Tag Archives: Salem witch trials

Witch City: the Film and the Moment

It seems ridiculous, but when I moved to Salem I remember being surprised at the extent of Halloween hoopla and kitsch in the city: it seemed really tacky to me but not particularly concerning. It was the early 1990s, I was still in graduate school, and frankly more wrapped up in the literature and discussion surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing than the 300th anniversary of the Salem witch trials. I was also much more familiar with the European witch trials, an extended crisis by which over 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the Salem trials seemed like a much smaller event to me: in terms of size, extent, impact. I had visited Trier and Bamberg at the center of the witch-trial-storm in Germany, where hundreds had been executed for the “exceptional crime” in the 1580s and the 1620s: neither had transformed themselves in Witch Cities; I had spent considerable time in Essex, the county which was the most impacted by the less-intense English witch trials: no Witch Cities to be found there either. So I was surprised by Salem, even though I grew up only an hour away and had visited the Salem Witch “Museum” on a school trip (when I swear I saw the same “performance” that is playing there now). I suspect I was so bewitched by the architecture that I looked the other way!

18th century Witch Trial relief sculpture in Düsseldorf: Horst Ossinger dpa/lnw 

After several years in residence, I lost my naiveté and came to realize just how insidious witchcraft tourism was in Salem and how powerful were its purveyors. Halloween just got bigger and longer, as the city’s identity, as well as the experience of residential life, were fused with a holiday that had a very tenuous connection to the 1692 trials, whose victims were not witches. One of the effects–an unintended consequence, I’m sure– of the 1992 commemoration was to provide a rationale for the continued commercial exploitation of the trials, under the label of toleration: Salem has risen above its moment of extreme intolerance so it is perfectly ok for us to profit from it! We are not profiting we are educating! This message facilitated the Halloween steamroller perfectly and kept it rolling; it is still rolling. Salem’s children are not in schools during this pandemic, but tourists fill our streets: priorities. So obviously, I’m not a fan, but even more so than the exploitative nature of Salem’s Halloween I am bothered (and actually a little bewildered) by the lack of any public dialogue about it. There is simply no procedural opportunity for any person—resident, victim descendant, whomever—to say Hey this is wrong, or even ask to tone it down. The city puts out a questionnaire to Salem residents after every Halloween season, but all the questions are about logistics (traffic, parking, carnival): it is either assumed that everyone buys into the hellish Halloween, or the city government just doesn’t care what its residents think about it. When I look back over my long residence in Salem, I think there were only two eventful opportunities to discuss the way the city was selling itself: a brief moment prior to the placement of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square in the Spring of 2005, and the first screening of the documentary Witch City in the Spring of 1997. The more recent opportunity was extremely limited, as the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) moved fairly quickly to grant permission for the statue’s placement in Salem’s most historic square in time for TV Land, its sponsor, to reap the benefits of cross-promotional advertising for the film Bewitched in June of 2005. The city of Salem was unmoved by the fact that the statue of a fictional witch would stand in close proximity to the location at which the very real victims of 1692 were condemned as witches or the appeals of those victims’ descendants in 2005, and it remains so. There was controversy over Samantha in 2005, but I remember more controversy about the debut of Witch City in 1997, but that might be just because I had a more invested view.

City of Salem advertising in the 1990s: a still from the 1997 documentary Witch City. City of Salem advertising today.

Whew! That was a long preamble to the central topic of this post: the documentary itself, and its Salem debut, prompted by its recent availability (for the first time) hereWitch City is a fast-moving, often-funny, always spot-on documentary about Salem’s escalating Halloween in the 1990s, a place and a time when “American history encounters American capitalism” (I think the latter won). It was made by several local filmmakers, Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn and John Stanton, and in classic documentary fashion it lets most of the participants speak for themselves: Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel at Tercentenary events, the- then Mayor of Salem, Neil Harrington, the “official witch of Salem”, Laurie Cabot, and the owner of the Salem Witch “Museum”, Bif Michaud, among others. Mr. Michaud, of Marblehead, made an unfortunate and perplexing comment equating the Witch Trials and the Holocaust (you’ll have to hear it for yourself) in the film which leaked out, causing considerable discussion in town and the Peabody Essex Museum to cancel the Salem premiere so not to offend its neighbor. Somehow, my colleague Tad Baker and I came up with the idea that our Department might sponsor the premiere: we were new to Salem State, untenured and unconnected, but we had the encouragement and support of our senior colleague John Fox, who had worked with Joe Cultrera on an earlier film, Leather Soul. And so that’s what happened: the History Department sponsored the Salem premiere of Witch City at Hamilton Hall of all places: I remember the tech people laying wires all day long in the Hall but I can’t recall why we didn’t have it at the university! The show was sold out, the Hall was packed, and we had a great panel featuring Tad and Danvers Archivist Richard Trask, now both acknowledged as THE authorities on the Trials. There was lively discussion, and I remember thinking: we can talk about this, we will talk about this when it was over. Witch City went on to be screened at the Immaculate Conception church and eventually on our local PBS station, WGBH, but unfortunately the Hamilton Hall premiere was not the beginning of a sustained public dialogue about Halloween in Salem, but rather just one brief shining moment.

