Two very different tourist towns during the Pandemic of 2020: at the beginning of the summer, I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, so I wrote about its opening in the midst of Covid with every intention of writing a comparative “bookend” post on Salem. I am only getting to this now, with summer over and Salem’s Halloween season, 2020 version, gearing up. Yes: Halloween has arrived in Salem: apparently nothing can stop it, even a pandemic! The traffic and the crowds have increased noticeably over the last few weeks, and on Saturday I went for a walk to see to see what was up: I turned around after 5 minutes, it was simply too crowded for me to feel safe, after so many months of relative isolation. Then I went back on Sunday, and it was much better: less crowded, masks much in evidence, enough space away from the restaurants. I am wondering if social distancing downtown will be possible on October weekends: shops, restaurants, and attractions have limited capacity under the Covid conditions, so lines will form—and grow longer with each weekend until Halloween I expect.
Sunday 9/27/20: Salem downtown: not too bad! Most people had on masks, as the whole downtown is a mandatory mask zone. Mask ambassadors out and about. Longer lines at restaurants than the museums, with the exception of the Witch “Museum”, of course—which is not really a museum. This year, it finally gets some stiff competition from the Peabody Essex Museum with TWO Salem exhibitions on view: “Salem Stories” and the “Salem Witch Trials, 1692” (with authentic artifacts, expert curatorship and current historiography, as opposed to mannequins, narrative, and interpretation from circa 1968).
So I was originally going to title this post “City of Mixed Messages”, but after walking around, reading, and thinking a bit, I decided that wasn’t fair: I don’t think the City is putting out mixed messages. All the official events are canceled: people are just coming. There are attractions of course, like the traditional schlocky ones and the new PEM exhibitions, as well as a new Destination Salem app and a Frankenstein-esque HamptonInn, but apart from the specific draws, I just think people like to come to Salem for (a very extended) Halloween. Witch City has been built with a very solid foundation, and they will come. Away from Essex Street, all was pretty quiet even in the city center: the Charter Street Cemetery has been closed for repairs for quite some time, and I saw only respectful wanderers at the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial: certainly a far cry from this. The City’s message this year seems to be come with a mask and a plan (like voting!) and hopefully that’s what people will do.
Six feet apart was possible at the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial this past weekend.
But it’s still September. I am wondering how state protocols can be observed with more crowds. I saw lots of out-of-state license plates downtown: have these people quarantined for 14 days before they descended upon Salem? Last week when I visited the Beverly Historic Society, there were contract-tracing questions before I could enter the exhibition: is this happening in Salem? What’s going to happen on Halloween night, which is (of course, 2020) on a Saturday this year? No candy from me, kids; I’m sorry, I’ll double up next year.
As you can see, all was pretty quiet in the McIntire Historic District this past weekend, even in the Ropes Mansion garden, which is just GORGEOUS now—it’s the ultimate late-summer garden. The owners of this beautiful Italianate never do anything in half measures, but I suspect they must be part of Historic Salem’s Halloween event: HalloweeninSalem, a “festive virtual house tour” which will go live on October 9. A great idea and a safe way to experience Halloween in Salem.
I envy the residents of the towns and cities neighboring Salem for their active historical societies, most prominently HistoricBeverly, otherwise and previously known as the Beverly Historical Society, which offers up an impressive calendar of exhibits and events regularly, even in this pandemic year. In particular, check out the impressive online exhibit Set at Liberty, which explores the experience of the enslaved in Beverly through materials in Historic Beverly’s archives. There is a very clear commitment to interpretation and accessibility, and given the richness of its collections, much to look forward to for both initiatives. I had been to Historic Beverly’s Balch House and Hale Farm before, but never to its headquarters, the 1781 John Cabot House, so I took advantage of the occasion of a real exhibit to visit yesterday. Henry Cabot Lodge, a Beverly native and prominent U.S. Senator, published his two-volume Story of the Revolution in 1898, illustrated with (uncredited) images commissioned from some of America’s most accomplished artists. Several years later, the 45 paintings which were the foundation of the Revolution plates were donated to the Beverly Historical Society by Susan Day Parker, and 20 of these paintings are on view this week. They did not disappoint, and neither did the John Cabot House!
