Tag Archives: Boston

A County in Crisis, 1692

The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.

Essex County Witch VictimsThe names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.

When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.

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Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “We Do Testefy : The Felton Family & Salem Witch Trials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “Skeletons in the Closet: The Memorialization of George Jacobs Sr. and Rebecca Nurse after the 1692 Witch Trials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.

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Saltonstall CrestI can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.

Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!


Whirlwind Weekend

I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.

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20190811_151931Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).


Parachuting Perspectives

Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager!  This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.

Slavery

Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.

 

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Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.

 

Books Inn Civility

Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.

 

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Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.

 

Climate change

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And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.


Wooden Houses on Beacon Hill

I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.

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Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.

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beacon hill collage 14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.


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


Back Bay Easter

We were a small party for Easter this year so we went to the St. Botolph Club in Boston for a buffet of oysters, salmon, eggs benedict, coq au vin, and lamb (no ham). This is the artsy old Boston club, and I always enjoy going there because the walls are lined with the work of its members past and present. In the crimson library, there is a portrait of an artist who I became acquainted with through his connections to several Salem artists at the end of the nineteenth century: John Leslie Breck. I’ve come to admire his work over the past few years, and I always “check in” with him whenever I go to St. Botolph’s. Though known as one of the young artists who brought Impressionism to the United States (in successive exhibitions at St. Botolph’s), Breck’s portrait is one of earnest realism: he looks handsome and troubled, or maybe I am just imposing that state on him as I know he ended his own life at the age of 39 in 1899.

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I don’t mean to be so maudlin, but that portrait always makes an impression on me. But it was a lovely Easter afternoon with great food and company and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue searching for signs of spring. We found some, mostly man- made, but there were a few flowering buds—we are on the brink! Walking back to the car from the Public Garden, I looked for my favorite version of the three Lutheran solas: I was just lecturing on them in my Reformation class last week, and I took a photograph for some extra validation for/from my students.

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An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

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This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

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Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

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Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).


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