Tag Archives: books

A Thin Veneer of Heritage

Six weeks into the struggle to convince the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum to return its Phillips Library to Salem, I find myself with lost faith and many learned lessons. The phrase “broken trust” has been applied to the PEM’s actions many times over these past weeks, but that is too legal a concept for me: I prefer to think in terms of faith, encouraged by Victor Hugo’s lovely observation that A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn. Under the guise of preservation and with a consistent disdain for accessibility and accountability, the PEM leadership broke faith with the community of Salem, and now I have lost faith in them. I’m trying to separate the leadership from everyone else who works at this large Museum, in effect the Museum itself from the policy regarding the Library and its collections, but that’s tough to do when such an all-encompassing feeling as faith is in play. Working on it.

PEM East India Room collageThe interior of the East India Marine Hall past and present, and before the installation of the PEM’s newest exhibition, Play Time.

I’ve learned many lessons over these past weeks but I think the most important one is about prejudging in general and my own prejudices in particular. I’ve been concerned about the commodification of history in Salem for quite some time (as regular readers are all too aware!) and assumed that this trend was driven exclusively by the many tour guides in town, who were presumably more concerned with #tourismmatters than heritage. Now I know that that predisposition is largely incorrect, as I have seen and heard tour guides take earnest and public stances in support of the return of the Phillips while established heritage institutions have stood silently on the sidelines, taking no position and choosing not to exercise their more considerable influence. I remain impressed, and heartened, by the power of history to unite a broad spectrum of people, although at the same time I realize that history, or the perception of one’s history, is also intensely personal.

Essex Institute 1980

Phillips RizviThe Collections of the Essex Institute in the Phillips Library Reading Room, 1980, and the library collections reinstalled, 2008, Rizvi Architects.

I’ve been having difficulty separating the personal from the professional in my reaction to the PEM’s policy towards the Phillips ever since the “announcement” was made—actually I don’t even think I can get past the “announcement”, or lack thereof! But I better try, because obviously no apologies will be forthcoming; instead PEM CEO Dan Monroe offered only the assertion that there was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand in last week’s Boston Globe article. I certainly wasn’t expecting a consultation, but an announcement might have been nice, especially as the PEM’s last official word on the Phillips was that it would be returning to Salem in……..2013.

Thank goodness, when confronted with such adversity, healthy instincts of self-preservation begin to take over, and so I’ve started to privilege the professional over the personal in my considerations. When I look at the situation from the former perspective it is clear to me that I don’t need the Phillips Library in Salem or even in Rowley. I have a car, a Ph.D., and a flexible schedule so I can probably gain access to the new warehouse library during one of the 12 hours a week or so that it will be open (well maybe not, after my running commentary over these past weeks) if I want to. In any case, I’m an English historian, fortunate to be equipped with academic databases and dependant on repositories that have made the accessibility of their collections a priority. Local history is just a lark for me, right?  Unfortunately, private priorities only work for a while: when I start thinking about all those records relating to Salem people, places and institutions, and all those Salem donors, I find myself right back in the realm of public history.

Actually, I do have three presentations coming up this year on the intersection of the Colonial Revival and historic preservation movements here in Salem—all of which were scheduled just before the temporary Phillips facility closed down on September 1, ostensibly so that materials could be readied for the big move to Rowley (which was not, of course, announced at that time). I was looking forward to using the library’s collections intensively for the first time in my career, an opportunity that will sadly not come to pass. I’ll have to make do, and I will make do, with the help of other institutions that have made their materials more accessible and lots of secondary sources, but I fear I will only be scratching the surface of this Salem story without the Phillips sources.

Colonial Stairway Wallis 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis Stairs 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis 1887

Colonial Seating collage

Colonial Tables Wallis 1887

Colonial Doorway Salem Wallis 1887

Colonial Gates Wallis 1887And I really fear I’ll be too reliant on the detailed-yet-romantic work of Maine-born architect Frank E. Wallis, whose reverence for Salem is all too apparent! Plates from Frank E. Wallis, Old Colonial Architecture and Furniture. Boston: George H. Polley & Co. Publishers, 1887. 


