Beacon Street Diary

September 17, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s highlight will be MS0061, the Conscientious Objectors World War II papers, 1940-1946. The collection was first processed in 1991 and additional changes were made in 2018.

The collection highlights those individuals who objected to participation in World War II. The first series is entirely dedicated to the application forms, titled “Registration of Members of Congregational and Christian Churches Who are Conscientious Objectors to Military Service”. The forms provide a snapshot into why people would not be willing to engage in military service in their own words. One example to highlight is the application of Siegmar Blamberg Jr. His form makes clear he thinks “...service would make it impossible for me to follow the dictates of my conscience in the matter of discharging my obligations to God and to my fellowmen and to myself”. These powerful words represent just one of over 100 different applications. Blamberg did not provide a lengthy explanation, but the collection includes some applications where the individual added letters giving deeper explanations into their decision to be conscientious objectors.

Our collection does not only focus on the applications but includes a large amount of administrative and financial paperwork. These items are associated with two former chairmen of the Congregational Christian Committee on Conscientious Objectors, Dr. Albert W. Palmer and Rev. Alfred Schmalz. These sections include efforts to raise money for the cause, lists of people living in the service camps, day-to-day administrative work, letters received that are against the cause, and various other correspondences.

The final series highlights various publications related to the conscientious objectors. One example is “The Church and Returning Conscientious Objectors” by Roy A. Burkhart. As the title suggests, it explores the issues of the returning objectors and what the church can do to support them. As a lesser known part of World War II history, all these publications are worth reading and exploring. This whole collection deserves more use and recognition and hopefully that starts to happen in the near future!

The legacy finding aid for this collection can be found HERE. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at ref@14beacon.org. Stay safe and have a great day!

September 3, 2020

By Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Now that the staff of the Congregational Library & Archives are back in our offices, or in my case temporarily holed up in the executive director’s office with it’s beautiful view of Beacon Street (oh woe is me), we have been able to resume our acquisitions workflows and accept new donations of archival and library materials. Collecting, to preserve and make accessible, is a key component of our mission. Indeed, a significant portion of our time during the pandemic has been to work on developing and refining a comprehensive collection policy for the CLA. And to return to this key component of our work once again after the long pause due to COVID has been a balm to my archivist soul.

My recent work with the Digital Asset Management System selection project has recently gotten me thinking about how we work with potential donors of archival materials though. We have a comprehensive collection policy that ensures the full preservation of a person, church, or organization’s memory. However, the way we have presented this list of material types has been format agnostic. For example, when communicating with organizations, we would make clear that we will take “Building records: such as blueprints, pew plans and pew deeds, assessors records, and records related to construction/renovation” without reference to the physical medium that these records appear on.

For most of the above listed record types, the first thing that comes to mind is likely something physical. Perhaps you imagine a record book containing meeting minutes related to the maintenance of the building or a large blueprint documenting the construction of a new addition. But the fact is that all these records can just as easily be digital and stored on a computer's hard drive!

Most records that are produced today by individuals or organizations are born-digital, meaning they were created in a digital format. As an extreme illustration of this fact, in 2013 the US Government Printing Office estimated that 97% of federal records produced were born digital (Jacobs, James A, 2014). Even organizations and persons who have been slower to adopt digital technologies are seeing larger percentages of their annual records become born-digital. Photographs from the annual BBQ taken on a cell phone, emails between committee members, the meeting minutes recorded in notepad, the PowerPoint presentation from the last board meeting, and the word document produced during the creation of this blog post are all examples of born-digital records. As an ever-increasing percentage of records are produced digitally, archivists must grapple with how to collect these records, as they are just as crucial to the preservation of memory as that physical record book from 1874.

For now, there are two immediate steps, and the CLA has already begun to do both. First happens at the point of contact with potential donors. Recently rewritten procedures ensure that when talking to donors, we more actively inquire and seek out born-digital materials. We want to ensure that no part of a church’s memory is lost because it was stored on a hard drive instead of in a file cabinet.  And second, the CLA is pursuing a Digital Asset Management System which will allow for the CLA to provide unparalleled access to the born-digital materials we have. The collection of born-digital materials means nothing if we cannot also make the materials accessible to our users, and the DAMS will do exactly that.