Before I went to the exhibit, I thought I should take a look at the book, but it was a bit disappointing, although true to its title! It’s a story, a narrative, with little analysis or context: the sort of straightforward and patriotic history that I imagine our President admires. But this was 1898 and par for the course. Senator Lodge did have a Ph.D. from Harvard, with a dissertation on the Germanic origins of Anglo-Saxon law. That caught my attention, as I have a new course on the constitutional history of England coming up next semester, so perhaps I will check out his contribution to the Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1876). But as I said before, the paintings did not disappoint: many were colorless, but the intensity of oil was still there, and the battle scenes were also intense and very detailed, more so than the blook plates. I’m not sure you can see the difference with the collage below, but in person, these tonal paintings were striking.
Tearing Down the Leaden Statue of George III on Bowling Green, NY to Celebrate the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 9, 1776 (Book plate + painting), Frederick Coffay Yohn.
A bit of red in Yohn’s Concord Bridge painting, and four more Story paintings by Yohn: The Defense of Fort Sullivan,The Repulse of the Hessians Under Count Donop at Fort Mercer, Winter at Valley Forge, and The Battle of Bennington.
Hugh W. Ditzler, Washington Taking Command of the Army at Cambridge, Edward H. Potthast, Bayonette Charge at the Battle of Camden; and F. C. Yohn (again; I guess I’m a fan and clearly Cabot was too), The Siege of Yorktown.
My favorite painting in the exhibition did not make it into the book: Carlton T. Chapman’s The Running Fight (below). I’m not sure why it didn’t make the cut, other than perhaps Cabot’s preference for the war on land, but I love it. These paintings are on view for only this week, so if you want to see them for yourself, sign up for some (free) timed tickets and/or tune in to curator Abby Battis’s Facebook live event on Thursday afternoon.
The Story of the Revolution at Historic Beverly’s John Cabot House (117 Cabot Street) through September 26: more information here.
We have certainly come a long way from the despair of Christmas 2017, when we were reeling from the announcement that the vast collections of the Phillips Library, constituting Salem’s primary historical archive, were to be moved permanently to an industrial Collection Center forty minutes away. So much for “historic” Salem! But this Christmas, we have a new Peabody Essex Museum, with a new Director, a new Head Librarian for the Phillips, a new wing, and a new attitude. The local is not necessarily the parochial under this new regime, and we’re starting to see the return of Salem items to the place of their original “deposit”, commencing with the anchor restored to the front of East India Hall. I don’t know what is going to happen to the Phillips Library in terms of its location: I still hope feverishly for its return, as I think that will be best for both the Library itself and for Salem, but its original buildings are still under renovation and sufficient storage space for its extensive collections has yet to be located nearby. In the meantime, I want it to flourish as an institution, and I think one of key ways for that to happen is the resumption of the publishing program of its predecessors, which broadcast the strength of their collections and disseminated local and maritime history to generations of scholars and buffs in the forms of the long-running Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (1859-1993) and the American Neptune of the Peabody Museum of Salem (1941-2002).
Both the Historical Collections and the American Neptune are available at the Internet Archive thankfully, as they are treasure troves!
