Tag Archives: Witch City

The Most Magical Plants

Well, October is upon us here in Salem, so that means I’m going to spend all my time inside or on the road. I’m just not a fan of Haunted Happenings, the City’s Halloween festival that starts earlier with each passing year: crowds are converging from at least mid-September now. On September 22, when eight convicted “witches” were hung at Proctor’s Ledge in 1692, you can see people dancing in the streets in Salem. Haunted Happenings is now in its 50th year and this is an anniversary worth celebrating for many, but for me, it’s just fifty years of turning tragedy into treasure. While I do not see or celebrate the connection between the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials and Halloween, I still find the customs and traditions associated with the latter holiday very interesting, and as I’m teaching my “Magic and Witchcraft in early Modern Europe” course this semester, I find myself subsumed in the source and secondary literature of these complex topics. I haven’t taught this course in 5 years so it definitely needs a refresh! I have learned so much teaching this course over my career at Salem State: at the beginning I offered it simply as a corrective to what I saw (and still see) as a simplistic understanding of witch trials here in Salem, but every time I taught it I learned more about Christian theology and European folklore: after about a decade of teaching it I felt that I needed to undertake more serious study of the former and and contemplated going to Divinity School and now I feel like I need an advanced degree in folklore! It’s all so interwoven, and the focus on both magic and witchcraft over the medieval and early modern eras enables one to see how and why pre-Christian beliefs were assimilated into Christianity—and/or demonized. This coming week we are going to look at some important high and later-medieval herbals and the “magic” that was contained therein, so I decided to make a list of the top ten magical plants. This was a more difficult task than I though it would be as so many plants have protective/proactive virtues associated with them, but this is my list. I’m leaving out Mandrake because we all know that’s the most magical plant of them all, and as many plants were seen to be powerful in both facilitating and dispelling magic I’m going with the most efficacious, by reputation.

Vervainactually might be more powerful than mandrake. It was known as both an “enchanter’s plant” and an antidote against witchcraft. Gathering vervain seems to have been somewhat of a sacred ritual and there doesn’t seem to be anything that this plant could not do: protect, predict, heal, preserve chasteness and procure love. Snakes are often included in illustrations of vervain: both slithering varieties in the marginalia and more threatening serpents at center stage. Clearly it was percieved as an effective weapon against both.

British Library MSS Sloane 1975 and Egerton 747.

St. John’s Wort: a powerful demon-repellent as you can see by this retreating demon in the fifteenth-century Italian Tractatus de Herbis (British Library Codex Sloane 4016). Referred to as a “devil-chaser” on the Continent, St. John’s Wort was also worn as a protective amulet and used as decoration for doorways and windows on St. John’s Eve at midsummer, when its yellow flowers bloom. Its association with St. John the Baptist also bequeathed it medical virtues, and it was used to staunch bleeding, especially from the thrusts of poisoned weapons, and treat wounds.

British Library Codex Sloane 4016 and MS Egerton 747.

Rue: one of my very favorite herbs, and the sole survivor of my garden of plague cures from twenty years ago! The “herb of grace” was prized for its potency against the plague, infections, and also poison, signalled by its bitterness. It was also believed to be a preserver of eyesight, but it’s best to focus on the general rather than the particulars with this very efficacious herb, which could ward off witchcraft and was used in masses and exorcisms as well as an abortifacient. I just think its gray-green leaves are beautiful, and it adds structure to the garden all season long.

Plantae Utiliores; or Illustrations of useful plants, employed in the Arts and Medicine, M.A.Burnett,1842. 

Scabiosa: was far more interesting in the medieval period than its profile as a perfect cottage garden plant now. It was known as “Devil’s Bit” because of the appearance of its root, which looks like someone took a bite out of it. According to John Gerard, who was known to “borrow” information rather indiscriminately, “the great part of the root seems to be bitten away; old fantastic charmers do report that the Devil did bite it for envy, because it is an herb that has so many good virtues, and is so beneficial to mankind.” It was perceived as particularly beneficial to the skin, hence its name, a far cry from “pincushion flower.”

British Library MS Egerton 747; William Catto, 1915, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums.

Garlic: also has a devilish nickname, the “Devil’s Posy,” and cure-all connotations, so that it was also known as the “Poor Man’s Treacle.” (Treacle is an English sweet now, but in the late medieval and early modern eras it was an anglicization for “theriac,” the universal panacea.) There’s an interesting old tale that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after his great triumph, garlic sprang from the spot where his left foot lay, and onions from where he had placed his right foot. Like so much folklore, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information. The key attribute of garlic was its pungent odor: like the bitter taste of rue, this signalled strength: enough to ward off witches, plague, and I guess vampires (though medieval people do not mention the latter).

Garlic (right) and a coiled snake, British Library MS Egerton 747.

Foxglove: a plant with more folkloric pseudonyms than any other! Foxglove: gloves for foxes or fairies or witches? Fairy fingers, ladies’ thimbles, rabbit flowers, throatwort, flapdock, cow-flop, lusmore, lionsmouth, Scotch mercury, dead man’s bells, witches’ gloves, witches’ bells: these are just some of its variant nicknames. Dead man’s bells indicates some knowledge of its potentially poisonous effects, but its cardiac attributes were not known until the eighteenth century. What a tangle with all these names! It’s so interesting to me that a plant can be associated with both witches and the Virgin Mary, as digitalis apparently was. Some of its names also testify to belief in the “doctrine of signatures” by which the appearance of herbs signals their use: foxglove flowers were said to look like an open mouth, and their freckles symbolic of inflamation of the throat: hence, throatwort.

