Tag Archives: Salem witch trials

The Spring of Presentism and the Salem Witch Trials

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

Salem's Trials Card Cover Mockup Framed

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

Starkey 5

Starkey Gallows Hill

Starkey collage

Starkey 3

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

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


The Surgeon who communed with Spirits

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

beaumont-cover

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

beaumont-collage

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

beaumont-genii

Frontispiece by Michael Van Der Gucht.


Preparing to Paint

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

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

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

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

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

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


A Witch Cake for Early April

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

Witch cakes in April Card

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

Charm Collage Lovett

Lovett Acorn Charm

Lovett Wishbone

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

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

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


Salem Lots

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

Selling Salem 1693

Selling Salem Putnam 1795

Salem Gazette 1783 Preliminaries of Peace

Salem Gazette 1834

Selling Salem 1840

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

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


Off to London, Leaving Links to Salem Ladies

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

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

Botticelli London Vand A

Pepysp

Sutton House Hackney

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anglo-Americana at Auction

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

Anglo Americanap

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

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

Anglo American Hakluytp

Anglo Americana Wonderp

Andre on the Hudson

Diary Dressesp

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


Proctor’s Ledge and Pendle

If you’re even somewhat familiar with my blog you can probably tell that the Salem Witch Trials, both past and present, is a continuous preoccupation/irritant for me. This is as much due to my residence as my paradoxical perspective: as a historian trained in early modern European history (when as many as 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft and roughly half that number put on trial), I just can’t understand why this very late and relatively small trial has been blown up into this epic and enduring event, by both academic historians and witchcraft entrepreneurs alike (well maybe I can understand the latter’s motivations). Yet there is such still such profound ignorance and misunderstanding about this event, which I think fuels its constant exploitation. This past week was a big week in Salem Witch Trial history, with the verification of Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site for the victims of 1692 by a team of dedicated scholars, authors and advocates: a disclosure that went viral pretty quickly. I tried to follow the coverage, from the very good Salem News and Boston Globe stories to the pieces in national and digital venues like USA Today and the Huffington Postbut because the latter were clearly based on the former (and the very substantive press release put out the Gallows Hill Project) I pretty quickly turned my attention to reactions (comments) in general and local reactions in particular. It appears that it is just about impossible for most people to view history without a 21st-century lens, so most of the comments were predictable: the “witches” executed on that site were the victims of today’s “Puritans”(evangelical Christians, Republicans, leftist Liberals, Hillary Clinton supporters, ISIS/ISIL–depending on your perspective). As you can imagine, this got old pretty quickly so I turned to local reactions, expecting more specificity and engagement. I got that, along with the sense of “is this news?”, which I see as a real tribute to meticulous work of Sidney Perley, who identified Proctor’s Ledge as the execution site nearly a century ago. Perley’s contributions were emphasized in the Gallow Hill Project press release as well, and since he is sharing the spotlight, I thought we should see him:  pictured on Proctor’s Ledge in 1921 (from an article in The Collections of the Danvers Historical Society, Volume 9, 1921, edited by Harriet Silvester Tapley).

Perley Crevice

Beyond the we knew that sentiment, what else did I glean from local reactions to this news? Here follows a very random and impressionistic sampling of the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good:  lots of descendants clearly wanted to weigh in with their ancestor’s story. This discovery/confirmation was clearly very relevant to them. I was also happy to see a real debate emerge about memorialization and what should be done with the site–more on that below.

The Bad:  there’s still a lot of confusion out there, despite the prolific scholarship. People still refer to witch-burnings, ergotism will never die, and the Salem Village (present-day Danvers) origins of the accusations do not seem to be fully grasped, still.

The Ugly (or just silly): as Proctor’s Ledge is located right behind a Walgreens’ parking lot, there are lots of Walgreens jokes out there–you know, “the corner of happy and heresy”, etc.

Commemoration is tricky: the overwhelming local concern is just how Proctor’s Ledge will be marked–and what access will be granted. This concern is coming from various perspectives, principally that of the abutting neighbors, of course, and that of people who are opposed to the intensifying witchcraft “schlockiness” of Salem. This comment on the Globe article seems to unite these two perspectives: As a resident of the city who lives a stone’s throw from the site, I beg that this hallowed ground not be added to the array of grotesques that “commemorate” this act of insanity. Let the site be. It deserves to not be forgotten, but more so deserves not to be a stop on some disrespectful trolley tour of gawkers and Goths. Sadly (to me, at least) there were also comments that expressed resignation that Salem was always (or at least from 1692) going to be Witch City:  again, from the Globe: Plymouth has its Rock and Salem has its witches and warlocks. One of our leading Witch City purveyors (who happens to live in New Orleans), expressed a similar sentiment in the Salem News: Witches are to Salem what music is here in New Orleans. 

blanding011216witches3met

Salem Tour Guide Kenneth Glover at Proctor’s Ledge/ John Blanding, Globe Staff: “When people come [to Salem] . . . they all want to know where it happened.”

