Connected \\ October 1, 2021
A fresh lens on the Salem witch trials: PEMcast Episode 24
More than 15 years after a controversial TV witch statue was installed at a busy Salem intersection, we’re still trying to reckon this legacy — looking at Salem as everything from a safe haven for those who practice witchcraft, to a historic site of deep research to a day trip for those who want to buy a T-shirt. In this episode of the PEMcast, we examine the tragedies of 1692 from a 2021 lens. Literally the lens of one photographer’s camera as Frances F. Denny focused it on modern-day witches. These portraits are part of our new exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, which opened September 18.
PEM staffer Lora Doughty snaps a photo of a family at the Bewitched statue in downtown Salem. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
As a refresher on this history, in the 1670s, tensions ran high among the new Colonists in Salem. This led to the city’s residents being divided into accusers and those accused of witchcraft. The Salem witch trials led to the deaths of 25 innocent men, women and children and today serve as a defining example of intolerance and injustice in American history.
The Major Arcana publication is available in the PEM Shop. Image courtesy of the author.
Lydia Gordon, PEM's co-curator of The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, with photographer Frances F. Denny in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
The authentic documents and objects from PEM's collection on view embody tangible proof of the Salem 1692 witch trials. To link the past to the present, the exhibition also includes the contemporary portraits by Denny and works by celebrated fashion designer Alexander McQueen; both artists can connect their family trees to people involved with the witch trials.
English Artist. Bottle fragment, late 17th century. Glass. Museum purchase, 1946. © 2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Statement of James How Sr. for Elizabeth How, June 28, 1692. Phillips Library, on deposit from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. DEP 01, box 8, folder 24. © Peabody Essex Museum.
In 2006, McQueen visited Salem to conduct research on his ancestor, Elizabeth How, who was one of the first women to be hanged as a witch in the summer of 1692. His resulting collection In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692, presented in Paris the following spring, was inspired by this ancestral heritage.
“It's always interesting to try to keep moving the conversation forward,” says Lydia Gordon, Associate Curator and a co-curator of the exhibition, “and make more empathetic connections and further our understanding of history, so that we can create a more just future and sort of see the possibilities of what the future may hold.”
PEM Curator Paula Richter arranged the hem of the evening dress by Alexander McQueen a few days before the exhibition opened.
Frances F. Denny, Shine, (New York, New York), 2017, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Denny's project, called Major Arcana, Portraits of Witches in America, includes interviews with 75 modern-day witches across the U.S. She sought to discover what witchery — re envisioned with agency and power — looks like today. In this exhibition, 13 of these portraits offer representational justice to the witch communities that are doing a lot of the work to reclaim, and also subvert, the damaging stereotype of the 17th-century witch, levied mostly at marginalized women.
Frances F. Denny in the PEM glallery with a portrait of her ancestor, Samuel Sewall, a Salem witch trial judge. Photo by Kathy Tanrantola/PEM.
Like McQueen, Denny dove into her family tree and discovered that she was related to Salem’s past as well, to both a woman accused of being a witch and one of the judges in the Salem witch trials. “I couldn't resolve it for myself,” says Denny. “The more I looked into this idea of the witch as kind of a primordial, female archetype, the more I realized that this is a word that is powerful. It has shapeshifted through the centuries and there are new meanings.”
Frances F. Denny, Erica, (Salem, Massachusetts), 2016, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
For this episode, I also spoke with Erica Feldman, owner of Hauswitch in Salem and a portrait subject in Major Arcana. People often say that Feldman has carved out a very safe and inclusive space here on Washington Street in Salem. During our interview, Feldman showed me the cleaning products Hauswitch sells, intended to create a safe environment at home. “Witch is such a loaded word,” she says. “We have the choice to call ourselves witches, which is something that most people throughout history definitely have not had. I often think to myself, what are you doing to ensure that people going forward aren't victimized by that word?”
Erica Feldman at Hauswitch and products sold in her store. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
I also had the pleasure of speaking with Pam Grossman, host of a podcast called Witch Wave. Grossman was also a subject for Denny and wrote the forward for the publication Major Arcana. She launched the Witch Wave to feature guests who identify with the archetype for all sorts of reasons. “Witchcraft is, some say, the fastest growing spiritual group in America right now,” says Grossman. “It’s incredibly diverse people who come to witchcraft for so many different reasons. It, to my mind, actually looks a lot more like what the world looks like.”
Frances F. Denny, Pam, (Brooklyn, New York), 2016 from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view from September 18, 2021 to March 20, 2022. Go online to see copies of the Salem witch trial documents from PEM’s collection. Join the discussion with #SalemWitchTrials.
This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. Music for this episode by Alan Watts, Terror Bird, Ketsa, Till Paradiso and Azar Swan. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.