Woodblock trial proof for textiles, 1790-1810, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Hollywas perceived as very holy, of course. Very little nuance or contradiction with this plant, which Pliny, who seems very accepted by the medievals even though he was a Pagan, credited with the powers to protect and defend against withcraft, lightening, and poison. Its red berries became associated with the blood of Christ over the medieval era, along with its thorny leaves, which made it even more potent. Plant it close to the house, all the traditional authorities say (I feel fortunate that someone did that for my house long ago).

Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious Herbal, 1737-39.

Moonwort: a little lesser known, but worthy of inclusion if only because it supposedly possesses the ability to open locks and guard silver, as well as unshoe any horses that happen to tread upon it or even near. Ben Jonson referred to it as one of the ingredients of “witches’ broth,” but by his time I think they were throwing everything into that brew. It’s a tiny, tight-fisted, flowering fern (Botrychium lunaria) that just looks like it must have magical qualities, but was also used to heal wounds.

George William Johnson, The British ferns popularly described, and illus. by engravings of every species (1857).

Henbane: is perhaps the most powerful of the bane plants, indicating death by poison, and another plant with both harming and healing virtues, demanding skillful use. It is always mentioned in reference to witchcraft in the late medieval and early modern eras, specifically as an ingredient in ointments (and salves which enabled witches to stick to their brooms!) This might be why it was referred to as the “Devil’s eye” in some regions. But it was also a powerful sedative, known to take away pain, and a hallucinogenic which could take away sense.

Henbane (on the right) in BL MS Egerton 747; Patrick Symons, Still Life with Henbane, 1960, Royal Academy.

Deadly Nightshade: related to henbane, but even more potent. Every bit of this plant was known to be poisonous, and early modern botanical authors urged their readers to banish it from their gardens. With knowledge and caution, henbane was a plant one could work with, but hands off deadly nightshade! Only the Devil tended it; in fact it was difficult to lure him away from this menacing crop of  “devil’s berries” and of course it was yet another ingredient in the strange brews of witches. Its botanical name, Atropa belladonna, indicates its use:  The eldest of the Three Fates of classical Greek mythology, the “inflexible” Atropos cut off the thread of life, and the “beautiful ladies” of Renaissance Venice used it in tincture form for wide-open, sparkling eyes. The English adopted the term belladonna in the later sixteenth century, but they also referred to deadly nightshade simply as “dwale,” a stupefying or soporific drink.

William Catto, Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museum.


The Golden Goose

Last week Salem’s new Heritage Trail, or at least the foundation thereof, was revealed with a report to the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and the launch of a new website. The outgoing “Red Line” has long been the object of derision, as it was a play-to-play route which made no meaningful distinction between the Salem Maritime National Historical Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum. Concerns about the sign pollution which plagues downtown Salem and the now-common understanding that “redlining” refers to housing segregation apparently inspired the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, to put together a working group comprised of “stakeholders” representing Salem’s organizations, institutions, businesses and local government (but not, notably, neighborhood groups) to reconfigure the existing trail as something “new.” The end result will be a gold line running through downtown Salem, and very nice signs which will mark the stops along the way, including……………….the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum.

Believe me, I’m pretty tired of screaming into the void about how Salem values (or doesn’t) its long and notable history. I also realize that the people who have transformed a small subsection of this history into a valuable commodity have clearly won the day, as many of Salem’s heritage organizations, including Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Historical Society, the Essex Heritage National Commission, and even the Salem Maritime National Historic Site had representative members in this working group, so are clearly supportive of this new trail. But this is a really important time for Salem, with its 400th anniversary only a few years away and so many of its historic houses shuttered, including the entire Essex Street Block campus of the Peabody Essex Museum. So I have a few things to say, of course! I’ll try to be as succinct and straightforward as possible: after some consternation I have limited and organized my thoughts (which might take the form of pleas) into three main points:

      1. Forprofit sites cannot be heritage. Salem’s heritage is a public good, not a private commodity. Packaging an historical event into a dramatic presentation creates an “attraction,” not a museum. Packaging a tragic historical event into an attraction is troubling if not enacted with great care, and the dated figures employed by the The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum evoke more mockery than empathy. These attractions have no place on an officially-sanctioned “Heritage Trail”; I don’t think any for-profit site does. Call the trail something else: my friend Joe suggested the “Tourism Trail.” I would have no problem with that: it’s the equivalency of an actual historic site like the House of the Seven Gables or the Charter Street Cemetery or the East India Marine Hall (all sites on the trail) with a manufactured attraction that troubles me, especially as the latter are so obviously exploitative. The creators and consultants of the new Heritage Trail realize that there is an issue here, so they have come up with criteria that Salem sites which hope to be listed on the trail as it expands must meet. Here they are, included as Appendix B in the “Salem Heritage Trail Recommendation and Project Recap” report prepared by the consultant company MuseumTastic for Destination Salem and presented to the SRA:So, much of this seems fine, certainly the themes are great (more on them below), and the criteria professional. I’m having some difficulty envisioning the logistics of the vetting process, but will leave that to the experts. What does concern me, however, is the disassociation of “site” and “building” as referenced in #3 on. As you see in my graphic above, the Salem Witch Museum, the most profitable of the for-profits, is referred to as the former East Church, which is presumably how it made the cut. Why the East Church is deemed “historic” is beyond me, aside from its imposing Gothic Revival style: certainly it is no more historic than the nearby houses of ultra-philanthropist George Peabody and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, or the birthplace of the illustrious Benson brothers across the Common. When I asked why and how the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, also located in a former church (built by the Christian Scientists and not the East Church parishioners), was included on the trail, I got this response from the Executive Director of Destination Salem: The Witch Dungeon Museum and Lynde Street are the site of early fortifications. English settlers knew that their presence in Salem immersed them in a web of global conflicts. Fearing reprisals from the indigenous people they were displacing and attacks from other colonial powers, the colony of Massachusetts erected a fort near this spot in 1629. Samuel Sharpe came from London with cannons to assume command of the militia. The first fort was probably made of tall wooden palisades, with extensions jutting out to prevent flanking. In the following decades, further fortifications were built along the Salem coast and a palisade was built along the western end of town. The early, feared attacks never happened. The East Church built a chapel on Lynde Street in 1897 and The Witch Dungeon Museum opened in the building in 1979. Visitors can watch a live-action reenactment of a witch trial and tour a recreation of the grim prison where the accused were kept. So basically: because a long-gone fort was once on the site of the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, it qualifies for the trail? I don’t think I need to spend too long discussing the implications of this “standard.” In a city as old as Salem, every structure downtown was built on the site of something else: there are layers and layers and layers. The Witch Dungeon Museum’s storefront sister “museum” on venerable Essex Street, the Salem Witch History Museum, could claim that it sits on the site of Salem’s first printing house or any number of historic structures and thus qualify for the new Heritage Trail. Perhaps the cumulative criteria above could mitigate against this, but it does not appear to have done so with the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum: I think we need to be honest about where we are leading people—and why.

