Thomas Satterwhite Noble – Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr), 1869. Photograph: New-York Historical Society, Gift of the children of Thomas S. Noble and Mary C. Noble
In a recent display at the New York Historical Society, a tragic chapter of history is being “reckoned and claimed”
“A community at its worst can be seen in the Salem witch trials.” When I questioned Anna Danzinger Halperin, associate director of the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society, about why she believed they had persisted as a potent component of the American imagination for more than 300 years, she responded as follows. “We look to it as an example of what not to do, but we keep making the same mistakes,”
Danzinger Halperin, the co-curator of the upcoming exhibition The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming at the New-York Historical Society, has been thinking a lot recently about the witch trials. The show will be on display from October 7 until January 22, 2023. Behind assist spectators understand the background to the witch trials, the presentation pulls together a broad variety of historical objects. It also aims to provide its own unique perspective by bringing up frequently under-discussed racial and gender concerns.
The Salem witch trials, which began in February 1692 and lasted for well over a year until May 1693, affected more than 200 locals and led to 19 executions. The trials weren’t really over until July of this year, when Elizabeth Johnson Jr. became the last defendant to be publicly exonerated of all witchcraft-related accusations. These incidents have become ingrained in American culture, having been recounted by authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller, and Sarah Ruhl, used as a rhetorical device to describe instances of mass hysteria, and cited by feminist activists as eloquent illustrations of patriarchal and misogynist thinking. They even garnered the greatest of pop culture homages when The Simpsons mimicked them in Treehouse of Horror VIII from the ninth season of the venerable program.
“There are countless popular and media versions of this story, and we really want to challenge visitors to think about what they do know,” said Danzinger Halperin. “I’m a historian of women’s activism, so I’m really drawn to the idea of reclaiming the story. Women’s rights advocates for generations have looked to witch-hunts for evidence of patriarchal control of women.”
Cotton Mather – The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693. Photograph: Patricia D Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society
Beginning with Tituba, an Indigenous Barbadian woman who was sold into slavery and sent to Salem where she was one of the first people to be found guilty of witchcraft, Reckoning and Reclaiming explores several strategies to carry out that reclamation. As Danzinger Halperin outlined, displays often omit Tituba out in favor of rich, white victims whose higher social position enabled them to leave behind more historical artifacts since there is so little evidence of her in the historical record. Reckoning and Reclaiming seeks to emphasize individuals who are often left at the margins of these events and challenges common perceptions of what the witch trials were by giving Tituba and other oppressed women their due.
“If we only focus on those whom we have material objects remaining of, we’re left with stories of the wealthier people in the community, mostly men,” said Danzinger Halperin. “But in reality, the accusations were overwhelmingly hurled at women, and it helps us say, ‘This trial started with the scapegoating of ostracized members of the community.’ It started with marginalized women who were in one way or another more easily scapegoated, and then it spread to these wealthier and sometimes male figures.”
In Reckoning and Reclaiming, artists’ reactions to the challenges are also included, relying on the fields of fashion and photography. A garment from Alexander McQueen’s In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, 1692 collection, which McQueen created in honor of his ancestor, the namesake Howe, is on display. The outfit is shown on the runway with documents that detail Howe’s demonization as a witch and final exoneration when her children received compensation for her death in 1712.
“McQueen is really leaning into the very stereotypical imagery that you might associate with witches, and we’ve reproduced that,” said Danzinger Halperin. “He’s pulling all of these symbols of the occult into his fashion show.”
Additionally, the show includes 17 photographs of contemporary witches taken by Frances F. Denny, 13 of which are from her collection Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America. These images, which feature women in a range of attire and settings, subvert the conventional notion of what a witch is. The audio in this scene allows viewers to hear the witches introducing themselves. Denny’s pictures are inspirational to Danzinger Halperin because of their banal subject matter, which speaks to the vitality of the witch notion. “We have a copy of an Emily Dickinson handwritten poem, and I believe it works so well with Frances’s portraiture. The phrase “Witchcraft was hung” refers to the historical notion that witchcraft is an irrepressible type of commonplace revolt.
Alexander McQueen – evening dress (detail), from In Memory of Elizabeth Howe. Photograph: Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of anonymous donors in London who are friends of Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Bob Packert
Reckoning and Reclaiming makes clear exactly how adaptable and resilient the idea of being a witch is. This identity has been able to transcend the limited perspective imposed by the Salem witch trials by supporting so many varied interpretations, developing into a symbol of expression and strength that has gone on to occupy a variety of societal niches. According to Danzinger Halperin, “a witch is a multifaceted identity that comes from so many traditions, some of which are very deep-rooted. I really don’t think there is just one definition.” For instance, “you’re going to call me a witch, yes, I’m a witch!” There are people who have embraced witchcraft as a non-patriarchal religion as well as others who have done so as a sign of rebellion.
Reckoning and Reclaiming also serves as a reminder of the very real individuals who were responsible for these historical occurrences, and its thorough research encourages viewers to empathize with the victims of the Salem witch trials. According to Danzinger Halperin, “These were real lives that were ruined, and the way that we tell that story carries so much weight.” We really want to make sure that we carry it through in a manner that respects their actual lives and enables us to fight injustice in the future.
From 7 October to 22 January 2023, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming will be on display.