Tag Archives: Witch City

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.


The Worst Day/Samuel Wardwell

I always think about the Salem Witch Trials in September, as the cumulative hysteria of 1692 was coming to a close with the execution of the last eight victims on September 22. Every year at this time I ponder a particular aspect of the accusations and trials, or a particular victim. There’s always a certain poignancy about this time of year in Salem for me—and others too I am sure—as the anniversary of the worst day comes just before the City descends full throttle into the celebration of Halloween, drawing on a very tenuous connection between the persecution of people who were not witches, and a modern holiday symbolized by stereotypical figures who are. So this is a nice week of reflection before the deluge. This month, and this week, I’ve been thinking about the sole male victim of September 22: Samuel Wardwell of Andover, who also happened to be the sole accused person to be executed after recanting an earlier confession. Wardwell had confessed, in detail, to entering into a covenant with the Devil almost as soon as he was accused: he implicated others as well and was in turn accused by his own wife and child. He was not a pristine character, but rather a real person: who made mistakes, and enemies. At the eleventh hour, and right up to the moment of his death, he recanted, and according to the famous narration of Robert Calef, Wardwell was still proclaiming his innocence on the gallows on this very day in 1692, when a puff of tobacco smoke from the executioner’s pipe “coming in his face, interrupted his discourse: those accusers said that the devil did hinder him with smoke”.

Wardwell Memorial

The devil did hinder him with smoke. Wardwell does sound like a bit of a rascal; I wonder if he had come to the conclusion that his confession would not save him because of his reputation in general, and his fortune-telling in particular. And so he recanted bravely, only to have his big moment marred by the Devil’s smoke! A tragedy in numerous ways. Wardwell seems like a regular seventeenth-century Englishman to me, rather than an abstract Colonial Puritan: across the Atlantic people were buying books of fortune-telling tricks, and demonic interventions were the stuff of ballads, rather than trials. The Devil was a capricious bogeyman in Old England in 1692, but in New England he was very, very real.

Wardwell and the Devil

Wardwell the Fortune Teller

Devil Men in the Moon Cruikshank

Devil Man and the Moon, CruikshankStrange News from Westmoreland, 1662-1668; A Merry Conceited Fortune-Teller, 1662. Over a century later, George Cruikshank’s satirical illustrations for The Man in the Moon (1820) seem to mock contemporary descriptions of the executions on September 22.


A Souvenir of Salem

Salem has been a tourist city for a very long time, and that identity has inspired the production of countless souvenirs made from every material imaginable: ceramic, metal, cloth, wood, plastic, and a veritable forest of paper. I’ve been a rather casual collector of Salem souvenirs since I moved here many years ago, although I do have my periods of intensity if I come across something I haven’t seen before. I’m a paper girl, and I thought I had seen every bit of ephemera in this genre, but last week a little souvenir book with an embossed red cover popped up on ebay and I pounced. It arrived yesterday, and I was not disappointed: this little souvenir pamphlet contains some of the most beautiful prints of Salem structures I have ever seen. Even with its obvious damage, it is still a gem. There is no title page or publisher–although an advertisement for the Salem stationers Merrill & Mackintire is at the end, so I assume it is their offering. It is also undated, though I can come up with an approximate date just looking at some of the captions, which reflect the work of the tireless historian and “antiquarian” Sidney Perley to get dates and identifications just right at the turn of the last century—and after.

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Some historical “facts” are mutable. The site at which the accused and convicted “witches” of Salem were presumed to have been executed was commonly known as “Witch Hill” in the later nineteenth century but evolved into “Gallows Hill” at its end. This is still a Salem neighborhood and park, but from the 1890s Perley identified Proctor’s Ledge below as the site of the executions, and just last year this site was marked with a memorial by the City of Salem. Likewise, Perley confronted the long-held assertion that the small structure on the grounds of the Essex Institute was in fact the seventeenth-century First Church of Salem, and asserted that it was a Quaker Meeting House from later in the century. As you can see, the owner of our little souvenir book, whom I presume is the Charles Heald who signed the back of one of its prints, simply scratched out “First Meeting House” and wrote in “Quaker M.H.” And then Perley took on the “Roger Williams House” and asserted that Roger Williams never actually lived there: it then became the Witch House assertively, though in this first decade of the twentieth century it’s still either/or.

