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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

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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

time-travel-connecticut_yankee4_new

time-traveling-navigato3_

pickering-house-and-knight

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


The Surgeon who communed with Spirits

One of the academic projects that I’m working on concerns English physicians who rendered judgements on witchcraft cases in the seventeenth century: some were skeptical but others were not, and the latter group often had to engage in intellectual contortions in order to justify their beliefs. One physician who didn’t have a problem with proclaiming that he believed in spirits and witchcraft was John Beaumont, a Somerset surgeon (and geologist) who wrote an amazing treatise entitled An Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices, which was first published in 1705. Beaumont is among the last of these men of “science” who gave credence to supernatural agency: this is the Age of Newton after all! But he is steadfast in his beliefs, and determined to contradict those who deny the presence and power of spirits, whether good or evil. An edition of the Beaumont’s book came up for auction the other day and I thought I might bid on it, but then quickly dismissed the notion (it fetched a bit over $1000, and is also available for three times that here). Nevertheless, Beaumont was on my mind, so I thought I would delve into his, again.

beaumont-cover

Beaumont’s methodology is interesting. In typical early modern fashion, he quotes a lot of classical “authorities”, as well as testimony from key seventeenth-century trials. All of this he presents as sensory evidence: “proving” the existence of spirits through their perception by four of the five senses (apparently it is impossible to taste one). His personal experience with spirits–which he calls genii–really singles him out among other authors in this genre, however: he seems to delight in giving us every little detail of these “extraordinary visitations”. We get a physical description of the genii, what they were wearing, what they conveyed, what their names were. Beaumont is also an exhaustive reader, consulting every possible source to examine how spirits might be accessed through dreams and ritual magic as well as the senses.

beaumont-collage

Beaumont is also interesting because he considers the Salem trials at length, consulting all the authorities who are not as authoritative in 1705 as they were in 1692. Ultimately it’s all about his own authority, however, his own “empirical” evidence:  I am convinced by my own Experience (which to me is as a Thousand Witnesses) that there is such a thing, as Spectre-Sight, so that one Person may see Spectres, when others present at the same time see nothing; wherefore I think it is not Impossible that the afflicted Persons in New England should see; nay, I believe they saw the Spectres of Persons, who as they conceived, Tormented them……Well there you are, even though spectral evidence had been condemned widely in both England and New England over the past decade, Beaumont remained a true believer in 1705.

beaumont-genii

Frontispiece by Michael Van Der Gucht.


A Bicentennial Banquet

Salem was founded in 1626: its tricentenary was very much a big deal, celebrated with myriad events over several weeks and its quatercentenary is already on the horizon. I don’t know anything about its centennial, but its bicentennial was marked with at least one event (and probably more): an elaborate banquet at Hamilton Hall presented by the in-house caterer, John Remond. No doubt his wife Nancy, a “fancy cake maker” contributed much to the event, as well as his children. Catering and provisioning constituted the family business for this prominent free black family, along with hair dressing and unflagging advocacy for abolition. Despite the fact that 1826 would have been the bicentennial year, the feast actually happened on September 18, 1828: a bill of lading in the Remond Papers at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum indicates that Mr. Remond had received a delivery of “one large green turtle” just a week before, a valuable commodity that must have ended up in his first courses of green turtle soup and green turtle pie.

remond-dinner-1826

The dish that really stands out for me on this elaborate menu is pigeons transmogrified: not being a culinary historian it seems rather exotic to me, and I wondered if this could be Remond’s original creation. No way: it’s in nearly all of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century cookbooks, apparently a classic. Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (first published in 1747 and never out of print over the next century), the Joy of Cooking of its era, contains a recipe for Pigeons Transmogrifiedas does Elizabeth Raffald’s Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) and all of their imitators. There were basically two recipes for this dish, as you can see below: one which encased the pigeons in puff pastry and another encasing them in cucumbers. I think the former represents the straightforward English cooking presented by Mrs. Glasse and the latter is more French-inspired, and I’m not sure which version was prepared by Mr. Remond in 1828. In any case, his guests, all 170 of them, had plenty of other choices if their preferences did not include pigeons.

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pigeons

John Remond’s menu for the bicentennial dinner at Hamilton Hall, Remond Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum (accessed via American Broadsides and Ephemera);  title pages of Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy and  variant recipes for Pigeons Transmogrified.


Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

salem-interiors-1896-east-parlor-pn

salem-interiors-1896-west-parlor-pn

salem-interiors-1896-sideboard-and-chair

salem-interiors-1896-furniture

salem-interiors-furniture-17thc

The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

salem-interiors-1896-colonial-corner

salem-interiors-1896-typical-colonial-chamber

Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


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