I’m grateful for these two periodicals, but I think their time is over: we have sufficient ways to disseminate scholarship now, but sources are a different matter. That’s why I think the Phillips Library should publish annotated versions of its more notable historical sources, and I would commence these publications with one of the more accessible and personal genres—diaries—of which the Phillips has an impressive collection. One of the most important sources for Salem’s history “got away”: the multi-volume, highly-detailed, excessively readable journal of the Reverend William Bentley of the East Church from 1784 to 1819 was left to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester along with half of the volumes in his impressive library and other papers. The gentlemen of Salem were blindsided (I’m not sure why as apparently Bentley had always planned on leaving his diary and library to Harvard but they didn’t grant him his promised honorary degree until too late) and very quickly established the Essex Historical Society (one of the foundations of the Essex Institute) with a “cabinet” restricted to Salem. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Essex Institute which took the initiative to publish the Bentley Diary, and Salem historians have benefited from that decision ever since. It’s an invaluable source and a rabbit hole at the same time, encompassing political, social, and weather events, births, deaths, and marriages, long walks with attendant observations, philosophy and theology, shipping news, and a fair amount of gossip.
A page from the original Bentley Diary at the American Antiquarian Society, @AAS.
Thomas G. Knoles, the former Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts at the AAS, is working on an updated and expanded version of the Bentley Diary, in collaboration with the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. This promises to be an even more invaluable resource, and it struck me that the Phillips Library could publish new editions of some key Salem diaries, with additional materials culled from current scholarship and its own collections: The Diary of William Pynchon, a prominent Loyalist stuck in Salem during the Revolutionary War, immediately comes to mind, as does The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and Benjamin Lynde Jr. which were also published in the later nineteenth century. The Phillips also has diaries which have never seen the light of print and could be offered up in lovely annotated editions which I have no doubt would find a large readership: travel diaries, war diaries, “Sunday diaries” (primarily religious and not likely to be as popular as the previous two examples), work diaries, and those that simply chart daily life. I’d love to see the diary of Salem barber Benjamin Blanchard (DIA 22), maintained over the first two decades of the nineteenth century, referred to by contemporaries as the “famous record” in which Blanchard’s patrons made entries while awaiting their time in his chair”. William Wetmore’s diary (DIA 232) covers the period just before: string them together and you essentially have a variant Bentley. I’d like to read the Civil War diary of William P. Shreve (DIA 171), who served with Company H, 2nd Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters, as well as the 3rd, 10th, and 25th Army Corps from 1861-64 or the Charles W. Brooks’ account (DIA 26) of his experiences with the 23rd Regiment. There are several illustrated artist’s diaries among the Phillips collections, including that of Harriet Francis Osborne (DIA 290), featuring her Salem etchings. There are also several diaries dealing with China: written by men and women, from the perspectives of trade, missionary work, or simply travel: I think Mary Elizabeth Andrews’ experience of the Boxer Rebellion (DIA 6) would be particularly resonant in an annotated edition—-or perhaps as just one western view in a composite volume. I find myself torn between other possible projects (which of course are being worked out only in my head!): an updated version of the Essex Institute’s Holyoke Diaries, introduced and annotated by George Francis Dow in 1911, seems overwhelming but a brand new volume of women’s private and public lives over the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprised from a series of individual diaries by Salem and Essex County women looks manageable. And nothing illustrates change better than personal experience.
The “current” editions of the Pynchon (1890) and Lynde (1880) Diaries; William Price Shreve (photo courtesy Brian White); Chestnut Street etching by Harriet Francis Osborne; Dr. Holyoke’s house on Essex Street from The Holyoke Diaries (1911)—-demolished in 1895 for the construction of the Naumkeag Block.
This passing year has been one of little ailments; I actually feel grateful they were not BIG ailments. I strained my right hamstring early last week and have been laid out ever since, meaning that I missed one of my very favorite Salem events: the Christmas in Salem house tour of this past weekend, the major fundraising event for Historic Salem, Incorporated. I was just too shaky and sore to go for it; I’m still a little shaky and sore. It was beautiful bright weather and several of the houses on the tour I had not seen before, so this was a real missed opportunity and I was downcast all weekend. I sent out my husband, and friends sent pictures, so I really have enough for a post but they’re not my pictures so they don’t feel like my story. Nevertheless, they are really spectacular, so I think I’ll feature them in a bit–along with my own decorations when I can get to them–but for right now I just don’t feel that merry and bright so I’m going to feature some stark winter white. As my world was confined to my laptop for several days, I discovered some new and new-to-me artists who conjured up images of winter house which more suited my mood. I was inspired by one of my favorite houses up in my hometown of York, Maine: it always looks a little lonely, and that’s how I felt this past weekend.
