Tag Archives: Newspapers

Battle of the Bonfires

Salem’s traditional Independence Day eve bonfires were epic, receiving considerable regional and national attention up until the 1950s, peaking with a portfolio of images taken by Life magazine photographer Yale Joel in 1949. I’ve written about these spectacles before, but there is more to say. I have a much better understanding of their chronology now, but I still can’t find evidence of the very first one, which early 20th-century references point to happening in 1814. I do not doubt this date, or even an earlier one, as bonfires go way back in Anglo-American history, through the Armada and Gunpowder Plot commemorations on one side of the Atlantic and Pope’s Day and Revolutionary War festivities on the other, but I wish I could find some confirmation. Actually, I don’t have much information about Salem’s bonfires prior to 1890, but after that year they clearly took off, escalating in size and notoriety over the next decades. There was a decade-long dry spell from 1910, which I assumed (very logically) was due to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but actually predated that catastrophic event by several years. Things start heating up again in 1921, and in the 1920s there were bigger bonfires and crowds with every passing year. There are sporadic bonfires in the 1930s and 1940s, and then after the war the tradition continued into the 1960s (I think!) but it’s a bit hazy.

Bonfires Cabinet Card 1907

A.C. MacKintire cabinet card, c. 1906: these bonfires were BIG.

So here’s a bit more national, regional, and local context for Salem’s Independence Day bonfires, gleaned from a variety of sources, including a local facebook group focused on Salem’s history. Unfortunately no member is old enough to remember the pre-1930 glory days, but the earlier history is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well-documented.

1. It’s all about the 1890sI’ve noticed this about other aspects of Salem’s history, particularly anything related to tourism: everything intensifies in the 1890s. There are random brief references to Salem’s bonfires before 1890, but in that year the Boston Daily Globe ran a long story under the headline “Old Salem Ablaze. Bonfires on Gallows Hill Lighted the Home of the Witches” which described a frenzied celebration in the streets of Salem on July 3:  from sunset until midnight the principle streets were crowded with men, women, boys and girls, who passed the time in firing crackers, throwing torpedoes and blowing horns. In many ways it was the most noisy demonstration ever made in Salem. At midnight the immense crowd assembled in the vicinity of the highlands to watch the bonfires. On Gallows Hill a pile consisting of over 1000 barrels and boxes, to say nothing of old straw beds and witch hazel crammed into the intersections of the stack was set on fire, making a very handsome sight. The pile was 50 feet high and the flames towered as many feet higher. From 11-1 there was a concert on the hill by the Salem Brass Band. The Broad Street Social Club also had its annual jubilee on the Lookout and its adjacent pasture in the at the head of Broad Street (now the site of Salem Hospital). The 8th Regiment Band gave a concert from 8 to 12:00, interspersed with a exhibition of dissolving views, thrown upon an immense screen (what in the world was this????). At midnight upwards of 1000 barrels were set on fire, making a mountain of flame, which could be seen for miles.

Bonfire 1898 collage

2. Battle of the Bonfires: as the Philadelphia Record article above illustrates, there was a fierce competition in Salem over bonfire blazes, between the Gallows Hill Association which built their pyre on Gallows Hill and the Broad Street Club, which claimed Lookout Hill: this competition led to bigger and bigger bonfires with each passing year. In addition to this internal Salem competition, there was also competition between Salem and other Boston-area cities and towns, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century. Salem clearly won the Boston battle, and the Gallows Hill guys (succeeded by the Ward Four Social Club and the Ancient Order of Hibernians) took the Salem prize.

Bonfires 1903

Bonfire 1905collage

3. Independence Day was the “most dangerous day of the year”. I’m quoting from an 1865 editorial and a 1935 Department of Agriculture pamphlet, both referencing the death, maiming and disablement associated with the festivities of July 4. During that long period there were repeated attempts by federal and state officials to cut down on the fiery July 4th celebrations, to no avail. On several occasions violence broke out in Salem, most notably in 1909, when a shooting occurred at the Lookout bonfire. Note the description of the scene in the Boston Daily Globe article from the next day: upwards of 75,000 persons witnessed the burning of the stack of railroad sleepers and barrels. Hundreds of boys and men were firing guns and revolvers. There’s a sense that things were getting a bit out of control, which may explain why the bonfires ceased for about a decade at this point.

