Tag Archives: Witch City

Witch City: the Film and the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If You Build it, They will Come

Two very different tourist towns during the Pandemic of 2020: at the beginning of the summer, I was up in my hometown of York, Maine, so I wrote about its opening in the midst of Covid with every intention of writing a comparative “bookend” post on Salem. I am only getting to this now, with summer over and Salem’s Halloween season, 2020 version, gearing up. Yes: Halloween has arrived in Salem: apparently nothing can stop it, even a pandemic! The traffic and the crowds have increased noticeably over the last few weeks, and on Saturday I went for a walk to see to see what was up: I turned around after 5 minutes, it was simply too crowded for me to feel safe, after so many months of relative isolation. Then I went back on Sunday, and it was much better: less crowded, masks much in evidence, enough space away from the restaurants. I am wondering if social distancing downtown will be possible on October weekends: shops, restaurants, and attractions have limited capacity under the Covid conditions, so lines will form—and grow longer with each weekend until Halloween I expect.

Sunday 9/27/20: Salem downtown: not too bad! Most people had on masks, as the whole downtown is a mandatory mask zone. Mask ambassadors out and about. Longer lines at restaurants than the museums, with the exception of the Witch “Museum”, of course—which is not really a museum. This year, it finally gets some stiff competition from the Peabody Essex Museum with TWO Salem exhibitions on view: “Salem Stories” and the “Salem Witch Trials, 1692” (with authentic artifacts, expert curatorship and current historiography, as opposed to mannequins, narrative, and interpretation from circa 1968).

So I was originally going to title this post “City of Mixed Messages”, but after walking around, reading, and thinking a bit, I decided that wasn’t fair: I don’t think the City is putting out mixed messages. All the official events are canceled: people are just coming. There are attractions of course, like the traditional schlocky ones and the new PEM exhibitions, as well as a new Destination Salem app and a Frankenstein-esque Hampton Inn, but apart from the specific draws, I just think people like to come to Salem for (a very extended) Halloween. Witch City has been built with a very solid foundation, and they will come. Away from Essex Street, all was pretty quiet even in the city center: the Charter Street Cemetery has been closed for repairs for quite some time, and I saw only respectful wanderers at the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial: certainly a far cry from thisThe City’s message this year seems to be come with a mask and a plan (like voting!) and hopefully that’s what people will do.

Six feet apart was possible at the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial this past weekend.

But it’s still September. I am wondering how state protocols can be observed with more crowds. I saw lots of out-of-state license plates downtown: have these people quarantined for 14 days before they descended upon Salem? Last week when I visited the Beverly Historic Society, there were contact-tracing questions before I could enter the exhibition: is this happening in Salem? What’s going to happen on Halloween night, which is (of course, 2020) on a Saturday this year? No candy from me, kids; I’m sorry, I’ll double up next year.

As you can see, all was pretty quiet in the McIntire Historic District this past weekend, even in the Ropes Mansion garden, which is just GORGEOUS now—it’s the ultimate late-summer garden. The owners of this beautiful Italianate never do anything in half measures, but I suspect they must be part of Historic Salem’s  Halloween event: Halloween in Salem, a “festive virtual house tour” which will go live on October 9. A great idea and a safe way to experience Halloween in Salem.


Out by Day

Work and family & friend commitments have kept me in Salem much more than I care to be this October, so I have assumed the habit of a reverse vampire, hiding myself away during the weekends and nights and coming out by (week)day. I just don’t care for the carnivalesque quality of Halloween in Salem, so it’s best to absent myself until November 1, or thereabouts. Salem is a great walking city, and I take long walks all year long: to work, along the water, in the two “botanical” cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, and around the Common and its neighborhoods. Only the cemeteries are safe on October weekends, but during the weekdays the city is mine! If you are traveling to Salem this October, do yourself a favor and: 1) take the train—our traffic has been horrendous— it’s an old city full of bottlenecks and one-way streets and more recent traffic experiments like the roundabout at the end of my street; 2) come during the week if you can— it’s less crowded, less smoky, and less of a carnival; and 3) step off the beaten track just a bit, and this is the city you will see.