The winter houses of artist, illustrator, and photographer Deb Garlick immediately captured my mood this past weekend: the first two are acrylics, but you can order the last as a print, along with other images, on her website. I find her work both elegant and accessible: she has some adorable “mini-portraits”, and, as befitting her name, also works in food photography and illustration!
The Old Farmhouse; The Edge of the Lake; This Old House.
Then I went for a touch more color in the watercolor washes of Kate Evans: her red barn was about as much red as I could handle this past weekend! She has beautiful forests and structures, highlighted in stark relief against all that negative space/snow.
Red Barn and Woodcutter’s Cabin.
Winter landscapes can be very romantic, of course, but those views were not what I was looking for this past weekend: no horse-drawn sleighs, skating rinks, or cozy cottages. I didn’t want snow that looked even slightly fluffy. This eliminated artwork from much of the nineteenth century in my curation quest but things got bleaker in the twentieth, of course. I really enjoyed discovering the work of the Belgian landscape artist Valerius de Saedeleer (1867-1942) whose works looks inspired by both the Northern Renaissance and twentieth-century realism at the same time. The “gloaming” of de Saedeleer’s second painting below is also evident in one of Edward Munch’s winter landscapes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Whenever I indulge in Munch, I get a bit depressed, and I was already pretty dour, so I turned tail and looked at some slightly sunnier views of winter houses among the works of Swiss artist Cuno Amiet (1868-1961)—-got to get some yellow in here and I aspire to sled!
View of Tiegem in Winter, c. 1935, Christie’s; Winter Landscape, c. 1920, Mutual Art; Edward Munch, Winter Landscape, c. 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Cuno Amiet, Winter House.
I was going to show you a beautiful Federal house today, with sweeping views and lavish details (and Zuber & Cie wallpaper!), but that will have to wait for the weekend, as I want to acknowledge, and celebrate, the recognition that the #newpem is indeed the new Peabody Essex Museum, an institution which now seems as much grounded in its local heritage as it is focused on its global perspectives. I thought #newpem was just a marketing campaign designed to focus all of our attention on the opening of the new wing, but I was wrong: the “new” in the hashtag is more directly, and substantively, a reference to the venerable museum’s new regime, which began in July when Dr. Brian Kennedy began his tenure as Director and CEO. As all of you know, I’ve been obsessed with the previous director’s decision to remove all of the PEM’s textual collections held in the Phillips Library to a clinical Collection Center in Rowley, a decision that was not even formally announced to Salem residents, but rather issued in the form of an admission in December of 2017, well after this course of action had been implemented. For me, this was nothing short of the removal of Salem’s primary historical archive. When Dr. Kennedy arrived this summer, I began hoping for some kind of course correction; I perceived his references to Salem’s heritage and the Museum’s founders as hopeful hints and began to hold my breath. Then the Anchor returned to the front of the original Peabody Museum building, East India Hall, and I let it out a little bit. This morning, when I awoke to a summary of his speech before the North Shore Chamber of Commerce in the Salem News I let it out completely, right after I read this particular quote:
“I just have to come out and say that to you,” he said. “It was not done well. It was not done transparently. I don’t know why we thought we couldn’t share it much, much earlier that the buildings we had couldn’t contain this level of material. But they can contain material, and they will. So I pledge that to you, but I just ask you, you have to give me time.”
Yes, the old Plummer and Daland buildings, constituting the former Essex Institute and Phillips Library can contain material, and they will! That’s it: that’s all we need, that’s all Salem needs. What a striking contrast to previous Director Dan Monroe’s assertion, repeated time and time again, that it was IMPOSSIBLE for these buildings to contain anything other than bound volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections, which are readily available at the other end of Essex Street in the Salem Public Library. I believe Dr. Kennedy (and will hold him to his pledge, albeit with great liberality).
