Tag Archives: Local Events

Considering Caroline

The House of the Seven Gables is featuring a new exhibit on its founder, Caroline O. Emmerton (1866-1942) in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of her birth and as the rather mysterious Caroline has long intrigued me I took advantage of a preview invitation to check it out even before the official opening. Despite her fortunate birth into one of Salem’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families, her connections, and her achievements, Caroline is a bit enigmatic, and I was hoping that Caroline Emmerton. An Unbounded Vision would shed new light on her for me. It did, but my suspicion that Caroline can only really be known in context rather than strictly on her own was confirmed. The exhibit actually presents Caroline in several contexts and it is through these perspectives that we come to know her: the wealth, privileges, and sense of civic duty that came to her through her family, her interest in the emerging Settlement Movement, with its aims of aiding and assimilating (or “Americanizing”) the country’s expanding immigrant communities, and the corresponding Preservation Movement, which aimed to preserve the pre-industrial past in an era of dynamic change. You can definitely perceive how Salem shaped her. The exhibit appropriately emphasizes Caroline’s settlement activities over her preservation goals but you certainly get the sense that they are going to merge with the formation of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association in 1910.

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Caroline Emmerton: an Unbounded Vision, at the House of the Seven Gables through August 31: A young Caroline and a very famous photograph of her with children at the Settlement House c. 1920; Exhibition panels, which were also produced in Spanish (a 21st-century update on Caroline’s settlement goals).

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Context, context: the Gables in the Community. Great photograph of a Derby Street factory and worker, instructing neighborhood girls in the Settlement House kitchen; newspaper clippings from a Gables scrapbook.

So the context was definitely there but what about the personal Caroline? There was a sense of her in the exhibit, actually: a photograph of her home on Essex Street (with a wallpaper sample and a few household possessions), a range of photographs of her at different stages in her life, an original notepaper version of her (very ye Olde) tour for the Gables, and my favorite, the hand-written manuscript of her book Chronicle of Three Old Houses, which she published in 1935 for the 25th anniversary of the Gables. It was lovely to see these things, and also to talk with Irene Axelrod, the former Research Librarian of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, who knows more about Caroline than anyone else. I asked Irene where Caroline went to school, because in my experience institutions often offer up lots of evidence, and she said that Caroline was tutored at home and then probably went on the Grand Tour. So there goes that source. Irene told me that her research forayed into oral history, and she was able to interview some (quite old) people that actually knew Caroline. So that’s about as close as I’m going to get, I think: four degrees of separation?

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Gables Emmerton Handwriting

LOVE this handwritten manuscript of Caroline’s Chronicles of Three Old Houses complete with little intextual illustrations! The companion book to the exhibition by David Moffat features a full-page view, along with lots of other illustrations from the Gables archives, sources, and more context.


Salem on Screen: East meets West

There is quite a long list of films set in Salem, but the list of films that were actually filmed here is impressive as well–and much more impactful. David O. Russell apparently loves Salem, as he filmed scenes from two movies here (American Hustle, Joy) even though their plots did not necessitate this location, tours of Hocus Pocus locations remain ridiculously popular, and though not a film, we’ve decided to dedicate a very prominent city square to Samantha from Bewitched (and TV Land), just because a few episodes were filmed here. The very first production filmed in Salem, however, traded on its commercial reputation rather than its connection to witchcraft: this was the 1923 silent film Java Head, which shot scenes on Derby Wharf, Salem Common, and Chestnut Street.