        Mannequin City: mid-20th century interpretive “technology” reigns in Salem’s for-profit witch “museums” which have no incentive to innovate, as the City delivers visitors right to their doors; Witch Dungeon Museum hanging mannequins.

      2. The Trail is too restricted geographically. Salem has been a tourist destination for over a century, and there are previous incarnations of the Red Line, which was stamped on the City in the 1980s. (People seem to think that the big turning point in Salem’s tourism history is the filming of the television show Bewitched in 1970s, or at least that’s the story the rationalizes the placement of the Samantha statue in Salem’s most historic town square. But that’s clearly not true: it was the Haunted Happenings festival, initiated by the Salem Witch Museum in the early 1980s, that created our modern Witch City). All the pre-1980 trails were much longer, and included more Salem neighborhods and sites, including the entire McIntire District showcasing architecture, South Salem showcasing Pioneer Village and many more sites in the Downtown and Derby Street districts. If it really is going to tell Salem’s story in a comprehensive and authentic way (and accomodate all those themes!) the Trail has to branch out considerably. One of the reasons I find it so objectionable to direct people to a witch business on the basis of a seventeenth-century fort that is no longer there is the fact that Salem has a seventeenth-century fort that has been left to rot on Winter Island.
      3.  Salem tourism brochures from the 1950s through the 1980s: not until the last decade was the Heritage Trail restricted to downtown and the “story” increasingly restricted to witches. Love the sentiment of “traveling through history in Salem.”
      1. 3. A Plea for Authenticity & Creativity: I don’t really have enough to go on to speak to technology or  interpretive issues, but from what I can read I am struck by the relative conservatism in terms of the conceptualization of the entire trail: I expect more from a process of “strategic revisioning;” I don’t see any revisioning at all actually. Maybe that’s coming? This trail could have been recast as a “walking museum” as some cities have done (Memphis!), and thus accomodate both heritage and for-profit sites (in a pop culture category: the history of witchcraft tourism in Salem IS part of our heritage unfortunately) as well as the Peabody Essex Museum’s shuttered sites which are outfitted with “PEM Walks” interpretive audio “postcards“: why not integrate this ready-made interpretation into the Trail? Salem doesn’t have a history museum so a thoughtfully-constructed walking museum could really compensate for this deficiency: this approach could also add some chonological development to the trail, which is completely missing. Authenticity is everything in this digital, virtual age, which is why it is imperative to emphasize the unique geography and history of Salem with real places rather than artifical ones: besides the for-profit sites, I am also troubled by the selection of the new Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street as a location to highlight Salem’s African-American history: African-Americans (including Charlotte Forten) did not live or work anywhere near it! And as I’ve written about before, the park has been “colonized” effectively by the Real Pirates Museum, which tells the story of pirates (some real, some not) from Cape Cod. More appropriate places to tell the stories of Salem’s African-Americans are Derby Square (which is on the Trail) where a variety of vibrant black businesses were located, and Hamilton Hall, where Salem’s Remond family lived and worked. Actually, a wonderful interpretive location for interpreting African-American history would be Higginson Square, which runs parallel to Derby Square: to tell the truth, the Remonds spent at least as much time at 5 Higginson Square as Hamilton Hall, and Charlotte spent considerable time there too. There could be some kind of creative installation there, which brings to my last point/question: why is Salem’s very dynamic creative community so absent from this revisioning project? My very favorite urban heritage trail is actually that of Asheville, NC, in which stories of the city’s past residents, both well-noted and not-so well-known, are woven together through public art, including commissioned sculptures and pre-existing artifacts. Lke all the best heritage trails, Asheville’s was a process of considerable community engagement: it is a work in process that is still engaging the community. That could happen here too, but only with the realization that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders” in our city’s Heritage Trail.
      2.  Higginson Square, 1893, Nelson Dionne History Collection, Salem State Archives and Special Collections. A big flatiron to highlight Asheville’s Flatiron building. It begs the question: no Parker Brothers site for Salem’s new Heritage Trail?

