Tag Archives: Salem witch trials

The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

My department has been co-sponsoring topical symposia for the past few years, first on the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and last year on northern slavery. These are day-long events, very much open to a very participatory public. This year, we are focusing on the Salem Witch Trials, in recognition and commemoration of its 325th anniversary, as well as the imminent dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge execution site. The Trials are a rather intimidating topic to take on, especially as we are attempting to focus not only on the well-established narrative of events but also on their comprehensive impact on Salem’s own history and identity: time and place. The symposium, entitled Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692, is jointly sponsored with the Salem Award Foundation and the Essex National Heritage Area, and will be held on June 10: the registration will be live in a few weeks and I’ll post a link here.

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

The symposium committee has been meeting for a year and I think we have a great program: presentations and panels on the trials themselves, teaching the trials (a key challenge for educators in our region), some European comparisons and context, a panel on the making of Witch City, an opportunity for descendants of the victims to record their “testimonies”, the attendant expertise of Salem experts Emerson Baker, Margo Burns and Marilynne K. Roach, and a keynote address by Dr. Kenneth Foote of the University of Connecticut, author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. It’s rather late in the game to add anything, but I keep thinking we’re missing something, something about the dreaded “pit of presentism” into which the discourse of 1692 always seems to fall. I suspect presentism will pop up in several places, however, and most definitely in the discussion on the development of the “Witch City” identity.  We had hoped to keep this discussion centered on a relatively distant past–the 1890s in particular–when you start seeing witches on everything coincidentally with the 200th anniversary of the Trials–but I’m realizing that we can’t stop there: we must proceed to the 1950s, when the solid foundation of witchcraft–presentism was laid with the sequential publication of Marian Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). From that point on, psychological diagnoses, allegories, and moral judgements flow, and flourish. The 1890s Witch City projections are coming from inside Salem, and are strictly commercial, taking the form of logos and trinkets for the most part, but the 1950s projections are external and national, even international, derived from the massive popular reception of Starkey’s and Miller’s works–and all the publicity they both received. Just look at this lavish spread of photographs by Nina Leen taken for a feature article on The Devil in Massachusetts in the September 26, 1949 issue of Life magazine: Starkey with her cat and wandering around Gallows Hill, “the girls”, a Putnam descendant posing, the newly-restored Witch House. Salem as set piece.

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

Starkey 10 Photographs by Nina Leen taken on August 8, 1949 for the September 26 issue of Life magazine, ©Time, Inc.

And onto this set strode Arthur Miller (who strangely does not credit Starkey), inspired to write the play that is continuously on stage and in print and is as much or more about his time as their time. The past as present for all time, it seems.


The Surgeon who communed with Spirits

One of the academic projects that I’m working on concerns English physicians who rendered judgements on witchcraft cases in the seventeenth century: some were skeptical but others were not, and the latter group often had to engage in intellectual contortions in order to justify their beliefs. One physician who didn’t have a problem with proclaiming that he believed in spirits and witchcraft was John Beaumont, a Somerset surgeon (and geologist) who wrote an amazing treatise entitled An Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices, which was first published in 1705. Beaumont is among the last of these men of “science” who gave credence to supernatural agency: this is the Age of Newton after all! But he is steadfast in his beliefs, and determined to contradict those who deny the presence and power of spirits, whether good or evil. An edition of the Beaumont’s book came up for auction the other day and I thought I might bid on it, but then quickly dismissed the notion (it fetched a bit over $1000, and is also available for three times that here). Nevertheless, Beaumont was on my mind, so I thought I would delve into his, again.

beaumont-cover

Beaumont’s methodology is interesting. In typical early modern fashion, he quotes a lot of classical “authorities”, as well as testimony from key seventeenth-century trials. All of this he presents as sensory evidence: “proving” the existence of spirits through their perception by four of the five senses (apparently it is impossible to taste one). His personal experience with spirits–which he calls genii–really singles him out among other authors in this genre, however: he seems to delight in giving us every little detail of these “extraordinary visitations”. We get a physical description of the genii, what they were wearing, what they conveyed, what their names were. Beaumont is also an exhaustive reader, consulting every possible source to examine how spirits might be accessed through dreams and ritual magic as well as the senses.

beaumont-collage

Beaumont is also interesting because he considers the Salem trials at length, consulting all the authorities who are not as authoritative in 1705 as they were in 1692. Ultimately it’s all about his own authority, however, his own “empirical” evidence:  I am convinced by my own Experience (which to me is as a Thousand Witnesses) that there is such a thing, as Spectre-Sight, so that one Person may see Spectres, when others present at the same time see nothing; wherefore I think it is not Impossible that the afflicted Persons in New England should see; nay, I believe they saw the Spectres of Persons, who as they conceived, Tormented them……Well there you are, even though spectral evidence had been condemned widely in both England and New England over the past decade, Beaumont remained a true believer in 1705.

beaumont-genii

Frontispiece by Michael Van Der Gucht.