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20191015_105404The Old Burying Point on Charter Street is closed (thankfully) all month long; if you do come during the week you can ride a scooter around town—but not on the weekend as they have been banned because of the crowds.


Witches are Sexier than Quakers

I would really love to buy the toleration rationale that is used almost universally to justify Salem’s exploitation of the 1692 Witch Trials for commercial gain, but I have several issues. The argument goes like this:  yes, we had a terrible tragedy here in 1692, but now we owe it to civilization to spread awareness of the intolerance of that community in order to raise awareness of intolerance in our own time. If we can make money at the same time, so be it, but it’s really all about teaching tolerance. I’ve written about this before, several times, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but I think this rationale reinforces a notion among some—actually many—that the victims of 1692 were doing something that was in some way aberrant or diverse, when in fact they were just plain old pious Protestants like their neighbors and accusers. The focus on toleration is supposed to connect the past to the present, but more than anything, it privileges the present over the past. My other problem with the toleration rationale is the exclusivity of its application: only to the Witch Trials, the intolerant episode with the most income-generating potential. We seldom hear of any other moments of intense intolerance in Salem’s history: the fining, whipping, and banishment of separatists, Baptists and Quakers in the seventeenth century, the anti-Catholicism and nativism of two centuries later. Certainly the Witch Trials were dramatic, but so too was the intense persecution in Massachusetts in general and Salem in particular over a slightly longer period, from 1656-1661: just read the title pages of these two incredibly influential texts which documented it.

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Quakers Bishop

Edward Burrough, A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New England, for the Worshiping of God (1661; Christie’s —-the whole text can be found here); George Bishop, New England judged, not by man’s, but the spirit of the Lord: and the sum sealed up of New-England’s persecutions being a brief relation of the sufferings of the people called Quakers in those parts of America from the beginning of the fifth month 1656 (the time of their first arrival at Boston from England) to the later end of the tenth month, 1660 (1661; Doyle’s—the whole text is here).

The whipping, scourging, ear-cutting, hand-burning, tongue-boring, fining, imprisonment, starvation, banishment, execution, and attempted sale into slavery of Massachusetts Quakers by the colonial authorities is documented in almost-journalistic style by Edward Burrough and George Bishop and the former’s audience with a newly-restored King Charles II in 1661 resulted in a royal cease and desist missive carried straight to Governor Endicott by Salem’s own Samuel Shattuck, exiled Quaker and father of the Samuel Shattuck who would testify against Bridget Bishop in 1692. So yes, the Quakers accused the Puritans of intolerance far ahead of anyone else, and their detailed testimony offers many opportunities to explore an emerging conception of toleration in historical perspective: we don’t have to judge because they do. Every once in a while, an historical or genealogical initiative sheds some light on Salem’s Quakers—indeed, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street was adorned by a lovely sign this very summer by the City, capping off some important restoration work on some of the stones—but their story is not the official/public/commercial Salem story: that’s all about “witches”.

Quaker Meeting House

Quaker Meeting House 1832

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Quakers Grave

Much of Salem’s Quaker history is still around us: the Essex Institute reconstructed the first Quaker Meeting House in 1865 and it is still on the grounds of the PEM’s Essex Street campus (Boston Public Library photograph via Digital Commonwealth);  the c. 1832 meeting house formerly at the corner of Warren and South Pine Streets, Frank Cousins photograph from the Phillips Library Collection at Digital Commonwealth; the c. 1847 meeting house–now a dentist’s office overlooking the Friends’ Cemetery on upper Essex Street; Samuel Shattuck’s grave in the Charter Street Cemetery, Frank Cousins, c. 1890s, Phillips Library Collection at Digital Commonwealth.

Quakers can’t compete with “witches”, any more than factory workers, soldiers, inventors, poets, suffragists, educators, or statesmen or -women can: they’re just not sexy enough for a city whose “history” is primarily for sale. There was a time when I thought we could get the Bewitched statue out of Town House Square, but no more: it will certainly not be replaced by a Salem equivalent of the Boston memorial to Mary Dyer, one of the Boston Quaker “Martyrs”. The placement of a fictional television character in such a central place—just across from Salem’s original meeting house–and not, say, a memorial to Provided Southwick, whose parents were banished to Long Island, dying there in “privation and misery”, whose brother was whipped from town to town, and who would have been sold into slavery (along with another brother) near this same square if not for several tolerant Salem ship captains*, is a bit unbearable, but that’s Witch City. Apparently grass just won’t grow in this little sad space, so soon we will see the installation of artificial turf , which strikes me as completely appropriate.