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


Caretaking and Curating

As frustrating as this past month has been with the prospect of Salem’s history being extracted by the relocation of the Phillips Library it has also been interesting, as I dove into the depths of its catalog so that I could develop a full appreciation of what we will be losing. I’m not an American historian so it was never an essential repository for me, and the life of this blog roughly corresponds with its closure. When I first moved to Salem I would research house histories and a few other things at the Phillips, but I was never truly aware of how rich and vast its collections were until just this past month: now I am awed. And as I discover and rediscover these holdings, I keep coming up with questions about their utility and accessibility: the slow process of digitization at the PEM remains confounding, but now I’m wondering if there is even an institutional interest in these materials. There is no question in my mind that the PEM is a responsible caretaker of its Phillips collections, but is there, or will there ever be, any enthusiasm for their interpretation? Historical records are not preserved merely for the sake of mothballing: they need to come alive through ongoing interpretation and curation. According to their messaging, the PEM hopes to attract scholars to its “state-of-the-art Collections Center” in Rowley via its digitized catalog, but does it have any interest in curating its own collections?  We all thought that the last library exhibition, 2011’s Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM, was meant to tide us over until the reopening of the Phillips in 2013, but perhaps it was indeed the last library exhibition.

Libraries comparable to the Phillips, as well as those with far less resources, have presented wonderful exhibitions over the past few years, both online and in their reading rooms. In lieu of the lists of books which I usually produce at this time of the year, I thought I’d list some library exhibitions from the recent past and present, set forth for the purposes of comparison and perhaps inspiration.

John Carter Brown Library, Global Americana: The Wider Worlds of a Singular Collection (2017). Given the PEM’s global interests and the nature of their collections, a similar exhibition would be easily within reach, really popular, and a great teaching resource. We’re applying for an NEH grant on the trade between Salem and Spain at SSU, so this particular exhibit item, in which a very young nation assesses its trade, caught my eye—but it’s probably the least colorful item in the exhibition.

Curatorian Global Americana JCB

Secretary of State’s Report on the Cod and Whale Fisheries, 1791, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

 

American Antiquarian Society, Louis Prang and Chromolithography. Artist, Innovator, and Collaborator (2015). This exhibition–archived online–features several works by Salem-born artist Fidelia Bridges. The PEM has some great lithographic images, including an amazing Prang process proof that was featured in Unbound—it was really the highlight of the highlights.

Curatorial Prang

L. Prang & Co., “Dipper missing,” Louis Prang: Innovator, Collaborator, Educator. American Antiquarian Society.

 

Harvard University Map Collection, Pusey Library, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions in MapsEveryone loves maps, and the PEM has a great collection, especially of local maps. A chorographical exhibition would be very interesting, but perhaps a bit too local for the cosmopolitan PEM.

birds-eye-eastern-railroad

“Bird’s-eye View of the Eastern Railroad Line to the White Mountains and Mt. Desert.” Boston: Rand Avery Supply Co., 1890. Harvard University Library.

 

Delaware Art Museum, The Cover Sells the Book: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 (2017). A wonderful exhibition of notable bookbindings in the collection of the Museum’s Helen Sloan Farr Library & Archives. Thanks to the Phillips librarians’ tweets, pins, and instagram posts, we know that they preside over a treasure chest of beautiful bookbindings, and could easily mount a similar exhibition (or three or four).

Curatorial Del

Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum.

 

Baker Library, Harvard University Business School, The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910 (ongoing). This digital exhibition of American advertising ephemera is an amazing resource that I visit often. Given the Essex Institute’s all-encompassing policy of collecting old bills, letters, and account books, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, directories, etc…in fact, all articles which now or in the future may throw light on our history, or manners and customs”, there is no shortage of similar materials in the Phillips Library.

Curatorial Baker

Famous (or infamous) “Antikamnia” Skeleton Calendar for 1901, by Louis Crusius, a St. Louis pharmacist and physician. Baker Library, Harvard University.

Phillips Ephemera

Merrill & Mackintire Calendar for 1884, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

 

And finally, photography, and a plea. The Phillips collections include the photographs and papers of two local photographers who established national reputations over their careers: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel V. Chamberlain (1895-1975). While many of their photographs were published over their lifetimes and after, others remain entombed in the Phillips. Photography lends itself to digital exhibition particularly, so I’m really hoping that the PEM can release some of these images in that (or any!) form, forever.