Preparing to Paint

Is there anything more engaging than an artist’s sketchbook? Or even a notebook with a few sketches in it? I suppose the end product doesn’t have to be visual, it’s the insight into that conception/creation/ working it out process that I’m interested in, but imagery tends to be far more accessible, of course. I use Leonardo’s notebooks extensively in my Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and early modern courses, and students are immediately engaged, entranced even, far more than they are when I show them the finished product. It’s interesting to see the wanderings of a very fertile mind in his case, what inspired him and what he also had to work out: perspective, motion, hands. Most of Leonardo’s sketches never made it onto canvas; once a particular challenge was overcome he moved on to the next one, but the sketchbooks of more (focused, disciplined, on-task???? it’s hard to compare Leonardo negatively to anyone) artists illustrate the progress from page to paint: those of Claude Monet immediately comes to mind. But again, it doesn’t have to be about images. The sketchbooks of  Massachusetts artist Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), a pioneer in American landscape, genre, and “view” paintings, gives us insights into his preparation for one of the first views of Salem from “Gallows Hill”, a scene that would be imitated time and time again over the course of the nineteenth century. Fisher jotted down notes about the Salem Witch Trials in his sketchbook, indicating that his inspiration for the Salem painting was not just the view he saw before him, but the events that brought him to this particular place.

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

Alvan Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill (1818), Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and Sketchbook no. 5, containing notes about the Salem Witch Trials, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the recent validation of Proctor’s Ledge below rather than Gallows Hill above as the 1692 execution site, it occurs to me that the inspiration for this famous “view” is based on a falsehood! Indeed, I think that the figures in the foreground are sitting on THE ledge. But clearly a perspective from that point would not be as revealing of the city below.

From what I can see, most of the sketches in Fisher’s notebooks in the Museum of Fine Arts contain more conventional preparatory sketches: houses, hills, streams, animals. Creatures, particularly creatures in motion and even more particularly birds, seem to captivate artists for centuries, from Leonardo to Salem’s most famous artist, Frank Benson. Browsing around sketchbooks which have been digitized (especially those included in this archived exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), I can’t tell which is more captivating to me: individual sketches or the entire sketchbook, the works themselves or the works in progress. 

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

Page from Alvan Fisher’s Sketchbook no. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Autographed sketch by Frank Benson, 1882, Skinner Auctions; Leonardo’s sketches from the Codex on the Flight of Birds and one of Benson’s bird sketches, Northeast Auctions; Covers of sketchbooks of Harrison Cady (1943) and Fairfield Porter  (1950) from the Archives of American Art.


A Witch Cake for Early April

Those who are familiar with the established narrative of the Salem Witch Trials will recognize the reference to a “witch cake”, in that case concocted of the urine of the afflicted mixed with rye meal and ashes, baked in cake form and fed to a dog with the hope that the beast would somehow reveal the name of the malevolent witch. In 1692 Tituba assisted Mary Sibley in the preparation of a witch cake in order to identify the person(s) responsible for bewitching the young girls in Samuel Parris’s household, an act that would later be used to condemn her. In Salem the witch cake was clearly used as a form of counter-magical test; while in Britain it was more commonly used as a defensive amulet against the bewitchment of a person or household. There are many surviving examples of anti-witchcraft charms and amulets in British collections, everything from pierced “hag-stones” to very familiar horseshoes, but more perishable cakes are hard to find. But here is one, which doesn’t look very perishable at all!

