Tag Archives: Haunted Happenings

Can I have it both ways?

Today is Halloween; today is Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther posted—or otherwise “published”— his Ninety-five Theses, a scathing and immediately-accessible critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church which launched a Reformation that would divide and alter western Christendom in myriad ways, changes which are still ongoing today. I live in Reformation Land all year long as most of the courses I teach are centered on this era: it’s either in the foreground or the background, a trigger, a factor, a cause or a culmination. But I also live in Salem, which is increasingly Halloween Land all year long. Usually I dwell in the former and shut out the latter as much as possible until the big night, but on October 31 I think I should be able to “celebrate” both, and when a former student sent me an image of Ninety-five Reeses the other day I realized I could!

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95 Luther Woodcut LOC

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screenshot_20191031-064823_facebookFrederick Kemmelmeyer’s portrait of Luther, National Gallery of Art+the carved pumpkins on my neighbor’s front stoop; Frederick the Wise’s Dream and the beginning of the Reformation, October 31, 1517, Library of Congress; Cranach’s  Schlosskirche in Wittenberg; the viral meme that inspired me: 95 Reeses!

Well obviously there have been a succession of trick-or-treating/ Wittenberg memes in social media circulation over the last decade or so, but I found this one particularly inspirating, so much so, I even made my own: of individual Reese’s cups. History and candy: the perfect combination.

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The Witchfinder in Salem

As tragic and interesting as the Salem Witch Trials are, they are still somewhat limited in the scope of characters and duration. So in the constant and evolving effort to market anything and everything about them, a bit of cultural appropriation always takes place: I see many images from Europe’s longer reign of witch-hunting used in Salem rather indiscriminately every year, most prominently the storied “swimming test”, and the Salem Witch Museum features a “strong Celtic woman, diminished and demonized by the church fathers in the middle ages” even though the myth of the midwife-witch has long been consigned to folklore by European historians. A very popular and creative “immersive media game theater” company called Intramersive Media here in Salem is staging the fourth chapter of their “Daemonologie” series this October at PEM’s Assembly House: an experience entitled “Smoke and Mirrors” centered on a seance in 1849. (I really wanted to go because I haven’t been in the Assembly House forever but that of course would mean staying in Salem for the October weekend performances which I just can’t do; in any case I think they’re sold out!) Now there is only one Daemonologie for me, the famous book by King James VI of Scotland (soon to be King James I of England) published first in 1597: a text that impacted how “witches” were perceived and prosecuted once James acceded to the English throne in 1603. But I don’t think these performances have anything to do with that: it’s just a name: though James perceived witchcraft very personally and perhaps that is the meaning here.

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Alan Cummings as King JamesYou can read the entire first edition of the Daemonologie  of King James by “turning the pages” at the British Library here; Alan Cumming made a brief appearance as a pretty amazing King James in the Thirteenth Doctor’s Witchfinders episode last year.

But I saw the absolute best “transportation” and reincarnation of an icon of British witchcraft just this weekend, standing on a stool in front of the Peabody Essex Museum just before I went in for my new wing tour: Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” of Civil-War England! Hopkins was a rather unsuccessful East Anglian lawyer who took advantage of the conflict between Crown and Parliament to proclaim himself the official Witchfinder General, vaguely commissioned to discover, prosecute, and execute “witches” as he crusaded from town to town in his native country. Villages would pay him for his troubles, and consequently he gained both money and fame as he and his associates went about their business between 1644 and 1646, eventually executing between 230 and 300 people for witchcraft, employing uncharacteristically-English torture techniques in the process. The image of Hopkins was transmitted across England in his The Discovery of Witchcraft (1647), and so I immediately recognized him as a familiar figure standing on a Salem street. The depiction was quite good: kind of a combination of the seventeenth-century illustration with (a younger) Vincent Price’s profile in the 1968 film Witchfinder General. 

Witchfinder The-discovery-of-witches-hst_tl_1600_E_388_2British Library version here.

After I got out of the Peabody Essex, I approached this Witchfinder General and asked him if he knew who Matthew Hopkins was and he certainly did. I was informed that Matthew Hopkins was never officially licensed by any authority in seventeenth-century England, but he, the Salem Witchfinder was. The City of Salem had provided his license, a bright pink badge which he displayed. I certainly had no argument with that; he was entirely correct. That was about the extent of our interaction: he allowed me to take his photograph for free but I had to pay if I wanted one with him with my hands encased in his portable stocks. I said no thank you and off I went. So here we have a very official Witchfinder in the Witch City. I’ve been to Manningtree, the beautiful little Essex village where the reign of terror of Matthew Hopkins began, several times, and I’ve never seen him there: no doubt its residents have shunned him, but of course he’s perfectly welcome here in Salem, where all is good clean (licensed) fun.

