Tag Archives: Charter Street

The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

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Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

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The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


Time Wears Some Down

I tend to spend much of September in Salem’s cemeteries, running around the perimeters of Harmony Grove and Greenlawn in North Salem and walking slowly through the older cemeteries downtown reading the gravestones. The former will retain much of their serenity in October while the latter will be transformed into circuses, clogged with tourists and walking tours and trash. Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, is particularly vulnerable given its age and proximity to the Janus-faced nexus of Salem Halloween tourism, the Witch Trials Memorial and the Salem Witch Village (or neighborhood or world or whatever it is called–a conglomeration of horrors) on Liberty Street. The city has contracted with a landscape designer who specializes in historic cemeteries to improve security, perimeter fencing, entrance accessibility, and circulation, and while I welcome these improvements, I doubt that they will address what I see as the central problem facing this sacred space: the lack of respect shown by too many of its visitors. Even on the relatively calm mid-week September day on which I took these pictures, I saw a group of people sitting on a cenotaph merrily eating, drinking, texting and smoking, and such scenarios will be the norm a month from now.

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Yet even if we closed the gates of the Old Burying Point to all but the descendants of those within (which would be my preference: I will stay out too!) time would still takes its toll. This point was really driven home for me when I compared the pictures that I took the other day to an assortment taken by photographer/author/preservationist/entrepreneur Frank Cousins between 1890 and 1910, preserved in a sample book for his art company in the collection of Historic New England. I can’t do a precise “past and present” comparison for every marker as I was pressed for time and couldn’t find several of the gravestones that Cousins captured (they might be there, but they’ve lost their inscription) and variant stones seemed to have captured his interest and mine. Yet it is readily apparent that even those gravestones that have stood the test of time are now surrounded by a very different world than the Salem of a century ago.

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The various graves of the Lindall family look pretty good in 2016 (on top, in color–such as it is) compared to Cousins’ photographs from c. 1900; I don’t think we can get wooden buildings back, but I far prefer the wooden fence to the present chain link one.

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John and Mary Crowninshield’s gravestones do look a little worse for wear in 2016 but are still standing. I could not find all of the Crowninshield graves captured by Cousins, but below are those of Captains John and Clifford Crowninshield today and a century or so ago. All of the Crowninshields lie in the shadow of the Witch Village or whatever it is called.

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Besides those of the Lindalls and the Crowninshields, Cousins captured the gravestones of the famous (Samuel McIntire, Nathanael Mather, Mary Corey) and the not-so-famous Shattucks, Marstons, Cromwells, and Hollingsworths. He was clearly drawn to the graves of the very young and the very old, as we all are, and those stones which were the better for wear and still bore detailed artistic flourishes. I was after much of the same, but somehow we only “shared” the Lindalls and the Crowninshields; I think I’ll go back and uncover some more comparisons when I have a bit more time.

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Some of my favorite of Cousins Charter Street photographs: the sad triple grave of the Gat(h)man children and the elusive one of Retire Shattuck–I easily found Mary Higginson but missed John. The rehabilitated gravestone of Elizabeth Millett illustrates the work that is yet to be done on many stones in the Old Burying Point, while Elizabeth Wellcome’s slightly-chipped and -leaning one has always been a particular favorite of mine for some reason.

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