Witch cakes in April Card

This witch cake, which dates not from the seventeenth but rather the twentieth century, is part of the large (around 1400 items) collection of charms, amulets and talismans accumulated by British folklorist Edward Lovett (1852-1933), who seems to have been more interested in the magical artifacts and beliefs of his own time than those of the past. Lovett was an amateur folklorist in a time when that pursuit was being professionalized: he worked as a bank cashier by day and walked the streets of London by night, listening to the stories and purchasing the personal charms of street hawkers, sailors, and washerwomen, or whoever came upon his path armed with “protection”. (You can follow his steps here). This research formed the basis of his fascinating book Magic in Modern London (1925), and his collection can now be found chiefly in three institutions: the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, the Cuming Museum on South London (which has been closed due to a fire, but many of its collections have been preserved and digitized), and the Wellcome Museum. The items below, including a cow’s heart stuck with pins and nails (upper right-hand corner, used by a dairyman as a talisman against a man he believed had put a curse on his cows), and the two anti-witchcraft charms, the ram’s horn with attached key and hag-stone below, all come from the Cuming collection, along with the more familiar charms. Acorns abound, to guard against lightning, and the wishbone wrapped in blue and red ribbon is almost a work of art!

Charm Collage Lovett

Lovett Acorn Charm

Lovett Wishbone

And below are some Lovett amulets purchased from British soldiers who fought in the First World War: hand votives guard against the “evil eye”, geological charms protect the wearer from a host of evils, and black cats were actually lucky in some parts of Britain, unlike the rest of the world.

L0057378 Amulet brooch in the shape of a black cat, England, 1914-191

Back to the Witch Cake, about which I don’t have too much information. There is Lovett’s own description: around about Flamborough Head [in Yorkshire], “witch cakes are to be met with in almost every cottage. These are circular-shaped, with a hole in the middle and with spikes projecting on all sides. If you hang one up in your cottage and once a year burn it and replace it with another [presumably during Holy Week, or the first week of April], you will have good luck. But no recipe!


Salem Lots

Several years ago, Bonhams Auctions held an auction of items from the Caren Archive, the largest private collection of American documents from the colonial era to the present. It was an extremely profitable event for all concerned, and so now there is a second sale coming up, and this one features several notable Salem items. The April 11 “Treasures from the Caren Archives II: How History Unfolds” auction comprises a wide variety of paper lots, among them one of the earliest English reports on the Salem Witch Trials, a 1777 financial document in which the Widow Sarah Putnam agreed to finance the Salem privateer Pluto during the American Revolution,  the “preliminaries of peace” negotiations that brought the Revolution to a close as reported by the Salem Gazette, Andrew Jackson’s 1834 State of the Union address, also reported in the Gazette, and a list of the Salem donors who contributed to William Henry Harrison’s successful presidential campaign in 1840.There’s also a great mezzotint image of Major-General Israel “Old Put” Putnam made in 1775 by Salem printer Joseph Hiller, based on a painting by Benjamin Blyth–very similar to the portrait of John Hancock this very pair produced in that same year.

Selling Salem 1693

Selling Salem Putnam 1795

Salem Gazette 1783 Preliminaries of Peace

Salem Gazette 1834

Selling Salem 1840

Salem Lots from the upcoming Bonhams Auction of items from the Caren Archive: Memoirs of the Present State of Europe, or the Monthly Account of Occurrences Ecclesiastical, Civil and Military. Vol II. No 1 [-12]. London: printed for Robert Clavel and Jonathan Robinson and Samuel Crouch, 1692-93;  BLYTH, BENJAMIN. 1746-1786. The Honble Israel Putnam Esqr. Major General of the United Forces of America. Salem, [MA]: printed by Joseph Hiller, [1775]; Salem Gazettes from 1783 and 1834; A handwritten list of 47 Whig subscribers offering to contribute funds to the campaign of William Henry Harrison, Salem, June 1840.

The two items that interest me the most are the 1693 London periodical and (oddly enough), the list of William Henry Harrison campaign donors. 1693 is very late in the history of the European Witch Hunt, and you would expect English reactions to the Salem trials to run along the lines of those backward, superstitious colonials, but this correspondent is not quite so condemnatory. He does however express the emerging enlightened mentality : In my opinion a Rational person, who is not Convinced of the Matter by his own Eyes, ought to suspend his judgment and to remain in a kind of Skepticism, until Experience shall receive farther illustrations from Experience. The Harrison document is interesting not because of the 47 names of Salem men listed (familiar prominent names) but because it sheds light on campaign finances in the mid-nineteenth century: the money went not to the production of hand-bills or newspaper advertising, but to defray the expenses of the Whig celebrations of the Fourth of July ensuing in addition to the cost of the collations…..” . Firecrackers and food (and drink), no doubt.