N.C. Wyeth’s Peace, Prosperity, and Progress (1923) in one of the atriums of the new Peabody Essex Museum; the anchor returned in September, and in yesterday’s speech Dr. Kennedy also pledged to engage in some Halloween programming—-“Here’s people, Go get them, they are right there”. Now that should be interesting!
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!
Frederick 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.
Work and family & friend commitments have kept me in Salem much more than I care to be this October, so I have assumed the habit of a reverse vampire, hiding myself away during the weekends and nights and coming out by (week)day. I just don’t care for the carnivalesque quality of Halloween in Salem, so it’s best to absent myself until November 1, or thereabouts. Salem is a great walking city, and I take long walks all year long: to work, along the water, in the two “botanical” cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, and around the Common and its neighborhoods. Only the cemeteries are safe on October weekends, but during the weekdays the city is mine! If you are traveling to Salem this October, do yourself a favor and: 1) take the train—our traffic has been horrendous— it’s an old city full of bottlenecks and one-way streets and more recent traffic experiments like the roundabout at the end of my street; 2) come during the week if you can— it’s less crowded, less smoky, and less of a carnival; and 3) step off the beaten track just a bit, and this is the city you will see.
The Old Burying Point on Charter Street is closed (thankfully) all month long; if you do come during the week you can ride a scooter around town—but not on the weekend as they have been banned because of the crowds.
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.
The 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.
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: “WeDoTestefy: TheFeltonFamily&SalemWitchTrials,” 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: “SkeletonsintheCloset:TheMemorializationofGeorgeJacobsSr. andRebeccaNurseafterthe1692WitchTrials” 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.
I 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!
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.
You 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.
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.
The (official) Witchfinder General in Salem, September 30, 2019.
An amazing weekend in Salem, for the city, objectively and collectively, and for me, personally. I’m writing at the end of a long day, which will be yesterday, during which I gave a morning presentation on the Remond Family of Salem, an African-American family who operated many successful businesses in the mid-nineteenth century while simultaneously supporting every social justice cause it was possible to support (which were many) next door at Hamilton Hall, and then made my way to the long-heralded opening of the new wing of the Peabody Essex Museum. Both were really important events for me: I’ve been focused on the Remonds since I moved next door to Hamilton Hall, and in attendance at my talk was George Ford from California, a Remond descendant who is so dedicated to his family’s story and memory that he just want to be where they were. And except for a few professional events I had to attend at the Peabody Essex, I have not visited the museum since December of 2017, when the non-announcement was made that its Phillips Library, encompassing the majority of Salem’s written history, would be removed to a new Collection Center in Rowley, Massachusetts. Over time I realized that I was only hurting myself, as the Peabody Essex is indeed a treasure house, and the historical references of new Director Brian Kennedy and media reviews of the new wing and the #newpem infused me with hope, and so I was excited to return, but also a bit anxious. (There was also a big food truck festival in Salem but don’t expect me to report on that!)
The Remonds in the morning, and the new PEM Wing in the afternoon!
As exasperated as I can often get with Salem, you must know that it is an entirely engaging city and place to live, always, but this weekend was particularly intense. If the famous PEM neuroscientist Dr. Tedi Asher had affixed monitoring devices to me I would have given her readings off the charts, I am sure! I was nervous about going into an institution which I have been so critical of over these past few years–not to exaggerate my influence, it was just an internal feeling. I have friends and acquaintances who work at the museum and it never felt good to criticize the place where they worked. Everything seems different now, with the new Director, Brian Kennedy, acknowledging Salem, community, founders, even slavery (i.e. historical realities rather than cultural idealizations, and potential engagement or even interest in historical interpretation!) with every passing press report. Expectations can make you anxious too though, and I was anxious to see what role the new dedicated Phillips Library gallery in the new wing would play, as an expression of priorities, as an indication of respect for the old (dry) texts which always require a bit more effort to make them shine. So here I go into the PEM, heading straight for the new wing, with all of my anxieties and expectations. What do I see first?