Antiquarian in Arms 1901

Witch House 1903Two Boston Post articles from 1901 and 1903 showing Perley in the midst of two big Salem historical “disputes”:  “Antiquarians are all up in arms again” is one of my favorite headlines ever.

The “Old Turner House” has yet to become the House of the Seven Gables, so I think I can date this souvenir booklet to sometime between 1903 and 1909 pretty comfortably. Yet there is not a car or trolley in sight: the cumulative vision is one of  “Olde Salem” with the exception of a few “modern” municipal buildings. Seaside Salem endures, and the Pickering House remains ever the Pickering House, unchanged from the seventeenth century except for the acquisition of its Gothic trim in the midst of the nineteenth.

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Arthur Miller in Salem

So this is where we are with the Phillips Library relocation, for lack of a better term: the Peabody Essex Museum, having made the reluctant admission that the collections will not be returning to Salem in December (after informing several parties this fact in the late spring of 2017), has agreed to keep the historic reading room in Salem open, but that’s about it: what will actually be in there is unspecified, except perhaps for volumes of the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, a venerable journal that the PEM did away with almost as soon as it had absorbed the latter. There have been two pieces in the Boston Globe, and several meetings of both the Salem Historical Commission and the Mayor’s “Working Group”, which are charged with dealing with both the exterior and interior aspects of this PEM problem. Meanwhile, the Phillips collections are en route to the 1980s toy factory off Route One in Rowley, far removed from the context of their creation, and inaccessible by public transportation.

Books-on-Shelves-870x490 I am assuming that these are Phillips materials, from the website of Smith +St. John, a “real estate and development management” company that has been fulfilling a variety of functions for the PEM, including: “Administrative leadership – when the director of the Phillips Library retired in October 2014, Smith + St. John principal Gregor Smith was asked to serve as interim director while the Museum conducted a national search to fill the position with the right rare book scholar”. Unusual to have a real estate developer serve as director of a research library, no?

Throughout these 2+ months, I have never heard one admission from a PEM representative that what they were doing was in any way detrimental to Salem, the very crucible of their collections, despite the fact that they are always lauding themselves as the country’s oldest continuously operating museum based on the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society of Salem. They remain very publicly and exclusively focused on the priority of preservation, but I see no acknowledgement that the Phillips is both a library and an archive: with public records therein, as well as materials that people will come specifically to Salem to see. There’s no better way to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between place and exploration than the example of one of the Phillips’ Library’s most famous researchers, Arthur Miller, who wrote about his trip to Salem for Crucible material and inspiration in several essays as well as his 1987 autobiography Timebends. He was drawn to Salem in the spring of 1952, but found it to be “a sidetracked town…with abandoned factories and vacant stores” according to his 1996 recollections in the New Yorker. No one wanted to talk about the trials then; it was the archives that first made the story come alive for him, the trial transcripts which he read in the “gloomy courthouse” and then other texts in a repository he identifies alternatively as the “museum” or the “historical society”: the Phillips Library.

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Salem's Museum NYT 1953 Feb 8.JPG

In his 1953 New York Times article “Journey to the Crucible”, Miller recalls a “silent” library/museum, in which an old man, looking like a retired professor, is reading a document. Two middle-aged couples come in from their automobile outside and ask to see the pins: the pins the spirits stuck the children with. The pins are in the courthouse, they are told. They look about at the books, the faded fragments of paper that once meant Proctor must hang tomorrow, paper that came through the farmhouse door in the hands of a friend who had a half-determined, half-ashamed look in his eyes. The tourists pass the books, the exhibits and no hint of danger reaches them from the quaint relics. I have a desire to tell them the significance of those relics. It is the desire to write. That’s a pretty good description of intellectual/creative inspiration! And he goes on, taking it outside, into the streets of Salem: the stroll down Essex Street I remember, and the empty spaces between the parking meters, the dark storefronts…but further down a lighted store, and noise. I take a look: a candy store. A mob of girls and boys in their teens running in and out, ganging around on the vacant street, a jalopy pulls up with two wet-haired boys, and a whispered consultation with a girl on the running boards; she runs into the store, comes out with a friend, and off they go into the night, the proud raccoon tail straightening from the radiator cap. And suddenly, from around a corner, two girls hopping with a broomstick between their legs, and general laughter going up at the specific joke. A broomstick. And riding it. And I remember the girls of Salem, the only Salem there ever was for me—the 1692 Salem–and how they purged their sins by embracing God and pointing out His enemies in the town. Salem girls. No researcher is going to find such archival ambiance, and such an illuminating juxtaposition between past and present, in the midst of an industrial development in Rowley. Arthur Miller returned to Salem in late 1991 for the announcement of the planned memorial for the Tercentenary in the coming year, expressing concern about the commercialization of the Trials (which “trivializes the agony of the victims”) but also appreciation for its historical resources. And with the removal of the latter, we are increasingly defenseless against the former.