So those are my three main points but I do want to say a bit about the “future” of Salem’s heritage, which is kind of a funny phrase: isn’t heritage about the past and how can it have a future? Well, heritage has a past, a present and a future: we’re dealing with the present now. After the Executive Director of Destination Salem gave her presentation to the SRA last week, there were a few questions from the board (which only has authority over signage downtown, not content, so I was suprised to see this engagement), including, “why so much witch stuff?” (I am paraphrasing). She answered: (I’m still paraphrasing but this is very close) “well, 85% or our visitors come for the witch trials so we have to give them what they want.” I have no doubt that this is true, because we don’t have a heritage trail that showcases our Samuel McIntire mansions or our Revolutionary resistance or our 445 Revolutionary privateers or our industrious inventors or our treasure- (and history-) hunting Mormons or our dashing Civil War officers or our zealous abolitionists and suffragists or our amazing artists and craftsmen or our brave warriors on both the battle and home fronts or any of our immigrant communities as far as I can see. Maybe all that is coming, but it is clear to me that witchcraft-based tourism is only going to become even more pervasive in Salem if some sort of structural change does not occur because it is self-perpetuating. Destination Salem has always been a thoroughly professional, accessible and effective tourism office, but I’ve never understood how it came to be in charge of heritage, because for me, tourism and heritage are not necessarily the same thing. But in Salem, I guess they are. I suspect that the same old scenario which governed the creation of the first Heritage Trail was present here: the City did not invest enough effort or money, and so left it to the business owners, who quite logically advanced their own interests. So let’s just call it the Tourist Trail, or take advantage of this (golden) opportunity to do something more—and better.


Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.


Salem as Historyland

For the most part, this blog has been an academic release for me rather than academic engagement: I consider most of the history I’ve offered up here more pop-up than professional. But there is one academic field with which I have been engaging (mostly in the form of learning) continuously: the history of tourism. This is a relatively new field, emerging in the 1990s, but also a very interdisciplinary and important one, involving social, cultural, and economic factors interacting at local, regional, and global levels. There’s a Journal of Tourism History, several academic book series, and an emerging taxonomy: the general category of Heritage Tourism, for example, can be broken down into more specialized endeavors: literary tourism, thanatourism (also called Dark Tourism, focused on visitation to sites of death and suffering), legacy (genealogical) tourism. Salem became a tourist designation in the later nineteenth century, and from that time its projections have included all of these pursuits. With the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials in 1892, witches started appearing everywhere, but Nathaniel Hawthorne represented stiff competition in the opening decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904 and the opening of the House of the Seven Gables in 1910. Over the twentieth century Hawthorne waned and the witches ultimately triumphed, but at mid-century there was a relatively brief span when Salem and its history were both perceived and presented more broadly, as an essential “historyland” which one must visit in order to understand the foundations of American civilization. The major periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Time, Life, American Heritage and National Geographic, presented Salem not only as a Puritan settlement, but also as an “incubator” of both democracy and capitalism with the events of 1692 subsumed by those larger themes.

I think I need to explain and qualify my use of the term “historyland” before I continue, as I’m not using it in the perjorative way that it has come to be used in recent decades: idealized history theme park where one can escape the present and have fun! The “American Way of History” in the words of David Lowenthal. Its meaning evolves, but I am using it first (more later) as it was initially applied: to a region in which much happened and much remained as material legacy to what happened. It emerges in the 1930s as a very specific reference to the area encompassing Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: I believe a section of Virginia’s Route 3 is still called the “Historyland Highway.” Virginia was so great at marketing itself as Historyland (an example is upper left in the above graphic—some chutzpah to claim that the “nation was preserved” in Virginia!) that other states, like nearby Maryland and North Carolina, started using the term as well. I’m sure that every state on the eastern seaboard was jealous, and the term was extended geographically, chronologically, and conceptually when a Historyland living history park focused on the logging industry opened in Wisconsin in 1954. In the next decade, National Geographic started using the term more generally in reference to national landmarks, in the succession volumes to its popular Wonderlands guides. I don’t want to romanticize the word or its meaning too much: the history that characterized these historylands was overwhelmingly European, narrative, and a bit too focused on colonial costumes for my taste, but at least it was place-based. I can imagine that the civic authorities would have been just a bit wary about the impact of for-profit attractions peddling a story that was not Salem’s in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the presence of so many non-profit local history museums like the Essex Institute, the Peabody Museum, Pioneer Village, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clearly that is not a concern now. In characteristic fashion, National Geographic focused on the site-specific aspects of Salem’s past and present in its September 1945 issue, focused on the Northeast. Its industrial base has created some “drabness,” but “this prosaic, utilitarian present is more than matched by an extraordinarily insistent and romantic past. Salem is literally a treasure house of early American landmarks, relics, articles, and documents of historic interest, all easily accessible and within a small area. The little city is fairly haunted by these still-visible evidences of its illustrious position, first as progenitor of the great Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later as a mistress of the seas. Unlike some larger cities of venerable age, in which population grew apace, it was unnecessary for Salem to tear down and rebuild: thus a larger proportion of memorable objects remains undisturbed.” Wow: a city which retains its treasures, was focused on preservation, and haunted by its still visible-past rather than made-up ghosts! What we have lost.

Photographs of Salem from the September 1945 issue of National Geographic, obove, and from America’s Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (1962) below: the Witch House, secret staircase at the House of the Seven Gables, and Pioneer Village.

