Tag Archives: Boston Globe

Witch City: the Film and the Moment

It seems ridiculous, but when I moved to Salem I remember being surprised at the extent of Halloween hoopla and kitsch in the city: it seemed really tacky to me but not particularly concerning. It was the early 1990s, I was still in graduate school, and frankly more wrapped up in the literature and discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing than the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials. I was also much more familiar with the European witch trials, an extended crisis by which over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the Salem trials seemed like a much smaller event to me: in terms of size, extent, impact. I had visited Trier and Bamberg at the center of the witch-trial-storm in Germany, where hundreds had been executed for the “exceptional crime” in the 1580s and the 1620s: neither had transformed themselves in Witch Cities; I had spent considerable time in Essex, the county which was the most impacted by the less-intense English witch trials: no Witch Cities to be found there either. So I was surprised by Salem, even though I grew up only an hour away and had visited the Salem Witch “Museum” on a school trip (when I swear I saw the same “performance” that is playing there now). I suspect I was so bewitched by the architecture that I looked the other way!

18th century Witch Trial relief sculpture in Düsseldorf: Horst Ossinger dpa/lnw 

After several years in residence, I lost my naiveté and came to realize just how insidious witchcraft tourism was in Salem and how powerful were its purveyors. Halloween just got bigger and longer, as the city’s identity, as well as the experience of residential life, were fused with a holiday that had a very tenuous connection to the 1692 trials, whose victims were not witches. One of the effects–an unintended consequence, I’m sure– of the 1992 commemoration was to provide a rationale for the continued commercial exploitation of the trials, under the label of toleration: Salem has risen above its moment of extreme intolerance so it is perfectly ok for us to profit from it! We are not profiting we are educating! This message facilitated the Halloween steamroller perfectly and kept it rolling; it is still rolling. Salem’s children are not in schools during this pandemic, but tourists fill our streets: priorities. So obviously, I’m not a fan, but even more so than the exploitative nature of Salem’s Halloween I am bothered (and actually a little bewildered) by the lack of any public dialogue about it. There is simply no procedural opportunity for any person—resident, victim descendant, whomever—to say Hey this is wrong, or even ask to tone it down. The city puts out a questionnaire to Salem residents after every Halloween season, but all the questions are about logistics (traffic, parking, carnival): it is either assumed that everyone buys into the hellish Halloween, or the city government just doesn’t care what its residents think about it. When I look back over my long residence in Salem, I think there were only two eventful opportunities to discuss the way the city was selling itself: a brief moment prior to the placement of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square in the Spring of 2005, and the first screening of the documentary Witch City in the Spring of 1997. The more recent opportunity was extremely limited, as the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) moved fairly quickly to grant permission for the statue’s placement in Salem’s most historic square in time for TV Land, its sponsor, to reap the benefits of cross-promotional advertising for the film Bewitched in June of 2005. The city of Salem was unmoved by the fact that the statue of a fictional witch would stand in close proximity to the location at which the very real victims of 1692 were condemned as witches or the appeals of those victims’ descendants in 2005, and it remains so. There was controversy over Samantha in 2005, but I remember more controversy about the debut of Witch City in 1997, but that might be just because I had a more invested view.

City of Salem advertising in the 1990s: a still from the 1997 documentary Witch City. City of Salem advertising today.

Whew! That was a long preamble to the central topic of this post: the documentary itself, and its Salem debut, prompted by its recent availability (for the first time) hereWitch City is a fast-moving, often-funny, always spot-on documentary about Salem’s escalating Halloween in the 1990s, a place and a time when “American history encounters American capitalism” (I think the latter won). It was made by several local filmmakers, Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn and John Stanton, and in classic documentary fashion it lets most of the participants speak for themselves: Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel at Tercentenary events, the- then Mayor of Salem, Neil Harrington, the “official witch of Salem”, Laurie Cabot, and the owner of the Salem Witch “Museum”, Bif Michaud, among others. Mr. Michaud, of Marblehead, made an unfortunate and perplexing comment equating the Witch Trials and the Holocaust (you’ll have to hear it for yourself) in the film which leaked out, causing considerable discussion in town and the Peabody Essex Museum to cancel the Salem premiere so not to offend its neighbor. Somehow, my colleague Tad Baker and I came up with the idea that our Department might sponsor the premiere: we were new to Salem State, untenured and unconnected, but we had the encouragement and support of our senior colleague John Fox, who had worked with Joe Cultrera on an earlier film, Leather Soul. And so that’s what happened: the History Department sponsored the Salem premiere of Witch City at Hamilton Hall of all places: I remember the tech people laying wires all day long in the Hall but I can’t recall why we didn’t have it at the university! The show was sold out, the Hall was packed, and we had a great panel featuring Tad and Danvers Archivist Richard Trask, now both acknowledged as THE authorities on the Trials. There was lively discussion, and I remember thinking: we can talk about this, we will talk about this when it was over. Witch City went on to be screened at the Immaculate Conception church and eventually on our local PBS station, WGBH, but unfortunately the Hamilton Hall premiere was not the beginning of a sustained public dialogue about Halloween in Salem, but rather just one brief shining moment.

Boston Globe piece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.

You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.