Off to London, Leaving Links to Salem Ladies

I’m off to London for Spring Break so will not be posting for a while, but I wanted to leave some links to some of the posts I’ve written on Salem women to fill in for me in my absence. It is Women’s History Month after all, and some of these ladies did not get the love and attention that I feel they deserved! Finding these ladies was an exercise that convinced me that I need to figure out how to develop an index for this compendium when I get back.

I know London is not the typical Spring Break destination, but it is always my favorite destination: for this particular trip (on which I will be accompanied by students!!!!) I have the Botticelli Reimagined exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum on my agenda as well as Samuel PepysPlague, Fire and Revolution at the National Maritime Museum, and I really want to visit Sutton House in Hackney, as Tudor structures are relatively rare in London. Then all (or some) of the usual places. I know London pretty well but am open to suggestions (particularly for food–I never know where to eat) so comment away: I am not bringing my laptop but will check in with my phone.

Botticelli London Vand A

Pepysp

Sutton House Hackney

A Botticelli variation, a Pepys poster, and a drawing-room in Sutton House, Hackney.

So here are some links that will lead you to Salem ladies, if you are so inclined. Despite years of blogging, I’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to interesting and notable Salem women, as I have sought to expose those whose stories don’t get told again and again and again. I seem to be drawn to artists, but there are lots of entrepreneurs and activists and just interesting women whom I have yet to “cover”–some men too!

Colonial women: A Daring Woman; Ann Putnam; The Pardoning of Ann Pudeator; Four Loves; Minding the Farm.

Authors:  A Scribbling Woman from Salem; The Little Locksmith; Mary Harrod Northend; Mrs. Parker and the Colonial Revival in Salem (could also go under “artists”); Tedious Details.

Artists:  Painting Abigail and Apple Blossoms; Fidelia Rising; Miss Brooks Embellishes; Salems Very Own Wallace Nutting;Paper Mansion.

Uncategorized:  The Mysterious Miss Hodges; A Salem Suffragette; The Woman who Lived in my House;  Ladies of Salem; A Salem Murder Mystery; The Hawthorne Diaries; Factory Girls and Boys; Little Folks and Black Cats; Bicycle Girls.


Anglo-Americana at Auction

There’s quite a bit of buzz here in Salem about a particular lot in an upcoming “Printed and Manuscript Americana” auction at Swann Auction Galleries: #84, a hitherto unknown edition of the Bay Psalm Book with Salem connections. It caught my attention a few weeks ago because of its importance in printing history, but of course the headlines here in Salem are all about its connections to the Witch Trials of 1692: it was owned by one of the judges, Jonathan Corwin and his wife Elizabeth, and later passed into the family of one of the trial’s victims, John Proctor. His descendants have held on to the book (which they apparently called “the witch book”) for over a century and are now parting with it. I wonder if its estimate of $30,000-$40,000 is due to its bibliographic importance or its ties to Salem? 

Anglo Americanap

I think it’s the former but I could be wrong. Two years ago, a copy of the first edition (1640) owned by the Old South Church in Boston set a new world record for a printed book at a Sotheby’s New York auction when it sold for $14, 165.000. The estimate for this newly-discovered seventh edition might be low.

No doubt the Bay Psalm Book will be the star, but several other items in this auction caught my attention: a first edition of one of the most important–if not the most important–early histories of English exploration, Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), a really neat anthology of shipwrecks and maritime disasters titled God’s Wonders in the Great Deep, or, a Token for Mariners (I am very slowly writing a book on wonder in early modern England and I had not thought of it in this way before–as deliverance from disaster), an engraving of a sketch made by British spy Major John André on the morning of his execution illustrating his voyage to meet Benedict Arnold (I’ve always had a thing for André), and last but not least, the expansive diary of a young Vermont woman named Elizabeth Houghton, including recollections from 1820 to 1836 and an AMAZING vernacular drawing of two women dressed in WILD “regency” dresses. Quite a treasure trove, this Anglo– Americana auction.

Anglo American Hakluytp

Anglo Americana Wonderp

Andre on the Hudson

Diary Dressesp

Lots from Swann Auction Galleries Printed and Manuscript Americana Auction, February 4, 2016: #84, an unknown 7th edition of the Bay Psalm Book; #152, a first edition of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations; #177, God’s Wonders in the Great Deep (1731);#29, an engraving of Major André’s last drawing; and #270, Elizabeth Houghton’s Diary.


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