Tag Archives: Witch City

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.

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Starkey Gallows Hill

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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.


Howard Pyle and Salem

Spring break week and I’m going nowhere, unfortunately. Yet I am actually content to have the extra time to catch up on a backlog of administrative and academic work, with the freedom to follow a few wandering trails as they come my way. Last night I was working out some of the details of the forthcoming symposium on the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials that my department is co-sponsoring (Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692–June 10, said details to follow) when I came across one of my favorite illustrations by the golden-age illustrator Howard Pyle: A Wolf had not been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years.  The “making of Witch City” is one of the topics that we will be examining at the symposium, so I wondered what role Pyle might have played in this evolution. And so symposium planning went by the wayside as I pulled up as many of his illustrators as possible: wolfs and witches, along with Puritans and Pirates, were some of Pyle’s favorite subjects. This was a pleasant diversion as I’ve always enjoyed Pyle’s work, and not altogether indulgent: he was of an era (coinciding with the decades on either side of the 2ooth anniversary of the Witch Trials) when the image of the Salem witch was imprinted in the public mind in both pictures and words, and that’s why many of the images below look so very familiar.

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Pyle Flock of Yellow Birds

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Pyle Broomstick Train

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Salem images by Howard Pyle: title page of “The Salem Wolf”, Harpers Monthly Magazine, December 1909; “Arresting a Witch” and “Grany Greene falleth into ill repute”, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, December 1883;  “A Flock of Yellow Birds abover her Head”, from Giles Corey, Yeoman, by Mary E. Wilkins, 1892; two illustrations from Dulcibel: a Tale of Old Salem by Henry Peterson, 1907; illustrations from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Broomstick Train, or the Return of the Witches, 1905 color edition.


The Broomstick Brand Emerges

I was working on two things concurrently yesterday and they merged (sort of): a presentation on emerging civic identity in Renaissance Florence for my grad class and a post on yet-another batch of Salem trade cards from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. A lot of time-traveling, but a common theme of projection. Actually the post was supposed to be about candy; I thought I might be able to parlay one lovely colonial trade card into a whole series of Salem-made confections for Valentine’s Day. But no, not enough chocolate and Salem gibraltars are not particularly romantic. So instead I just looked at the emblems on my run of cards and saw an emerging brand and identity for Salem: from a maritime center in the nineteenth century to Witch City in the twentieth, with a few horses interspersed among the ships and broomsticks. This is much too selective a sample to prove anything, but at the very least it illustrates two hypotheses I have about the development of “Witch City” as Salem’s primary civic identity: it came about because of commercial factors more than cultural (or historical) ones, and it really intensified in the 1890s, coincidentally with the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Witch Trials in 1892. Apart from ascribing any wider meaning to this ephemera, I just love to look at it; there’s something about the inclusion of such artistic images and lettering on such everyday items as trade cards and billheads that impresses me: if only our disposable, digital age was interested in leaving as lasting an impression.

A century and a half of Salem commercial ephemera: from seaport to Witch City.

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Salem trade cards and billheads via American Broadsides and Ephemera and Salem State Archives and Special Collections.


Liberation Day

November 1 is Liberation Day in Salem: the long Halloween is over, quite suddenly it always seems, and the city is returned to its residents. I’m in much better spirits than last year because of my boyc0tt of downtown Salem: the image of the Witch Trials Memorial turned into a food hall is somewhat faded from my mind. It’s comforting to know that in this month, and the months leading up to next September and October, civic resources and energies will be liberated from propping up the seasonal Halloween industry and thus enabled to focus on promoting Salem’s less-ephemeral attributes. As usual trick-or-treating generally mollifies my feelings about Halloween as the kids are so cute, but still, I’m glad it’s over (again).

My favorite trick-or-treaters (or costumed people who walked past my door–sorry, the pictures of an entire Game of Thrones crew and the Swiss Family Robinson (I think?) did not come out well).

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My feelings today, illustrated : “Liberty Triumphant” (against oppression) in the Revolutionary war and World War I (Library of Congress) , joyful skipping by Harold Edgerton (© Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), My cat Trinity at peace.

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Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


Salem and “Dark Tourism”

For a while I’ve been wondering where Salem fits into the academic field of “Dark Tourism”, a term coined by Scottish tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and utilized by a succession of authors, operating from a variety of perspectives and within several disciplines, over the past thirty years. There is even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research (at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK), and its director, Philip Stone, has crafted the most succinct definition of a concept-in-progress to date: ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’. While this certainly sounds like October in Salem to me, it could also apply to many heritage tourism sites: Civil War battlefields, World War One cemeteries, concentration camps—much of Dark Tourism literature is concerned with the memorialization of the Holocaust. Certainly one could call a visit to the 9/11 Memorial an expression of Dark Tourism, and maybe even the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit. Dark Tourism is about death and suffering, but it can also be about remembrance and awareness.

