Saturday 22 September 2018

We're Going on a Witch Hunt by Catherine Hokin

Edgar Allan Poe Statue Boston
The schools having returned from their holidays, I've just been on mine - trust me the novelty of travelling during term-time will never wear off. We did an East Coast trip this year, visiting Boston and Washington, slightly on edge at the reports of Hurricane Florence although in the end we encountered only minor flooding. The architecture of the two cities shares commonalities - both retain pockets of beautiful nineteenth century clapboard houses and both have eighteenth century nods to ancient Rome and Greece although this is much more marked in Washington's neck-cracking take on empire. I've never felt more like an ant as I did on the Mall. 

Both cities are fabulous to visit, but the winner for me was Boston where the Gothic still lingers. One of Boston's most famous residents and one of my favourite authors, if not people, was Edgar Allen Poe who now has a statue at the Common. It's a wonderful thing - Poe's cloak flares all dramatic and a raven and a heart tumble from his briefcase. It is all, however, rather tongue-in-cheek. Poe is placed close by the Frog Pond which was at the base of most of the insults he threw at other writers and he is depicted as sour-faced and in the act of striding away from the city he was born in but hated. Poe described the people of Boston as having no soul (which surely should have attracted him), very dull and heartily ashamed of the fact that they were born in Boston in the first place. He was notorious for his loudly-expressed loathing of works by other Boston writers (including Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau) and for comparing their ideas and writings to the croaking of the frogs which lived on the pond where he now resides, referring to the city's literary greats with parochial disdain as Frogpondians. It's rather a shame that the only frogs in the area now are sculptured ones: their chorus permanently tormenting the statue frozen in flight is a touch worthy of one of his own stories.

 Providence Athenaeum
Poe's home no longer exists and Boston is far more interested in commemorating renaissance man Paul Revere than its more ungrateful son. To get closer to Poe today you need to travel the short distance to Providence in Rhode Island. The side-streets positively teem with the kind of turreted and ivy-clad houses you expect to find a TB-ridden maiden fainting in. Which may explain why Poe went wandering there. Shortly after his first wife died, Poe started courting Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence who was a poet and spiritualist. He proposed and she accepted on the condition he would remain sober until the day of the wedding. He promised, couldn't do it and she broke the relationship off, although Poe blamed Whitman's mother for that, rather than his own behaviour. Despite Poe dying in Baltimore, he is now reported to haunt Providence, in the area round Benefit Street and the Atheneaum which he used to visit with Whitman. Apparently the ghost has a rather melancholy air and vanishes if you try to chat.

 The Witch House, Salem
Having done the ghosts and the Gothic and Boston being in the grip of a heatwave (and the kind of humidity which took my hair back to the 1980s), the logical next step was a visit to Salem for some witch-hunting. Salem is famous, or notorious, for the trials which took place in the town between 1692-93 in which over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 executed. To put this in context, a witchcraft craze had rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s with tens of thousands (the exact figure remains disputed) of supposed witches, mostly women, being executed. The outbreak in Salem came relatively late and, although there are many theories about the causes (including ergot poisoning through contaminated bread), it is likely that the trials had their roots in a more modern and cautionary tale: war, fear of others and the failure to integrate displaced people.

In 1689, England started a war with France in their rival American colonies. This ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources which aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. To add to the problems, controversy also raged over Salem Village’s first ordained minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was disliked because he was perceived as rigid and greedy. The very strictly devout Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil. Add into the mix some bored and hysterical girls (Parris's daughters and their friends), an old and vulnerable woman (Sarah Osborne) and a Caribbean slave (Tituba) who liked telling the girls voodoo stories to entertain them on wet days and you have a potent brew ripe for stirring.

 The execution of Bridget Bishop, Salem
In January 1692, the Parris girls and another local girl began to have “fits” - screaming, throwing things, uttering peculiar sounds and twisting themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. On February 29th, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne. As Jess Blumberg put it in The Smithsonian magazine, With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed. Good and Osborne pleaded innocent but Tituba 'confessed'. She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her, and several other witches in the town who wanted to destroy the Puritans, to sign his book. All three women were put in jail and the damage was done, accusations snowballed. Despite the pleas for calm by people such as the minister Cotton Mather, by May 20 people were dead - 19 by hanging and one crushed by stones. It was a period of unstoppable madness and it was short-lived. The judges confessed their error, the trials were declared illegal and, less than 10 years later in 1711, the good names of all the victims was restored. 

 One of the many
Salem today is a masterpiece of marketing, full of witch-themed shops selling hokey souvenirs and more psychics than you can shake a stick at (available at the Harry Potter shop if needed). We went prepared for that and it was a lot of fun. What we hadn't expected was the relevance with which the main museum (the Salem Witch Museum) presents its trial exhibition. For all the use of the word 'witch', the emphasis was very much on paranoia and the damage it inflicts. You exit not through the gift-shop but past a giant witch-hunt wall which contexts the Salem experience in the simple, or not so simple, maths of human ignorance. Fear + instigator = persecution. The case was made with equal weight for the appalling treatment and consequent suffering of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour, for the thousands accused of communism during the McCarthy era and for gay people during the early days of AIDS hysteria. There was a lot of space left on the wall. As I stood in Washington the following week and watched Trump's cavalcade leave the White House, biting my lip at every 'Make America Great' again t-shirt, I could have filled that space over and over. Some holiday souvenirs stay with you the longest.

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