As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.
A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.
I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.
I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.
No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.
So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.
Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.
Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.
Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.
Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances!
Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.
Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.
The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.
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 WitchCity. 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) here. Witch 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 Globepiece on the premiere by Anne Driscoll, a Salem Award winner 20 years later.
You can rent, stream, or download Witch City here.
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 WitchTrials and “SalemStories“. 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.
A 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.
1692 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.
A 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.
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.
Photograph of a Greenwood portrait of Mary Vial Holyoke.
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 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!”
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].
The first Upham work to be reviewed by Harriet, and a sketch of Miss Martineau at work in Fraser’s Magazine, November, 1833.
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?
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!
Real 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.
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.
Charlotte 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!
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.
The 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.
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: “WeDoTestefy: TheFeltonFamily&SalemWitchTrials,” 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: “SkeletonsintheCloset:TheMemorializationofGeorgeJacobsSr. andRebeccaNurseafterthe1692WitchTrials” 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.
I 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!
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.
The 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.
Bits 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.
A 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.
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.
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.
The 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”. Eightpercent.
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.
Circa 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.
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”.
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.
Strange 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.