Filmed in Salem Java Head Lobby Poster

Java Head was based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Hergesheimer, about the scion of an old Salem family who meets a “Manchu princess” in China, marries her to prevent her imminent death, and brings her home to his Yankee family and the girl he left behind. Apparently this love triangle drives the movie, along with lots of cross-cultural conflicts, but I’m basing my plot summary on the novel (and the 1934 “talkie” remake, which replaced Salem with Bristol, England) as the film has not made it to You Tube (and may indeed be lost, along with 75% of all silent films that were produced–the Library of Congress has catalogued the film but there are “no holdings” in its archive). The interior and “Chinese” scenes of Java Head were filmed at a studio in New York, but Derby Wharf (or a nearby stand-in) and several Salem structures were used as locations. In his 1989 memoir Highlight and Shadows, cameraman Charles Galloway Clarke recalls that We loved the good people of Salem for they were friendly and helpful and did everything to make our stay there pleasurable. After finishing the scenes around the recreated dock, for this was a film about the China Trade during the sailing days of Salem, we returned to Astoria for the interior scenes. The title “character” of the film is actually a Federal mansion, exemplifying the fortunes to be made in the China trade. Contemporary sources hint that the Forrester-Peabody Mansion (later the Salem Club and later still the Bertram Home) “played” Java Head, but I think a far more likely suspect is the Devereux-Hoffman-Simpson House on Chestnut Street.There are a few more details and images here, but what I’d really like to see is the film!.

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Filmed in Salem Java Head article

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Lobby Card for Java Head (1923) and article from Picture Play from the same year, showing lead actress Leatrice Joy’s transition “from occidental to oriental”; after the transition-a Swedish poster for the film; a still from the film showing the Salem mansion “Java Head” which some sources identify as the Bertram House at 29 Washington Square (with flag, above), but I think it was definitely 26 Chestnut Street (just above).


Salem Film Fest 2016

CATS, architecture, the Renaissance (or pseudo-Renaissance)…all my favorite topics are featured in documentary films screening at this year’s Salem Film Fest, which opened last night with Curious Worlds: the Art & Imagination of [miniaturist] David Beck. The festival is now a Salem tradition, in its ninth year, and of course a welcome addition to the non-witchy/kitschy calendar. I usually go to one or two films, and regret not seeing more. Even though the slogan of the festival is Come to Salem, See the World, its organizers always include some local productions, so the entire experience has a “glocal” feel to it, which seems appropriate for our city, our time, and this particular medium. This evening we will see Concrete Lovethe Böhm Family, which purportedly “paints an intimate and pointed portrait of the complexity and inseparability of life, love, faith and architecture” through its examination of the life and work of German architect Gottfried Böhm, the patriarch of an architectural dynasty which includes his three sons. This weekend, I’ve got my eye on Projections of America, featuring 26 short propaganda films about America: the people produced for European audiences following the liberation of France in 1944, Kedi, all about the hundreds of thousands of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul, American Renaissance, a short on Renaissance-faire culture (I can’t miss this, as hopefully it will give me all sorts of insights into my students), and The Million Dollar Duck, (not to be confused with the 1971 Disney film of the same name) about the fierce competition among six artists to win the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. I feel honor-bound to see this last movie, as one of Salem’s most illustrious artists, Frank Benson, was actually one of the competition’s first victors!

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German poster for Concrete Love: the Böhm Family; Projections of America poster;  character cats in Kedi; a “Renaissance” plague doctor in American Renaissance, poster for The Million Dollar Duck, and Frank Benson’s winning design from 1935.


A Bigger Picture for Bridge Street

I have been watching and listening to the public hearings over the proposed redevelopment of the former Universal Steel and Trading Corporation site on Bridge Street with great interest and concern. The site is located adjacent to a distinctive late nineteenth-century factory building owned by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing supplies, which seeks to abandon this same building and build a new (far less distinctive) showroom and sales facility next door. Objections to the proposed building could be based on its rendering alone–it’s the typical glass and faux-brick generic building that we’re seeing everywhere and anywhere–but there are several other key factors which make this project troubling and controversial. The site is also located adjacent to the northern boundaries of the McIntire Historic District, in close proximity to the well-preserved colonial and Federal houses of Federal and River Streets. The owners of these houses do not want a large commercial building (the actual elevation of the proposed structure is a matter of debate) casting a shadow over their streets, and the intensity of their opposition has been fueled by the fact that they believed that the long planning process resulting in the creation of the “North River Canal Corridor” a decade ago ensured that more creative uses for this area would be pursued. The second factor is the contamination of the site and the costs and consequences of cleaning it up. The property was transferred to the city of Salem after Universal Steel ceased operations, and the city requested aid from both the EPA and the Massachusetts DEP to conduct a partial clean-up, which involved the removal of over 4,000 tons of contaminated soil. After this process, the city paved over the site to create a temporary parking lot while the new MBTA garage was being built. Once that project was completed the city sought a more profitable use for this parcel–and F.W. Webb put forward the only proposal. The new construction will require a more comprehensive clean-up, and the costs and potential health threats of such an invasive process are a matter of concern to everybody, but especially those in the adjacent neighborhood. A third major factor is the transfer of an “ancient way” from public ownership and use to Webb: Beckford Way, in existence from the seventeenth century, which will be transformed from public pedestrian path to private truck access and loading dock. Opponents of the Webb proposal ask (quite logically I think): if the Company is going to abandon its present building altogether, why doesn’t it relocate to a section of Salem that is dedicated exclusively to commercial uses and leave our neighborhood–and our way–intact?