This total package, “treasure house” characterization continued to define Salem’s representation in national periodicals over the next two decades, during which Life, Time, and even Ladies Home Journal came to the city to take it all in: the Custom House and Derby Wharf, the House of the Seven Gables, Pioneer Village, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Court House with its pins, the YMCA with its small Alexander Graham Bell display (see above), the recently-restored Witch House, and Chestnut Street. (And everything was open all the time! Peirce-Nichols, Derby, all those houses we can seldom enter today).  But change was coming, to they ways and means by which we interpreted the past as well as to Salem. From the late 1960s, the meaning of “historyland” took on a more negative meaning and associated “living history” attractions began to fall out of fashion, a trend that culminated with Disney’s disastrous Virginia pitch in the early 1990s. And then Samantha and her Bewitched crew came to Salem, allegedly showing it the way forward: tell one story rather than many and focus on private profits rather than civic pride. The Salem Witch Museum demonstrated that that path could be very successful, and so everybody else jumped on board: the public sanction of “Haunted Happenings” eventually transformed Salem into a full-time Witch City and undermined those institutions which were trying to tell other, or more complicated stories. Many of Salem’s textual treasures have been transferred to Rowley, but I guess we are compensated by the real pirate’s treasure from the Whydah? In recent years, the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, has attempted to broaden its appeal by taking advantage of the popularity of genealogical research/travel with its Ancestry Days (next week: see schedule of events here) but I wonder how far that initiative can go when most of Salem’s genealogical assets are in Rowley. Perhaps no structure represents Salem’s transition into a modern historyland, with all of its current connotations, better than the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion, once merely an “early home on an old street” and now the Hocus Pocus house. If I were a true historian of tourism, I could explain this transition in social, cultural, and economic terms, but I’m not there yet. Nevertheless, Salem is the perfect subject for this dynamic field: we’ve already seen some great studies, and I’m sure we’ll see more.

The Ropes Mansion in the May 16, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, and October 2021.


Pirates were Pirates

So I’ve been preoccupied with pirates for about a week, ever since the new Real Pirates Museum opened up in Salem adjacent to Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street. My preoccupation was fostered by initial outrage at the apparent pirate takeover of this relatively new park dedicated to a prominent abolitionist and educator: colorful murals of the pirates within rise about the very minimalist park in a manner which I found dissonant and even offensive. I saw red: this was another Samantha statue moment for me. It wasn’t just the murals: the Real Pirates sign and entryway is centered on the park and there is obvious intent to integrate the attraction with the park. What could be the rationale? I looked through the meeting minutes of the two boards which were charged with approving the walkway, signage, and murals, the Salem Redevelopment Authority and the Public Art Commission, and found some interesting statements from the project manager for Real Pirates to the latter. He connected piracy and abolitionism (and past and present) through an effusive focus on piratical egalitarianism: “the concept of the murals is to portray the values of maritime history honored in Salem today as represented by the jolly roger, a symbol once condemned by nations that enslaved and exploited human beings and now seen as a symbol of what may have been the most democratic and egalitarian society of its time and by five portraits of historic individuals who sought freedom from the oppression and intolerance of their time.” The Commission approved the murals with one condition: that the pirates be disarmed.

Pirate values? That’s the connection? Motley crews in the Golden Age of Piracy shared the same values as Charlotte Forten in the nineteenth century and even Salem today? This seemed a little over the top and brought me into the realm of the Real Pirates Museum, a place I didn’t really want to go: it’s a private business and who am I to tell them what they should or should not be doing? But still, this is a lot of public projection, literally and metaphorically. I’m very familiar (especially after doing a deep dive over this past week) with the historiography of Atlantic piracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and others have emphasized the socio-economic structures which churned up so much piracy and cast pirates themselves as working-class heroes challenging the various hierarchies of the British Empire during its most craven period, when it was armed with the asiento granting monopoly privileges to supply the Spanish Empire with enslaved labor. Pirates were clearly challenging this evil empire, and doing so with diverse and meritorious crews, but pirates were also pirates: practical, opportunistic, violent. Pirates were not roving abolitionists. While it is true that the large crews of Edward Thatch or Thache, the notorious Blackbeard, might have been as much as thirty percent African at one time, it is also true that when he captured the French slaver La Concorde in November of 1717 with 455 enslaved Africans in its hold he returned the vast majority to its deposed captain for transport back to the slave market in Martinque. La Concorde became his flagship briefly, renamed The Queen Anne’s Revenge: slave ships were popular among pirates as their architecture suited piratical purposes perfectly, but liberating human cargoes was not their business. In the words of David Cordingly, “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…” (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 34). They were also disarmed, just like the Real Pirates mural figures.

Anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, whose wreck was discovered in 1996. The Queen Anne’s Revenge Project is an absolutely wonderful site, where discoveries, treasures, and topics are discussed regularly relative to the ship in particular and piracy in general.

So that brings us, and me, to the Real Pirates Museum in Salem. Real Pirates is the sister museum of the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod: both are based on the sensational underwater archeological discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, another slaver turned pirate flagship, off the eastern coast of the Cape in 1984 by Barry Clifford. I’ve always heard that the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck, but I believe that the Queen Anne’s Revenge has since been authenticated as well? In any case, the Whydah Gally was captured in the Caribbean by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew on her maiden voyage in 1716 and utilized to capture a succession of prizes until she ran aground off Wellfleet in the following year. Bellamy perished along with most of his crew, a young, dashing, democratic Robin Hood who seems to have acquired the most romantic reputation of any Golden Age pirate because of his storied relationship with a Cape girl, Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett, who may or may not have existed (If she did exist, she was certainly not named Maria, a very Catholic name in very Protestant Massachusetts). Here is how the project manager of Real Pirates described these two in his submissions to the Salem Public Art Commission, as their murals were going to be, and are, very prominent:

Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood” of pirates, who had suffered as a common sailor, and was determined to assert his inherent human right to organize with others of similar conviction to form his own nation that would oppose by force other nations that had derived their wealth from the sale of human beings and from the murder and exploitation of the common person.

Maria Hallett, who as a single mother was thrown out of her home, banished from civilization and then accused of being a witch and yet never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation.