Bonfire BDG 1909

4. Logistics. I’m amazed that things didn’t get even more out of control, given the composition of the bonfires: barrels of course, which were provided by local businesses, including tanneries, so supposedly they had remnants of combustible materials. Casks, old straw beds, hogsheads, railroad ties and sleepers, wired together and lit afire by torches before 1905, and then: ELECTRICITY. Salem made big news in 1905:  never before in the history of this country was a bonfire started by wireless electricity claimed the Boston Daily Globe, thanks to 18-year-old John J. Brophy, pictured below. Even though the days of the Lookout bonfires were numbered at this point, this was a great victory for the Broad Street Club. One of the few acknowledgements of any potential danger in producing these spectacles concerns ignition: twenty years later there will be a brief attempt to ignite by “radio”.

Bonfire electricity collage

5. 1920s revival. After a break during the nineteen-teens, during which the Great Salem Fire devastated the city and the new Salem Hospital was built on Lookout Hill, the Gallows Hill bonfires resumed under the auspices of the Ward Four Social Club and Ancient Order of Hibernians. The 1922 bonfire was ignited just after midnight ‘the night before’ by the old-fashioned torch method, and not by electricity as one or two of the former fires were started. There is a very conspicuous emphasis on “tradition” and “revival” in all of the coverage of these 1920s bonfires, and this is when you see references to the first bonfire: the organizers of the 1928 bonfire referred to it as the “114th Bonfire”. There was a tremendous response: with crowds reported at 80,000 for Salem’s tercentenary year and nearly as many in 1927. There are a few regional competitors in this decade, but Salem’s bonfire was repeatedly claimed to be “New England’s Biggest”.

Bonfires 1922

Bonfire 1927 collage

Bonfire 1928 Lowell Sun

6. Decline and dispersal. From 1931 to 1951, the Gallows Hill bonfires ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The Boston Globe coverage of July Fourth festivities in the region shows what happened at the beginning of the era very clearly. In 1931, there was another “huge Salem bonfire stack”, so momentous that it required round-the-clock guards before the big night, while in 1932, both Boston and Salem abandoned their “bonfires of yore” at the onset of the Depression: for the first time in many years, there will be no mammoth stack in Salem. Several places have taken the money to buy railroad ties and cut them into stove lengths to give to the needy when the cold weather arrives. This strikes me as a pretty straightforward illustration of just one little consequence of the decade’s economic crisis! The bonfires resumed from 1937 to 1940, but they were much smaller and Salem was just briefly mentioned along with other communities in a Fourth of July roundup by the local papers. After World War II, everyone wanted to build a big celebratory bonfire, and Salem’s attracted a crowd of 60,000 in 1946, but in the next year (gasp) neighboring Danvers had a bigger stack and a bigger crowd. The Life photographs look a bit memorialistic in this context, but Salem natives tell me that the bonfires continued into the 1950s and early 1960s. What is clear from personal reminiscences is that Gallows Hill was no longer alone from this point on: there were smaller bonfires built in other parts of town: Collins Cove, Dead Horse Beach in the Willows, along the river in North Salem. So the bonfires (and the competition?) continued as an expression of neighborhood and community spirit, tapped down but still very traditional.

Bonfire Depression collage

7. Appendix: is there an (unfortunate) connection between Salem’s famous bonfires and that OTHER big Salem event, resulting in the common misconception—still very much alive today—that the accused witches of 1692 were burned on Gallows Hill?  I can’t tell you how many national headlines I read like the one below!