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Aerial view of the site of the proposed new F.W. Webb building, marked by the X; the initial clean-up in 2012, with River Street houses in the background, EPA; these same houses last month (before our recent snow) looking over the temporary parking lot and reflected in the North River; Beckford Way.

You can read a more detailed summary of the project here, and also peruse project documents. The narrative presents a decidedly pro perspective, but you can easily discern the debate in the FAQ section. We’re in the midst of the process: already the City Council has held two public hearings on the project and there are more to come. As I intimated above, I’m very sympathetic to the concerns of my McIntire District neighbors (and believe the present Webb building would make fabulous housing given its proximity to the train station) but am also striving to widen–or elevate–my perspective, inspired by both a phrase I heard repeatedly at the first public meeting—“spot zoning”—as well as one of the more thoughtful observations of the night, expressed by an earnest River Street resident: Salem’s fabulous history and outstanding architecture is constantly at risk from unsound planning. These words resonated with me immediately as I feel that way all the time: our city’s piecemeal planning has led to undistinguished architecture, unlimited accommodations, and unceasing divisiveness, and it will continue to do so until we can all look at a bigger picture. Salem is hardly the only historic city facing myriad redevelopment challenges and opportunities at the moment: why can’t have a more comprehensive and proactive plan rather just reacting, reacting, reacting? Look at the example of our neighboring seaport to the north, Portsmouth, NH, which is pursuing “character-based zoning” (which must surely be the antithesis of “spot zoning”) by plotting out its development goals and proposals in “textured” 3D models that are available to the public on a web portal, so that everyone can see what proposed buildings will look like, in context and as part of a whole. We don’t even seem to know the actual height of the proposed Webb building on Bridge Street, much less how it will look in relation to its neighboring buildings (but I’m thinking, not good).

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Plan Portsmouth 3D Model/Developed by Tangram 3DS;  our only view of the proposed Webb building.

Ice Sculptures 2016

This weekend is the annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival, sponsored by Salem Main Streets, The Salem Chamber of Commerce, and Destination Salem, as well as all of the downtown businesses which underwrote the installation of ice sculptures on the sidewalks of Salem. It’s such a lovely idea, especially for a city that (in my opinion) has put too many eggs in the one basket of witchcraft tourism. As I walked by kitschy witchy businesses displaying signs on their front doors indicating that they were “closed for the season” (of course they meant the off-season, which is most of the year), it was a pleasure to see enthusiastic picture-takers clustered around ice sculptures of Gustave Klimt’s The Kiss, various sea creatures, and the Mad Hatter, and even imbibing in Rockefella’s amazing ice bar, which must take the prize this year. It was a beautiful day–not too cold–and sunny, so lots of people were out and about and the restaurants looked busy. Last year’s snowmaggedon must have chilled this event a bit (though it was still definitely on) but this year’s weather was perfect–and several of the statues were illuminated at night for the first time.

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Just a few of the ice sculptures downtown this weekend: you can download the map of the rest here.