Much of these characterizations seem to be made up of whole cloth, and when I read them, I really didn’t want to visit a museum pushing romance over reality: even if “Maria Hallett” existed, or is a composite of several women who existed, how in the world can one know that she never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation (salvation?)? But I’m really upset about the park, so I knew I was going to write more, and if I was going to write more I knew I might end up criticizing the museum because of these over-the-top, thoroughly anachronistic statements of egalitarianism, dignity and love rather than its own exhibits, which is not fair. So off I went to see the Real Pirates. Before I left, I wanted to check the photography policy, so I went to the website, and there I saw something very interesting: I was not headed for merely a pirate experience, but a pirate and witch experience!

This is not the pitch on Cape Cod, I can assure you: this is a special Salem pitch. And obviously this is why there’s so much emphasis on Maria Hallett, who became known as the “Witch of Eastham” over her long legendary career. I quickly became more fixated on this than the “Pirates as Social Justice Warriors” claim, especially as I did not see over-reach in that area in the exhibit’s interpretation. It was disappointing, because my experience there was primarily positive: the staff was friendly and informative, it’s a very well-designed space, there’s a good introduction to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and there are authentic artifacts from the Whydah. When you have Real Pirates and real treasure why feature a fake witch? I think this focus is a mistake, although to its credit, the exhibition does present all the Maria theories rather than the “fact” of her existence. I shook that fictional witch off, because I was enjoying my conversation with one of Real Pirates’ managers, who is a graduate of our MA program at Salem State where she wrote her thesis on pirates! She was full of plans and ideas, for both interpretation within the museum and engagement outside: she seemed to have put more substantive thought into how to feature and honor Charlotte Forten than most people associated with the City of Salem, even though that is not her job. (I still think it’s a stretch, and an uncomfortable one at that, but go for it) And then I got distracted by the nautical instruments displayed, as there’s a whole chapter on them in my book: I thought they were rather boring to write about actually but now I don’t seem to be able to get enough navigational dividers! That’s the key: the authentic objects. Historical authenticity is sadly at a premium in touristy Salem, and the Real Pirates Museum can distinguish itself by keeping it real.

A REAL Anchor.


The Rebecca Nurse Homestead

As I write this on a sunny warm Saturday afternoon, there’s a line of cars extending down my entire street which has been continuous since about 10:00 this morning; I’m sure every other entry road into Salem is the same. My windows are open so I can hear and smell the exhaust as well as booming radio music; the situation has been much the same over the past three weekends and it will be the same for the next two. Salem in October! Of course we’re all supposed to grin and bear it because it’s good for local businesses, and we do. Generally I make plans to get away but that hasn’t been the case this year for some reason: a big mistake. Last week I didn’t even provision properly before the weekend: an even bigger mistake! This week, I provisioned properly and went on a lovely twilight tour of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, a town which approaches its Witch Trial history with far more reverence than Salem. So today I am not only better-provisioned but also considerably calmer than a week ago: the cars are annoying but really I just feel sorry for their passengers.

A Tale of Two October “Salems”: Salem Town and Salem Village, part of what is now Danvers.

I’ve been to the Nurse Homestead before, but I wanted to return this year as I’ve been teaching a course on the trials, and Rebecca’s experience has been the most impactful on my somewhat jaded freshmen, who are taking a required “first year seminar” rather than a course (and a subject) of their particular interest. They are cool customers, all majoring in business or criminal justice or nursing or something “practical”, and I’m not sure they know what to think of hyper-historical me, perpetually indulging my curiosity! But I’m making them read all sort of primary sources, and I can tell that Rebecca’s trial moved them: this well-respected grandmother, supported by her Salem Village neighbors and exonerated first by a jury, only to indict herself because she couldn’t hear a second round of questions clearly, one of three Towne sisters to be accused in 1692 and two to die. This year marks the 500th anniversary of her birth, in Yarmouth, England. Rebecca and her husband Francis spent most of their married life in Salem town, citizens of good standing, but moved out to the Village when they were in their fifties along with their married children, creating a family compound, in the center of which was and is the c. 1678 house now under the stewardship of the Danvers Alarm List Company. Not far from the house is a family graveyard, where Rebecca is supposedly buried, along with another accused and executed “witch”, George Jacobs. In its midst is the very first memorial to a victim of 1692, erected by her descendants in 1885.

I was among descendants on the tour, making a regular pilgrimage to this sacred site, happy to be on familiar and familial territory on such a beautiful October evening. The young guide was great, eager and happy to answer as many questions as we could direct her way. Not a single reference to ghosts! The only discordant element of the entire evening was a woman wearing a frilly witch hat, the only one among us so adorned, of course. How odd to see someone snapping a photo of a memorial to someone who was falsely accused of witchcraft, a martyr, in that hat, a party hat, from the other Salem.

No flash allowed inside, and as you can see it was quite dark, but this is believed to be the very “great” room in which Rebecca Nurse was arrested in the spring of 1692.


A Picky Guide to October in Salem

I think this might be the first time I’ve written up a “things to do” in Salem for Halloween, a holiday that lasts for at least two months here and seems to be on the way to becoming a year-long “celebration” with perhaps a month break for Christmas. I’m the ultimate Halloween Scrooge, I’ll never be able to get past the opportunistic exploitation of tragedy issue, and Salem has enough boosters already. BUT, this year is a bit different as I am teaching the Salem Witch Trials for the very first time, in a couple of seminars for freshmen designed not only the explore the historical event and its impact but also to introduce them to the requisite skills of critical thinking and effective discourse. None of my students are from Salem, so I want to introduce them to the city as well. They are excited to be here and the last thing they need is a Halloween Scrooge: every Thursday after our last class of the week they ask for weekend recommendations and it would terribly wrong for me to simply say LEAVE. They should form their own impressions about Salem in general and Salem in October, so here is my guide to helping them do that. It’s not just for students and those new to Salem: I get emails about October every year so I’m trying to address general queries as well.