A wall! And an amazing N.C. Wyeth mural titled Peace, Commerce, Prosperity–both of which I loved. Before I looked at anything, I was struck by that wall: the side of the East India Marine Hall which I had never really seen; it must have been alongside the former Japanese garden but I never noticed it for some reason. Maybe I was just focused in my mind on the back wall of Hamilton Hall which borders my own garden, which I stare at all the time and think of the Remonds working on the other side, but all I could see when I entered the new wing was this wall. It might also have been my admiration for the Georgian Pickman House, which formerly stood in the same spot I was standing in—-maybe I was trying to conjure up its orientation—but for whatever reason, I stood staring at that wall for quite some time. (Yes, Salem’s history is weighing on me, just a bit). Then I snapped out of it, spent some time looking at the lovely Wyeth mural, and moved into the new Maritime gallery, where I was caught. There’s no other word for it, caught. I was transfixed by everything, and as soon as I got to the trio of paintings of ships in various stages of “tragedy and loss” by the Salem deaf-mute artist George Ropes, I realized that I wanted–or needed– to come back to this very intimate gallery every day, or as often as possible. Such a clever installation with its angled walls, ensuring that you discover something new around every corner, and everything so very evocative of the perils and promise of the sea. And such a thoughtful mix of old exhibits and new, including the venerable glass-encased ships’ models we can see in all the old photographs of the Peabody Museum. I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures before, but also “old friends”. There were texts, not just paintings and objects. Stunning, substantive, respectful: I was very impressed.
The treasures of the new Maritime Gallery: the George Ropes paintings are STUNNING; I can’t possibly capture their beauty here. Lovely to see many East India Marine Co. artifacts plus texts and sketchbooks; Ange-Joseph Antoine Roux, Ship America at Marseille, 1806; a reverse glass painting by Carolus Cornelius Weytz, c. 1870; Ship Models and dashing Salem Sea Captains John Carnes and Benjamin Carpenter by William Verstille; Vases by Pierre Louis Dagoty, c. 1817.
The Asian Export Gallery on the second floor of the new wing was extremely well-designed as well, with an entrance “foyer” covered entirely in c. 1800 Chinese wallpaper from a Scottish castle showing us just how cherished, and integrated, products from Asia were in the west. This opened up into a spacious gallery, providing a vista for what can only be called a “Great Wall of China”! This space was delightful aesthetically, but it was also a teacher’s toolbox for me: all of our introductory history courses are focused on global connections and trade, so I was able to photograph about three PowerPoint’s worth of photographs, for which I am very grateful. Then it was upstairs to the new wing’s third floor, where Fashion and Design reigned—particularly the former, so many mannequins. I have to say that compared to the other two galleries, this one left me cold, but I’m sure that I’m in a minority as it was the most crowded space of my afternoon. We all respond to different materials in different ways of course, but I was struck by the contrast of the rather “old-fashioned” display of Iris Apfel’s ensembles with the modernity of the actual clothing: draped sheets à la eighteenth century with bespectacled mannequins in front? To me it looked inartful, kind of like a throwaway installation, but maybe I’m supposed to notice the juxtaposition? I’m not sure: there were just too many mannequins—it was a crowd for me. There was a readily apparent flow, or connection, between the objects in the Maritime and Asian Export galleries below, but here I could not link the fashion and non-fashion items into any semblance of a story. But again: it was crowded, so I’ll have to go back and try again.
Perfect place to text, no? LOVED this painting of Two English Boys in Asian Clothing, c. 1780 by Tilly Kettle, “the first prominent British artist to work extensively in India”; the “Great Wall” in its partial entirety and detail; the Fashion and Design gallery on the third floor of the new wing.