Proctor’s Ledge and Pendle

If you’re even somewhat familiar with my blog you can probably tell that the Salem Witch Trials, both past and present, is a continuous preoccupation/irritant for me. This is as much due to my residence as my paradoxical perspective: as a historian trained in early modern European history (when as many as 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft and roughly half that number put on trial), I just can’t understand why this very late and relatively small trial has been blown up into this epic and enduring event, by both academic historians and witchcraft entrepreneurs alike (well maybe I can understand the latter’s motivations). Yet there is such still such profound ignorance and misunderstanding about this event, which I think fuels its constant exploitation. This past week was a big week in Salem Witch Trial history, with the verification of Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site for the victims of 1692 by a team of dedicated scholars, authors and advocates: a disclosure that went viral pretty quickly. I tried to follow the coverage, from the very good Salem News and Boston Globe stories to the pieces in national and digital venues like USA Today and the Huffington Postbut because the latter were clearly based on the former (and the very substantive press release put out the Gallows Hill Project) I pretty quickly turned my attention to reactions (comments) in general and local reactions in particular. It appears that it is just about impossible for most people to view history without a 21st-century lens, so most of the comments were predictable: the “witches” executed on that site were the victims of today’s “Puritans”(evangelical Christians, Republicans, leftist Liberals, Hillary Clinton supporters, ISIS/ISIL–depending on your perspective). As you can imagine, this got old pretty quickly so I turned to local reactions, expecting more specificity and engagement. I got that, along with the sense of “is this news?”, which I see as a real tribute to meticulous work of Sidney Perley, who identified Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site nearly a century ago. Perley’s contributions were emphasized in the Gallow Hill Project press release as well, and since he is sharing the spotlight, I thought we should see him:  pictured on Proctor’s Ledge in 1921 (from an article in The Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Volume 9, 1921, edited by Harriet Silvester Tapley).

Perley Crevice

Beyond the we knew that sentiment, what else did I glean from local reactions to this news? Here follows a very random and impressionistic sampling of the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good:  lots of descendants clearly wanted to weigh in with their ancestor’s story. This discovery/confirmation was clearly very relevant to them. I was also happy to see a real debate emerge about memorialization and what should be done with the site–more on that below.

The Bad:  there’s still a lot of confusion out there, despite the prolific scholarship. People still refer to witch-burnings, ergotism will never die, and the Salem Village (present-day Danvers) origins of the accusations do not seem to be fully grasped, still.

The Ugly (or just silly): as Proctor’s Ledge is located right behind a Walgreens’ parking lot, there are lots of Walgreens jokes out there–you know, “the corner of happy and heresy”, etc.

Commemoration is tricky: the overwhelming local concern is just how Proctor’s Ledge will be marked–and what access will be granted. This concern is coming from various perspectives, principally that of the abutting neighbors, of course, and that of people who are opposed to the intensifying witchcraft “schlockiness” of Salem. This comment on the Globe article seems to unite these two perspectives: As a resident of the city who lives a stone’s throw from the site, I beg that this hallowed ground not be added to the array of grotesques that “commemorate” this act of insanity. Let the site be. It deserves to not be forgotten, but more so deserves not to be a stop on some disrespectful trolley tour of gawkers and Goths. Sadly (to me, at least) there were also comments that expressed resignation that Salem was always (or at least from 1692) going to be Witch City:  again, from the Globe: Plymouth has its Rock and Salem has its witches and warlocks. One of our leading Witch City purveyors (who happens to live in New Orleans), expressed a similar sentiment in the Salem News: Witches are to Salem what music is here in New Orleans. 

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Salem Tour Guide Kenneth Glover at Proctor’s Ledge/ John Blanding, Globe Staff: “When people come [to Salem] . . . they all want to know where it happened.”

So I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think debate–if it is substantive and respectful–is always healthy for a community. Given that witch trials were so intense in certain areas of Europe in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I’m always looking to these sites for examples of comparative commemoration–and none of them have turned themselves into a Witch City!  I’ve always thought there were some important parallels between Salem 1692 and one of the more notorious English trials, the “Pendle” trials in Lancashire (1612), a comparison I made in a post from a few years ago. Salem was a larger and more isolated episode in terms of geography and time (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation versus 16 trials, 10 executions and one death in prison in Pendle), but both were viewed as conspicuously collective and conspiratorial and well-publicized. There is some witchcraft tourism in Pendle, but as this community faced the 400th anniversary of the Trials in 2012, there was debate about how to acknowledge the dark event. And just at this time, engineers conducting reservoir repairs unearthed a seventeenth-century stone cottage with the remains of a mummified cat within its walls that was almost immediately heralded as a “witches’ cottage” and the site of a famous coven testified to by the Trial’s nine-year-old star “witness”, Jennett Device. After about a year of archaeological study (and vandalism) the site was revealed to be a weaver’s cottage and reburied “in order to preserve it”.