Boston Globe piece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.

You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.


Salem Women of Note, 1939

The very last time I was up at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in Rowley, last February I believe, I requested a folder within which was the transcript of a short paper given at a meeting of the Zonta Club of Salem in 1939 by Annie Balcomb Wheeler entitled “Salem Women of Note”. I thought this would be the beginning of regular trips to the Phillips, but then came the pandemic closures. It is open now, but I just don’t have time to go up there with my book contract and four courses this semester: I won’t for some time, maybe never, unless I decide to take take up another book project, tentatively titled “Dead History: How America’s Most Historic City lost its Past” in my mind (the phrase Dead History is taken from a 1915 newspaper article about Salem’s deteriorating historic sites, but obviously it is a double entendre now). There’s some interest in this, but I’ve got to get through The Practical Renaissance first, and after that it might be better to leave Salem history in my rear-view mirror except for fluffy forays here. I remain rather forlorn about the state of Salem’s historic archives and interpretation, but am happy to see that the Peabody Essex Museum is diving into Salem history headfirst this fall, with two collections-based exhibitions on the Witch Trials and “Salem Stories“. This is quite a change, and I hope not just a reaction to the pandemic, which has reoriented many museums towards local and regional visitors. A renewed and sustained interest in historical interpretation and programming by the PEM could be a game-changer for Salem.

Ropes by Purely SalemA wonderful view of the PEM’s Ropes Mansion on Essex Street by my friend Matt of PurelySalem on Instagram! (He takes the most beautiful photographs). I‘m hoping that PEM’s foray in history involves looking at old things in new light: the Ropes is a great example because there are many stories that remain untold about it. It’s not a GOOD story, but we need to know more about slavery in Salem, and the Ropes Mansion was built by one of Salem’s more prominent slaveowners, Samuel Gardner. 

Well, high hopes for “Salem Stories” but back to Annie Balcomb Wheeler and her notable Salem women of 1939. I certainly didn’t expect this little paper to be my last dive into the Phillips collection for months and I didn’t spend much time with it: I just noted the women whom Annie Balcomb Wheeler found notable, because I wanted to compare her 1939 list with my evolving list of women spotlighted in my #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts. It’s so interesting to me to chart the highs and lows of written history: who or what we deem important now as opposed to who or what was important in 1939 or 1839 or 1739. Right now in Salem I think people are primarily interested in women of color, Charlotte Forten and Sarah Parker Remond in particular, as well as the traditional philanthropists, like Caroline Emmerton, the founder of the House of the Seven Gables. None of these women made it onto Wheeler’s list, which includes the Quaker Cassandra Southwick, poet Anne Bradstreet, accused “witches” Mary English and Elizabeth Proctor, educators Abigail Fowler, Lydia Very, and Ellen Dodge, physicians Sarah Sherman and Kate Mudge, diarist Mary Vial Holyoke and author Maria Susannah Cummins. I’ve posted on all of these women, with the exception of Fowler, Dodge and Holyoke: the educators are new to me but the latter is a definite oversight! It’s very notable to me that there are no artists on Wheeler’s list–nor entrepreneurs—as Salem women’s history is so rich in these categories, but I’m happy to see the emphasis on education and medicine. I wonder why she chose Mary English and Elizabeth Proctor, and not other victims or accusers of 1692? As it happens, I had just been looking at a document of testimony against the former at Yale’s Beinecke Library as I was trying to find some seventeenth-century writing that my students could actually read: here it is, along with the deposition of Mary Walcott against Proctor from the University of Virginia’s Documentary Archive and Transcription Archive, which has been the essential repository of Salem Witch Trials records and resources for more than a decade.

Salem Women Indictment Mary English Yale

Salem Women of Note Elizabeth Proctor1692 Depositions against Mary Hollingsworth English and Elizabeth Proctor, Beinecke Library at Yale and University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trial Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.

I cannot account for all of Salem’s female schoolteachers: there are so many! Abigail Fowler seems to have had a career which spanned 50 years: upon her death in 1771, her obituary noted that this “noted school dame” had “finished her earthly labors. She was in her 68th year, and began to teach children before she was 18, and continued so to do till her decease”. I wrote about Lydia Very here: she was both an author (or poetry and children’s books) and public schoolteacher for many years, but her legacy has always been overshadowed by that of her brother, Jones Very. Ellen Maria Dodge was a longtime instructor at the Salem Normal School, and she also wrote the School’s history upon the occasion of its move from downtown Salem to its new campus on Lafayette and Loring Streets.

