I’m still simmering with anger and frustration over Salem’s “new” “Heritage” trail, confined to the downtown, anchored by commercial establishments presenting the sad tale of 1692 with pathetic mannequins which inspire laughter rather than learning, marked by a line of yellow paint applied in an egalitarian manner to both new concrete and old brick. All of my original objections are still standing, but they’ve had almost a year to fester. I’ve lost faith in so many people and institutions: city councillors, various public officials, even fellow historians and organizations which I thought were committed to the preservation and presentation of Salem’s rich heritage. I don’t see any understanding of what heritage tourism is in the realm of official or quasi-official Salem, much less any desire to follow its path. Indeed I wonder what heritage means to the people who have put together this heritage trail.
The words in the graphics above illustrate my concerns: a recent review of one of the two commercial institutions featured on the trail, the Salem Witch Museum, and some definitions of heritage by the Center for Heritage & Society at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I find the review to be very representative of those that the Salem Witch Museum has received, but of course, I am biased. There are certainly much better reviews, and there are also those which are substantive indictments: you can read them for yourself at the Tripadvisor site. But even many of the good reviews point out the dated nature of the presentation, the fact that the attraction is not a “Museum,” and its blatant commercialism. What is fascinating to me is that these reviews go back years (the Salem Witch Museum recently celebrated its 40th anniversary) and they are very repetitive, yet still the people keep coming and the dated dioramas endure: this is the most successful business in Salem, I believe, certainly the most successful attraction. There’s no attempt to update or improve the presentation, and why should there be? The people keep coming. But what does this institution have to do with Salem heritage and why does it have to be on the Salem Heritage Trail? The Witch Trials are certainly part of Salem’s heritage, though not, I would argue, as large a part as the City of Salem presents them to be—but that argument is certainly a lost cause! But is a dated diorama how we want to acknowlege this tragedy? Is there anything public or in any way reflective of the inclusion of the Salem Witch Museum on on the Salem Heritage Trail? The Salem Witch Museum will continue to be successful, no doubt, regardless of its inclusion on the Heritage Trail, so why can’t this one trail represent a more public and thoughtful presentation of Salem’s heritage in the fullest sense of the word? (I will never get an answer to this question)
I am not a tourism naysayer; I simply respect the past and want both Salem’s visitors and residents to experience its heritage in a layered and an engaging way. As I am writing this, I am looking up Chestnut Street as the Salem Trolley is making its way down, and I’m glad to see it. At least the tourists on board are exposed to more of Salem’s material heritage. It remains absolutely mystifying to me why the Salem Heritage Trail would not include the city’s oldest and largest Historic District, home to the Pickering House, the Phillips House, Hamilton Hall, the Salem Athenaeum, the Ropes Mansion, the Quaker Burying Ground, and streets of beautifully-preserved houses. There are no shops or restaurants or witch “attractions” over here: could that be the answer? Unfortunately the selection of paint in general, and that striking shade of yellow paint in particular, made the exclusion of residential historic districts a foregone conclusion: I know that most of my neighbors would welcome more walking tourists, but I doubt that many of them would like to see that yellow line run in front of their houses. The trolley is running past houses associated with a trio of brothers from a famous Salem family, the Bensons, and I’m wondering if the tourists on board are hearing anything about them, because I think their lives and works are representative of several important strands of Salem’s heritage. I’m sure Frank Weston Benson (residing at 14 Chestnut, 1862-1951) is getting a mention, as he was a pretty famous artist in his day, producing accessible paintings in a light-filled American Impressionist style as well as a succession of distinctive etchings primarily focused on wildfowl. His younger brother Henry (1866-1942) lived around the corner on Hamilton Street and served two terms as Salem’s mayor as well as the president of Salem’s largest business, the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. But I think it’s the brother between them, John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), who is more evocative of an enduring Salem heritage, even though he seldom lived here in his adulthood (though he did design the massive and fantastic Colonial Revival mansion at 30 Chestnut Street).
A 1943 self-portrait by John Prentiss Benson and photograph of his younger self in Salem; Captain Samuel Benson of Salem as depicted by his grandson, John Prentiss Benson and Benson’s copy of “Reaper of Salem, S. Benson, Master, painted originally by Antoine Roux. All of the images and much of the text from this point on is taken from a lovely book entitled The Artistic Legacy of John Prentiss Benson, which was edited and published by the husband of Benson’s granddaughter in 2003. It’s really fabulous–with lots of family pictures and anecdotes.
I’ve never really appreciated maritime art, but I saw a painting that I really liked last week and looked at the signature: John P. Benson! I thought he was an architect by profession and an artist by hobby, but I was wrong: he had two careers, first architecture, then painting. This one painting took me down a rabbit hole of John P. Benson paintings, and I found some really lovely Salem ones, inspired by his birthplace and his heritage, primarily his descent from Captain Samuel Benson, of Reaper fame. All three Benson brothers plus their siblings grew up in an Italianate house which once faced the Common, on a site which is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel. Frank’s predisposition towards an artistic career was evident pretty early, as was John’s, but apparently there could only be one artist in the family so their father steered the latter towards the more practical architecture. He went to Paris for training, and returned to a job at the prestigious New York architectural firm McKim, Mead & White before setting up his own partnership. By all accounts, Benson had a successful architectural practice focused on the greater New York area, while living in Plainfield, New Jersey and later Flushing, New York with his wife Bessie and their four children. He retired from architecture in his later 50s and began painting full-time, primarily in his studio at a house called Willowbank in Kittery, Maine. He was prolific, and even though he had not lived in his native city since his departure for Paris, a notable number of his paintings are of Salem ships and harbor scenes.
Ship Eliza of Salem, Salem Coal Wharf, and Derby Wharf, John Prentiss Benson.
I particularly like a series of paintings which Benson produced as murals for his son Philip’s Cohasset home, entitled Salem Harbor memories. I trust that they still survive and I wish they could be on public view, because they are a perfect illustration of a family’s heritage and the endurance of a city’s heritage: it’s so interesting that these images were in the home of a man (Philip) who was not born in Salem, who never lived in Salem, but still saw Salem as part of his heritage. I’m not a fan of the witch trials vs. maritime history either/or debate as I believe that Salem’s heritage is both plus MUCH more but these maritime views are so poignant, especially in their invocation of memories which we can “enjoy, regret, and learn from” at the same time. Believe me, I know that the Benson brothers cannot compete with the suffering mannequins of the Salem Witch and Witch Dungeon Museums of the Heritage Trail. I think there are some other Chestnut Street stories that might be able to do so, but that’s not my point or my concern. If this trail was called the “Tourism Trail” or the “Witch City Trail,” I would have no concerns. But it isn’t: it’s called the Heritage Trail. So I ask my fellow Salem residents: does it represent your heritage?
A Memory of Salem Harbor, in Cohasset.