Tag Archives: Halloween

Exorcising my Anecdotes

We are now in the midst of Salem’s annual Haunted Happenings celebration, marking the fortuitous link between the tragic events of 1692 and that second-most festive of holidays, Halloween. I think this year’s festivities began sometime in September, and the calendar is packed through October 31: tonight is the annual parade, which used to be the kick-off event event but is now late to the party. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’ve never been able to see the connection between innocent victims and festivity, but believe me, I’m in the minority, and the majority definitely rules on this matter in Salem. I was going to skip my annual rant this year because it is getting tiresome (for me as well as others, I’m sure) but this was a big year for witch-trial remembrance connected to the observance of the 325th anniversary of the Trials, and I heard several things in its course that I just can’t forget, so I thought I’d use this post to process a few anecdotes. Readers and followers of the blog have increased by quite a bit over the past year (for which I am very grateful!) so I also want to offer these new viewers some orientation: even though my blog is called streets of Salem, this is not the place to go for event listings and coverage of all the things going on in the streets of Salem in October–you should click over to Destination Salem or Creative Salem if that is what you are seeking. These are both very comprehensive and informative sites that serve as great guides to Salem happenings in October or throughout the year (because a lot does happen throughout the year). I cannot be your October guide because I will be either hiding in my house or getting out of town. Well, obviously that is an exaggeration: I must work after all, I will sneak out on mid-week mornings because Salem is very beautiful at this time of year, and there are several cultural events happening this month that I don’t want to miss. But after my re- and full immersion into the experience of Haunted Happenings a few years ago, I realized that I needed to keep my head down and my mind on the victims of 1692—or anything else.

So before I leave this subject for another year, here are the assertions which I have been contemplating ever since I first heard them. I know; I am a bad historian to utilize only anecdotal evidence, but this is a blog, not a book. These moments have lasted with me because I think they speak volumes.

Cotton Mather promoted Wonders of the Invisible World in the London papersThis fact (Mather’s publisher did put a notice for Wonders in several London papers in December 1692 and February 1693) was uttered by the executive director of Salem’s “Most Visited Museum” and a major beneficiary of Haunted Happenings, the Witch Museum, in the context of a panel discussion on the Proctor’s Ledge site in July of this year. There was a general discussion of how the Trials had became sensationalized over time, and this was her response, meaning, in essence, it began then–we’re not first. I thought it was rather astonishing to hear Cotton Mather, the contemporary apologist for the trials, used as a role model!

Cotton Mather Quinton Jones Cotton Mather and the Witch of Endor, by the extraordinary and eccentric Salem artist Quinton Oliver Jones (1903-1999), who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Salem Athenaeum.

I have no doubt Elizabeth Montgomery the person would have spoken out against injustice in 1692, had she been here at the time. And her character, Samantha, DID just that !  This was a comment in response to a letter in the Salem News (not by me!) in opposition to the Bewitched statue, essentially asking why this statue of a fictional television character was located in Salem. Apparently the statue is not of Samantha Stevens, but Elizabeth Montgomery, who was an advocate for social justice….but nevertheless Samantha did stand up! What can you say in response to such thinking? Does real history even exist?

Bewitched Thanksgiving I must be honest: this a THANKSGIVING episode of Bewitched; I couldn’t find an image of Samantha at the Witch Trials so Plymouth had to stand in–but Puritans are Puritans, right?

You need a licenseThis happened just the other day: one of my colleagues, who is teaching a First Year Seminar (required for all freshmen at our university) on “Hamilton and Salem” took his students on a walking tour of Salem so that they could learn about, you know, Hamilton and Salem. Standing in front of old Custom House on Central Street and explaining what the (then-waterfront) looked like in 1800 when Hamilton did in fact visit Salem, a man came up to him and asked him which tour company he worked for. When my colleague replied that he was a history professor at Salem State taking his students on a walking tour, the man replied:  you can’t do that; you need a license (and stop blocking the sidewalk). My colleague (with a Ph.D., two books, and 15+ years of teaching under his belt) didn’t quite grasp that this man was trying to get him to stop teaching, so the man repeated himself, assertively: Stop. You need a license.

Exorcising 5 No teaching here!