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Salem Women of Note Ellen DodgeA privately printed book of poems by Lydia Very, 1882, Boston Book Company; Ellen Maria Dodge, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

I’ve written about Salem women physicians and Maria Susannah Cummins, the author of the incredibly popular Lamplighter, but recently I discovered a connection between Dr. Kate Mudge, who lived in the Bowditch House (currently the offices of Historic Salem, Inc.,) where Cummins was born. Like Bradstreet, I don’t really consider Cummins a Salem girl: her parents moved to Dorchester shortly thereafter. But still, cool connection: Dr. Mudge was certainly aware that she lived in the storied house of Nathaniel Bowditch and Maria Cummins, because her contemporary, photographer Frank Cousins labeled his photograph of the house (then around the corner on Essex Street) as such.

Salem Women Bowditch House (3)The Curwen/Bowditch House, Salem, 1890s. Frank Cousins/Urban Landscape Collection at Duke University Library.

So that brings me to Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke, and her diary. I have never appreciated this text properly, I think: Annie Balcomb Wheeler has convinced me to look at it again. It’s just that Mrs. Holyoke is so matter-of-fact about everything, especially death, including the deaths of her infant children and people all around her. This is certainly not a reflective diary, or a modern diary, but I should try harder to read between its lines, because I think Mary Vial Holyoke deserves her own post.

Salem Women of Note Mary Vial by GreenwoodPhotograph of a Greenwood portrait of Mary Vial Holyoke.


A Victorian View of Salem Witchcraft

I had not thought about the prolific and pioneering author Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) for years: until I encountered a portrait of her by the Salem artist Charles Osgood in the Catalog of Portraits at the Essex Institute (1936). I was looking for some lost portraits of Salem women—portraits which are still presumably in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum but which we have no access to either digitally or in person, and for which no accessible catalog entry exists except in the Smithsonian’s Catalog of American Portraits. I found many such portraits in this catalog, but I did not expect to find Harriet, a popular British author whose many works contributed to the emerging fields of sociology, economics, and political science. Martineau was cast into the breadwinner role for her impoverished family while in her 20s, and so she picked up a pen and produced an astonishing array of texts illustrating the contemporary social and economic structures of the British Empire: taxation, the poor laws, industry and trade. While these might seem like dry topics then and now, Martineau had an extraordinary ability to interpret, translate, and distill abstract and complex theory into clear and engaging prose: both Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria were fans!  Travels to the United States and the Middle East expanded Martineau’s range of topics as well as her abilities to report and observe, and she moved beyond illustration and theory into methodology, thus contributing to social-science practice. Martineau accepted no limitations: of genre (she wrote both fiction and non-fiction) or gender, and neither her encroaching deafness or her many illnesses stopped her from writing. When diagnosed with fatal heart disease in 1855, she wrote her own obituary, noting that: Her original power was nothing more than was due to earnestness and intellectual clearness within a certain range. With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius, she could see clearly what she did see, and give a clear expression to what she had to say. In short, she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent. She lived, and wrote, for another twenty years.

Harriet Martineau by Charles Osgood Catalogue of Portraits in Essex Institute (2)

Harriet Martineau Richard Evans 1834 NPG (2)Harriet Martineau by Salem artist Charles Osgood, c. 1835, Catalog of Portraits in the Essex Institute (1936); and by Richard Evans, c. 1833-34, National Portrait Gallery.

In 1834, the same year that her Evans portrait was exhibited in London, Harriet traveled to the United States on a research trip: she wanted to observe and analyze the dynamic economy of the new nation, as well as its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Her time in America refined her observation skills but also made her more of an activist: encountering both slavery in the south and the fervent abolitionist community in New England intensified her own anti-slavery sentiments. She published her American observations in Society in America (1837) which contains a forceful critique of the Southern economy’s exclusive reliance on slave labor and a much more favorable view of New England based on principles of the “moral economy”. In the Slave South, “one of the absolutely inevitable results of slaver is a disregard of human rights; an inability even to comprehend them”, while in the egalitarian North “every man is answerable for his own fortunes; and there is therefore stimulus to the exercise of every power.” Martineau goes on to extol the economic (and social) virtues of Salem, where she was in residence for several weeks at the Chestnut Street home of  Congressman (and future mayor) Stephen C. Phillips. She loves everything about Salem: its beautiful historic homes, its bustling tanneries, its “famous” museum, but especially its social mobility: “what a state of society it is when a dozen artisans of one town—Salem—are seen rearing each a comfortable one-story (or, as the Americans would say, two-story) house, in the place with which they have grown up! when a man who began with laying bricks criticizes, and sometimes corrects, his lawyer’s composition; when a poor errand-boy becomes the proprietor of a flourishing store, before he is thirty; pays off the capital advanced by his friends at the rate of 2,000 dollars per month; and bids fair to be one of the most substantial citizens of the place!”

brm0399-bachelder-salem-1856-1024x794 (2)Salem in the mid-nineteenth century from John Bachelder’s Album of New England Scenery.