Get the story straight and the lay of the land. Where to go for general orientation when there is no Salem Museum? The only option is the Salem Visitor Center on Essex Street, right in the midst of the sprawling Peabody Essex Museum campus. The Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and Essex Heritage: at present there’s not much there besides flyers, books for sale, banners, and restrooms, but you can purchase tickets and view the best introduction to the trials: Salem Witch Hunt: Examine the Evidence. We’ve spent the last month in class doing just that, but I still recommend this documentary to my students and anyone visiting Salem with the goal of learning more about the trials.

The Salem Armory Visitor Center and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Plummer Hall and Daland House adjacent: empty in the midst of much activity!

Choose your tour carefully. Walking tours are the best way, and really the only means, for the student/visitor to get both the lay of the land and the Salem story, but it’s important to know which Salem story you want to hear. I have no idea how many walking tours are offered now: I was walking down Charter Street the other afternoon (a relatively short street) and I encountered six, encompassing amplified guides each surrounded by 30+ tourists. It felt like a gauntlet. It’s impossible not to hear what guides are saying as you walk down the street, and they are spinning very different tales. So this is an opportunity for consumer research. Use the crowd-sourced tourism review sites: they are very illuminating. I’m taking my seminar students on their own walking tour in November, but I’m sure many of them want to go on ghost tours now and are are too afraid to ask for recommendations from me: I have none, so I would just tell them (and any visitor so-inclined) to do their research. There are a few below-the-radar historical and architectural tours that I’d like to mention here, however. Dr. Donald Friary, the former executive director of Historic Deerfield who now lives in Salem, is giving two focused tours of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site sponsored by Essex Heritage, and you can also book tours with him (and other guides) here. Two other tour companies which seem to be offering more intimate and focused (cultural and architectural) experiences are here and here.

In addition to Dr. Friary’s tours, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site offers several audio and digital tours of their site; The tour group in Derby Square above is about the average Salem size in October: this particular guide was doing a great job explaining the changing coastline of Salem while keeping their rapt attention: I’m sure I couldn’t do that!

Salem museums are not created equal. Salem has only two museums which are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, whose core standards are available here: the Peabody Essex Museum and Historic New England’s Phillips and Gedney Houses. Actually the small museum administered by Essex Heritage out at Bakers Island is also accredited, but I doubt that very many October visitors are going to make it out there and it is closed for the season. The word museum is used very loosely in Salem, so beware: this is another realm for which online reviews will be helpful. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum decided to engage with the Witch Trials by offering its first exhibition on the events of 1692 in quite some time, and it was truly wonderful to see objects and texts which I had only read about for the first time. This year, the PEM is continuing its engagement with The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. I’m a bit confused by this exhibition so I’m going to go back again myself as well as with my students, but I will say that, once again, the authenticity of the objects and texts is striking when contrasted with so much faux in Salem, and I know from reading all these reviews that authenticity is something that very many Salem visitors are seeking. Historic New England offers a bit of specialty programming for both of its Salem properties in October: just the other day I went to a stirring presentation of Poe poems at the Gedney House, and the Phillips House is presenting Wicked Wednesdays for children.

Poe at Gedney House by Theater in the Open: these performance are over but remember, remember for next year. They use the house really well.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and Charter Street Cemetery. A big change here in terms of stewardship, so I can recommend a visit to these important, sacred sites. In past years, they were both overrun, but a partnership between the Peabody Essex Museum and the City of Salem has created a more protected and interpretive environment, based at the adjacent first-period Pickman House. The cemetery has been restored very carefully, and it’s really one of the most poignant places in Salem. Unfortunately the tackiest attractions in Salem are adjacent, literally blowing smoke into the cemetery, but that’s the reality of Salem in October: poignant and tacky.

FilmsThere are many opportunities to see timely films in Salem during October: on the Common, at the recently-revived Cinema Salem, on the patio of the East Regiment Beer Company. I’m looking forward to a screening of the animated House of the Seven Gables at Cinema Salem on the 28th in an evening sponsored by the Gables which will also feature a Q and A with the creator/director, Ben Wickey.

Just walk around: I suspect that my students just want to walk around in the midst of the packed Instagram crush that is downtown Salem, although a few of them did express concerns about the density of the crowds last weekend. So for them, and any visitor seeking a bit more space, I would recommend just walking around the neighborhoods: in the McIntire District, adjacent to the Common, along  and off Derby Street. There’s lots of beautiful houses to see, many decorated for the season, and lovely gardens behind the Ropes Mansion and Derby House. I’m hearing that the Haunted Happenings Marketplace, now on Salem Common, is a bit more carefully curated than in years past, so I might even venture over there today (a Saturday!) on foot, of course: opinions may differ about the character and impact of Salem’s Halloween, but the one thing everyone agrees on is the need to discourage driving dramatically: traffic and parking are just too scary.

Derby and Ropes Gardens, Federal Court, and WAY further afield on Lafayette Street.

