Tag Archives: Newspapers

Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

Thanksgiving 1847 collage

Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1848-11-30_3

Thanksgiving Salem_Observer_1849-11-24_[2]

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1849-02-05_4

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-12-15_1

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-11-24_3

Thanksgiving 1852 collage

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1853-11-14_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1854-11-20_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1857-11-30_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1863-11-05_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1865-11-06_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1875-11-15_2

These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


It Happened on Salem Common

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

Salem Common 1836 Barber

Salem Mechanick Quick Step

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

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

Common 1916

Salem Common Pageant 1916

Salem Common 1918

Salem Common 1920 Northend HNE

Common 1923

Salem Common SSU 1925

Salem COmmon Pageant 1926

Common 1935 Processing Tax

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

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

Salem Common 1906


Watered Down

Salem is such a foodie/libations town now; I’m surprised there is so little culinary history served up. With countless restaurants, several bakeries and food shops, one brewery and another on the way, a cidery and distillery—all very busy—you would think there would be an ongoing audience for deep dives into the historical production and distribution of foodstuffs and beverages, but the only serious purveyors of such presentations (with ample samples!) are Salem Food Tours, and their affiliated attraction, the Salem Spirits Trolley, which runs in October. Good for them, but I think there’s room for more food-and-drink history, because Salem is not just a foodie town now; it always has been. The Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a brewing-themed event this week for which several area brewers have produced beverages based on the Museum’s collections: but only those collections that are right here in Salem so that’s not much to go on—the results must be somewhat watered-down if historical inspiration is the objective. A few trips up to the almighty Collection Center in Rowley and its encased Phillips Library would reveal more sources and more inspiration: here are some avenues of exploration that look particularly promising:

Women Brewers & Tavern-Keepers: there seem to have been quite a few in Salem!  One old Salem source that is quoted in all of the books about early American taverns and libations (quite a large genre) is a bill presented to the Parish Committee of the East Church for “Punch, Flip, Sangrey, etc.” by Abigail Brown, Tavern Keeper in 1767, and when Katherine Clarke inherited the Ship’s Tavern, one of Salem’s first, from her husband in 1645 she was licensed to keep it as long as she found a “fit man yt is godlie to manage the business”. Hannah Lemon Beadle also became the keeper of her family’s tavern on Essex Street following her husband’s death a bit later in the seventeenth-century, before it became the site of Witch Trial interrogations in 1692. 10 boxes of inn, tavern & retail licenses will yield lots of more information about just who was selling what.

Salem Spirits

Beadle's Tavern New England Magazine, 1892.

Spruce Beer. Logic tells me that Salem would have been a big producer of Colonial North America’s major contribution to the global world of beer, spruce beer, which compensated for shortages of both barley and hops in the New World and at the same time was recognized as a cure for scurvy. It was increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Dr. Bentley refers to it in his diary, and Jane Austen in her letters. It’s generally referred to as a home or “family” brew, however, so I supposed it was not produced commercially. I think there were alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and it seems to have been particularly popular in the summer. Here is General Jeffrey Amherst’s (of smallpox infamy) recipe:

Salem Spirits Spruce Beer

And here is Amelia Simmons’ recipe, with hops, from American Cookery (1796): it is notable that this is the only beverage recipe in the acclaimed “first” truly American cookbook:

Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissol|ved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bot|tle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.

What’s in the mix? I suspect that a lot of brewing was home-based so it might be in the “black box” which historians cannot open, but the Phillips Library has manuscript and printed recipe collections which might yield some interesting intructions for all sorts of beverages. The most comprehensive of the latter seem to be Joseph Coppinger’s American Practical Brewer and Tanner (1815) and MacKenzie’s five thousand receipts in all the useful and domestic arts: constituting a complete practical library … : a new American, from the latest London edition (1829), but there are “small beer” recipes in many contemporary cookbooks. Beer is seldom advertised before the later nineteenth-century: I looked through the Salem Gazette and found every single beverage BUT beer referenced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, although Mr. Ropes (below) was always in the market for barley!