New Developments on Essex Street

I was going to title this post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but decided to stay a bit more neutral, and yet here I am leading off with this hackneyed phrase! That’s my preview, so beware. Essex Street, Salem’s venerable main street, ever in transition, is experiencing big changes yet again. First the very good: Salem’s newest hotel, the Hotel Salem, just opened in the old Newmark building at 209 Essex Street. It is a sparkling mix of mid-century modern decor superimposed on what feels like an earlier 20th-century building (it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895), complete with a marble staircase and a soda fountain-esque restaurant (called The Counter, not quite open) in the first-floor lobby (as well as a seasonal rooftop bar!). The entire hotel is oriented towards the street and all about embracing its bustling commercial past: it’s a great addition to Salem.

Hotel Salem Best

Hotel Salem Counter

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Hotel Salem Details

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Hotel Salem First

Now for the not-so-good. Say you’re sitting at that counter in the Hotel Salem lobby, drink nearby, peering outside onto Essex Street and planning where you’re going to go Christmas shopping next–the Counter will be open before Christmas I am informed. You probably can’t quite see it, but right next door is a great little independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books (above), which is a good start, but then where? You’re new to Salem: you don’t know that there is in fact good shopping a bit further down Essex Street in both directions, and on Central and Front Streets. All you see on one side is the Witch History “Museum” (quotations mine), more witch kitsch across the street, and on the other corner of Essex and Derby Square a vacant building that will house Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery come March. Not a lot of shopping possibilities there I would imagine, even when it is open. And then it gets uglier: as you look out of through the wide windows of the Hotel Salem in the other direction, beyond the old Almy’s clock, your eyes cannot avoid the hulking Museum Place Mall, recently rechristened the Witch City Mall. What happened to this building? The photographs from the 1970s show a rather imposing structure but at least one with some semblance of architectural integrity, later lost through artless adaptations and poor maintenance.

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East India Square Tolles

Witch City Mall collageThe old Naumkeag Trust Bank Building (1900), soon to be Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery; Museum Place (Witch City Mall) shops and signs, today and in the 1970s (MACRIS and Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem).

All I can say is ugh, but I’m not through with this block yet: across the way from the Mall the new Peabody Essex Museum building is rising and I am finding that my reactions to it are not what I thought they would be. It’s going to be very boxy, but I like the restoration of the streetscape: though lovely, the Japanese garden which was previously located on this site didn’t quite fill the space. It’s just a frame, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the structure seems to emphasize the street qualities of old Essex (like the hotel), as opposed to the pedestrian plaza of the 1970s. Time will tell.

Essex Street PEM addition

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A Half-Hour at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial (on Halloween)

November 1!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We actually had a lovely night with a steady succession of trick-or-treating families coming to the door: all happy and excited and exceedingly polite (while low-flying helicopters circled overhead, continuously). Halloween night is always a small compensation for the month of Halloween celebrations that we endure here in Salem, at least for me. During the day, I walked over to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Charter Street because I wanted to see how the site was affected by the limitation of visitors to the adjacent Old Burying Ground. Just last week, the city announced that the cemetery would be limited to 100 people at a time, a policy that was was heralded in a Boston Globe article with the great title: “Salem to Visitors: Don’t Change Diapers and Eat Ice Cream on Gravestones”. The cemetery is really part of the Memorial in the sense that the gravestones of the latter bear silent witness to the cenotaphs of the latter, so diaper-changing and ice cream-eating tourists give the message: we don’t care what happened to those people in 1692. A less carnival-esque atmosphere next door would give the opposite message presumably. During my half-hour on Charter Street (bear in mind this was a Tuesday, not a Saturday) I did see a much more solemn cemetery, but the carnival was still going on within the Memorial, including: ice-cream eating tourists sitting on the bench-cenotaphs, a large tour group, three staged photo opportunities (all of which involved sitting on the cenotaphs or wall behind), and a wedding (after which all the people in the adjacent tour group clapped enthusiastically, of course). All in 30 minutes, no more.

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