Chamberlain collage

Samuel V. Chamberlain at work in France and New England, Phillips Library MSS 369, Peabody Essex Museum.

 


Great Wars and Ghosts

Despite my dislike for Haunted Happenings, I have to admit that the range of offerings is much more diverse and engaging than a decade or so ago, as nonprofits in Salem have entered the fray in a big way. A good example: on this Friday, Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, will be speaking about his new book, The Apparitionists: A Tale Of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, And The Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost at the Gothic Revival Chapel at Harmony Grove Cemetery. This setting seems perfect for this talk, which is co-sponsored by the Cemetery, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Salem Historical Society.

Apparitionists

The Apparitionists is about spirit photography in general and America’s first “photographer of disembodied spirits” in particular: William H. Mumler, who set up shop in Boston in 1862 after producing a dual image by accidental double exposure. He offered up an embellished story to The Liberator in November of that year: alone in the photographic saloon of Mrs. Stuart, 258 Washington Street, trying some new chemicals, and amusing himself by a taking a picture of himself which, when produced, to his great astonishment and wonder, there was on the plate not alone a picture of himself, as he supposed, but also a picture of a young woman sitting in a chair that stood by his side. He said that, while standing for this picture, he felt a peculiar sensation and tremulous motion in his right arm, and afterwards felt very much exhausted. This was all he experienced that was unusual. While looking upon the strange phenomenon (the picture of two persons upon the plate instead of one) the thought and conviction flashed upon his mind, this is the picture of a spirit. And in it he recognized the likeness of his deceased cousins, which is also said to be correct by all those who knew her. At first, Mumler disavowed any connection to the Spiritualist community which seemed to give him more credibility, as his doctored cartesdevisites of reunited husbands and wives and parents and children separated by death were much in demand. His claim was that his camera could capture these spirits, in medium-like fashion, yet he was not a medium himself.  Mumler’s time in Boston came to a close when several of his “spirits” were recognized as real live Bostonians, but he moved on to New York, where his continued success drew the attention of investigators and detractors like showman P.T. Barnum, and where he was ultimately prosecuted for “obtaining money from the public by fraud, trick, and device” in a sensational trial held in the spring of 1869, the very same year that Mary Todd Lincoln visited his studio to secure a photograph of herself and her dearly-departed husband. Mumler was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but spirit photography lived on, in America and especially in England. That’s the story for me: the survival, the hope, even after the notorious trial and all sorts of revelations about the technical process that could produce multiple images on one print.

Spirit Photography 1869

Spirit Photographs MET

Spirit Photograph Holmes MFAHarper’s Weekly, May 8, 1896; page from an album of spirit photographs by Frederick Hudson, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art; spirit stereoview from the collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The context for that story has to be the wars–the great wars: the Civil War for America and the First World War for Britain. The collective mourning for the victims of these conflicts seemed unprecedented, unfathomable, and never ending–but of course it wasn’t. Just last week I was talking about all the crises of the fourteenth century with students in my Introduction to European History class: famine, war and plague, leaving millions dead, suddenly, languishing up there in Purgatory, without hope of salvation, unless some action was taken by the living. And suddenly the dead are everywhere: dancing, in the mirror, appearing in threes without warning at any time. Ghost stories emerged for the first time. Late medieval ghosts are often admonishing the living, to get their (spiritual) affairs in order or seize the day, whereas the spirits of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to be conjured up for comfort only. In either case, medieval or modern, it’s more about the living than the dead. Given the long trend towards rationalism, it is difficult to understand how an essentially superstitious spiritualism would resurface in the nineteenth century, if viewed apart from the tremendous grief unleashed by the wars. All indications seem to point to the Spiritualism “conversion” of Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician as well as the creator of the ever-rational Sherlock Holmes, as occurring coincidentally with the Great War and the death of his son Kingsley: his earnest Case for Spirit Photography was first published in 1922, and was followed up by aspeaking tour across the United States which the New York Times labeled “The Second Coming of Sir Arthur”.

Spririts Medieval Getty

Spirit Photograph 3 LC 1901

Hutchinson-1922-12-14-the-case-for-spirit-photographyThe Three Living and the Three Dead from the Crohin-LaFontaine Hours, c.1480—85, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 23, fols. 146v–147; A girl with three spirits, c. 1901, Library of Congress; the first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case for Spirit Photography, 1922.