TOP IMAGE: Frances F. Denny, (1984 - ), United States, Erica, (Salem, Massachusetts), 2016, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series, archival pigment print, 26” x 20”. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, NY
Frances: They were tarot readers, astrologers, plant based healers, herbalists. There were green witches, hedge witches, sex witches, space witches, kitchen witches.
Pam: You know, we don't all have pointy hats and play into all of those old tropes. Witchcraft is, some say, the fastest growing spiritual group in America right now. It is an incredibly diverse body of people. People who come to witchcraft for so many different reasons. And so, it also to my mind actually looks a lot more like what the world looks like.
Frances: It is such a difficult identity to pin down. You can't pin her down, and that's actually what I really love about this identity and this world.
[Music, sound of night sky]
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin. In this episode, we look at our latest exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials, Reckoning and Reclaiming. We will hear more from photographer Frances Denny, shopkeeper Erica Feldman and podcast host Pam Grossman as we examine the tragedies of 1692 from a 2021 lens. Literally the lens of Frances Denny’s camera as she focused it on modern day witches. These portraits, taken all around America, are part of our latest exhibition examining the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Our exhibition, which opened on September 18, features rare documents and objects from the world’s largest collection of Salem witch trials materials. It focuses on individual stories of the accusers and the accused, when the residents of Salem were pitted against one another and no one was safe from the threat of execution. The tangible things directly related to the people of Salem in the 17th century. A handwritten petition, a child’s loom, a walking stick. These personal possessions are left behind from a brutal time in our city’s history. Grounded in this history, the exhibition also presents the works of two artists who are personally connected to this well-documented trauma. Salem’s history still inspires artists today, more than 300 years after these tragic events took place. The artists invite us to consider new meanings and connections between the past and the present as we explore identity, community and spiritual practice, reclaiming the word witch.
Lydia: It's always interesting to try to keep moving the conversation forward, right? ...And make more empathetic connections and further our understanding of history, so that we can create a more just future and sort of see the possibilities of what the future may hold. I'm Lydia Gordon. I'm an associate curator at the Peabody Essex Museum and a co curator on the exhibition The Salem Witch Trials, Reckoning and Reclaiming.
Dinah: In 2006, celebrated fashion designer Alexander McQueen visited Salem to conduct research on his ancestor, Elizabeth How, who was one of the first women to be hanged as a witch in the summer of 1692. After visiting several key sites in Salem, his resulting collection In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692, was presented in Paris the following spring. Some of the pieces from this autobiographical collection will be on view, alongside powerful documents related to the case of Elizabeth Howe -- from the original complaint made against her in 1692 all the way to the reparations made to her daughters Mary and Abigail in 1712.
Lydia: The response that I was involved with is a series of photographs by Frances F. Denny. Denny's project is called Major Arcana, Portraits of Witches in America. As a photographer, I think a lot of what she tried to accomplish in this project is really give that representational justice to the witch communities of today that are doing a lot of the work to reclaim, and also subvert that really damaging stereotype of the 17th century witch levied at marginalized women, mostly.
Frances: So, I'd say for a long time, my work as an artist has looked at the formation of selfhood and identity, particularly that of a female self.
Dinah: Portrait photographer Francis Denny has spent years exploring how we define the idea of woman for ourselves. She says a witch is not one thing just like a woman is not one thing.
Frances: My series from 2014 called, Let Virtue Be Your Guide explores the particular femininity embodied by many of my relatives in New England.
Dinah: While researching that series, Denny dove into her family tree and discovered that her 10th great grandfather was one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials.
Frances: His name was Samuel Sewall. And, coincidentally, I also found on that family tree that my eighth great grandmother, a woman named Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft. Now, this would have been about 20 years prior to the Salem trials and in Northampton, Massachusetts. It felt strange to be related to and descended from both the kind of oppressor figure, you know. But, all the same, that coincidence stuck with me. I couldn't resolve it for myself.
Dinah: While at PEM for the opening of the exhibition, Frances visited the oil painting of her ancestor Samuel Sewall, condemning judge in the Salem witch trials.
Frances: He has a round face and a dimpled chin. And He is looking at me like he doesn’t know what to make of me. I wonder what he would think of the fact that his descendent is not only celebrating people who do identity as witches, but who has a kinship with them.
Dinah: Lydia Gordon pointed out that the portrait, painted in 1733 by John Smibert, will be on view in PEM’s new American gallery, opening in January 2022.
Lydia: When we look at portrait painting, we’re supposed to revere these people who are represented, but this is really a complex person in history. Looking at this portrait, I personally feel very angry and confused. I’m not so sure how to respond to being in his presence.
Frances: He’s an interesting character in the story, right?
Dinah: Frances again.