Harriet Martineau was far more interested in the present than the past, and she predicts that the “remarkable” Salem, “this city of peace”, “will be better known hereafter for its commerce than for its witch-tragedy.” [if only!!!] Nevertheless, it happens that both one of her earliest and one of her last American publications was focused on Salem witchcraft: reviews of Charles Wentworth Upham’s Lectures on Witchcraft comprising a history of the delusion in Salem, in 1692 (1831) and Salem Witchcraft with an account of Salem Village and a history of opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects (1867). Her review of the latter in the Edinburgh Review displays her interpretive abilities perfectly, managing to both summarize Upham’s work and supplement it with a Victorian sensibility as well as the perspective of a social scientist. Like many of her contemporaries, Martineau was interested in psychological experimentation: the practice of mesmerism, in particular, was interesting to her for its curative powers as she experienced challenging medical conditions from the 1840s. Her interest in the powers of suggestion influenced her reaction to Upham’s study of the Salem trials, but so too did her sociological studies of organized religion and community interactions. She manages to display both historical empathy and the presentism which characterizes so many interpretations of the Salem Witch Trials at the same time as she emphasized “the seriousness and the instructiveness of this story to the present generation [this could have been written today]. Ours is the generation which has seen the spread of Spiritualism in Europe and America, a phenomenon which deprives us of all right to treat the Salem Tragedy as a jest, or to adopt a tone of superiority in compassion for the agents in that dismal drama.” [this could not].

Harriet Upham 1831 (2)

mdp.39015026502115-seq_593-2The first Upham work to be reviewed by Harriet, and a sketch of Miss Martineau at work in Fraser’s Magazine, November, 1833.


If We Can’t Picture Them, Were They There?

We don’t have any portraits of Salem women before the eighteenth century: the (European) women of Salem’s (European) founding century are therefore difficult to picture. We are left with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century romanticized and idealized images of dramatic women: persecuted Quakers, the two Annes, Hutchinson and Bradstreet (who never lived in Salem), and above all, the women who were accused of witchcraft. The latter are always represented by illustrations from long after their deaths, or by images of English or continental witch trials, utilized even on the covers of scholarly books on the 1692 trials. Why am I always seeing the Pendle “witches” from 1612 depicted as the Salem “witches” from 80 years later and across the Atlantic?

Picturing Pendle Collage

Because “public-facing” history, presented in digital formats and disseminated through social media, needs pictures: texts just won’t do! And book covers need to draw the reader in. I’m as guilty as the next blogger of using the later nineteenth-century images (of which there are so many!) to illustrate some of my posts, although I never substitute depictions of one event for another. I’d love to have some contemporary illustrations of Salem women in the seventeenth century doing all the things I know they did: parent, cook, sew, garden, make all sorts of stuff, keep taverns, worship, wonder. But there aren’t any. I’d love to have a portrait of Lady Deborah Moody, who settled briefly in Salem before she moved on to New York and was labeled a “dangerous woman” by John Winthrop for her heretical Anabaptist views (and I think her independence), but there aren’t any—I’ve checked through all the English sources as well. I’d love to have an image of the adversaries Martha Rowlandson, who divorced her husband for impotence in 1651, and Eleanor Hollingsworth (mother of Mary English, who I’d also like to see), who operated her own tavern, brewed her own beer, and cleared her husband’s considerable debts. But nothing. There are several portraits of seventeenth-century Massachusetts women, so I guess they need to stand in for their Salem sisters: anything to avoid disseminating those simplistic “Puritan” images!

Women Pictured

Puritan WomanReal 17th Century Massachusetts Women and a “Puritan Woman, 17th Century” from Cassel’s Historical Scrap Book, c. 1880.

As an English historian, I have a wide range of texts and images available to me with which to explore seventeenth-century women: many portraits of wealthy ladies, prescriptive writing, prints and broadsides, recipe books and diaries, theatrical performances as social comment and criticism (with women as the focus quite a bit in the earlier seventeenth century). So English women seem more diverse, more interesting, more active, more layered, while their sisters across the Atlantic seem a bit…..one-dimensional in comparison. I guess that’s why the authors of books on the Salem Witch Trials pinch English images so often. Of course if we move away from the reliance on the visual we can learn a lot more, but I worry that the exclusive reliance on “picture history” in the public sphere erases those who do not leave an image behind.