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Witchfinder Wellcome 1792

20190929_162442The (official) Witchfinder General in Salem, September 30, 2019.


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.

Charter Street Forbes

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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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Charter James Jeffrey

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.


A Cemetery under Siege

The Agenda for the meeting of the Salem Cemetery Commission tonight includes a “Recommendation to Close Charter Street Cemetery during  October”. I support this recommendation, and urge others who do so to either attend the meeting or forward their thoughts to the Commission. Here is my letter.

I urge the Salem Cemetery Commission to authorize the complete closure of the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street during the month of October, when it is clearly exposed to unrelenting population pressures which threaten its vulnerable monuments and landscape. Certainly it is within the discretion of the Commission to authorize this closure and provide access to those who formally request it on a much more limited basis. Salem already has one closed cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation grants municipalities wide latitude in their recommendations for library stewardship, particularly for historic cemeteries located in urban areas. The City of Boston has closed nine of its 16 historic burying grounds.

The City of Salem is to be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years, including the ongoing restoration work at Charter Street funded by the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the safeguarding of this investment is certainly an important justification for the closure of the cemetery during October. Another reason, equally compelling, is the opportunity for the City to express reverence for a site that is not only historic, but sacred. The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.

As an educator, it concerns me to see any historical resource removed from public access. I wish that the Charter Street cemetery could serve as an authentic counterweight to the dramatic excesses of Haunted Happenings where visitors could learn from real remnants of the past but that can’t happen in an environment of crushing crowds and rampant irreverence; instead it is utilized as a textual backdrop for photographs at best and for more active endeavors at worst. Over the years, I have seen people eat, drink, sit, lie, jump, dance and skype on or near graves in Charter Street; I didn’t see the infamous diaper-changing incident but was not surprised. It’s lovely to trail behind individuals and families in April or June or even September as they read the inscriptions and revel in the sheer weight of the past that is so very evident in our most ancient cemetery, but that’s not possible in October. October in Salem is a time for a quite different type of revelry, and the Old Burying Point should not be its scene.

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20190812_125514The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.

Charter Street Linden Tea FlickrThe Old Burying Point in October via @Linden Tea on Flickr.

Update: last night the Cemetery Commission voted to continue the matter to its September 10 meeting. The Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries submitted a proposal to the Commission which you can see on their website: https://www.salemcemeteries.org/. This proposal calls for the Old Burying Point Cemetery to remain open during the week and be restricted to approved tour groups on the weekends. I have great respect for the Friends group, which has been advocating for better interpretation and preservation of the downtown cemeteries for several years, but I think I’ll stand by my statement and plea for complete closure during October: I have simply seen too much disrespectful behavior in the cemetery and I have the luxury of speaking only for myself rather than having to mitigate between different vested interests as the Friends group does. To me, Charter Street is a cemetery, rather than an “attraction”, and I think we owe the Dead and their families more respect than we do tourists accommodation. But Charter Street is also a public space, and a public process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to weigh in must govern its use, so I’m grateful to the Cemetery Commission for overseeing this process, and to all parties for their input.


Two Sides of Salem

I haven’t been posting on Salem very much: my blog is going to lose its name! Long-time readers will know that I always hide or leave during October as I do not care for Haunted Happenings, but I’ve been out of step with Salem for about a year now: it doesn’t really feel like home anymore. Lovely people, lovely houses, and the perfect small-city vibe remain, but I can’t get past the history thing. I grew up in a town (York, Maine) with a strong sense of historical identity, and moved to Salem because I felt that same strong sense here. I took it for granted, and went about my business, which is European history, and only became more locally-focused when I started this blog. Now I feel the effects of the removal of the Phillips Library, the repository of so much of Salem’s history, every single day. All the towns around Salem have these great historical museums—-the Marblehead Museum, the Beverly Historical Society, the Ipswich Museum, I could go on and on—and we have the Witch Museum. I’m jealous, and fearful of the future, because I know how much effort and energy past generations invested in the preservation and presentation of Salem’s multi-faceted history and I don’t see that same conviction here and now.

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Two Sides 6Apparently over 1.5 million people visit Salem each year, with nearly 54% of that number in the month of October: for many of those 800,000 or so (I am severely math-challenged), this ⇑⇑ is historical interpretation.