 


The Making of Witch City, part Whatever

So many people, events, ideas, circumstances, and general forces went into the transformation of Salem, a dynamic manufacturing city that while never altogether embarrassed by its infamous witch trials was still reluctant to exploit them, into a tourist city with an economy increasingly based on just that, that sometimes I feel like my entire blog has been devoted to this process. It began in earnest with the Bicentennial commemoration of the trials in 1892, and began to accelerate from the 1980s. Then it really accelerated. The rise of Witch City has been the subject of myriad documentaries, books and dissertations and will doubtless inspire more studies in the future. It’s a compelling topic: tragedy and its exploitation. While many have stressed the roles of Salem’s stagnant post-industrial economy, the particular popularity of the Bewitched television series, the increasing popularity of Halloween in general, and the rise of Dark Tourism in bringing about this evolution, I’ve tended to focus on consumerism here, including Daniel Low’s witch spoons and postcards and Frank Cousins’ souvenirs. But now I’ve found another guy on which to blame everything: Abner C. Goodell.

Spotlight on Abner C. Goodell: Boston Herald, 13 May 1906 and some of the texts in his collection.

Just who was Abner C. Goodell, and why was he an important contributor to Witch City? He was a man who led a full and rich life, a lawyer and and an historian; a public official and a public persona. I have encountered him primarily as a collector: of colonial texts in general and those focused on witchcraft in particular. I’m putting together my syllabi for the fall semester and for the first time ever, I’m teaching a course, two actually—first-year seminars for freshmen—on the Salem Witch Trials. I’ve taught the European witch trials many, many times, but never Salem: I’m not an American historian and our department has the distinction of having Emerson Baker, the expert on Salem, among its members. But Tad is on leave and we need to teach the Salem trials so it fell to me. Teaching about witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions is really, really difficult: the main challenge is to get the students to really understand the beliefs and fears of the people involved rather than resort to what E.P. Thompson called the “the enormous condescension of posterity” and simply write them off as “superstition.” In my European course, the students read primary sources to develop this understanding, so that’s my plan for the Salem course as well. As I was looking through the wonderful collection of witchcraft sources at Cornell, I noticed that many of them were coming from one collection: that of Abner C. Goodell of Salem. So many tracts: very accessible to us all now through digitization, but assembling them in his lifetime was quite an achievement. He was the ultimate American collector of early modern witchcraft literature. By several accounts, he had amassed a library of 17,000 colonial and witchcraft texts by the end of his life, and after his death the majority were sold at auction, dispersing them to many private and public collections.

Mr. Goodell developed his passion for colonial and witchcraft texts from three foundations: his careers as a lawyer and historian and his residence, 4 Federal Street, which was built on the site of the seventeenth-century jail where the accused witches were imprisoned. Actually it was not simply built on the site, but also built from remnant materials of the older structure. I don’t believe in haunted houses, but the power of place can be a strong influence: all of the accounts of Goodell’s collecting life focus on his unusual residence in great detail. Generally acknowledge to be “framed by the timbers of the Old Salem Jail,” the Boston Herald observed that “could these old beams speak, they would doubtless recall many a groaning and long-drawn-out prayer for salvation” and reported that while much of the original 1684 prison was torn down in 1763 to erect a new one, an order of the Court of Sessions required the use of as many of the original oak timbers as possible. After the new Salem jail was built on St. Peter Street in 1813, the building was sold to private owners, and Goodell acquired it in 1863. Nineteenth-century additions rendered the resulting architecture “composite” in the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “as it covers four centuries and embodies features of each century.” Within this storied building was Mr. Goodell’s equally-storied “library, den or workshop,” two stories in height with a gallery running around it, all finished in heavy black walnut.

Boston Sunday Globe, 24 June 1904; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the exterior and interior of 4-4 1/2 Federal Street during Goodell’s occupancy, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth. A House of many protuberances! 

Goodell was a very public man: through apprenticeships, he became a distinguished attorney and historian and rose to the positions of Registrar of Probate for Essex County and the official “Commissioner and Editor on the publication of the Province Laws” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was a President of the New England Historical Genealogical Society and an active member of both the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute in Salem. His entry into witchcraft studies was primarily legal, and when his increasingly-notable collection began to attract the attention of local newspaper reporters the first thing he showed them was his framed copy of the 1711 Act to Reverse the Attainders of George Burroughs and Others for Witchcraft. As the expert in Massachusetts colonial law, Goodell was very proud of this act, which represented the admission of culpability and the triumph over superstition—his era’s version of the intolerance messaging we hear in Salem today. Acknowledgement and reversal of wrongs legitimizes their exploitation.

Abner C. Goodell’s son, Alfred Putnam Goodell, is often credited as a pioneer witch-trial entrepreneur as he and his wife opened the “Old Witch Jail and Dungeon” at 4 Federal Street in 1935, but I think he was just following in his father’s footsteps, albeit in a more commercial way. The senior Goodell was certainly a showman, who gave numerous lectures on the witch trials as well as private tours of his home and library, and the 1918 auction of his collection drew national attention. Four Federal received its Massachusetts Tercentenary Marker in 1930, and following the “discovery” of the original “witch dungeon” in his basement in 1935 (another national story, but confusing as I think that Goodell Sr. referred to this same dungeon?), Alfred Goodell opened the Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in his own birthplace. He acknowledged his father’s many contributions to witchcraft studies and styled himself a “curator,” establishing a precedent for Salem’s strictly-for-profit “museums”. It is also notable that both Abner and Alfred Goodell referred to the victims of 1692 as “witches” rather consistently. After the latter’s death, there was so little opposition to the razing of Four Federal Street by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company that I am wondering if it had lost its earlier landmark status because of its commodification. And somehow its plaque ended up on the new Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street: not the Tercentenary one below (no one seems to know where all of Salem’s Tercentenary markers are) but one installed after its demolition. There was power (and pride) of place in Abner C. Goodell’s lifetime; afterwards, not so much.

The Old Witch Jail and Dungeon in the 1930s and 1940s. Boston Globe, 15 September 1949.


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.