of Yellow Birds abover her Head”, from Giles Corey, Yeoman, by Mary E. Wilkins, 1892; two illustrations from Dulcibel: a Tale of Old Salem by Henry Peterson, 1907; illustrations from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Broomstick Train, or the Return of the Witches, 1905 color edition.


Time Travellers

Generally there are several films on my Salem Film Fest “itinerary”, but this year (the Festival’s 10th) I seem to be focused exclusively on one documentary: Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine. I don’t think I’m quite as fixated on time travel as the two subjects of the film, animator Rob Niosi and theoretical physicist Ron Mallet, but I’m a Time Machine aficionado too: of the book and both (major) movies. I think there are personal motivations behind their mutual quest, but I haven’t seen the film yet. Beyond Wells’ storytelling abilities, the attraction for me is the steampunky notion of playing with time: I certainly don’t want to conquer or even control it! Like most historians, I don’t have a romantic attachment to the past either: I know it was dirtier, smellier and dark, but not, perhaps, as dark as the future, so I would still prefer to go back, if only for a spell, in my dependable machine.

time-machine-poster

time-machine-collage A century of time machines, from Enrique Gaspar’s “time ship” (1887) to the 1960 Wells machine, to TARDIS.

I’m just a casual delver into science fiction, but it seems me that The Time Machine is seldom discussed in the context of its lighter predecessor, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), probably because the latter is so light and not as concerned with the logistics of time travel. It is interesting to me that at this time, the tail end of the nineteenth century, so many people were interested in going back or forward or to anywhere but where they actually were! These two works initiated a time travel genre that will no doubt be with us forever, encompassing everything from Time Bandits, to Back to the Future to Midnight in Paris and everything in between, including my personal favorite, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.

time-trave-aconnecticutyankeeillustratedepub

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time-traveling-navigato3_

pickering-house-and-knight

chestnut-street-pc-with-knight Knights descend on Salem!


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