For better and worse, the future of archives is inextricably linked to the digital realm. We cannot say we collect, preserve, and make accessible the memories of Congregationalism if we do not collect, preserve, and make accessible digital records. Fortunately, the CLA is ready for this next step, and already working to make the incoming deluge of digital materials accessible for everyone, online and on location.

September 1, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Most of you have been sternly warned off leaving traces behind in your library books--writing, highlighting, dog-earring pages, all strictly verboten. And while I certainly stand behind this advice when it comes to your public library’s copy of Where the Crawdads Sing or in the instance I once read about where some helpful patron had underlined the name of the killer in nearly every mystery novel the library owned, this sort of paratextual material provides a wealth of information to library staff and future researchers interested in learning more about our the items in our collection and the lives they lived before they arrived on our shelves.

This post was inspired by a rather alarming inscription I found scrawled on the front cover of a pamphlet (see above). It reads: Do not under any circumstances let this get out of our hands. This is like catnip to someone like me who got into this field primarily so I could use my research skills to solve historical mysteries. The story here is almost certainly more mundane than what the inscription would indicate. The pamphlet is an otherwise unremarkable history of the American Missionary Association with no other markings inside it--no snarky commentary, no deep secrets, not arcane knowledge, alas. It’s unclear when this inscription was added--whether it was at the CLA or in the possession of the institution that donated it. My best guess is that other copies of this pamphlet or similar pamphlets had a habit of ‘walking off’ or getting lost and they were becoming hard to replace. Think of it as a precursor to the public library’s tattletape or a milder version of a Medieval book curse.

I was also reminded of another pamphlet I stumbled across with a similarly memorable inscription. It was an Anti-Masonic almanac from 1832 and someone had ominously written “Secrets written in blood should be revealed. A tree that bears such fruits should be hewn down” in ink around the edges of the cover. This book is definitely haunted. The quote comes from President John Quincy Adams--and what a quote!--referencing the disappearance and alleged murder of former Mason William Morgan who threatened to publish a book revealing the secrets of his former lodge. This event sparked a wave of Anti-Masonic sentiment across America which you can see reflected in the other Anti-Masonic materials in the library’s collection.

Much of the material at the CLA--and our oldest material in particular has come to us secondhand. Marginalia, Ex Librii and other paratextual evidence give us unique insight into the context in which the materials in our collections were received, made use of, and created. Special Collections librarians--people who work primarily with rare books and archives--are particularly concerned with provenance. This term refers to information about the origins, custody or ownership history of a collection, manuscript or book. For books, this can give us information about the sort of people who owned different types of books--their age, gender, and socioeconomic status. When a previous owner is an author in their own right we might be able to speculate about what books may have influenced their work, allowing for the fact that just because you own a book doesn’t mean you’ve actually read it (as my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile can attest). Many books bear the marks of their previous owners in the form of an Ex Libris which might take the form of the owner’s signature (e.g. SO-AND-SO, her book), or an artistically designed bookplate the owner has used for their entire library. One fantastic example in our collection comes from a book by S. H. De Kroyft, “the blind authoress”, which bears her bookplate in Boston Linetype, a system of writing designed for the vision-impaired and an early precursor to braille.

Other books give us unique insight to how previous owners reacted to their reading through marginalia--notes written in the margins or endleaves of books--or other means. My favorite example of this in our collection is a copy of The Theological Works of Thomas Paine previously owned by someone who absolutely hated Thomas Paine. Prior to encountering this book, I had no idea how divisive Paine had become in America after the Revolution. The owner of this book has left insults (“aka the devil” written underneath Paine’s frontispiece) and pointed commentary throughout the book. There is a wealth of information to be gleaned there about public reactions to Paine’s work, information that may not be available elsewhere if the owner kept his opinions between himself and the pages of this book.