Virtuous Women

I think I can illustrate my concern a bit better by examining some women from the nineteenth century, certainly a much more visual age, but not universally so. There’s been a lot of interest in Salem’s African-American history over the past few years, which is of course great. Two women in particular, have claimed the spotlight: Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837– 1914)  and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). Both were incredible women: Charlotte came north from Philadelphia to live among the always-hospitable Remond family to attend Salem’s desegregated schools in the 1850s, and went on to graduate from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and become Salem’s first African-American teacher in the public schools, while Sarah grew up in Salem in the midst of a very activist Abolitionist family and became a much- heralded advocate herself, before emigrating to first England and then Italy for her undergraduate and medical degrees. Charlotte remained in her teaching position for only a couple of years before returning to her native Philadelphia and then launching an amazing career of advocacy herself, in the forms of teaching, writing, and public speaking. Both women were illustrious, and completely deserving of the two Salem parks which now bear their name. But I can’t help thinking about another African-American woman, Clarissa Lawrence, who spent her entire life in Salem, running her own school for girls, founding the country’s first anti-slavery society for African-American women as well as a benevolent society, with only a brief trip to Philadelphia for a national Abolitionist convention in which she gave the riveting “We Meet the Monster Prejudice” speech. Where is Clarissa’s park or statue in Salem? Why is Charlotte, whose family is from Philadelphia, the feature of Destination Salem’s Ancestry Days, which seeks to serve as “a gathering point for descendants of Salem’s families as well as a research opportunity for people who want to learn more about their family history”? Her family history is not here! (well actually, none of Salem’s history is here). I suspect the answer to these questions is in good part based on the fact that we have no picture of Clarissa Lawrence, so it’s almost as if she didn’t exist.

Clarissa (2)

Clarissa 2

Ancestry-DaysCharlotte Forten between the two Salem Nathaniels, Hawthorne and Bowditch on the Ancestry Days poster. This sounds like a great genealogy event, but none of Charlotte’s family records are held by the participating institutions: why not feature Sarah Parker Remond, whose are? We even have several photographs of Sarah!


A County in Crisis, 1692

The twitter tagline for Hub History’s podcast on the Boston witch trials in the mid-seventeenth century was a bit on the edge for me: The Salem Witch Trials? So mainstream. Boston was hanging women for imaginary crimes BEFORE it was cool. Yet I think I will forgive them (not that they need my forgiveness, as they offer up wonderful and popular podcasts on Boston history prolifically) because this expanded geographical perspective is something that the interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials needs, always. When I came to Salem with my newly-minted Ph.D. in early modern European history, I was astounded that so few people knew that thousands of people had been tried and executed for witchcraft in that era: now that awareness seems much improved as far as I can tell, but because Salem’s history is so commodified, the Salem story still seems to dominate even though the town was very much in the center of a county-wide storm in 1692. Academic historians have told the larger story for years—from Richard Godbeer’s Devil’s Dominion to Marybeth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare to my colleague Tad Baker’s Storm of Witchcraft—but I am wondering if the regional approach has any bearing on how the tale is told in Salem today. I’ll look—and listen—around, and try to find out.

Essex County Witch VictimsThe names of just one day’s (September 22) victims of the Salem Witch Trials reveal some extent of the regional impact, but the University of Virginia’s site has a dynamic regional map here.

When I saw the preview for one of those cheesy cable paranormal shows on “haunted” Salem that appear with increasing frequency, especially at this time of year, advertising an ” immersive, multi-platform event [which] will investigate ghostly activity at three historic locations tied to the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century: the Ipswich Gaol, the Proctor House and Rockafellas” [restaurant in Salem, the site of the first meeting house where interrogations occurred], I was impressed with the regional scope for about a second, until I realized that the show’s producers seemed not to know or care that neither the “haunted” Ipswich Jail or the Proctor House in Peabody were built until well after the trials, and that the building identified as the “old Ipswich Gaol” was not in fact the Old Ipswich Gaol. In this article, Ipswich Town Historian Gordon Harris expressed proper disgust at the “hype and fabrication” of it all, especially given the fact that Ipswich had a real role to play in the Salem Witch Trials, “a mass systematic state-sponsored killing of innocent people [which] should not be used for mindless entertainment.” I did not hear or read a similar expression of condemnation in Salem, but then again I did not read anything at all about this show in Salem, which is great. Perhaps the producers can blame their ignorance on one of the “local historians” they featured, who appears to be a professional actor.