Quakers Genealogy

Quakers Whittier

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“The Attempted Sale into Slavery of Daniel and Provided Southwick, son [children] of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick, by Governor Endicott and his Minions, for being Quakers”, from the Genealogy of the descendants of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick of Salem, Mass. : the original emigrants, and the ancestors of the families who have since borne his name (1881); *John Greenleaf Whittier tells Provided’s tale under Cassandra’s (more romantic?) name, and adds the “tolerant ship captains”: we only know that the sale did not go through. The Mary Dyer Memorial in front of the statehouse, Boston, Massachusetts.

Appendix: There was a very public attempt to place a memorial statue to the Quaker persecution in Salem by millionaire Fred. C. Ayer, a Southwick descendant, in the early twentieth century which you can read about here and here: the Salem City Council (or Board of Aldermen, as it was then called) objected to the representation of Governor Endicott as a tiger devouring the Quakers, so the proposed installation on Salem Common was denied. If the aldermen had read Burrough’s and Bishop’s accounts,  I bet they would have been a bit more approving.


A County in Crisis, 1692

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Witchfinder in Salem

As tragic and interesting as the Salem Witch Trials are, they are still somewhat limited in the scope of characters and duration. So in the constant and evolving effort to market anything and everything about them, a bit of cultural appropriation always takes place: I see many images from Europe’s longer reign of witch-hunting used in Salem rather indiscriminately every year, most prominently the storied “swimming test”, and the Salem Witch Museum features a “strong Celtic woman, diminished and demonized by the church fathers in the middle ages” even though the myth of the midwife-witch has long been consigned to folklore by European historians. A very popular and creative “immersive media game theater” company called Intramersive Media here in Salem is staging the fourth chapter of their “Daemonologie” series this October at PEM’s Assembly House: an experience entitled “Smoke and Mirrors” centered on a seance in 1849. (I really wanted to go because I haven’t been in the Assembly House forever but that of course would mean staying in Salem for the October weekend performances which I just can’t do; in any case I think they’re sold out!) Now there is only one Daemonologie for me, the famous book by King James VI of Scotland (soon to be King James I of England) published first in 1597: a text that impacted how “witches” were perceived and prosecuted once James acceded to the English throne in 1603. But I don’t think these performances have anything to do with that: it’s just a name: though James perceived witchcraft very personally and perhaps that is the meaning here.

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Alan Cummings as King JamesYou can read the entire first edition of the Daemonologie  of King James by “turning the pages” at the British Library here; Alan Cumming made a brief appearance as a pretty amazing King James in the Thirteenth Doctor’s Witchfinders episode last year.

But I saw the absolute best “transportation” and reincarnation of an icon of British witchcraft just this weekend, standing on a stool in front of the Peabody Essex Museum just before I went in for my new wing tour: Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” of Civil-War England! Hopkins was a rather unsuccessful East Anglian lawyer who took advantage of the conflict between Crown and Parliament to proclaim himself the official Witchfinder General, vaguely commissioned to discover, prosecute, and execute “witches” as he crusaded from town to town in his native country. Villages would pay him for his troubles, and consequently he gained both money and fame as he and his associates went about their business between 1644 and 1646, eventually executing between 230 and 300 people for witchcraft, employing uncharacteristically-English torture techniques in the process. The image of Hopkins was transmitted across England in his The Discovery of Witchcraft (1647), and so I immediately recognized him as a familiar figure standing on a Salem street. The depiction was quite good: kind of a combination of the seventeenth-century illustration with (a younger) Vincent Price’s profile in the 1968 film Witchfinder General. 

Witchfinder The-discovery-of-witches-hst_tl_1600_E_388_2British Library version here.