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Two Sides 3Carnival Confusion: a City ordinance against mechanical rides on the Common prohibited the annual carnival there, so it was relocated to the middle of Federal Street, but somehow there are electrical rides on the Common as well. This is all very confusing to me, but a colleague of mine commented that the Federal Street location was ok, as those columns on the Greek Revival courthouse are Egyptian Revival, so the Pharaoh fits right in.

BUT, I must stress that there are still considerable efforts and energies in evidence in Salem. We do not have a single institution charged with collecting and interpreting the city’s history, but we do have myriad heritage and cultural organizations, all pursuing their own missions and planning their own programming. There’s the ever-expanding Peabody Essex Museum, the evolving Punto Urban Art Museum of murals in the Point, and a really active arts association. There’s a big university, a big hospital, and a big courthouse (which doesn’t have a carnival in front of it). Salem is accessible by both train and seasonal ferry, and for better or worse, is in the midst of a major building boom. It’s a lively place, to be sure, and right in the midst of all this it happens that four of my very favorite Salem houses are for sale at the same time, so if you can put the history thing aside, take a look: actually I think this first one is already under agreement.

Two Sides 10 22 Andrew Street: a beautiful Federal (built 1808) located on a lovely street right off the Common (which will not be the site of a carnival for much longer): looks like its sale is indeed pending.

Two Sides 9 One Forrester Street is right on the Common—it looks Federal but was actually built in 1770. When I first moved to Salem this was the home of a lovely woman whose family had owned it since the 19th Century. It’s been cherished throughout its history, and is still for sale.

Two Sides 1The Stephen Daniels House is a first-period house which just came on the market. It was expanded and transformed into its present shape in the eighteenth century. It’s on a side street that runs from Essex down to Derby, on a really nice lot that could be a great garden. 

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Machado House

Machado House 2Five Carpenter Street, in the McIntire District, is a gorgeous Federal which was once the home of the architect Ernest Machado. This was one of Mary Harrod Northend’s favorite doorways in Salem: she must have taken 30 pictures of it for her 1926 book Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926). These stills are from Winterthur Digital Collections.

So you can sense that I’m torn. I seem to be dissing and selling Salem at the same time! Maybe I’ll snap out of it in November–I generally do, but this year feels different. In the meantime, I’m hoping that more of the thousands of tourists who descend upon Salem this month for its “history” make it into the neighborhoods to see Salem’s beautiful houses, not far from the maddening crowd, as I would rather they take away an impression of preservation than opportunism. I do see more tour guides and their increasingly-large groups out my window—and that’s good news.

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A Carnival in Salem, 1906

I was pleased that a proposal to situate a commercial carnival for the city-wide celebration of Halloween on Salem Common was abandoned by our Mayor a few weeks ago, but many people in Salem were not. The carnival is a private enterprise, but it serves a public function: the crowds that come to Salem increase with every year because of the profitable association of the 1692 Witch Trials and Halloween and crowd control measures are needed. Apparently the carnival serves in that capacity, and also provides a place for families and teens who have had enough of the haunted houses, tours, and “museum” offerings that form the regular fare of Haunted Happenings. So after the Common was ruled out, the City sought other locations for the carnival (even at this late date!) and have come up with one in the vicinity of the courthouses on Federal Street. This seems like an even more disruptive location to me but the increasing requirements of Haunted Happenings trump everything in this City. Over the past few weeks, the public discourse about the Carnival and its location was really interesting, so I sought a bit more historical context. Salem has quite a history of public civic celebrations, but I think the best precedents for its Halloween carnivals of the past decade are the turn-of-the century “trade carnivals” that were sponsored by the Merchants Association. The carnival of 1906 opened on this very day, and was held in and around Town House Square, not too far from where the 2018 carnival will be held.

Salem Carnival 1

This was quite the extravaganza! I have looked everywhere for a photograph of the Japanese pagoda with its 1286 incandescent lamps, with no luck, and it’s difficult for me to see how it would fit in Town House Square (see postcards below). The display of electricity must have been awe-inspiring at this time, as well as the other attractions: near the courthouses (perhaps in the same location of the 2018 carnival), a stereopticon and moving pictures were continuously exhibited on a screen for the duration of the carnival. This was a display of media-in-transition, as the stereopticon, a double-lensed “Magic Lantern”, is widely recognized as a key forerunner of films. Electric cars from all the neighboring towns brought “thousands” of people into Salem for the festivities, all greeted by “‘Welcome’ signs [with] letters formed of small electric lamps in several locations”. Two years later, we can read (in the Boston Globe) about an even bigger trade carnival held in late April: commercial life was not so exclusively connected to exploiting the Witch Trials/Halloween at this point in time, although it was definitely a growth industry. The 1908 carnival featured an elaborate opening parade with the Mayor (Hurley) on horseback, merchant (princes) in barouches, and the entire Fire Department of Salem, with their muster-winning handtub engine the White Angel, “which made a fine show”. Schools were closed for the occasion, and once the carnival was officially opened, there were band concerts in (again–what must have been a very crowded) Town House Square every afternoon and evening.