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The abandoned town of Prypiat in Ukraine, now a stop on the Chernobyl tour, ©Getty Images; Charter Street Cemetery in Salem.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think the majority of Salem’s witch businesses or tourists are focused on remembering the names and experiences of Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd and  Elizabeth Howe. They seem to be indulging in a sub-category of Dark Tourism called “Fright Tourism” (which itself seems to be a sub-category of Morbid Tourism–and there are many other sub-categories, such as “grief tourism” and “disaster tourism”–as well as a more academic umbrella term, Thanatourism ) identified by Westfield State geographers Robert S. Bristow and Mirela Newman, in which the authors compare two major Halloween destinations: established Salem and Romania, emerging center of Dracula tourism. They conclude that “the fantasy afforded by Salem or the one proposed in Romania is basically harmless to the visitor, yet may degrade the quality of life for the local population”. While I find no argument with that statement, I’m as focused on historical memory as economic infrastructure in Salem (probably more so) so I’m looking for a more comprehensive, cultural analysis. At this point, I’m not sure that the literature of Dark Tourism is going to satisfy me, but two titles just might: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South. Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era and Stone’s and Richard Sharpley’s The Darker Side of Travel: the Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.

The more I delved into this literature, the more I realized that Gettysburg (rather than Romania!) might be the best comparison for Salem so I would love to hear any insights about the tourism scene there, and I also think it may be all about GHOSTS. A post on the Gettysburg Compiler, a great blog written by the students and staff of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, really resonated with me when I read it a while ago. The author, Susan Johnson, writes about her experience at a Civil War conference panel on Dark Tourism. On the panel was a ghost tour leader in Gettysburg, who tacitly implied that the Park Service’s efforts to portray complex historical interpretations to the public were too mentally exhausting for the average tourist, who, instead of wanting to engage with the big questions of Civil War history, would rather have fun learning about the Civil War through the means of a ghost tour. One of the main points the panel argued was that Dark Tourism was the new way of tourism, a “fun” and “spooky” way for tourists to engage with the past. I left the panel disgusted by the macabre fascination with death and the exploitation of the very real suffering of men and women living from 1861-1865 to sell a few tickets and walk around town at night with a goofily-clad individual holding a lantern and telling ghost stories that usually are not true. Bingo, just substitute 1692.

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Looking for some insights into Dark Tourism, “haunted heritage”, and Salem (always Salem!). The travel writer J.W. Ocker lived as one of us last October, so this book should be interesting–it’s just coming out now.


Fashion Shoots in Salem

I would not say that Salem is the most fashionable place I’ve ever been to, but it does have its moments, and one of those moments is happening now. When it comes to clothing, “Salem style” is dominated by perceptions and projections of revamped goth, but this motif has penetrated the highest realms of fashion in recent years. The Fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection of the late great Alexander McQueen was inspired by the experience of his distant ancestor, 1692 victim Elizabeth Howe, and this year has been proclaimed “the season of the witch” by several fashion journalists who noted the dominance of capes, collars, chokers, and “chanelling gowns” in the spring runway shows. According to The Gaurdian‘s Priya Elan, the idea of “caricature” is what the witchy aesthetic is about, distilling femaleness down into opposites. It’s a high-fashion update of goth, with its incorporation of Victorian fashion and the tension between bold, dark colours, delicate fabrication, malevolence and timidity. Standing in opposition to the unfussy silhouettes of athleisure, it retains a certain otherworldly mystique and is all the more interesting for it. 

witchy-wear“Salem-inspired” looks from Alexander McQueen (Fall 2007) and Prada (Fall 2016), Vogue Magazine.

This “witchy aesthetic” is on full display in the September 2016 issue of W Magazine, which features a portfolio of images entitled “Power” by renown fashion photographers Inez van Lamswweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, shot in Salem. To set the scene, the introduction to the fashion story proclaims that “over 300 years have passed since the Salem witch trials, but echoes of the hearings still haunt the Massachusetts town”, apparently making it the perfect setting for moody modern enchantresses. Shot at Pioneer Village and Derby Wharf and a few other locales around town, the photographs are beautiful but the projections pretty standard.

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salem-fashion-6-w W Magazine photographs by Inez and Vinoodh, styled by Edward Enninful.

But there are other aspects of “Salem Style”. The Peabody Essex Museum is the beneficiary of two major collections of contemporary fashion, those of local icon Marilyn Riseman and international icon Iris Apfel. Certainly these pieces (700+900) are more of a reflection of these ladies’ styles rather than that of Salem, but at the very least they will make the city a more fashionable destination! And while it doesn’t have the couturier air of the W Magazine shoot, the Boston Globe also chose Salem for its Fall 2016 fashion feature. Rather than atmospheric fog and weathered buildings, the Globe feature was shot at the recently-refurbished Merchant hotel, with its bright and colorful, even glossy, interiors. Here we have a more enlightened expression of Salem style. 

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salem-fashion Photographs by Sadie Dayton for the Boston Globe/Styling by Janine Maggiore/Ennis, Inc.

Appendix:  Some tourism features on Salem from the past could almost be fashion features—I particularly like this National Geographic photograph from 1945 and Life magazine photo from 1949, which illustrated an article on Marion Starkey’s Devil in Massachusetts. 

Girls pose by a jail that recalls the witch trials of 1692 in Salem

salem-fashion-nina-leen-august-8-1949 B. Anthony Stewart for National Geographic, 1945/ Nina Leen for Life Magazine, 1949.


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