So I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think debate–if it is substantive and respectful–is always healthy for a community. Given that witch trials were so intense in certain areas of Europe in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries I’m always looking to these sites for examples of comparative commemoration–and none of them have turned themselves into a Witch City!  I’ve always thought there were some important parallels between Salem 1692 and one of the more notorious English trials, the “Pendle” trials in Lancashire (1612), a comparison I made in a post from a few years ago. Salem was a larger and more isolated episode in terms of geography and time (185 accusations, 59 trials, 31 convictions, 19 executions, one death by torture/interrogation versus 16 trials, 10 executions and one death in prison in Pendle), but both were viewed as conspicuously collective and conspiratorial and well-publicized. There is some witchcraft tourism in Pendle, but as this community faced the 400th anniversary of the Trials in 2012, there was debate about how to acknowledge the dark event. And just at this time, engineers conducting reservoir repairs unearthed a seventeenth-century stone cottage with the remains of a mummified cat within its walls that was almost immediately heralded as a “witches’ cottage” and the site of a famous coven testified to by the Trial’s nine-year-old star “witness”, Jennett Device. After about a year of archaeological study (and vandalism) the site was revealed to be a weaver’s cottage and reburied “in order to preserve it”.

Pendle Guide Simon Entwistle

Simon Entwistle of Top Hat Tours on the site of the unearthed (and later reburied) 17th-century cottage in Lancashire.

There is definitely some schlock in Pendle, but their Witches Walk is a public initiative rather than a private “attraction”, profiting no one and serving as the main legacy of the 400th anniversary commemoration. This 51-mile route (indicating just how regional the Lancashire Trials were, just like Salem, and broken up into seven separate walks), connecting all the sites referenced in the Trial testimonies and culminating at Lancaster Castle, where the ten victims were condemned to die, is marked by 10 waymarkers, each inscribed with a tercet or verse of a poem by British Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy. It is inspirational.

Tercet Waymaker“Tercet” waymaker # 9 on the Lancashire Witch Walk, dedicated to the memory of Anne Whittle.


This Time with Dignity

Exciting history news today, and no, history news is not a contradiction in terms. A century-old theory about the execution site of the victims of the 1692 Witch Trials has been verified through a combination of historical, archaeological, and geological analysis by my Salem State colleague Emerson Baker and his fellow members of  The Gallows Hill Project, which includes SSU Geology Professor Emeritus Peter Sablock and Dr. Benjamin Ray, a Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, as well as local museum professionals, scholars, and writers. Following the assertions of local historian Sidney Perley over a century ago, the team supplemented eyewitness testimonies and material evidence with “ground-penetrating radar and high-tech photography” to verify that the actual Gallows (a sturdy tree or trees) was not located at the apex of the rocky hill in the northwestern corner of Salem known as Gallows or Witch Hill from time immemorial, but considerably below and closer to the main route out-of-town (Boston Street) in a rocky copse of trees called Proctor’s Ledge. It has also been confirmed that there are no human remains on the site, verifying various tales of the recovery of the victims’ bodies by family members under cover of darkness. You can read more about the participants and the process here and here.

Salem Atlas 1897 State Library of MA

Salem Witches PC SSU

The long-assumed execution site, “Witch Square” on the top of Gallows Hill, and the newly-verified site, on Solomon Stevens’ property below, on the 1897 Salem Atlas, State Library of Massachusetts; a “Ye Salem Witches on Gallows Hill” postcard from the 1910s, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Proctor’s Ledge is a terrible place, appearing cursed by its tragic history, both in the seventeenth century and the twentieth, when it was the wellspring of the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914. Currently it is a wooded and trashed wasteland behind a Walgreen’s parking lot on busy Boston Street, fortunately purchased and preserved by the City of Salem in the 1930s as “Witch Memorial Land” but essentially left untouched while commercial and residential developments grew up around it.

Proctor's Ledge 002

Proctor's Ledge 004

Proctor's Ledge 006

The verification of the execution site is exciting to me, both professionally and personally. I’ve done a lot of work on the late medieval era and the Black Death, and this is a field in which collaborations between history and science have been profoundly revealing–and interesting. I’m not such an innocent that I believe that history is always about the pursuit of the truth, but if and when it is, science can help us open the “black box”. Personally, this announcement has also renewed my hope that we–the City of Salem–can acknowledge the tragedy of the Trials in a dignified and historical way: not as a lesson about tolerance today but simply and respectfully as a tragedy for the individuals who lost their lives in the past, and not as an event to exploit, but rather as an episode to solemnize. I’ve been rather depressed since Halloween: the images of people trashing the downtown Salem Witch Trials Memorial and adjacent Old Burying Point, combined with the lack of any meaningful response by city officials to whom I appealed to make it stop, have left me soul-searching about why I would want to live in a place that has such little respect for the dead. Frankly, I still don’t have much confidence in the City Council, but Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s pledge that “Now that the location of this historic injustice has been clearly proven, the city will work to respectfully and tastefully memorialize the site in a manner that is sensitive to its location today in a largely residential neighborhood” is hopeful. At the very least, the neighbors and relatively distant location from downtown– combined with the site’s rather chilly atmosphere–should deter the transformation of Proctor’s Ledge into another Witch City prop.