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Well, enough of this: there are far better choices out there, this very month, for those that are interested in truly historical and regional perspectives on the Salem Witch Trials. Just this week, Curator Kelly Daniel of the Peabody Historical Society & Museum will be speaking about a local family that emerged from the Trials unscathed despite that fact that they were very much in the midst of it all: “We Do Testefy : The Felton Family & Salem Witch Trials,” Smith Barn @Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 9 at 1:00 pm. And in the following week, another promising presentation, at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers: “Skeletons in the Closet: The Memorialization of George Jacobs Sr. and Rebecca Nurse after the 1692 Witch Trials” by Dan Gagnon. For a more creative (and clearly labeled as such!) yet equally regional perspective on the trials, this play about Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, whose resignation from the specially-commissioned Court of Oyer and Terminer has made him a perennial (and rare) judicial hero of the Trials, looks interesting: Saltonstall’s Trial, with multiple performances at Beverly’s Larcom Theater from October 17-27. I have always wondered why Saltonstall has not been featured more prominently in creative depictions of the Trials: in The Crucible, for example, Samuel Sewall seems to stand in for him in the play and the Reverend Hale in the film. He deserves a starring role, and he will have it in Beverly.

Saltonstall better

Nathaniel Saltonstall 4 Perley History

Saltonstall CrestI can’t find a single contemporary (or later) image of Saltonstall–only mistaken images of his grandfather and son, but Sidney Perley included his autograph in his History of Salem (1924); Saltonstall family crest, Cowan’s Auctions.

Last year when this play debuted in Haverhill, the local paper wrote a feature with the title “Stay away from the freak show in Salem and head to the witch trials in Haverhill”: this year’s Beverly production seems more focused on presenting a substantive combination of drama with post-production “conversations” with people who do not have to act as if they have expertise, including Tad Baker, Danvers archivist Richard Trask, author Marilynne Roach, the new Head Librarian of PEM’s Phillips Library, Dan Lipcan, and Curator of the Wenham Museum Jane Bowers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the view from Wenham before!


The Forest through the Trees

COURT HOUSES: constant scenes of dramatic Salem history, from the seventeenth century until today. At present, we have one court house being demolished, one recently refurbished in spectacular fashion, and two long sitting vacant, waiting for their redevelopment into something deemed acceptable by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). One of these warehoused courthouses, an amazing Romanesque structure which was built in several phases over the later nineteenth century, has by all accounts an equally amazing interior library with a huge walk-in fireplace: for some reason I have never been able to make it inside but everyone I know who has raves about it. The other looks like a very pure Greek Revival structure, but again, by all accounts, it has been gutted inside. Because the interior of the Romanesque former Superior Court is so beautiful, several of the proposals for its redevelopment want to preserve areas for public space, which is of course great. And while their ideas for public access have merit conceptually, I am begging the SRA to just say no. While “The Museum of Justice of New England” and “a regional children’s museum that is themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem” (I’m quoting a September 4 article in the Salem News by Dustin Luca) sound like nice ideas with place-based rationales, the last thing Salem needs is another niche “museum”; what Salem needs, of course, is a Salem Museum, and this scenario offers up likely the last opportunity to make that happen.

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

Every professional historian, whether working in academic fields or more public positions, along with every well-traveled visitor whom I have squired around Salem, always asks the same question: where is the History Museum? They all notice the commercialism, and the lack of context, and the two are related. We cannot see the forest through the trees. If you have a Salem Witch “Museum” (insert quotes around all the following “museums” please–the first four exist and its only a matter of time before the last surface), and a Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, and a Salem Witch “History” Museum, and a Salem Witch Board Museum, and a Salem Witch Ball Museum, and a Salem Witch Broom Museum, and a Salem Witch Hat Museum, and a Salem Witch Cat Museum, and a Salem Witch Spoon Museum, and a Salem Witch Pin Museum, and a Salem Witch Cauldron Museum, and a Salem Witch Wart Museum, and a Salem Witch Herb Museum, and a Salem Witch Wand Museum then you’re not going to understand anything about the cumulative origins, role and impact of the Salem Witch Trials in context. Likewise, if you go to the Pirate Museum, the Halloween Museum, and the “Lost Museum”, you’re not going to understand anything about Salem’s vast and complex history at all. There are only bits and pieces out there, trees, with Salem’s two professional museums, the House and the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, attempting to show Salem’s many visitors some semblance of a forest.