The commodification of history has its costs. No doubt there are benefits too: the official line is that Haunted Happenings revenues offset taxes and many downtown businesses report that the Halloween season is the time when balance sheets move from red into the black. We hear about the benefits of Haunted Happenings a lot, but never about the costs, literal or otherwise. I can’t speak to the former, but in reference to my anecdotes I see: a declining historical empathy, a declining historical understanding, and…..increasing restrictions on free speech? (perhaps this is going too far but I find the last anecdote simply chilling, though I was relieved to read that unlicensed teaching is actually allowed in Salem). Certainly our ability to engage in a meaningful dialogue is limited by the constraints of official boosterism when questioning public policy is interpreted solely and simply as threatening private livelihoods and the collective refrain is embrace or retreat, love it or leave it–and stop whining.

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Exorcising 4 A joyful walk down Federal Street yesterday (Salem IS beautiful at this time of the year–do come during the week, if you can)–but then I went downtown and saw that the Museum Place Mall has been renamed the Witch City Mall.


Liberation Day

November 1 is Liberation Day in Salem: the long Halloween is over, quite suddenly it always seems, and the city is returned to its residents. I’m in much better spirits than last year because of my boyc0tt of downtown Salem: the image of the Witch Trials Memorial turned into a food hall is somewhat faded from my mind. It’s comforting to know that in this month, and the months leading up to next September and October, civic resources and energies will be liberated from propping up the seasonal Halloween industry and thus enabled to focus on promoting Salem’s less-ephemeral attributes. As usual trick-or-treating generally mollifies my feelings about Halloween as the kids are so cute, but still, I’m glad it’s over (again).

My favorite trick-or-treaters (or costumed people who walked past my door–sorry, the pictures of an entire Game of Thrones crew and the Swiss Family Robinson (I think?) did not come out well).

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My feelings today, illustrated : “Liberty Triumphant” (against oppression) in the Revolutionary war and World War I (Library of Congress) , joyful skipping by Harold Edgerton (© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), My cat Trinity at peace.

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Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

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Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

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Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


Two Nights in Salem

As you might imagine, my teenage stepson is not at all sympathetic to my I don’t want to see tacky & exploitative witchcraft “attractions” attitude in October so we have ventured downtown for the last couple of nights.The weather has been warm but rainy so there weren’t that many people milling about but we did avoid the more commercial sites. I think I first took him to the Salem Witch “Museum” when he was six or seven and he thought it was ridiculous then; so he has no desire to return now, thankfully. On Thursday night we went to a few shops on the way to one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s monthly themed PEM/PM evenings, which are always great.This month’s theme was “Moon Landing”, in reference to their brand new exhibition “Lunar Attraction”, which is just the kind of multi-media, multi-genre, multi-era, and multi-perspective presentation that I always enjoy. We spent a lot of time watching the colorized version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) that was playing continuously, but I found many of the exhibit items almost as captivating.

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The Peabody Essex Museum on Thursday evening past: atrium and “Lunar Attraction” exhibits, including screen shots from A Trip to the Moon; Beth Hoeckel’s “Campground” collage from her ongoing series “Point of View”; Scott Listfield’s “To the Moon”, 2004, a Japanese moon rabit, and Edward Holyoke’s ink illustration of a solar eclipse, 1713.

On our way over to the Museum we stopped in at the Salem Arts Association, where there were works both timeless and ephemeral and seasonal-macabre, some more witty than others. I liked these little coffins in the window and a “Vampire Test”mirror; my stepson liked a map of the United States divided into regions which have Waffle Houses and regions which do not.That came home with us.

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On Friday night, before the deluge we had later and the PBS documentary on the making of Hamilton, we went to the House of the Seven Gables for one of their seasonal experiences, “Legend of the Hanging Judge”, in which actors play out different roles relating to the witch trials in the rooms of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace: the author himself was in residence, consumed with guilt, as his ancestor is the title character. The one good thing about Salem’s crass commercial Halloween tourism is that it gets tourists through the doors of real museums like the Gables, although I fear out-of-town sausage sellers make more money.

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The Gables at Night. I can never get a good night shot–was trying for the contrast of garden and house and this is the best I could do!