If there’s one thing I hope readers will take away from this post, it’s that books are objects intended for use: go ahead and leave your mark and for the sake of the nosy librarians of the future, make sure you don’t leave out the good stuff.

August 25, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s highlight will be MS0914, the Loy and Edna Long missionary papers, 1929-1968. In 2010, staff members working on an inventory project came across this unprocessed, previously unknown collection. It was immediately accessioned and processed into the collection we have today.

The focus of the collection is on the Long’s three separate trips to India which took place between 1931-1946 and 1949-1956. Much of their time in India was spent working in Ahmednagar. Loy was a social and industrial welfare worker and organized the Probation and After-Care Association. (1) Scattered through the collection are news bulletins called “The Long’s Broadcast” which goes into detail about the work they were doing and events they saw in Ahmednagar. As an example, the January 1938 edition discusses the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Loy’s work starting the City Games Association, his work with their charity organization, and the local neighborhood house they manage.

In the same broadcast, Edna Long describes the origins of her work with sisal fibre and ropemaking. Edna, on a trip to the market, finds a large set of sisal fibres for sale in Ahmednagar and purchases them. She then worked with women in the community to help modernize the process of using the sisal fibre to make rope. She says that “We experimented together, sharing ideas, and in less than a month we discovered how to clean, dye, drain, spin and weave this hemp...within a remarkably short time these women were making beautiful, saleable articles, including purses, belts, luncheon sets, serviette rings, sandals and brushes.” The rest of the report chronicles how the work evolved from the initial 1938 broadcast into a consistent part of the Long’s lives. The information in these records should be explored as this is only the surface of what is available!
  
The legacy finding aid for this collection can be found HERE. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at ref@14beacon.org. Stay safe and have a great day!

1. United Church of Christ's Whole Earth Newsletter, Spring 1979, p 14-15

August 20, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Libraries and archives cannot just be repositories of knowledge and memories. At the heart of our mission at the CLA is access, and that takes many forms. One of the most visible and engaging forms of access available to us is through exhibits. Rotating exhibits and show-and-tell events have always been an incredibly important part of the CLA’s access and outreach repertoire. Exhibits especially are an important, not only because they can be used to teach and tell the story of Congregationalism in the United States, but because they bring our materials, both library and archival, outside the stacks and into the (metaphorical) hands of our users.

Exhibits, and the display of the CLA’s physical materials, were so valuable and central to the mission of the CLA that, during renovation, the old Pratt Room was converted into a new exhibit space. Unfortunately, right as renovations completed on the new exhibit space, the CLA necessarily closed its doors to the public due to the ongoing global pandemic. We were not alone, most galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs) remain closed or partially closed months after the pandemic’s onset. However, the closure of physical space does not mean that GLAM institutions cannot continue making their materials available through exhibits.

While physical exhibitions are nearly impossible right now, digital exhibitions are currently having a renaissance. Online exhibits have always offered unique opportunities to bring users, unable to visit physical locations, into the exhibit space and make available an institution’s unique materials to a wider audience. Now, more than ever, online exhibits offer opportunities to document current affairs, celebrate important milestones, and connect people to physical materials through a digital interface.

The CLA, too, will soon be more capable than ever to present our materials to our users through online exhibitions. The adoption of a DAMS at the CLA will not only provide us new opportunities to create and share our digital materials but will also allow the CLA to create online exhibit spaces and showcase our digital projects more easily. While it may be a while away, it is safe to say the staff has already been brainstorming ideas for digital exhibits we can create once the DAMS is up and running.

Before I leave this entry in the Beacon Street Diary, the staff wanted to share some of our favorite current and past online exhibits from other institutions. Please give these exhibits a look! And let us know of your own favorite digital exhibits!

Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women’s Fight for the Vote

A brand-new exhibit from the Radcliff Institute that celebrates the ratification of the 19th amendment, this exhibit offers an amazing look at the cause of women’s suffrage through photography.

Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection

This amazing exhibit from the Duke University Libraries showcases the true breadth of what defines “women’s work” and show that long held assumptions about the historical work of women is more myth than fact.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words

This exhibit from the Library of Congress uses photographic and manuscript materials to track the life of Rosa Park through her own words. This collection is especially important because it takes a holistic look at her life beyond just her role in the Montgomery bus boycott.

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

While not a traditional exhibit, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project out of the Northeastern University School of Law showcases the power, importance, and flexibility of digital exhibit spaces. This incredible project documents anti-civil rights violence in the US to seek justice for past crimes.

August 17, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

I would be hard pressed to think of a more comprehensive Hidden Histories collection than that relating to Congregational and Separatist minister John Cleaveland (1722-1799). The digitized versions of his papers and sermons are provided in partnership with the Philips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, who hold the orginal documents.

Rev. Cleaveland's biography is fascinating in its own right. He chafed against religious orthodoxy and typified the revivalist spirit of the Great Awakening, earning him an expulsion from Yale and ultimately a successful career in the Chebacco parish of Ipswich (now Essex, Mass.), serving as pastor to both Separatist and orthodox congregations there. In addition to his regular ministerial career, Rev. Cleaveland lived through both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. He served as an army chaplain during both conflicts, first with British colonial forces, and later as an American revolutionary; Cleaveland was a notable patriot and exhorter of revolution from the pulpit, and father to four sons who served against the British. His story is both an intimate and universal example of shifting loyalties and identities during the formation of the United States.

In addition to these broad strokes, Rev. Cleaveland's papers reveal diverse aspects of 18th-century life in thrilling detail. These include an extensive array of correspondence, religious papers, biographical material, church administration, handwritten sermons, and relations of faith from local parishioners. Also included is a short diary by Rev. Cleaveland's first wife, Mary Cleaveland, in which she details the births of her children. Among the most notable historical records are documents related to Rev. Cleaveland's expulsion from Yale, a letter in which he urges the conversion of Native American peoples, and a sermon against British tyranny. Additionally there are a large number of financial and administrative records, offering glimpses into agricultural life and everyday provisions and payments in the 1700s. There are more personal, idiosyncratic records too; the most amusing to me personally is a loose collection of notes which include the "weight of the family of Rev. Cleaveland".

A substantial amount of records consist of correspondence between Rev. Cleaveland and his first wife, Mary (nee Dodge). A number of the letters between them predate the marriage, and comprise a somewhat fraught series of attempts by Rev. Cleaveland to convince Miss Dodge to marry him. Later, he wrote to her regularly while stationed with regiments at Lake George and Louisburg, Cape Breton during the French and Indian War.

Other records in the collection offer insights into local tensions in Cleaveland's eventual home parish of Chebacco (Essex). After the midcentury revivals of the Great Awakening, the Second Parish Church of Ipswich, under the pastorate of orthodox Congregationalist Rev. Theophilus Pickering, began losing members at an alarming rate. Rev. Cleaveland arrived in Chebacco in 1747 to minister to these evangelical defectors. Tensions between Rev. Pickering and Rev. Cleaveland escalated quickly. The resident minister wrote a scolding letter to "the gentleman stranger that is a minster at the house of Mr. James Eveleth". After this, the two became engaged in the 18th-century equivalent of a Twitter war, each writing letters of complaint and publishing pamphlets against the other. Rev. Cleaveland had the last laugh, as he went on to become minister of the Second Church in Ipswich in 1774, thus reuniting the two congregations.

The John Cleaveland Papers collection can be viewed in the New England's Hidden Histories portal, in additional to a collection of John Cleaveland Sermons.

Further Reading: 

Jedrey, Christopher M. The World of John Cleaveland: Family and Community in Eighteenth-Century New England. Norton, 1979.