Frances: He was one of the judges that put people to death. But I do think he was one of the only to express any contribution about what happened. It’s sort of shocking. But he was kind of progressive for his time. He was an early abolitionist. But at the end of the day, it’s what you did sitting at the judge’s bench. It’s really nice that he apologized years later. But it takes a lot more integrity to do the right thing in the moment then to say you're sorry later on. Despite the letter, despite whatever progressive deeds he did later, this man’s legacy is the most evil act he ever committed. He’s a representation of the patriarchal establishment and the great lengths they took to subjugate people who didn’t fit neatly into the status quo or for whatever reason were victims of this tragedy.
Dinah: Frances spent three years interviewing 75 modern day witches across the US. She sought to discover what witchery -- re envisioned with agency and power -- looks like today.
Frances: But the more I looked into this, this idea of the witches, kind of a primordial, female archetype, the more I realized, you know, this is a word that is powerful. It has shape shifted through the centuries and there are new meanings. So I started on hunches that I had about people that I knew and contacted a few small handful of people that I knew who I suspected would sort of understand what I was after with this project and they agreed to be photographed within the context of it. And then once I had about 10 or 12 people that I had photographed, I had people introducing me to their entire cousins. I had people emailing lots of other friends across the country about putting me in touch. but it was really important to me that the spectrum of people that I was photographing were not just like young Instagram witches, you know. I needed to have a real diversity in terms of geography, and age, and ethnicity, and body type and, um, and place that I photograph them.
Frances: When we are photographed, we put on a mask. We put on the way that we want to be seen or the way that we think we should be seen. It's a persona. It’s a performance, right? So, I feel like my task, the onus is on me to help people take that mask off in front of my camera. So, I do that very gently.
Lydia: This book includes over 70 portraits. We have 13 exhibited in the exhibition. This is a portrait of Shine from New York. This portrait is incredibly commanding.
Dinah: Curator Lydia Gordon.
Lydia: And what we see here is a woman of color, posing in this incredible and golden embroidered black velvet jacket with these incredible necklaces made of crystals and silver and her rings, her fingers are adorned with these incredible, chunky jewel rings and the backdrop is complete nature. So she's sort of framed in sort of this beautiful, lush landscape. Shine as a subject is incredibly self possessed. She's staring right at the camera, so, right at the viewer, she's meeting the viewer's gaze.
Dinah: The portrait sitter is Shine Blackhawk. We asked her to read part of her essay that is exhibited in the gallery next to her portrait.
Shine: My brand of witchcraft is my own: a wild, eclectic brew of hoodoo (Black Native American folk spirituality) and shamanism. I am a solitary witch and the woods are my church. I pray in nature and use the elements to heighten my rituals and ceremonies. I use tools such as drums, rattles, animal bones, feathers, crystals, and sigils, and I channel animal spirits, spirit guides and ancestors.
Lydia: I'm looking at Debbie from Louisiana seen here in her scrubs. She is a surgical coordinator, but she's also the High Priestess of a Wiccan Church.
Dinah: Debbie Jeffreys also shared part of her story.
Debra: My paying job is as a surgical coordinator for the local organ procurement agency. For the past seventeen years, I have helped facilitate the surgical recovery of human organs for transplant. I feel that although my patients are brain-dead, and have started to cross over the veil between our physical world and the spirit world. I believe in reincarnation and that our spirit is made of energy that does not die; it just transforms.
Frances: I can't tell you how many different types of people that I photographed in terms of like, what their belief systems were and what they were practicing. They were people who were Wiccan. There were people who practiced voodoo. Many of them considered themselves, pagan, many didn't. There are people who practiced mysticism, engaged with the occult. There were very politically driven activist witches. I don't feel like these pictures are defining something. ..they're leaving the subject a bit mysterious, and I think that there's power in that mystery, because it allows your mind to kind of wander in and get lost, and sort of think, "Oh, maybe I belong here too."
Erica: I am fascinated by the idea of the potential of the witch as an archetype of some sort of fem defiance and reclaiming the witch from this victim of history into this symbol of power of marginalized folks. And what better place to do that than in Salem, Massachusetts.
Dinah: Here we are with Erica Feldman, owner of Hauswitch, a downtown shop that offers unique cleaning products, as well as thoughtful workshops and tours of Salem’s history from a feminist perspective. People often say that Feldman has carved out a very safe and inclusive space here on Washington Street in Salem.
Erica: People even come in here and say, "Are you guys witches?" And we're like, "Yeah! Like it's called HausWitch. We're witches." But, you know, none of us are wearing like cloaks. We have the choice to call ourselves witches, which is something that most people throughout history definitely have not had. Witch is such a loaded word. And so it's like, "What are you doing to ensure that people going forward aren't victimized by that word?" Some people use it without those ideas in mind, it feels a little empty, right? It feels a little hollow. That's one thing that we hear over and over again in the shop, is just that people really do appreciate sort of the substance of what we're trying to do.
