What do a 17th century walking stick, an Alexander McQueen evening gown, and portraits of 75 modern day, self-identifying witches have in common? Each is evidence of the enduring power of the Salem witch trials, which continue to haunt us, and to capture our imaginations, nearly three hundred years after the last victim hanged.
“The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” which opened at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in September, explores the complicated history of the witch trials by presenting contemporary documents and historic artifacts from those involved in the trials alongside the work of two modern artists — late designer Alexander McQueen and photographer Frances F. Denny — who have each reimagined the concept of “witch” in a contemporary light.
The current exhibit, PEM associate curator Lydia Gordon tells GO, was designed to showcase the witch trials through this unique lens blending the historic with the modern. It was inspired in part by a similar witch trial-themed exhibit last year, which marked the first time the museum displayed historic documents related to the trials in nearly two decades. The exhibit was popular, but its run was disrupted by the Covid pandemic.
“We knew we had a responsibility to present another experience, but we didn’t want to do the same thing,” Gordon says. “So we started thinking about, ‘What are artists saying about this history today? How has this crisis inspired contemporary artists and thinkers and what is the narrative now?’”
The featured artists, Denny and McQueen, both have ancestral ties to the witch trials, which took place in Salem between the years 1692 and 1693. McQueen is the descendant of Elizabeth How, one of the accused, while Denny traces her lineage to Salem judge Samuel Sewall and to Mary Bliss Parsons, a Northampton woman accused of witchcraft and acquitted in Boston some 20 years prior to the Salem hysteria. Both drew on their ancestry for artistic inspiration.
“They are working to help us reckon with these episodes of injustice,” says Gordon, “but also doing a lot of this reclaiming, this very activist stance, in giving voice and image and representation to the stories and the people that really could not use their voice.”
The featured work from McQueen — a shimmering black evening gown which was part of his Fall/Winter 2007 collection, “In Memory of Elizabeth How, 1692” — pays homage to his late ancestor. How was accused, tried, convicted, condemned, and executed for witchcraft during a two-month period in 1692. The gown, “For Elizabeth,” is displayed among the contemporary documents detailing both the accusations against How (her own brother-in-law testified against her), and the testimony by friends, family, and neighbors in her favor. A timeline on the wall above the encased documents traces her journey, from her arrest on May 28 to her death by hanging on July 19.
While McQueen’s line was created in honor of his wrongfully accused ancestor — a homage in which “there is a lot of justice” Gordon says — Denny’s photographic exhibit, “Major Arcana,” takes a more modern approach. It features the portraits of 75 modern day witches from across the United States (a handful of which are on display at the PEM) which Denny took over a three-year period.
For Denny, her linkage to both a witch trial judge and an accused witch got her “thinking about the witch as an archetype that has traveled through time,” she tells GO. “I became aware that it is also a word that has been reclaimed by people who identify as witches and practice witchcraft in many, various ways.” As a photographer, she decided her camera would be her “passport” to help her learn more about what modern witchcraft entails, and the individuals who define themselves as witches.
So what did she learn? “I realized quickly that there was no one way to be a witch,” she says. “It is an amorphous word that occupies a kind of gray area, that it’s a very sort of individualized identity.” Her subjects represent a diverse range of races, ethnic groups, ages, sizes, and geographic regions, as well as a diverse array of witch identities: green witches, sex witches, kitchen witches, activist witches, feminist witches, environmental witches, Tarot readers, Wiccans, Neo-pagans, and astrologers.
In order to convey each individual’s relationship to their witch identity, Denny collaborated with her subjects, who selected their own outfits and the locations for their photo shoots. They also composed the short essays that accompany their portraits, sharing with visitors, in their own words, what witchcraft means to them.
While witchcraft practices may differ between those who, say, identify as herbalists and those who engage in shamanistic rituals, some common themes emerge in the short essays: power, or empowerment, control, and identity. For many of the subjects, embracing their witch identity has been integral in accepting who they are, and in exerting control over their own lives.
Their testimony provides a remarkable contrast with the documents on display from 1692/3, in which the accused often appear as third persons, disparaged by accusers or defended by allies (one exception is the 1692 petition for appeal written by John Proctor, who would be among those executed). Other items on exhibit from the era showcase the banal normality of everyday life made suddenly and terrifyingly sinister: a window from the home of accused witch Rebecca Nurse’s blood family; a chest owned by the family of the accused Sarah Osborne; a walking stick that belonged to elderly George Jacobs, and which his accusers claimed his specter used to beat them with.
“We try to create the environment of what it was like to live in Salem in the 17th century, and it was a scary, dark place. Nobody was safe,” says Gordon. And often, although not always, the targets were women. “The war on women hasn’t ended,” she adds. “It might look different. But it hasn’t.”
It’s not a coincidence that most of Salem’s accused were women. Most of Denny’s subjects are, too, although some identify as genderqueer or non-binary. Historically, the word witch “was a word used in violence against women,” says Denny. “And I think that that is clearly still something at stake when we’re looking at the politics, and what’s happening now in this country in 2021. I think we can see easily that women’s rights are still being fought for, and are still extremely compromised.” This legacy, she says, is one of the things that makes the story of Salem so powerful.
And while we might not persecute witches today with the same gusto as the Puritans did in colonial America, Denny, who was in the early stages of “Major Arcana” back in 2016, did notice a remarkable shift in how the individuals she’d reached out to responded to her inquiries following the presidential election that year. Some became reluctant to share their witch identity. “The atmosphere changed,” she says. “Suddenly, there was more at stake to being out of the broom closet.”
Not all were deterred by the election and some, especially younger witches, saw the election and its aftermath as a rallying cry to become more politically active. For the most part, witches today are not silent. They identify as such rather than having the identity imposed upon them as a means toward persecution. It’s a part of themselves that they accept, and do not hide from.
Salem has changed, too. The city made famous for persecuting witches has become a safe haven for self-identifying witches, a delicious irony that would no doubt have scandalized those early Puritans. 17th century Salem may have been scary and dark, but 21st century Salem is anything but.
“What we’re trying to do is create a space where people feel safe to be themselves, but also we want to celebrate people being themselves, and unafraid,” says Gordon. Visitors to the exhibit are invited to reflect upon the experience, and their own views of the “witch,” by writing or drawing their thoughts down on notecards which they can pin to the exhibition walls. The remarks are overwhelmingly positive: people calling for an end to intolerance and bullying, sharing how they use their own voices to bring about social change, or even outing themselves as witches.
The enduring legacy of Salem — that which we must both reckon and reclaim — can be expressed in the old cliché, which remains as relevant as ever: we can’t change history, but we can learn from it. Why else would the past haunt us if not so that we can make things better?
That history is woven into the DNA of Salem. “It’s our job to continue not only to remember,” says Gordon, but also to ask ourselves, “’How do we create meaning so that it never happens again?’”
Halloween might almost be upon us, but you can catch “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming” at the PEM through March 20, 2022. A book version of “Major Arcana,” is available for purchase through Frances F. Denny’s website.