Tag Archives: Witch City

Forward and Back, Present and Past

It was an interesting weekend in Salem, full of events, exuberance and achievements, as well as a bit of contradiction, from my perspective. Salem’s Trials, the symposium that my department organized in collaboration with the Essex National Heritage Area and Salem Award Foundation for the 325th anniversary of the Trials, was on Saturday and then the Foundation’s 25th Anniversary was on Sunday: I came away happy and optimistic from the first event, convinced we had remembered and honored the victims of 1692 in the best possible way, and a bit confused by the second. It was certainly festive and forward-looking, focused on an array of six-word memoirs on the theme of inclusion as well as the recognition of two (extraordinary!) “rising leaders” newly-graduated from Salem High School and Salem Academy, but also on the contributions of the owner of the Salem Witch Museum–who happens to be a major beneficiary of the cumulative tragedy that is the Salem Witch Trials. One day I was sitting on a panel titled “The Making of Witch City” (filmed by C-Span) in which we discussed the unfortunate exploitation of the “witches” of Salem, the next I was observing a very public expression of gratitude offered up to the driver of Haunted Happenings! It was a bit surreal for me but I think I was the only one: one savvy Salem insider observed that he pays for shit in response to my bewilderment. Ah well, the memoirs did look lovely, shimmering in the sun on a beautiful, breezy day.

Salem's Trials SAF

Salem's Trials Memoirs

Salem's Trials Memoirs 2

Like everything, it’s about perspective: ultimately the Salem Award Foundation, whose full name is the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice, is more focused on the present than the past and needs the resources, network, and flexibility to achieve its goals and mission: I have the luxury of being able to remain laser-focused on the past and the victims. That’s just what we did on Saturday morning, but in the afternoon we shifted to a more layered discussion of how these victims have been remembered, driven as much by the symposium attendees (including several descendants of victims of 1682 who recorded their “testimonies”) as presenters. The keynote address by geographer Ken Foote, “Salem Witchcraft in Landscape and Memory”, was particularly resonant for me. Dr. Foote laid out the full spectrum of “marking” sites of tragedy, from sanctification to obliteration, and viewed Salem in this context. He noted that when he first came to Salem in 1984, no one could really tell him where the victims of 1692 were executed, and now there is not only the 1992 tricentennial Witch Trials Memorial but a new memorial on the site of the recently-confirmed execution site at Proctor’s Ledge (now scheduled to be dedicated on July 19). As I was listening to him, the question that kept running through my mind was: what if the sacredness of a site is challenged–or not even recognized? as that seems to be what happens to the downtown Witch Trials Memorial every October when Haunted Happenings is in full swing and it is transformed into a convenient place to eat fried dough. It seems like contradictory commemoration will remain in force in Salem until the sanctification of that site can be realized, and I don’t know if that will (can) ever happen.

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Salem's Trials Tad

Salem's Trials Foote Just one weekend in Salem: The Salem Award Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Celebration and Salem’s Trials Symposium. Below, the Witch Trials Memorial off Charter Street, yesterday: for much less contemplative times, click here.

Salem's Trials Memorial


Salem’s Trials

The registration for the one-day symposium organized in recognition of the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials is now open: Salem’s Trials: Lessons and Legacy of 1692 is co-sponsored by the SSU History Department, the Essex National Heritage Area, and the Salem Award Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice , and will be held on June 10 (the execution date of the Trials’ first victim, Bridget Bishop) at Marsh Hall on the campus of Salem State University. All are welcome: we are hoping that the symposium will be both academic and accessible, introductory and interactive.

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We’ve been fine-tuning the program for quite a while, and I think it now has the perfect balance of perspective, time, and place. I don’t want to speak for all of my committee members, but to me the title of the symposium, Salem’s Trials, refers not only to the Trials of 1692 but also to their continuing legacy: Salem seems to want to replay this event over and over and over again, for redemption and for profit. We will have a trio of Salem experts on hand, including my colleague Tad Baker, Margo Burns, and Marilynne K. Roach, as well as people with expertise in other areas and  disciplines to broaden the cultural context of 1692. There will be a panel on teaching the trials led by my colleague Brad Austin featuring area educators, and another colleague, Andrew Darien, will be enabling descendants to record their oral testimonies (I think descendants of “perpetrators” too, although we should use another word—accusers is better). Because the symposium is happening close to the dedication of the Proctor’s Ledge memorial, the recently-verified site of the executions, we really wanted to focus on space almost as much as time, and consequently we chose a geographer to give our keynote: Kenneth Foote, the author of Shadowed Ground. America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. 

Shadowed Ground

There will also be a plenary panel on “The Making of Witch City” which we envisioned as historical but will likely veer into the present with audience participation. It seems like the present always bears on the past in any consideration of the Salem Witch Trials, a tendency that was definitely cemented by the observances of its last big anniversary, the Tercentenary of 1992. That year, Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel were present at the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, and the very first Salem Award was given to actor Gregory Allan Williams, who rescued a victim of mob violence in the midst of the “Rodney King” race riots in Los Angeles. All week long, I’ve been hearing anniversary reflections on these riots on the radio, and just last night the Salem Award Foundation awarded a new commendation, the Salem Advocate for Social Justice Award, to musician-activist John Legend at a packed event at Salem State University. Everything comes around again.

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

The 1992 Memorial off Charter Street by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler, courtesy Cutler Anderson Architects.


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

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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

Dulcibel collage

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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ephemera-14-1870s

ephemera-9-1889

ephemera-10-1897

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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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spiderweb-wallpaper-collage

spider-textile-meiji-mfa

spiderweb-textile-mfa-2004

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spiderweb-medieval-bl-illuminated-ms

spider-in-salem

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.


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