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Carnival Ridgway_Stereopticon_Advertising_Co_36_Cambridge_St_Boston Boston Athenaeum

Carnival White Angel Salem2_3029_2048x2048PEMContemporary postcards of Town House Square; Ridgeway Stereopticon Advertising Co., trade card, Boston Athenaeum (I imagine the Salem screenings looking like this); a great photograph of the famous White Angel handtub from the PEM’s Phillips Library, published in Pediment ‘s Salem Memories, Volume II and available here.


It Happened on Salem Common

Increasing concern that the City might locate a commercial carnival on Salem Common during Haunted Happenings has brought me out of my seventeenth-century reverie: the present interrupts the past! The Common has been the site of concessions and children’s activities for quite some time, but the carnival, adopted over a decade ago to enhance the family-friendliness of Salem’s long Halloween season, was situated on a vacant lot on Derby Street. This lot is presently in the process of being transformed into a waterside park, so the hunt is on for a new location. This first came to the public attention just last month: I think many people in Salem–myself included—simply assumed that we were done with the carnival but apparently that is not the case. As with everything else related to Haunted Happenings, commercial concessions and “attractions” are somehow translated into a public good, and this is the rationale for the location of a private enterprise in a very public place: the beautiful Salem Common.

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Common 1863Salem Common in 1836 and 1863: Historical Collections of Massachusetts by John Warner Barber; Fitz Hugh Lane for Moore’s Lithography, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It’s not a done deal yet: there is actually a municipal ordinance specifically prohibiting mechanical rides or amusements, including carnivals and circuses on the Common, as well as general guidelines stating that that activities on the Common should not interfere or disturb the peace and enjoyment of all the citizens of the city and protecting it from adverse wear and tear. Of course having a carnival on the Common runs contrary to all of these codes, but the necessities of Haunted Happenings are paramount, and the City Council can waive these restrictions. There was a public hearing last week which I could not attend, but from what I’ve heard there was considerable resistance but also support for the idea. Those in the latter camp make a consistent argument that the Common has always been a busy place, and they are correct: just a casual glance at the historical record reveals a succession of military drills, pageants, rallies, baseball games and bicycle races, as well as balloon ascensions, firemen’s musters, and concerts—with some events drawing very large crowds. Every year about this time there were huge festivals marking the end of the playground season during which children from all of the neighborhood parks in the city would gather, compete and perform: I’m wondering when this tradition ended? The Common was a refuge for those displaced by the Great Salem Fire in 1914, the venue for the 700-cast-strong pageant performed for the Salem Tercentenary celebrations in 1926, and the scene of many triumphs–and also a few tragedies.

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Salem Common Pageant 1916

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Salem Common 1920 Northend HNE

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Salem COmmon Pageant 1926

Common 1935 Processing Tax

Common 1961All newspaper articles from the Boston Globe: playground festivals in 1916 and 1923, a film for the troops in 1918, a farmer’s market in 1920 (Historic New England), the celebration of the opening of the Hawthorne Hotel in 1925 and the stage for the Tercentenary pageant in 1926, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; a protest against the processing tax during the Depression, and an unfortunate death on Salem Common.

There is one thing that these very diverse events have in common: they were all public events. I’ve heard tales of sad circuses in more recent days, but for the most part Common events were held for the common good or were an expression of the common will. Even without taking into account the potential damage to the Common, or the noise, or the length of time involved (3 weeks?) it’s hard to see how a private carnival meets this criteria, but then again there is that very public portrayal of Haunted Happenings.  Another way of examining the civic perception of the Common is to look at projects, events and/or installations which were declined, and my favorite example of these is a statue proposed for the Common by millionaire Fred E. Ayer in tribute to his Southwick ancestors, who were persecuted intensely by Salem Puritans for their Quaker beliefs. In 1903 Ayer commissioned the very prominent sculptor J. Massey Rhind (who would later craft the statue of Joseph Hodges Choate at the corner of Essex and Boston Streets), who came up with a model depicting a Tiger, representing voracious Puritanism, about to devour his Quaker victims. After several years of deliberation, Salem’s Council said NO to the statue’s placement on the Common, the most treasured plot of ground in Salem, in the words of Alderman Alden P. White.

Salem Common 1906


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