Sisters in Service: Salem 1918

When your focus is on historical women, as mine has been for these 2020 #salemsuffragesaturday posts, sometimes you find their stories are somewhat segregated from what is going on at a particular time, and sometimes it is clear that their stories are absolutely integral and central to what is going on at the time. Salem’s experience of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 is illustrative of the latter case: nurses were not only on the front lines of this strike; they constituted primary care. And there were simply not enough professional nurses to go around in the context of both war and contagion, particularly in the panic months of September and October. Salem was actually well-positioned to meet the challenges of a contagious epidemic: it had a brand new, state-of-the-art hospital with its own nursing program and several charities which focused on “public health nursing”: the Woman’s Friend Society (still thriving today) operated a “District Nurse” (later Visiting Nurse) program under the direction of Superintendant Miss Pauline Smith, and the Committee on Prevention of Tuberculosis had an “Instructive Nurse”, Miss Teresa Trapeney, on staff. The City had been battling the “Great White Plague” for quite some time, but it had to supplement its forces to deal with the “Spanish Flu”.

Influenza-Collage

Salem-Hospital-1910-3

Sisters Oct 2 1918

20200326_114532The 1910 Associated Charities of Salem Annual Report in 1910 features a rendering of the new Salem Hospital on Highland Avenue, which was opened in 1917; Boston Daily Globe advertisement, October 2, 1918; the Woman’s Friend Society on Hawthorne Boulevard.

Before I delve into that response, a few words about the nature and mortality of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, in general and in Salem. There have been quite a few references to it over the past few weeks, as people naturally want a historical precedent for any crisis, but many of these references have been incorrect, even wildly incorrect. For example, President Trump’s March 24 assertion thatYou can’t compare this [COVID-19] to 1918 where close to 100 million people died. That was a flu, which — a little different. But that was a flu where if you got it you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying. Maybe the 100 million estimate can be overlooked as global mortality estimations are all over the place—everywhere from 20 million to 100 million—but that mortality rate assertion is ridiculous: the real number is in the neighborhood of 2.5%. The president’s sloppy statement misrepresents both the nature of the threat and the heroic efforts that were made to combat it: it is dehumanizing. I’ve NEVER understood the vagueness of the general mortality numbers until I delved into the research for this post: it is very clear from the Massachusetts records that there was both epidemic influenza as well as influenza-triggered respiratory diseases, predominately pneumonia, in 1918. Some accounts and estimates only include the primary category; others include both: these figures from 1917-1918 illustrate the connection between the two diseases and their notable increase over the year.

Influenza-1918-Table-3

This same source, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ annual reporting of the state’s vital statistics for 1918, lists 151 deaths from influenza and 102 for pneumonia in Salem for 1918, but this is an under-representation of the threat: the daily papers report as many as 1500 cases during some days in late September. Another factor which likely bears on all of the Massachusetts statistics is the fact that the Board of Health did not rule influenza a “reportable disease” until October 2, well into the epidemic. The Annual Report of the Salem Hospital for 1918 notes the 40% increase in patients over the year, and offers the assertions that a larger increase might have been made if during the Influenza epidemic in September and October, it had been possible to secure additional nurses to replace those who were ill. This increase affords conclusive proof of the claim of the hospital authorities that it was not meeting the needs of the community. Salem Hospital could not meet the needs of its community in the fall of 1918 not only because it had insufficient nurses: many of the nurses who were on staff, in addition to physicians, came down with influenza themselves, and so the decision was made to establish a separate, emergency hospital to limit the spread of the contagion. Tent cities sprung up all over eastern Massachusetts in the fall of 1918, but in Salem one gets the impression that that was never a consideration: this was only four years after the Great Salem Fire—which prompted the establishment of several tent cities—after all. I can’t determine whether they were asked or they volunteered, but the Sisters of St. Chretienne, recently established in the former Loring Villa in South Salem, offered up their newly-expanded building as the emergency influenza hospital, and themselves as nurses. Consider their situation: they themselves had been displaced from their Convent-Noviate on Harbor Street by the Fire in 1914, had purchased and overseen the expansion and transformation of the residential Loring Villa into a school, and had just opened that school when the epidemic hit! Only their fellow St. Chretienne sisters across the Atlantic found themselves in a more challenging situation, in the midst of the major war zone of World War I.

Influenza Lawrence

Lawrence mask room (3)

Brookline Tent City (3)

Tent Hospital Brookline (3)

Ste Chretienne SSU (3)

20200327_145600Influenza tent hospitals in Lawrence (top two–including the “mask room”: they had MASKS then!) and Brookline (more masks on display), September 1918, Lawrence History Center Digital Collections and Brookline Historical Society; The St. Chretienne Academy in South Salem, now part of the South Campus of Salem State University, served as Salem’s emergency influenza hospital in the fall of 1918, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Both education and health care were encompassed within the mission of the Sisters of St. Chretienne, and their fellow sisters from Salem’s other Catholic orders, the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception and the Sisters of Notre Dame, also served as nursing aides during that fevered fall of 1918. The situation called for a sacred-secular collaboration, as the Sisters were joined by the Woman’s Friend Society and its District Nurses as well as individual Salem women answering Governor Samuel McCall’s call that able-bodied people with any medical training volunteer their services. After several intense weeks in late September and early October, the influenza “crest” (rather than curve) appeared to be subsiding—or at least that was the story in the press—but by years’ end, it appeared to be on the rise yet again: in Salem, Miss Julia E. Pratt, the matron of The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association on Carpenter Street, found that the majority of her charges were infected with the persistent influenza, and across Massachusetts, the call went out once again: to women. 

Influenza Immaculate

Sisters BG Oct 9 1918

Influenza Years End

Orphans CollageBoston Daily Globe: September 30, October 9, December 20 & 23, 1918.


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