 

August 12, 2020

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

Library staff are back in the stacks and while it’s wonderful to be reunited with all the books and manuscripts (and that delightful old book smell!), I’m still missing our patrons and all of the serendipitous interactions you get when someone wanders in off the street to discover the library for the first time. One of the most common questions we get during these interactions and on tours is “What’s the oldest thing you have here?” We get this question so often that I really should have a better answer for it by now. In a place where you can’t roll a bookcart without hitting* something ‘old’ this question resists a simple answer. And, like so many reference questions, it’s usually worthwhile to do some digging to get at the question behind the question first.

I could go by actual age, in which case there are the cuneiform tablets from the Pratt collection, allegedly several millennia old. When someone asks “what’s the oldest thing here?” they are in part making an appeal to authority. They’re asking “what’s the most important thing in your collection?”. This conflation of age and authority is nothing new. I’m reminded of the staff bookclub’s recent reading about the history of the Bible which describes Jerome’s trouble having his new translations accepted as canon for the first few hundred years of their existence, until they’d gained a fine patina of old age. Certainly, when Pratt acquired the tablets, being able to boast something so old lent a certain weight to his collection and his prowess as a collector, but unless you can read them, these tablets can’t be much more than a curiosity.

Sometimes this question is shorthand for “what’s the most valuable thing in your collection?”. This also has no easy answer. First, you have to ask “most valuable to whom?” And “valuable in what sense?” Age is only a small part of the equation. What one researcher considers an unparalleled find may be completely useless to another. Age may generally correlate with monetary value in the sense that the older a book is, the fewer there are likely to be in the world. But if no one is interested in buying a book, it doesn’t matter how old or how scarce it might be.

As someone who has several 300 year old items sitting on my desk at this very moment, I often have to remind myself that old is relative and my perception is quite skewed. Several years ago, a couple came into the library hoping to find the Museum of African American history which used to have its offices in our building. We got to talking about the Granary Burial Ground located right outside our reading room windows and the Boston Massacre and they asked if we had anything in the collection about it that they could see. I brought out The Trial of the British Soldiers, of the 29th Regiment of Foot, for the murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday Evening March 5, 1770, originally published in 1807. I sheepishly apologized that I didn’t have something more contemporary on hand to show them, but I don’t think my apology had even registered. They were thrilled with the pamphlet, thrilled that they were able to hold it and read it for themselves, thrilled that they were allowed to handle something so ‘old’. It was a good reminder for me and my lack of enthusiasm for anything printed after 1800 about the capacity the material in our collection has to evoke wonder and how easy it is to invite someone in and make them feel part of the story. It’s good to be reminded that age is just a number, and selfishly, this is just the sort of thing I’m missing most while we wait for things to return to something resembling ‘normal’.

*Note: staff are very careful not to roll bookcarts into anything.

August 6, 2020

by Tom Clark, Library Director

I am lucky to have a family home in Rockport, MA on the ocean and have spent many a happy moment since childhood enjoying the seaside beauty of all of Cape Ann, located 30 miles north of Boston, including both the quaint, picturesque town of Rockport as well as neighboring Gloucester - the quintessential New England seaport. Both communities have a rich Congregational tradition starting with the original Gloucester parish in 1642 which spread to Rockport. Rockport’s beautiful Congregational Church with a towering steeple in the center of town, is noted for being fired upon by the British in the War of 1812. The church still has the cannonball.

But this blog is about Gloucester’s Second Parish, formed when members of the First Parish petitioned in 1712 to form their own parish due to geographical constrains of traveling from West Gloucester (the Annisquam River and many adjacent tidal salt marshes made travel difficult to West Gloucester). The Meeting House was built in 1713 and was located near what is today the intersection of Concord Street and Bray Street in West Gloucester. Though it was torn down in 1842, it still lives on for those willing to explore the beautiful woods of the Tompson Street Reservation (named after Rev. Samuel Tompson, the first Pastor of the Second Parish) with a Meeting House clearing and an overgrown, forested burial ground.