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Court House Costello BPLBits and Pieces of seldom-seen Salem history: Salem printer Ezekiel Russell’s July 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Holyoke family coat-of-arms by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Salem tax collector Joseph Hiller, Nathaniel Bowditch’s presidential badge from the East India Marine Society, c. 1820, the “Gerrymander” in the Salem Gazette, Salem’s bicentennial banner, Nathan Read’s steam engine, and letters from Salem and Alexander Graham Bell; a photograph of Jessie Costello leaving the Superior Court in Salem after having been found innocent of poisoning her firefighter husband in an absolutely sensational trial in 1933, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The few images above represent the tip of an iceberg: I could post thousands of pictures of Salem images, stories, “facts”, and events—in fact, I have: that’s my blog! In each post I try to provide context but there is no context for the whole Salem story, and so everything is lost, except for a few well-worn tales about the Salem Witch Trials, and (thanks to Salem Maritime and the Gables) some of the key aspects of its dynamic maritime trade and the work and life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All those Salem soldiers, in so many wars, forgotten, along with so many Salem artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and just everyday people, leading their ordinary and extraordinary lives. Could we learn more about legal history and the Parker Brothers? Yes, absolutely, but not in isolation, but rather as part of a larger Salem story. Examples abound, from towns and cities which also draw significant numbers of tourists but seem much more intent on presenting their comprehensive history in an accessible and professional manner. Of course, a comprehensive Salem Museum in this space would have to be a collaborative effort, and it would have an impact on other institutions in the city. All of the court house redevelopment proposals stress the “point of entry” feature of their site, located just across from the train station: the new Salem Museum could also serve as an orientation center, freeing up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site to do their own programming and exhibits at the current Visitors Center on Essex Street.  The new Peabody Essex Museum may be planning historic exhibits in the former Phillips Library buildings, or it may not, but its present and future mission certainly does not include providing the comprehensive and chronological introduction to the Salem story that both our residents and our tourists deserve. There are powerful and influential people in our city who could make this happen, and they should.

pixlr-3A few of my favorite local history museums: the Newport Historical Society Museum, the Concord Museum, and the City of Raleigh Museum in North Carolina. Concord is a perfect role model for Salem: it has a historic national park, and several smaller house museums, but grasped the necessity of establishing a central historical museum for the general public in the 1970s.


Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

slavery collage

Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

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hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


The Worst Day/Samuel Wardwell

I always think about the Salem Witch Trials in September, as the cumulative hysteria of 1692 was coming to a close with the execution of the last eight victims on September 22. Every year at this time I ponder a particular aspect of the accusations and trials, or a particular victim. There’s always a certain poignancy about this time of year in Salem for me—and others too I am sure—as the anniversary of the worst day comes just before the City descends full throttle into the celebration of Halloween, drawing on a very tenuous connection between the persecution of people who were not witches, and a modern holiday symbolized by stereotypical figures who are. So this is a nice week of reflection before the deluge. This month, and this week, I’ve been thinking about the sole male victim of September 22: Samuel Wardwell of Andover, who also happened to be the sole accused person to be executed after recanting an earlier confession. Wardwell had confessed, in detail, to entering into a covenant with the Devil almost as soon as he was accused: he implicated others as well and was in turn accused by his own wife and child. He was not a pristine character, but rather a real person: who made mistakes, and enemies. At the eleventh hour, and right up to the moment of his death, he recanted, and according to the famous narration of Robert Calef, Wardwell was still proclaiming his innocence on the gallows on this very day in 1692, when a puff of tobacco smoke from the executioner’s pipe “coming in his face, interrupted his discourse: those accusers said that the devil did hinder him with smoke”.

Wardwell Memorial

The devil did hinder him with smoke. Wardwell does sound like a bit of a rascal; I wonder if he had come to the conclusion that his confession would not save him because of his reputation in general, and his fortune-telling in particular. And so he recanted bravely, only to have his big moment marred by the Devil’s smoke! A tragedy in numerous ways. Wardwell seems like a regular seventeenth-century Englishman to me, rather than an abstract Colonial Puritan: across the Atlantic people were buying books of fortune-telling tricks, and demonic interventions were the stuff of ballads, rather than trials. The Devil was a capricious bogeyman in Old England in 1692, but in New England he was very, very real.

Wardwell and the Devil

Wardwell the Fortune Teller

Devil Men in the Moon Cruikshank

Devil Man and the Moon, CruikshankStrange News from Westmoreland, 1662-1668; A Merry Conceited Fortune-Teller, 1662. Over a century later, George Cruikshank’s satirical illustrations for The Man in the Moon (1820) seem to mock contemporary descriptions of the executions on September 22.


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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My Salem Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum has made an additional concession in the mitigation dialogue following their admission to the relocation of Salem’s historical archives to a “Collection Center” in Rowley: a presentation/exhibition on the “Salem (Historical?) Experience” to be permanently installed in Plummer Hall. This could be good news—-like everything else the devil will be in the details—but it in no way compensates for the removal of historical materials left in good faith to the care of the PEM’s predecessors by scores of Salem families. Still, Salem has always needed a proper Salem Museum, with texts, objects, and interpretations of key events and themes in its history presented in an installation that is both contextual and chronological. This could be an opportunity to have some semblance of that, as the PEM has wonderful curators and resources, but the institutional reluctance to actually showcase authentic Salem items—combined with the word “experience”—leaves me a bit worried that all we’re going to get is some sort of virtual presentation. Nevertheless I was inspired to put together my own Salem Museum, and here are its key components.