Greetings from Witch City

I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.

What I observed (words):

  1. Huge crowds, very international in nature: I heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and (I think) Polish.
  2. Mostly they just mill about, taking pictures of themselves and others.
  3. There were some great costumes, but also a sea of generic witches and zombies. Lots of ghoulish brides, for some reason. My favorites were a pair of tarot cards, which I didn’t quite catch (see below). People really seemed to enjoy dressing up (humiliating) their dogs–this is just one reason I am a cat person.
  4. Long lines at all the schlocky businesses (the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, all the witch and “horror” shops). The Peabody Essex Museum was completely empty, but I was glad to see the House of the Seven Gables doing a brisk business. Kudos to the PEM and the National Park Service for keeping the Ropes Mansion and the Customs House open and free. These were the only real historical sites available to people, apart from the Witch House and the Gables.
  5. Good for business? This is the major reason people think Haunted Happenings is good for Salem. I suppose it is, but I’m really not sure. It seemed to me that the seasonal businesses were bustling while many of the more permanent ones were relatively empty, or even closed altogether. All the restaurants were packed, with long lines, but don’t all those sausage and fried dough stands eat into their business?
  6. Tours: one business that is obviously profiting big time from Haunted Happenings is that of walking tours, which seem to have multiplied exponentially from previous years. Both former and current students of mine were giving tours while I walked about, and I tried not to get too close so that I might hear what they were saying……
  7. Comments overheard during the crush. There are so many people packed together, that you can’t help but hear what they are saying (unfortunately). Most common comments/questions: where were the witches burned? what does that [building] have to do with the witches? Look at that dog!
  8. Crowd control: there is a huge police presence downtown, which is very necessary but must also be very costly.
  9. Trash: everywhere. Salem gets trashed during Haunted Happenings. The city was definitely on top of the trash situation, but again, at what cost?
  10. Desecration: the two most sacred sites downtown, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial were completely desecrated yesterday. There is no word more appropriate: desecration. The cemetery is simply fodder for tour groups and photo shoots, and the Memorial was reduced to a place where people could sit down and eat their fried dough or text. Drunken clowns (literally) sat on the stones representing the victims of 1692 while smiling tourists took their pictures. I ran home and poured myself a stiff drink.

What I observed (pictures):

Crowds converge around the Witch House and towards downtown; the requisite “sea of heads” shot, on Washington Street.

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The center of the storm, Lappin Park, at Washington and Essex Streets. Here Samantha, evangelical preachers, tourists, and fried dough converge. It’s really hard to convey how odd this juxtaposition of elements is.

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Some of the more creative costumes I spotted…..and uncreative: the last ladies were all sporting the super tacky “Salem Witch” costume I featured in a post a month ago.

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The Business of Witch City.

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A few random shots. Overheard in front of both the Derby House and the Ropes Mansion: did a witch live here?

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The Burying Point on Charter Street and Witch Trials Memorial. No comment.

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End note: Things did pick up after I went home and had a drink and received my trick-or-treaters, who were cute and gracious. There were the usual pirates and princesses, but one costume, worn by a boy about 10 years old, I found quite perplexing: a black, inflated, puffer suit of sorts, rendering him quite round. No mask, no graphics. I asked him what he was supposed to be, and he shrugged while his sister answered for him: America. Morbid Obesity.


Season of Contrasts

I have some free time on Saturday, so I’m going to walk around and take pictures so that I can present Salem’s Halloween to you in its full glory, but today I have prettier, and for the most part, calmer pictures of Salem and Essex County that I’ve taken over the last few weeks. When looking through my picture files, I was struck by how many contrasts were depicted:  between city and country, Salem in its Witch City mode and the county in its luxuriant fall mode, a lot of energy in Salem and a lot of tranquility on its outskirts. But everywhere there is color at this time of year, contrasting color: bright, dark, golden. October is such a beautiful month, but I really do prefer the slightly starker, Halloween-free November: just a few more days.

Salem:

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My back yard at night–the mansard tower of the building on Broad Street that was the original Salem State Normal School and is now condos is always lit of with purple flashing light during October. It looks cool but I can never take good night pictures.

Ipswich, Newbury, Newburyport:

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