Bonfire 1928 Text Box


The Ladies’ Miscellany, 1828-31

To end Women’s History Month on a more pleasant note, I leafed through the digital pages of a short-lived Salem newspaper published for women by John Chapman from 1828 to 1831: the LadiesMiscellany.  I started with the question what did women want to read?  but quickly determined that this was a query that I would not be able to answer, as most of the material in each edition seemed to be of a prescriptive nature: what women should read and do rather than what they might like to. There are long romantic/dramatic or edifying stories in every issue, along with poetry (a lot of odes to the seasons), little editorials about “women’s issues” culled from other American and English periodicals, and (the best part): events:  strictly marriages and deaths, with the occasional ordination. No births, for some reason, although you would think this would be a popular topic. Reading the lines very randomly (which suits the nature of this publication: “miscellany” is an apt title), and reading between the lines, these are my main takeaways:

  1. It is possible to be the perfect wife.
  2. Mustard is an antidote for poison!
  3. Success in life (or marriage) generally consists of finding the right regimen–and sticking to it.
  4. Many young Salem men drowned by falling overboard ships in exotic places, or in Salem Harbor.
  5. It is possible to illustrate the concept of division of labor many different ways using domestic items and tasks.
  6. Corset mania was a major concern–but for whom? Certainly not for Mrs. Sally Bott, who was the Miscellany’s most consistent advertiser.
  7.  It’s nice to see this notice of the Salem Female Charitable Society, which was founded in 1801, incorporated in 1804, and is still in existence today!

Ladies Miscellany2

Ladies Miscellany Collage 1

LM Collage

LM Collage 2

LM collage 3

Corset collage

-SFCS collage


A Tudor House in Salem

How did I miss it? Here I am, a sixteenth-century English historian living in Salem, and I never knew about a reproduction sixteenth-century house built right here in 1927 by a mason named James H. Boulger. I’ve posted on “English” houses in Salem before, and often lamented the lack of Tudors in town, all the while blind to the existence of this interesting little house in South Salem. While I was researching the “Electrical Home” in this same neighborhood (with streets named for U.S. Presidents), I came across a story entitled “Salem Home and Garage Built in 16th Century English Style” in the November 21, 1927 edition of the Boston Globe. Yesterday I walked down from my office at Salem State to see this very house, hoping that it was still standing and bore some semblance of its sixteenth-century self and had not been turned into a ranch, or even worse, a “Colonial”. But as I walked down Cleveland Road and saw its pitched roof approaching, I got more excited, and there it was: an adorable, obviously well-maintained and well-loved, Tudor cottage.

Tudor second.jpg

Tudor third

Tudor fourth

Tudor Sixth

My only basis of comparison is the grainy newspaper photograph, but it looks like the major alteration to Boulger’s original house is the integration of the originally-freestanding garage. I’m not sure my photographs capture the scale of the house and the interesting pitch of its roof: to me, (and again, for the thousandth time, I’m just an architecture buff) the house looks more Tudor than Tudor Revival. According to the article, all plans were by Mr. Boulger, who is a native of Manchester Eng, and a mason by trade. In designing the building, he was aided by a picture printed in a magazine showing a farmhouse in England during the 16th century. Like many English architects of centuries back, the designer has secured the typical English charm that marked the early, simple, unpretentious homes in England. 

Tudor in Salem

I made a limited search for the precise photograph that might have been Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but contemporary periodicals in America are full of Tudor Revivals and those in Britain tend to feature either “great” Tudor structures or townhouses, like the famous Seven Stars pub in Mr. Boulger’s native Manchester, now sadly long gone. He seems to have invested as much effort into the interior as the exterior, as the Globe article goes into considerable detail about the “outstanding features” of the new/old house: an ‘English box seat’ window, a combination dining room and parlor, natural finished woods, low, wide arches leading to the various rooms, low situated windows and the ‘cold box’, so-called, where vegetables and wines were kept by the English farmer….. Mr. Boulger plans to install old-fashioned furniture in keeping with the exterior of the building. And no doubt he did.

Seven Stars Manchester

Tudor 1

I’m sure that the Seven Stars, widely heralded as one of England’s oldest pubs in its day, was not Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but wanted to inject a bit of old Manchester here!