Salem Worlds: I would prefer a thematic presentation to a chronological one, but after teaching history for 20+ years I know that chronology is important—-people want to get the facts straight and in order. So I think I would use a “worlds” approach in which Salem expands from a tiny little settlement into one which is an important part of the entire world, and then create various other worlds which represent different aspects of Salem’s history. Worlds are a way to combine themes and chronology: we need to know about Salem’s experience as a colonial outpost of the expanding British Empire, its role in a world of Revolution, and its preeminence in a world of global exchange, but also about the worlds of ideas, work, and association which flourished within its borders. I’d like to flesh out the isolated world of seventeenth-century Salem and its environs that served as the setting for the witchcraft accusations of 1692 as much as possible, but also trace the legacy of the Trials through the evolution of the “world(s) of Witch City” from its first expressions until today. We need to peer into the worlds of Salem’s many activists—whether they were working for abolition, temperance, social reforms, or suffrage in the nineteenth century, or striking for more job security at Pequot Mills in 1933. I’d like to recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem world with texts and images, and also that of one (or more) of the lesser-known diarists whose memorials are locked in the Phillips Library. Different worlds could be explored in keeping with the PEM’s programming (I guess I have to make that concession).

Virtual is fine, but we need objects and texts too: I’ve been to quite a few city history museums (but unfortunately none on this list) and it seems to me that the mix is best. There’s always some sort of “orienting” video, so that might be the best way to deal with the chronology: I love the Museum of the City of New York’s Timescapes in particular. The only way we can create some semblance of seventeenth-century Salem is through cgi, and I cannot watch Pudding lane Productions’ deep dive into seventeenth-century London enough (and my students love it).

My Museum Timescapes

In this era of immersive make-believe, people crave authenticity, so we need to see real stuff too: personally, I’d love to see the 1623 Sheffield Patent, which granted rights to Cape Ann to several members of the Plymouth Colony and was contested by a representative of the Dorchester Company. This is a connecting link between Plymouth and the North Shore, and between Plymouth and Salem: as Cape Ann didn’t quite work out at that time the old planters migrated down the shore. Later in the seventeenth century, let’s widen the circle of persecution a bit by showing items that illustrate the struggles of Thomas Maule and Philip English—what an Atlantic world the latter represents! The widening world of eighteenth-century Salem could be explored through periodicals, ephemera, and any and all expressions of “trade port culture”, which the PEM loves (as long as the port in question is not Salem). Craftsmanship (or simply work), consumption, and activism are themes and worlds that can take us (or Salem) from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and all the way up to today.

SHeffield Patent

My Museum Maule

My Museum Handkerchief PEMThe Sheffield Patent, 1623, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum; Title page of Thomas Maule’s New England Pesecutors Mauld, 1697; The Poor Slave (Dedicated to the Friends of Humanity), ca. 1834, copperplate-printed cotton, Boston Chemical Printing Company, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum (Also in the Phillips Library). 

Art+History=Culture+Connections: The past five months—this entire semester!—has been like a Museum Studies course for me as I have been reading and exploring museums and historical societies around the world to see if I could come up with some compensation for the cultural deficit we have here in Salem, where the institution with most of the historical collections has withdrawn, leaving behind an infrastructure of largely commodified historical interpretation. There are many historical museums doing amazing things, but I’ve been particularly impressed by what I’ve seen (only online) at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. I spent a summer in Santa Cruz years ago on an NEH grant, so I have a fondness for that place anyway, but I love how this particular museum merges art, history, and community engagement into a mission that stresses relevance and region. It is an institution that is governed by the same “connections” mission that PEM references all the time, but their much stronger emphasis on place (in part through history) must make the pursuit of those connections more attainable and meaningful. As I haven’t been there, I’m not sure exactly how SCMAH presents the past, but my Salem History Museum would not recognize divisions between art and history, or material and textual culture. I’d have both, together, and a very particular emphasis on architecture. Lots of McIntire drawings, a whole gallery wall of Frank Cousins photographs, and some modern representations of Salem buildings to illustrate their (ever-) lasting impact. I would certainly have some of John Willand’s houses on a wall of my museum as I already have one on a wall of my house: each one is amazing, and I know he prefers a collective display. I would also feature some of the wonderful photographs of Salem captured by Salem instagrammers: more posts than #pem, just count the hashtags.

My Museum Little collage

My Museum collage

My Museum 30 Chestnut

Willand Gallery

Two sides of Salem artist Philip Little (1857-1942) from the PEM’s own collection: “Submarine Baseball” and A Relic of History, Old Derby Wharf, Salem, c. 1915; A Frank Cousins (18501927) portfolio; John Willand’s 30 Chestnut Street and Chestnut Street “Gallery”.


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