Doors of Deerfield

Last weekend I drove out to the Pioneer Valley and spent some time at Historic Deerfield, an outdoor museum of eighteenth-century houses located (and assembled) all along one street in the midst of fertile farmland. The museum was founded in 1952, and I’ve been there several times but never by myself, so it was nice to have the time and freedom to focus on whatever I wanted to–and what I wanted to focus on was doors. All I could see was doorways, and it seemed like I couldn’t look at each and every one for long enough. This is certainly not an original preoccupation: I saw the requisite “Doors of Deerfield” posters and postcards in the Museum Shop, where I also picked up a copy of Amelia F. Miller’s Connecticut River Valley Doorways. An Eighteenth-Century Flowering (1983), one of the “Occasional Publications” of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, to take home with me. I expect that I may need to drive out west again very soon—and head south along the river—so that I can see all of these special Connecticut River Valley doorways. Living here in Salem, I’m used to historic doorways, but they are for the most part quite restrained in that Federal way, so these “western” doors provide quite the contrast in terms of detail. Miller agrees (or rather I agree with Miller): Connecticut River Valley doorways bear little resemblance….to doorways of the same period found one hundred miles to the east in coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island towns.

So here are my favorite Deerfield doors, following Miller’s categorization of scroll pedimented doorways, triangular pedimented doorways, segmental pedimented doorways (apparently there are none in Deerfield?) and flat-top doorways. Plus a few more that defy categorization (at least for me): one of the nice things about Historic Deerfield is the interspersing of private homes among the museum buildings, and the former have great doors too.

Scroll Pedimented Doorways: 

Deerfield Ashley Scroll

Deerfield Ashley Scroll 2

Deerfield Dwight best

Deerfield Door Scrolled

Dwight House in Springfield

The Ashley House (1734) and Dwight House, built in the 1750s and moved to Deerfield from Springfield, Massachusetts. Miller includes a c. 1920 photograph of the Dwight house in situ in Springfield (above) and informs us that Mr. Henry Francis Du Pont purchased the door in 1924, and subsequently installed it first in his Long Island home and later at Winterthur. The Dwight House was moved to Deerfield in 1951, and a reproduction door was produced. I’m always aware of Salem houses being picked apart but really no Massachusetts house was safe!

Triangular Pedimented Doorways:

Deerfield Brown

Sheldon House text

Deerfield Red

The Sheldon House (1755), today and in a 1910 photograph in Miller’s text, and a private home across the street.

Flat-top Doorways: not sure these all fit the exact designation, but they have flat tops!

Flat-top Allen

Flat-top Allen doors

Flat-top Barnard

Flat-Top blue

Deerfield Yellow Garden

Deerfield Yellow Door

The Allen House (1734), home of Henry and Helen Flynt, the founders of Historic Deerfield; the Barnard Tavern (1795), with reproduction flat-top door on right and reproduction triangular-pedimented door on left; the beautiful BLUE Wells-Thorne House (1734) and two private homes in between. Not sure how to categorize this last doorway……….

The Federal houses of Deerfield, with their fanlights and transoms and rounded doorways, don’t look so unfamiliar to me: obviously the region was increasingly open to trans-Atlantic and national aesthetic influences in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As is the case with every outdoor or living-history museum that I’ve visited, you do get that still, out-of-time feeling, although the Deerfield experience is enhanced by the proximity of private homes and Deerfield Academy. Still, it was nice to return home to historic Salem, even though it’s a bit too lively for me at this time of year.

Deerfield Stebbins

Deerfield glass 5

deerfield glass 4

Deerfield Glass 3

Deerfield glass

Deerfield Printing

The Stebbins (1799), Williams (remodelled 1817) and Wright (1824) houses of Historic Deerfield; two adjacent private homes; the Wilson Printing Office (1816).

