In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.
August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.
The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.
North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932, Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.
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 BostonGlobestories to the pieces in national and digital venues like USA Todayand the HuffingtonPost, but 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).
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.
Commemorationistricky: 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.
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”.
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 # 9 on the Lancashire Witch Walk, dedicated to the memory of Anne Whittle.
How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:
1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.
2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.
3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.
4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.
5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.
Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.
Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.
As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering: the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt ofCivilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?
I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert: the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays. At your New Year’s Eve party. Men’s facial hair all over the place. Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while. From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet. Now they’re everywhere. And not just a little scruff. Beards that have grown for a year. “Yeards,” they’re called. Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan. Of a lumberjack. “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art. This hour OnPoint: What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately: I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.
The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Timesarticle, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries: European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.
The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district: the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scene, the Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.
The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).
The Regency Era, that age of conflict, caricature, and couture, formally ended todayin 1820 with the death of George III; as the King had been unable to rule from (at least) 1811 his son, the future George IV, served as Prince Regent. In terms of cultural history, the era really extends up to the accession of Victoria in 1837, but I’m being strictly historical here as I want to write about poor George III. Few monarchs in English history have been so maligned; I’ve always felt a bit sorry for him. In part it is because of the sheer length of his reign (he is the third-longest-reigning British monarch, after Victoria and Elizabeth II, including the regency decade) but his depictions and representations are more a consequence of what happened in that long period: war with France and America, the loss of the latter, conflict with Parliament, a huge public debt, and his own insanity–which has received the retrospective diagnosis of porphyria, a hereditary disease of the nervous system. But more than all these factors, I think the increasing freedom of the British periodical press is primarily responsible for the public perception of the King, as its appropriation of the public sphere corresponds with his realm, along with the proliferation of satire and caricature. George was a perfect subject/target–chubby, gouty, and incapacitated at his worst, a rather unsophisticated “Farmer George” at his best. He is often portrayed as tyrannical and always as greedy–and these are the works of British subjects, not American or French citizens!
A Portfolio of George III Images: even when they are not supposed to be satirical (like the last two Jubilee prints), they somehow are:
Anonymous contemporary etching of King George III; “Farmer George & his Wife”, pub. by William Holland, 1786; Anonymous hand-colored etching of the “King of Diamonds”/George III, 1786; George III as Nero, anonymous etching, c. 1760-1780; George III as a gouty “dreamer (while his son catches his crown), pub. by William McCleary, c. 1805; Jubilee (1810) prints of George III by Robert Dighton and I.G. Parry. All, BritishMuseum.
One last Halloween-related post (I promise!) on this All Souls Day: since it is a recurring theme of mine, I feel compelled to feature the Huffington Post columnist Greig Lamont’s stinging critique of the Witch City: “Selling your Soul in Salem”. I’ve read it before, heard it before, said it before, but I welcome Lamont’s compelling indictment. You would think he had more at stake, because he contrasts the bygone grandeur of Salem with its wholesale descent into tacky revelry in a particularly passionate way, beginning with soul-searching and ending with soul-selling: Once the house of New World glory, Arthur Miller discovered inspiration in Salem’s story. Today, there’s nothing to be found but a soul-selling despair in this home of American kitsch.
My favorite line, because it describes scenes I see again and again, even in my sleep it seems, comes in the middle of the piece, when Lamont contrasts the city’s glorious past with its vacuous present: todaySalemhasbeenreducedtoprostitutingitselftooddballsincostumeswhogawkatgravestonesandhankerfor “museums” filled withbroomsticksandbric–a–brac. Forallitsmagnificentpast, todayitdegradesitselfbypanderingtothosewhosezenithishavingtheirphotographtakenwithatransvestiteDraculanexttoaguitar–playingzombie— andwhose nadir wouldbetoactuallylearn something new.
What does this have to do with what happened in 1692?
It’s been interesting to see scores of religious commentators draw comparisons to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation (effective later today) and that of the next-to-last Pope to resign, the briefly-reigning St. Celestine V, who served for five months in 1294. Celestine’s renunciation is indeed a much better comparison than that of Gregory XII, whose 1415 abdication was coerced by the power politics of the Western Schism, for a number of reasons. Even though the two popes are separated by the centuries and their records of service to the Church, they might have been of like mind in their mutual desire to retreat from the very worldly powers and obligations of their office.
Celestine V: British Library MS Harley 1340, attributed to Joachim of Fiore, mid-fifteenth century.
In his statement of renunciation, Benedict expressed his desire “to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer”, which was also the stated goal of his predecessor, who went further: “I Celestine V, moved by valid reasons, that is, by humility, by desire of a better life, by a troubled conscience, troubles of body, a lack of knowledge, personal shortcomings, and so that I may proceed to a life of greater humility, voluntarily and without compunction give up the papacy and renounce its position and dignity, burdens and honors, with full freedom”.
These men were roughly the same (advanced) age, so I am certain that “troubles of body” have a lot to do with both of their abdications. And they were both reluctant Popes, Celestine even more so than Benedict. The so-called “hermit-Pope” was the founder of an order of friars that bore his pontifical name, and he was more comfortable in their company than in Rome. While the reactions to Pope Benedict’s resignation strike me as largely positive, this was not the case with Celestine’s: he was labeled cowardly, a characterization that was reinforced by Dante’s Inferno, which refers to the shade of him who in his cowardice made the great refusal. Dante’s anger derives from his hatred of Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, who many believed manipulated “the great refusal”.