Besides the scenic coast of which Cape Ann is most known for, the interiors are full of beautiful, hilly, rocky forests. Shared between Rockport and Gloucester is an area known as Dogtown, an early settlement with a storied past which I will write about in a future blog. In West Gloucester, is the Tompson Street Reservation, with many hiking paths ranging from easy to challenging.

There is an entrance to the Reservation off Bray Street identified by a sign for “Old Thompson Street Second Parish, Circa 1700 Historic Walking Path.” This is known as The Old Tompson Cart Path and was well traveled from the early 18th century through the mid-19th century. Less than a ½ mile up hilly path you arrive at a clearing in the woods with signage and a cross with benches commemorating the Meeting House. This spot along the old cart path was once the location of the 15-acre site dedicated to the Second Parish. I noticed there were no stone walls in this area which shows that the surroundings were not for farming, grazing or ownership – but rather, a peaceful gathering spot for worship.

On the northern end of the Concord Street loop is an overgrown entrance with another sign for the “Old Thompson Street Second Parish.” There are stone walls along the old cart path that show territorial usage from years ago. The woods are quite dense, so it would be easy to miss the burial ground unless you keep an eye out for a new formation in the stone walls. When you see the stone walls forming an enclosure, careful inspection reveals slate slabs that turn out to be grave markers (remember…Cape Ann is strewn with rocks everywhere, so it’s not unusual to see rock croppings in the woods).

Entering the burial ground yields several scattered headstones in various states of disrepair, but some are still legible, honoring the departed. Findagrave lists all the stones that have been identified (including several which were removed). The most interesting of these is that of Deacon William Haskell which has survived a tree trunk growing around the headstone.

If you decide to take a walk in the woods on Cape Ann, please set aside time to visit the Cape Ann Museum which has many of the records from the Second Parish.


Information for this blog was gathered from the following material in the Congregational Library Collection:

The Church in the Wilderness 1713 – 1988 by Carl F. Viator, in our West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church collection

History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Including the Town of Rockport by John J. Babson

Special thanks to Lise Breen, a Researcher, Writer and Gloucester Historian, and Jeff Cooper, New England Hidden Histories Program Director for sharing their historical knowledge of Second Parish.

August 4, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today’s highlight will be MS4981, the Edward Franklin Williams papers, 1859-1918. The Williams papers were given to us from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2011 and 2015. The Amistad Research Center in Tulane also has a collection on Williams which you can view by going HERE.

Edward Franklin Williams was born in Uxbridge, Massachusetts on July 22, 1832. He graduated from Yale in 1856 after which he spent three years teaching in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When the Civil War broke out, Williams joined the Christian Commission where he distributed religious literature, medical aid, and various supplies to Union troops. After the war, the Congregational church at Whitinsville, Massachusetts ordained him on October 17, 1866. After Whitinsville, Williams moved to Illinois and served the Tabernacle Congregational Church from 1869-1873. In 1873, he moved on to a pastorate at the South Congregational Church in Chicago, Illinois from until 1891. Afterwards, Williams was a delegate to the International Congregational Council in London, England. He spent several years abroad and studied at the University of Berlin after which he published “Christian Life in Germany” in 1896. Williams served as the Editor of the Congregationalist, Director of the Chicago Missionary Society, and president of the Chicago Tract Society which published and distributed Christian literature. Williams died in Evanston, Illinois on May 26, 1919.

This collection contains sermons, notes, and lectures across Williams life. One item of note is two diaries that cover Williams' life from 1959-1965, the earliest chronicling his time while at Princeton Theological Seminary. We also have numerous sermons that cover a variety of topics, from “The Law of Self-Sacrifice”, “Does God Care?”, and “Waiting for the Moving of the Water”. The final section of the collection contains various lectures that Williams gave while working at Beloit College. Some of the topics covered include “Christian and Medieval Ethics”, “Four Socratic Schools and Stoicism”, “Christianity and Philosophy of the Middle Age”, and “Greek Morality and Ethics”. You can see from his lectures that he was a passionate philosopher and took his teaching seriously. Research into his papers would be fruitful for anyone interested in philosophy, religion, the Civil War, and more!