Salem Spirits American Practical Brewer

Salem Spirits Mackenzie's 5000 Reciepts Phillips

Spirit collage

There are more references to beer when it is mixed with something else: as in flip (which Abigail Brown furnished to the East Church Parish Council), the famous and “terrible” Salem drink Whistle Belly Vengeance, Bogus or Calibogus (spruce beer with rum), and Rattle-Skull ( dark rum and/or brandy and beer). Rum improved everything, of course, including cider (Stone-Wall or Stone-Fence).

Where are all the Tavern signs? I’ve got to admit that I’m as much, or more,  interested in the material culture of taverns as the consumption–especially tavern signs. Salem tavern licenses were granted with the requirement that “there be sett up in some inoffensive sign obvious ways for direction to strangers”, and apparently signs for The Sun and the Bunch of Grapes once existed in the collections of the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, but all I can find are Washington Hotel signs at present: as you can imagine, Washington taverns and hostelries were as common in every American town as Washington streets in the nineteenth century.

Washington collagePeabody Essex Museum and Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach and Tavern Days (1900).


A Souvenir of Salem

Salem has been a tourist city for a very long time, and that identity has inspired the production of countless souvenirs made from every material imaginable: ceramic, metal, cloth, wood, plastic, and a veritable forest of paper. I’ve been a rather casual collector of Salem souvenirs since I moved here many years ago, although I do have my periods of intensity if I come across something I haven’t seen before. I’m a paper girl, and I thought I had seen every bit of ephemera in this genre, but last week a little souvenir book with an embossed red cover popped up on ebay and I pounced. It arrived yesterday, and I was not disappointed: this little souvenir pamphlet contains some of the most beautiful prints of Salem structures I have ever seen. Even with its obvious damage, it is still a gem. There is no title page or publisher–although an advertisement for the Salem stationers Merrill & Mackintire is at the end, so I assume it is their offering. It is also undated, though I can come up with an approximate date just looking at some of the captions, which reflect the work of the tireless historian and “antiquarian” Sidney Perley to get dates and identifications just right at the turn of the last century—and after.

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Some historical “facts” are mutable. The site at which the accused and convicted “witches” of Salem were presumed to have been executed was commonly known as “Witch Hill” in the later nineteenth century but evolved into “Gallows Hill” at its end. This is still a Salem neighborhood and park, but from the 1890s Perley identified Proctor’s Ledge below as the site of the executions, and just last year this site was marked with a memorial by the City of Salem. Likewise, Perley confronted the long-held assertion that the small structure on the grounds of the Essex Institute was in fact the seventeenth-century First Church of Salem, and asserted that it was a Quaker Meeting House from later in the century. As you can see, the owner of our little souvenir book, whom I presume is the Charles Heald who signed the back of one of its prints, simply scratched out “First Meeting House” and wrote in “Quaker M.H.” And then Perley took on the “Roger Williams House” and asserted that Roger Williams never actually lived there: it then became the Witch House assertively, though in this first decade of the twentieth century it’s still either/or.

Antiquarian in Arms 1901

Witch House 1903Two Boston Post articles from 1901 and 1903 showing Perley in the midst of two big Salem historical “disputes”:  “Antiquarians are all up in arms again” is one of my favorite headlines ever.

The “Old Turner House” has yet to become the House of the Seven Gables, so I think I can date this souvenir booklet to sometime between 1903 and 1909 pretty comfortably. Yet there is not a car or trolley in sight: the cumulative vision is one of  “Olde Salem” with the exception of a few “modern” municipal buildings. Seaside Salem endures, and the Pickering House remains ever the Pickering House, unchanged from the seventeenth century except for the acquisition of its Gothic trim in the midst of the nineteenth.

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Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

archival collage 2

Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.


Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


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


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