The Liber Sextus: Sextus decretalium liber a Bonifacio viii in concilio Lugdunensi editus (Venice: Luca Antonio Giunta, 1514), Courtesy Lillian Goldman Library, Yale Law School. Boniface’s foxy fox is pulling the papal tiara off Celestine’s head, while the holy dove flies above the latter’s head.
Among his contemporaries, there were those who also admired Celestine’s retreat from the world, and he was canonized in 1313 for his piety. During the Schism and after, when the Church was perceived as being corrupt and over-worldly,Celestine and his renunciation were increasingly depicted in a more positive light, both by theologians and artists, who depicted the resigned Pope as the very image of humility, in the plain grey robes of his order with the papal tiara in his hand (or on the ground) rather than on his head.
St. Celestine, the hermit-Pope; Jean Honoré Fragonard, Saint Celestine V Renouncing the Papacy after Mattia Preti, 1761. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond the label Popes who quit, there are a few more connections between Celestine V and Benedict XVI. After the devastating L’Aquila earthquake in 2009, the present (just) Pope visited the Abruzzo region, from where Celestine hails and where he is venerated as a saint. The purpose of Benedict’s visit was clearly to comfort the inhabitants of the region in the wake of the quake, but while he was there he also made a point of visiting sites associated with Celestine, including his tomb (miraculously intact in the midst of the severely-damaged Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila), where he left his inaugural pallium (a vestment, or “stole of honor” and symbol of papal authority), apparently a gesture of great significance. A year later, to mark the 800th anniversary of Celestine’s birth, Pope Benedict visited his reliquary at nearby Sulmona Cathedral, towards the end of his proclaimed “Celestine Year”. This is reverential treatment of a retreated Pope, by one who is now retreating himself.
Benedict XVI and Celestine V, 2009. Associated Press/Boston Herald.
For some time I’ve been curious about the death of a patent-holding, pioneering Salem photographer named George K. Proctor in 1882: I’m not sure whether he died by his own hand, or that of his wife, so while his death might not have been murder, it remains a mystery to me (and I could not resist the dramatic title).
First a little about his life. Proctor operated what looks like a successful photography business here in Salem from the early 1860s until his death. Part of his success was no doubt due to his marketing techniques, and part due to the process for which he received a patent (no. 83,545) in 1868 for an artificially-lighted, oval-shaped photographic room which allowed photographs to be taken with a 15-second exposure, day or night. His studio on Essex Street produced tintypes and stereoviews upon commission and for sale, including this charming portrait of an anonymous woman, captured early in Proctor’s career (and at the very beginning of the Civil War).
G.K. Proctor, Anonymous Woman, 1861, Salem, Massachusetts. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The instant I saw this image I wanted to know more about this woman, and the man who captured her on film. Sadly, I haven’t been able to turn up anything on her, and just a bit more on Proctor. He was a prolific photographer (or photographist, as he is sometimes called) so many of his images survive, but most of the literary and documentary evidence of his life is primarily concerned with his death. Before I get into that, a few more of his images, which do seem to fall into two categories: the tintype portraits like that of the woman with the Mona Lisa smile above, and stereoviews of scenes that he captured while traveling around the region in his special photographic van and marketed in collections entitled “Views of Salem and Vicinity” and “American Views”. The Chestnut Street header at the top of my blog is a Proctor view, as are those below, all from the Dennis collection of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Essex Street, Salem, unidentified students (and their teacher?) on the steps of their unidentified school, and the interior of a Peabody funeral car, 1870s stereoviews by G.K. Proctor, NYPL Digital Gallery.
With this last (strange) image providing some sort of segue, I’ll turn to the circumstances of his death in 1882. Mr. Proctor was found unconscious in the basement of his home (I’m not sure of the address: according to the Salem Registers, he and his family seem to have moved between Endicott, Essex and Bridge Streets every two years or so but in 1882 they appear to have been living on Dodge Street) by his wife Sarah on the morning of July 27, 1882. She summoned the authorities, who confirmed that he was dead. From that point on, I followed the story in the New York Times, which was much more forthcoming than the local papers. The original judgment of natural causes quickly turned to suspicions of suicide and/or murder. And Mrs. Proctor quickly became the prime suspect.
And what did the District Attorney decide to do? According to The New York Times, Sarah Proctor was arrested for the murder of her husband some two and a half years later. In a short article headlined Charged with her Husband published on February 2, 1885, the Times reported:
So I expected to find a trial, but instead all I have found is a brief note in the 1886 Annual Report of the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons indicating that the case of Mrs. Proctor, indicted on charges of murdering her husband, was discharged by the state Attorney General. No details, no explanations as to why, nonewsofalong–lostsuicidenotefinallybroughttolight! That same year, there was another legal action involving Sarah Proctor: a suit brought against her by her daughter Lilla (Proctor v. Proctor, 141 Mass. 160) referencing money rather than murder. Lilla, who was a minor, had nevertheless removed herself from her mother’s house (now in Beverly), moved in with her aunt in nearby Malden, and become engaged. There was an accusation that Sarah “was not maintaining an establishment or family home”, and several references to the “difficulties” that existed between mother and daughter, but basically what Lilla wanted was her promised inheritance, or one-third of Proctor’s estate, which was still under the control of Sarah and her fellow trustees. The judge ruled in Lilla’s favor, and there is no further mention of either of them in the legal records. I am left wondering why, and how, the charges against Sarah Proctor were dismissed, and what, or who, caused George K. Proctor’s death.
Appendix: see another charming Proctor tintype portrait here.