Pendle Guide Simon Entwistle

Simon Entwistle of Top Hat Tours on the site of the unearthed (and later reburied) 17th-century cottage in Lancashire.

There is definitely some schlock in Pendle, but their Witches Walk is a public initiative rather than a private “attraction”, profiting no one and serving as the main legacy of the 400th anniversary commemoration. This 51-mile route (indicating just how regional the Lancashire Trials were, just like Salem, and broken up into seven separate walks), connecting all the sites referenced in the Trial testimonies and culminating at Lancaster Castle, where the ten victims were condemned to die, is marked by 10 waymarkers, each inscribed with a tercet or verse of a poem by British Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy. It is inspirational.

Tercet Waymaker“Tercet” waymaker # 9 on the Lancashire Witch Walk, dedicated to the memory of Anne Whittle.


This Time with Dignity

Exciting history news today, and no, history news is not a contradiction in terms. A century-old theory about the execution site of the victims of the 1692 Witch Trials has been verified through a combination of historical, archaeological, and geological analysis by my Salem State colleague Emerson Baker and his fellow members of  The Gallows Hill Project, which includes SSU Geology Professor Emeritus Peter Sablock and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, as well as local museum professionals, scholars, and writers. Following the assertions of local historian Sidney Perley over a century ago, the team supplemented eyewitness testimonies and material evidence with “ground-penetrating radar and high-tech photography” to verify that the actual Gallows (a sturdy tree or trees) was not located at the apex of the rocky hill in the northwestern corner of Salem known as Gallows or Witch Hill from time immemorial, but considerably below and closer to the main route out-of-town (Boston Street) in a rocky copse of trees called Proctor’s Ledge. It has also been confirmed that there are no human remains on the site, verifying various tales of the recovery of the victims’ bodies by family members under cover of darkness. You can read more about the participants and the process here and here.

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The long-assumed execution site, “Witch Square” on the top of Gallows Hill, and the newly-verified site, on Solomon Stevens’ property below, on the 1897 Salem Atlas, State Library of Massachusetts; a “Ye Salem Witches on Gallows Hill” postcard from the 1910s, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Proctor’s Ledge is a terrible place, appearing cursed by its tragic history, both in the seventeenth century and the twentieth, when it was the wellspring of the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Currently it is a wooded and trashed wasteland behind a Walgreen’s parking lot on busy Boston Street, fortunately purchased and preserved by the City of Salem in the 1930s as “Witch Memorial Land” but essentially left untouched while commercial and residential developments grew up around it.

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The verification of the execution site is exciting to me, both professionally and personally. I’ve done a lot of work on the late medieval era and the Black Death, and this is a field in which collaborations between history and science have been profoundly revealing–and interesting. I’m not such an innocent that I believe that history is always about the pursuit of the truth, but if and when it is, science can help us open the “black box”. Personally, this announcement has also renewed my hope that we–the City of Salem–can acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials in a dignified and historical way: not as a lesson about tolerance today but simply and respectfully as a tragedy for the individuals who lost their lives in the past, and not as an event to exploit, but rather as an episode to solemnize. I’ve been rather depressed since Halloween: the images of people trashing the downtown Salem Witch Trials Memorial and adjacent Old Burying Point, combined with the lack of any meaningful response by city officials to whom I appealed to make it stop, have left me soul-searching about why I would want to live in a place that has such little respect for the dead. Frankly, I still don’t have much confidence in the City Council, but Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s pledge that “Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today in a largely residential neighborhood” is hopeful. At the very least, the neighbors and relatively distant location from downtown– combined with the site’s rather chilly atmosphere–should deter the transformation of Proctor’s Ledge into another Witch City prop.

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The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.


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