After I got out of the Peabody Essex, I approached this Witchfinder General and asked him if he knew who Matthew Hopkins was and he certainly did. I was informed that Matthew Hopkins was never officially licensed by any authority in seventeenth-century England, but he, the Salem Witchfinder was. The City of Salem had provided his license, a bright pink badge which he displayed. I certainly had no argument with that; he was entirely correct. That was about the extent of our interaction: he allowed me to take his photograph for free but I had to pay if I wanted one with him with my hands encased in his portable stocks. I said no thank you and off I went. So here we have a very official Witchfinder in the Witch City. I’ve been to Manningtree, the beautiful little Essex village where the reign of terror of Matthew Hopkins began, several times, and I’ve never seen him there: no doubt its residents have shunned him, but of course he’s perfectly welcome here in Salem, where all is good clean (licensed) fun.

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Witchfinder Wellcome 1792

20190929_162442The (official) Witchfinder General in Salem, September 30, 2019.


The Forest through the Trees

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

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

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

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

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

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


Step it up, Salem

Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.

Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage  (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.

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20190506_142906Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center?  There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years. 

20190511_124916Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?

Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.

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20190508_153716Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night. 

Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?

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Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.

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While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.

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20190511_132347Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!

Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.

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Slaves in the Hunt House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday Shopping in Salem

After Thanksgiving in Maine, I returned to do my civic duty and shop in Salem on Small Business Saturday. For almost as long as I’ve lived here, I have resolved to do all my holiday shopping in the smaller shops of Salem and generally that’s been easy to do. Last year it was slightly more difficult as I boycotted the Peabody Essex Museum’s wonderful store after their reluctant admission that they were shipping most of Salem’s history out of town, and I’m going to stick to that policy until it comes back. A few people on my list will no doubt suffer the consequences! There are more shopping options in Salem than there used to be—although the concentration of witchcraft/Halloween shops along Essex Street is concerning: I just don’t understand the year-round, needless-to say holiday attraction of such purveyors, but maybe I’m in the wrong demographic. I just wish they had nicer signs: actually Vampfangs (for which I know I’m really in the wrong demographic) has a dark albeit curated street presence, but FreakyElegant has looked like a temporary pop-up since it replaced a wonderful toy store several years ago. Further down on Essex there is our local independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books, which is a great place to shop in any season, but that’s about it for Essex Street unless you are looking for more witchcraft wares, PEM goods and PEM-sponsored chocolate, or empty storefronts.

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I wandered over to the Church Street to check out a relatively new craft consortium, Hive & Forge, but it was closed! Or rather the door was locked—I just couldn’t get in. Trying not to take it personally–and will try again. Fortunately the very active Salem Arts Association was holding its annual Holiday Artists’ Market at Old Town Hall, so I walked over there, and then I was in the center of Salem shopping–which is Front Street, and the adjacent Central and lower Lafayette Streets. Within about 2 blocks you can do all your shopping: there’s a very nice concentration of housewares, clothing, and food shops: all oriented towards the entire year rather than just Halloween.

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Shopping 14Hive & Forge (to which I will return) and some of my favorite things at the Salem Art Association’s holiday market.

On Central Street you have Pamplemousse and Emporium 32 facing each other: both very dependable sources of gifts and everything for the home (including food & wine in the former). Emporium 32 always has the best-dressed windows in town, which are quite representative of the wonders within (plus it has great gifts for men, who dominate my list). Further down this way (which turns into Lafayette) there is everyone’s favorite Cheese Shop of Salem and Mark Your Spot for more eclectic wares. Back on Front, nearly every single storefront is a great shop, with the notable exception of our Congressman’s office (perhaps if he were on Essex he could drive some traffic over there?). The adjoining shops Roost and Oak+Moss, owned, operated, and curated by a Salem couple with great taste, are always go-to shops in Salem, and most especially at this time of year.

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Shopping 2A well-dressed window (+reflection) at Emporium 32, plus hats and a wonderful book by Salem artist Sara Richard (from whom I have commissioned MY Christmas gift), The Cheese Chop of Salem, rocking horse at Mark Your Spot, Front Street, RBG at Roost and inside and outside at Oak +Moss.


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