Calm Descends 367

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, October 2015.


Greetings from Witch City

I really tried to give Salem Halloween a chance this year. I kept telling myself to forget that this celebration is based completely on the tragic death of innocent people over 300 years ago and that there is no connection between Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials other than a manufactured one that has to be based on the completely unfounded assumption that these people WERE witches. People just don’t want to hear that, and my persistent haranguing has made me into a bit of a pest to my family and friends. A lighthearted attitude towards the month-long Haunted Happenings “celebration” is completely impossible for me to adopt, so instead I went for detached, either in time or of place: concentrate on the past (this always works for me) and avoid downtown at all costs. But yesterday I just put myself right into the fray, for you, dear readers, who have also been exposed to my Halloween snarkiness for years. I tried to adopt an objective attitude as I mingled among the huge crowds, but I couldn’t really maintain it and then I lost it altogether! So here are my observations, both in words and pictures–that latter a bit more objective than the former–I actually think they are a fair representation of what Salem looks like on Halloween. From my street-level perspective, however, I couldn’t quite capture the immensity of the crowd: estimated at 100,000 people, more or less.

What I observed (words):

  1. Huge crowds, very international in nature: I heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and (I think) Polish.
  2. Mostly they just mill about, taking pictures of themselves and others.
  3. There were some great costumes, but also a sea of generic witches and zombies. Lots of ghoulish brides, for some reason. My favorites were a pair of tarot cards, which I didn’t quite catch (see below). People really seemed to enjoy dressing up (humiliating) their dogs–this is just one reason I am a cat person.
  4. Long lines at all the schlocky businesses (the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, all the witch and “horror” shops). The Peabody Essex Museum was completely empty, but I was glad to see the House of the Seven Gables doing a brisk business. Kudos to the PEM and the National Park Service for keeping the Ropes Mansion and the Customs House open and free. These were the only real historical sites available to people, apart from the Witch House and the Gables.
  5. Good for business? This is the major reason people think Haunted Happenings is good for Salem. I suppose it is, but I’m really not sure. It seemed to me that the seasonal businesses were bustling while many of the more permanent ones were relatively empty, or even closed altogether. All the restaurants were packed, with long lines, but don’t all those sausage and fried dough stands eat into their business?
  6. Tours: one business that is obviously profiting big time from Haunted Happenings is that of walking tours, which seem to have multiplied exponentially from previous years. Both former and current students of mine were giving tours while I walked about, and I tried not to get too close so that I might hear what they were saying……
  7. Comments overheard during the crush. There are so many people packed together, that you can’t help but hear what they are saying (unfortunately). Most common comments/questions: where were the witches burned? what does that [building] have to do with the witches? Look at that dog!
  8. Crowd control: there is a huge police presence downtown, which is very necessary but must also be very costly.
  9. Trash: everywhere. Salem gets trashed during Haunted Happenings. The city was definitely on top of the trash situation, but again, at what cost?
  10. Desecration: the two most sacred sites downtown, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street and the adjacent Witch Trials Memorial were completely desecrated yesterday. There is no word more appropriate: desecration. The cemetery is simply fodder for tour groups and photo shoots, and the Memorial was reduced to a place where people could sit down and eat their fried dough or text. Drunken clowns (literally) sat on the stones representing the victims of 1692 while smiling tourists took their pictures. I ran home and poured myself a stiff drink.

What I observed (pictures):

Crowds converge around the Witch House and towards downtown; the requisite “sea of heads” shot, on Washington Street.

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The center of the storm, Lappin Park, at Washington and Essex Streets. Here Samantha, evangelical preachers, tourists, and fried dough converge. It’s really hard to convey how odd this juxtaposition of elements is.

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Some of the more creative costumes I spotted…..and uncreative: the last ladies were all sporting the super tacky “Salem Witch” costume I featured in a post a month ago.

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The Business of Witch City.

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Witch City Businesses

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A few random shots. Overheard in front of both the Derby House and the Ropes Mansion: did a witch live here?

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The Burying Point on Charter Street and Witch Trials Memorial. No comment.

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End note: Things did pick up after I went home and had a drink and received my trick-or-treaters, who were cute and gracious. There were the usual pirates and princesses, but one costume, worn by a boy about 10 years old, I found quite perplexing: a black, inflated, puffer suit of sorts, rendering him quite round. No mask, no graphics. I asked him what he was supposed to be, and he shrugged while his sister answered for him: America. Morbid Obesity.


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