The finding aid for this collection can be found HERE. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at ref@14beacon.org. Stay safe and have a great day!

July 29, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publications

Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about the Salem witch trials is that our modern cultural understanding of them is plagued by inaccuracy. One such misconception is simple seasonality. Salem, both the town itself and the wider cultural concept, is now indelibly associated with Halloween, but the executions of the falsely-accused victims of the hysteria actually occured in the heat of the Massachusetts summer, from June to September, 1692.

An omnipresent darling of American folklore, the witch trials narrative is enjoying a notable resurgence ushered in with the publication of Stacy Schiff's The Witches, and, albeit on a less scholarly note, a plethora of TV shows including WGN's Salem, the Travel Channel's Witches of Salem, and Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem. The latter features an alternate history in which the "witches" A) were actual witches, and B) shacked up with the local militia to provide supernatural assistance in battle, and seem to have subsequently been conscripted into the U.S. army.

I personally enjoy such whimsical adaptations and artistic license - Disney's Halloween classic Hocus Pocus remains one of my favorite films of all time - and censorship in the name of historical accuracy would be downright, well, Puritanical. However, I frequently find myself wondering how the events of 1692 have become so twisted in the American imagination. Outside of Massachusetts, the witch trials of the North Shore merit only a passing mention in the historical curriculum, high-school theater productions of The Crucible notwithstanding, allowing popular misinformation to flourish.

Sometimes misconception takes the form of conflation with the long-lived European trials, much more severe in both brutality and body count; although torture was also utilized in Salem, the total death toll was "only" 25. At the opposite end of the spectrum, supernatural powers continue to be attributed to the accused, who were in fact hapless victims of religious hysteria and score-settling, and mostly faithful church-goers. Not to mention the more subtle, but no less popular, proliferation of reductivist theories around the hysteria, like blaming the entire thing on moldy rye.

Popular scholarly tomes like Schiff's go some way toward redressing this balance. I am proud to say that the Congregational Library also played its part in advocating for better research and access, as part of the New England's Hidden Histories program. During CLIR-funded project work in 2016-17, we partnered with the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, digitizing and publishing their archival collections related to Congregationalism. Among these were a number of witchcraft trial records, which fall under the same nascent-Congregationalist category as other Puritan sources.

Unsurprisingly, PEM/Phillips holds a substantial portion of the legal documentation produced during the trials, including testimony and court transcripts, since the events occurred in their metaphorical backyard. (Others are held variously by the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Archives, Essex County Court Archives, Essex Institute, New York Public Library, and Maine Historical Society). Most of the Phillips Library trial records had already been digitized by the University of Virginia in 2002, as part of their comprehensive Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive project - even now the project website remains the "hub" for Salem witch trial research, a treasure trove of original records, transcriptions, and contextual information.

However, subsequent to UVA/PEM's digitization of the records in the early 2000s, several other trial documents were identified within the collections. These were the primary subject of the Hidden Histories digitization and publication scheme. In our Salem Witchcraft Trials collection page, we aligned our newly digitized records with UVA's digital library, filling in occasional gaps, and in some cases providing higher-resolution surrogates of previously digitized records. The resulting collection is the most complete roster of the PEM/Phillips trial documents available online.

I lately found myself returning to the primary-source narratives while listening to the audiobook of Schiff's The Witches, borrowed free-of-charge from my local library via the Libby smartphone app (FYI). For the second time since working with the digitized records, it struck me that the historical details of the trials and their supernatural testimonials are perhaps stranger than any modern re-imagining (yes, even Motherland: Fort Salem). Strolling along the Deer Island waterfront near my home in Winthrop, Mass. I can just glimpse the distant headlands of Salem and Marblehead, often overshadowed by dark pillars of cloud. On these blisteringly hot summer days, the events of 1692 seem very far away indeed. But the more I delve into the real story of Salem, the more I am reminded that these spectres of history are closer than we think, and certainly not relegated to Halloween alone.

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