And of course we must have flagrant pumpkin displays for this time of year:

Deerfield Pumpkins


The Hanged Man

Is it just me (here in Salem) or is Tarot experiencing a major resurgence? If so, I would point to our own anxieties and its flexibility, which encourages and drives myriad interpretations and paths: the Economist kicked off the year with its annual predictions issue featuring a spread of Tarot cards suggesting a dystopian future for “Planet Trump”. Regardless of their meaning, I love visual metaphors that are enduring and flexible, or so flexible that they are enduring: reflective of a particular era’s beliefs and values time and time again. One Tarot card that seems to represent this genre well is trump XII, The Hanged Man, which can represent a state of suspension, punishment, suffering, self-sacrifice, and also a critical crossroads at which one has the opportunity to change course. In the first Tarot decks, produced in fifteenth-century Italy and France, he was simply the traitor, perhaps reflecting contemporary “shame paintings” of conspirators and criminals, who were hanged by one leg for all to see.

Hanged Man collage

Shame Paintings collageHanged Men from the Visconti-Sforza deck, c. 1428-50, Cary Collection of Playing Cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and Morgan Library & Museum ; Samuel Y. Edgerton’s CLASSIC book on pittura infamante, with one of  Andrea del Sarto’s drawings (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) on the cover and inside.

The hanged man crosses the alps and is presented as Le Pendu in Tarot decks produced in early modern France and Flanders in the characteristic hanging-by-one-leg pose, (sometimes with bags of coins weighing him down in reference to the ultimate traitor, Judas). It’s important to note that before the end of the eighteenth century and the publication of French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin’s The Primitive World Analyzed and Compared with the Modern World (1773-1782), Tarot cards were merely for play. The Primitive World asserted an ancient Egyptian lineage and ascribed much more power to all of the cards, and replaced the Hanged Man dangling from a rope to Prudence in the presence of a snake. A few years after the publication of de Gébelin’s tome, Jean-Baptiste Alliette reinforced and popularized his claims and offered up a more practical approach to Tarot practice in How to Entertain Yourself with the Deck of Cards called Tarot (1785), completing its transition to an occult art. The Hanged Man reappears in the nineteenth century, looking much the same as his pre-modern form but with enhanced powers and meaning.

Tarot Pack BM

Tarot Worth BMThe Hanged Man in a Flemish Tarot deck from the eighteenth century, and Oscar Wirth’s 1889 deck, British Museum.

The troubled twentieth century was a golden age for Tarot, beginning with the deck that popularized and standardized its “divinatory meanings”: the Rider-Waite Deck, with illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith, which was first published in 1909 and reissued in a major way in 1970. In A.E. Waite’s accompanying Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the Hanged Man is described as “a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled…..the face expresses deep entrancement (represented by the saintly halo), not suffering…the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death”. While Tarot meanings were widely disseminated and standardized by Rider-Waite, the archetypal images were subjected to a range of modern interpretations over the next century. Perhaps the second most influential deck of the twentieth century was the “Thoth Tarot”, a collaboration between Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris which was published in 1969, well after both artists’ deaths. Much more multidisciplinary, the Thoth Deck broke the mold and inspired decades of creative interpretations–“traditional” (whatever that means when referencing Tarot), commercial, allegorical and abstract. Several Crowley-Harris paintings, the Hanged Men among them, were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2013, which I think began this current preoccupation with Tarot. There have been several Tarot exhibitions over the past few years, encompassing everything from emblematic installations to hooked rugs, as the Tarot cards are “reimagined” over and over again. Right here in Salem, photographs from Jim Bostick’s  “Salem Arcanum” Tarot series, featuring a Hanged Man who seems both traditional and modern and definitely illustrates “life in suspension”, are currently on view in the October exhibition at the Mercy Tavern.

Hanged Man 1909

Hanged Man Crowley-Harris

Hanged Men collage2

HWT collage

Hanged Man Woodcut

Minimalist Tarot

SONY DSC

A century of Hanged Men: Pamela Coleman Smith, from the Rider-Waite deck, 1909; Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, 1969; Dürer & Bruegel Hanged Men by Giocinto Gaudenzi, 1989, and Pietro Alligo & Guido Zibordi Marchesi, 2003 accessed from this amazing site which showcases Tarot through the ages; the Housewives Tarot by Jude Buffum and Paul Kepple for Quirk Books, 2003; Woodcut @ HorseAndHair, 2013; photographs by Ayla El-Moussa for 25th Century, 2016; and Jim Bostick of Salem, 2017.


Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

Weather Historic Storms of NE

I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

Perley2

Perley 3

Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

Perley 5

Perley 6

Perley 4

Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


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