Re-engaging with Leslie’s Retreat

Salem is gearing up for a multi-event, multi-venue commemoration of a key event in its history and American history: Leslie’s Retreat, whereby a crowd of civilians compelled the 250-strong 64th Regiment of the Foot under the command of Colonel Alexander Leslie to retreat to Boston on February 26, 1775. The Redcoats came in search of rumored cannon and military stores and left with nothing: a week later the Essex Gazette brazenly reported that twenty-seven pieces of cannon were removed out of this town [neighboring Danvers], to be out of the way of the robbers. No shots were fired and no one was (really) hurt, but a stand was taken that would lead to more standing, most dramatically at Lexington and Concord, several weeks later. The significance of this stand-off was recognized in both the colonial and British papers at the time, and for several months thereafter: passages from the London Public Advertiser (May 2, 1775) and the Gazette (March 7, 1775) are representative of the not-too divergent perspectives.

leslies-retreat-public-advertiser-may-2-1775

leslies-retreat-essex-gazette-march-7-1775

The British view: REBELS enough to have eaten them up.      

And the American: not less than 12 or 15,000 men would have been assembled in this town within twenty-four hours after the alarm, had not the precipitate retreat of the troops from the Draw-Bridge prevented it.

Press accounts on both sides of the Atlantic generally portrayed the Salem event (along with the colonial capture of Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor in December 1774) as a prelude to the larger opening acts of the Revolution: Lexington and Concord. And that’s pretty much the standard view for the next 200+ years, with occasional moments (like this one!) in which the event’s significance is recognized for its own merits. I’ve written a more detailed post on the actual event before; now I’m more interested in the history of its commemoration, which was shaped by two key factors: its name and its anniversaries. Events generally become “historic” when they are named, and remembered in some form or fashion on anniversaries, and Leslie’s Retreat was no exception. The first reference that I can find to the name dates from 1840, but after the publication of Charles Moses Endicott’s Account of Leslie’s retreat at the North bridge in Salem in 1856 it really stuck, leading to a commemorative “oration”in 1862, a major Centennial commemoration in 1875, the dedication of a memorial stone in 1886, and anniversary services in 1896, 1902, 1925, and finally (long gap here), 1975. Leslie’s Retreat was also an “act” in the elaborate Salem Pageant of 1913, during which several scenarios of Salem history were reenacted by local notables to reinforce proper American values and benefit the House of the Seven Gables. The Centennial was marked with bell-ringing throughout the city at morning, noon and night, a 100-gun salute, flags unfurled everywhere, and a ceremony filled with addresses and hymns, while the Bicentennial featured a reenactment and a ball–just like this year–and inspired national headlines (The Shot Not Heard around the World).

leslies-retreat-arch

leslies-retreat-1875-program

leslies-retreat-1913-pageant

leslies-retreat-1975

The 1875 Memorial Arch and Program; Colonial dress-up for act #4 of the Salem Pageant, 1913; 1975 reenactment.

I can’t find any big splashy commemorations between 1925 and 1975, with the exception of the Salem and Marblehead tercentenaries in 1926 and 1929, but that doesn’t mean Leslie’s Retreat was forgotten: it became part of the civic curriculum, so much so that I found repeated references in the local papers along the lines of the story of Leslie’s Retreat is too well-know to be recounted here. A commenter on my earlier post noted that in the 1950s “Leslie’s Retreat was something every 8th grader had to do a project on” in Salem. The event received national attention again in 1960-61, when an American Heritage article by Eric W. Barnes (All the King’s Horses…and All the King’s Men, with charming illustrations by Edward –see below ) was reprinted in all of the major dailies. Still, I can’t help but think that the rise of Witch City overwhelmed Salem’s revolutionary reputation.

leslies-retreat-illustration2

leslies-retreat-color

leslies-retreat-collage

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Edward Sorel’s illustrations for American Heritage, October 1960.

leslies-retreat-2017

(Re-) engaging with Leslie’s Retreat in 2017:  A community reenactment this coming Sunday, on its 242nd anniversary, at the First Church on Essex Street from 11:00 to 1:00; a talk by Dr. Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Prelude to Revolution. The Salem Gunpowder Raid of 1775 on March 26 at the Pickering House; a talk by J.L. Bell, author and super-blogger at Boston 1775 on “The Salem Connection” on April 7 at the Salem Athenaeum; a March to Revolution walking tour through Marblehead on April 8; and a “Salem Resistance Ball” at Hamilton Hall, also on April 8. 


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