Dinah: I mention to Erica the intersection of Queer life and witches, both in the Major Arcana project, but also in Salem and the witch community in general. I ask her why those who feel on the outside might connect with the archetype of the witch.
Erica: I've been drawn to it since I was a child, and I don't know what that has to do with my identity as you know, sort of outsider. But I imagine that's what it is for some people, you know witches are powerful. That's why they are victimized. That's why they are criminalized. And so if you are a person growing up, that doesn't feel like they have a lot of power over their situation, you know, for some people witches are superheroes. The witch contains multitudes. For some people, it's a religion. For some people, it's a spirituality. For some people, it's just, it's a political stance. That's kind of where I situate myself. And so, within these 900 square feet, being as radical as you can be is a really important place to operate from.
Dinah: Erica posed for Frances Denny and even held the virtual book launch from Hausewitch. Erica’s portrait was taken in her home, against a gorgeous brick wall, with a family heirloom chair.
Erica: I don't know what people envision in their mind, but, um, I'm really happy that Frances's work shows that we look like all different kinds of people.
Dinah: A recurring theme in this exhibition -- that identity is most truthful when it’s self defined.
Erica: I'm sitting on my North Wind chair, which is a magical, um, sort of talisman that's been in my family that my mother let me take. It has a face of the North Wind carved into it, and so it's supposed to protect your home from evil spirits. And I named our first spell kit the North Wind, 'cause it's for protection.
Dinah: Do you want to look at?
Erica: Sure. So, it's about blowing away evil spirits, weird vibes, and heebie jeebies with the protective power of the North Wind.
Lydia: Folks come to Salem to experience something connected to the witch trials and contemporary witchcraft.
Dinah: Curator Lydia Gordon again.
Lydia: I hope that the communities and the folks that come in and see this body of work feel that they see themselves in the museum space and that it's just the beginning of a really wonderful relationship. It gets us thinking about those connections from the past to the present. I'm really honored to be able to sort of steward this and also learn and listen.
Dinah: Speaking of listening, also featured in the Major Arcana project is Pam Grossman, who hosts a podcast called the Witch Wave. The podcast is a safe space for the growing witch community, says Pam, as people seek safety from hierarchy, an embrace of the collective and a way to feel powerful in a chaotic world.
Pam: You know, I'm often fond of saying that the witch is arguably the only feminine archetype who derives power from herself or from nature or her relationship to the divine, not from her relationship to another person and not from her relationship to a male figure. [10:45] And that is very threatening to some people, but it is also extremely empowering to those of us who want to unapologetically claim our power, our femininity, our desire, our ambition, our gifts, our talent and to do so without apology. And so, for me, the witch is a figure of shamelessness, of liberation, and of limitless potential.
Dinah: Growing up in the wilds of New Jersey, Pam would practice magic spells in the woods behind her house.
Pam: This little patch that just felt so magical to me.
Pam: I'm sorry. I don't know if you could hear my cats, but they're just like, going crazy in the background, so apologies.
Dinah: In her forward for the Major Arcana publication, Pam writes that the name witch was historically used to silence those who dared to exert their feminine power and those who were outsiders and seen as a threat to the community.
Pam: And it's a fear of women and sexuality that is rooted in controlling, you know, women's bodies. It's rooted in a real fear of sexuality and female or feminine desire, a fear of female power.
Pam: And, and I'll tell you, a lot of times photographers who want to take my portrait, they often want me, you know, literally like wearing a pointy black hat. Or they want me, you know, all dressed entirely in black from head to toe. And lean into those cliches. They want me to be a sexy Brooklyn witch. It feels like a very intimate image and one built on trust because I trusted Frances so much.
Dinah: Pam started The Witch Wave to feature guests who identify with the archetype for all sorts of reasons.
Pam: I also have guests who really embody the archetype of the witch in their work. They might not necessarily say that they practice literal witchcraft, but maybe they're an artist or a drag queen or a lawyer even, but the work that they're doing is creative and draws on feminine power in ways that are counter patriarchal and in ways that often honor feminine liberation and feminine transgression. And that to me is just as interesting. The witchcraft community is constantly evolving. It is one that often embraces social justice and politics and technology. There is no one book or one guru. And so it really makes room for people to step into this world, no matter who they are. And I just find that to be so heartening and so hopeful.
Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. Organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming is on view from September 18, 2021 to March 20, 2022. On October 8, virtually join us for a curated fashion presentation inspired by the exhibition. The collection of Boston-based fashion designer Ashley Rose has been called “a mix of the bizarre and Harper’s Bazaar.”
Dinah: Also, if reading 17th century penmanship isn’t your thing, go on our website to see the transcribed Salem witch trial documents. Learn more at pem.org.
Dinah: This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. See behind the scenes photos for this episode on our blog Connected at pem.org. Music for this episode by Alan Watts, Terror Bird, Ketsa, Till Paradiso and Azar Swan. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.