By this time, I was running out of time (chiefly because I spent so much time in Maritime World) but I wanted to see how some older spaces were impacted by the addition of the new wing—namely the adjacent East India Marine Hall—as well as the heralded dedicated Phillips Library gallery. Here disappointment began to kick in, so read no further if you want a fluffy, disengaged appraisal: that’s not what I do here. The old hall, so stunning and so missed by me, was all dark, reduced to background for artist Charles Sandison’s digital projections of words and phrases from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ship captains’ logs. I had seen this before, as PEM’s first “FreePort” installation a decade or so ago, so I was surprised to see it again. I really liked it before: it was definitely immersive. It was not what I wanted to see now; I was hungry for real words and texts after their authentic integration in the Maritime gallery and so these fleeting, ephemeral images felt fleeting and ephemeral. But this is a temporary installation so I’m not going to go on and on about it; I’m looking forward to what’s next for East India Marine Hall.
Charles Sandison: Figurehead 2.0.
On to the new Phillips Library dedicated gallery space! I was anxious, so maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but it actually took quite a while to find it. My very handy Visitor Map, which was handed out to everyone as we entered the PEM, indicated that it was right behind East India Marine Hall on the same floor, but because the circular staircase in the rear of the building was blocked off you couldn’t quite get there from where I was without going up, down and all around for some reason. Again, it might have been me, I was going by sheer sensation here, but the difficulty of access seemed to combine with the closet-like room I eventually found to give me a profound impression that the Peabody Essex Museum really didn’t want to showcase the collections of the Phillips Library. Here was an afterthought, thrown in behind the restrooms. I hate to rain on this parade, but that is what I felt. The “Creative Legacy of Hawthorne” exhibit seemed uninspired to me as well, but to be honest, I couldn’t really take it in, I was so disappointed by this sad space. I’ll have to go back and look at it again, if I can muster the willpower. I know that the new Phillips Librarian is happy to have this space, and I’m sure he and his staff will do as much with it as they possibly can, but there’s no way that I can say that it was anything other than a great disappointment to me, right now. The contrast between this disposable space, and all of the wonderful, powerful, thoughtful and spaciousgalleries I had just seen was almost unbearable: I just had to walk away. There was a large panel which gave a brief history and description of the Library and an introduction to its new reading room in Rowley which I couldn’t quite capture with my camera so I made a collage of different sections: there was no filter with tears, “broken” and “recoil” didn’t look quite right, so I settled for worn.
Well let’s try to end on a high note, shall we? No one likes a killjoy. The whole opening of the new wing was handled wonderfully by the curators and staff of the PEM: everyone was on hand, all weekend long, to help, and guide, and answer questions. The Visitor Map (and these cute buttons for all of the new galleries, except, of course, for the Phillips Library) is great. There was a wonderful spirit about the place. Not only is the new wing impressive architecturally: it offers some interesting views of Salem from its upper stories. The new garden is a thoughtful space: I’m looking forward to seeing how the plant material fills in. It was good to be back in the Peabody Essex Museum after my long absence. Salem’s mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, shared her reactions to the opening of the new wing on social media and someone forwarded her post to me. She was clearly as excited as the rest of us and why not: it was, again, a big weekend for Salem. Mayor Driscoll wrote that As we enter these doors we’ll know more about 16-year old sea captains who sailed around the globe and brought back treasures and trinkets to their hometown. Humankind is amazing when it comes to rising up to challenges. We tell those accounts, see those treasures, wonder what it was like and how it came about, marvel at the possibilities….we do all that here. In this space. In our city. Yes in our city, in Salem: but we can’t tell those accounts if we don’t have our history: trinkets and treasures are not enough. And we don’t have to wonder, we could actually learn and know, if we had our history, but we don’t: it’s not here, in our city, in Salem.
The Phillips Library Gallery is #206 on the Visitor Map + adorable buttons; the new garden; view from the third floor of the new wing.