Sunday, November 10, 2019

Hot Potato

The Charter Street Cemetery was reopened on Monday, November 4th, as promised.  That’s good.  I am glad to see that; I was worried that once it was locked, it could remain so indefinitely.  But obviously I was wrong. 

People naturally discussed the situation on social media like facebook and instagram during the month of October.  Most of the comments I saw were supportive of the closing, saying it was the right thing to do to protect the cemetery, and that it was great that the city was stepping up to preserve our irreplaceable history, finally making it a priority.  It seems that, in general, this was viewed as a win for historic preservation. 

But I am not sure that’s really how the story goes.  I think a lot of well-meaning folks are seeing what they want to see here.  I, at least, am seeing a pretty different story.

I don’t have official stats in front of me, but I would estimate that the cemetery can easily get a thousand or more visitors on a busy day in October.  That’s a hell of a lot of foot traffic, especially in a space that’s not designed for it.  And while the vast majority of people are respectful, there are always a handful of people who misbehave.  Clearly, one great solution would be to staff the cemetery with volunteers, like a museum (because the cemetery is the functional equivalent of a museum).  And that’s what Destination Salem did for a couple of years, going a step further by limiting the number of people allowed into the cemetery at a time, capping it at 100. 

This worked well, as far as I could see.  It allowed people to visit the cemetery, and there were monitors on hand to keep an eye on things and tell people not to sit on headstones and whatever else.

But Destination Salem chose not to continue staffing the cemetery for 2019.  Talking with someone familiar with the situation, I was told that DS felt it was more than they could or should have to handle, and that it was really the city’s responsibility anyway.  And those are fair points. 

That put the ball back into the Department of Public Works’s court.  Now DPW has a lot on their plate throughout the year – filling potholes, fixing water-main breaks, snow plowing, and a ton of other things – and they are especially busy during October.  Over-busy.  You may have heard me say that visiting downtown on November First, you won’t find so much as a gum wrapper on the sidewalk.  And that’s thanks to the hard-working folks at the DPW. 

Taking care of cemeteries is part of DPW’s bailiwick, but in Hallowe’en season they have a lot of other stuff to do, so babysitting a centuries-old cemetery might not have been top priority (even though it is in the description of what the DPW does on their website).  But they did have options here.  The could have asked DS to lend them some volunteers (I heard that the info booth downtown had more people than they knew what to do with this year), they could have hired a police detail.  I am told that DS gave DPW plenty of notice, so they had time to figure something out.

Unfortunately, they took the easiest, laziest approach, which was locking the cemetery up and keeping people out (or at least trying to; I saw people sneaking in there during the month). 

I also need to point out that in my opinion, this process was not handled particularly transparently.  I attended the September meeting of the Cemetery Commission, where the closing of the cemetery was first brought before the commission.  One of the members asked the fellow from the DPW if the public guides in town knew about this proposal (many tours, including mine, include the cemetery), and he assured them that the guides were all well-informed.

“I’m a public guide,” I put my hand up.  “And I first heard about this yesterday.”

The two other guides in the room likewise stated that they had only heard about this in the last 24 hours.                  

The guy from the DPW offered apologies, saying that he could have sworn we all knew what was going on.  And none of us did. 

I’m skeptical.  The whole thing reminds me of the way the PEM handled the Phillips Library move – decide what you’re going to do, keep quiet about it, and by the time the public finds out, it’s too late to do anything else.  DPW apparently had months to figure out what to do here, and they waited until August.   Until pretty much the last minute.  One of the other guides at the meeting tells me she made numerous attempts at following up with the guy from DPW, and he never returned a single phone call or email.    

The Cemetery Commission also bears blame here. They voted to let it happen, and the only real discussion I heard, sitting in those meetings, was one commissioner explaining that she hated how Salem wasn’t the same as it had been when she was growing up.  Now it was all about tourism, and the wrong kind of tourism at that.  Destination Salem's Kate Fox, to her credit, pushed back against the anti-tourism grumbling.

I have a hard time seeing this as the city stepping up to preserve our sacred historical treasures.  I have a hard time seeing it as the city pushing back against the nonstop carnival that downtown becomes every October. 

I can’t help but see this as a failure.  The cemetery got tossed around like a hot potato, with departments crying, “Not IT!”  There was time to come up with a plan but in the end, the laziest choice was made – lock it up and walk away.  The cemetery wasn’t locked in the name of preservation.  It was locked because nobody could be bothered to do anything else

And I agree that downtown can be overwhelming in October.  Heck, I’m trying to steer a tour group through the thick of it.  Yes, commercialized tastelessness abounds, and I am the first to roll my eyes at the guy who wants a dollar for a picture of him putting a noose around your neck.  But the cemetery is full of genuine, first-hand history, and you can visit it without spending a dime.  If you hate the people in cheap costumes spending money in t-shirt shops and asking where the Hocus Pocus house is, I am not sure how you can support denying access to a site of real historical significance that can be visited and appreciated for free.          

The Charter Street Cemetery absolutely IS an important, irreplaceable treasure, and it deserved better. 

Zacheus Barton

Zacheus Barton has a small but impressive stone which has held up well though the years.

He was the fourth of six children.  Sidney Perley tells us that his father, John Barton, was “a physician and an apothecary.  He married Lydia Roberts of Marblehead June 7, 1675; and on a voyage from England the vessel touched at Barbados, where he was called on shore to attend a case of yellow fever.  He took the fever and died there in December, 1694.  His widow subsequently conducted a store; and died May 13, 1713.”   

Zacheus was a tobacco merchant, or at least he tried his hand at being one.  He handed over a cask of tobacco to a Captain Lewis Hunt, having an "agreement to dispose of the same and remit the net proceeds."   He died a month later, on October 14th, 1707.  He was 25 years old, never married, and his cause of death is not known (at least not by me).     

The death’s head is very detailed, with great feathered wings, and the are acanthus leaves filling in the borders.  The rest of the stone is so nicely done that the hourglass(?) at the top sticks out like a sore thumb.  It seems very crudely done, compared to the rest of the workmanship here, and it is barely recognizable as an hourglass; I might not even know what it was supposed to be if I hadn’t seen hourglasses on other stones.  I assume “JG” is the carver, but I do not know who he is.     

Friday, November 8, 2019

Food for Thought?

One of the clutch-the-pearls claims made to illustrate the unacceptable behavior people engage in is that people visiting the Charter Street Cemetery are walking or sitting around ... EATING!

This article makes the rounds from time to time, and tells us that people used to eat in cemeteries pretty frequently.

Nothing about snacking in a cemetery strikes me as offensive or inappropriate on the face of it.  When I am finally laid to rest, come visit and bring snacks.  I won't mind. 

Leaving your half-eaten fried dough on someone's headstone ... well, yeah, don't be that guy.  Have some basic sense here.     


Thursday, November 7, 2019

But *Those* People, Too ...

The Charter Street Cemetery is reopened!  This is good to see.  I was among those worried that once it had been locked, it might never be unlocked again.  I have been sick and staying in, so only just got over there today.  I spent maybe half an hour or so, taking photos, and saw at least twenty people cycle through, taking pictures and admiring headstones.

And because I am my father’s son, and I will talk to anyone, I asked a few people what brought them out to visit the cemetery today.

One woman was a big fan of the movie, Hocus Pocus (which I just saw this week, finally, and thought it was incoherent and not remotely entertaining, but I digress) and always wanted to visit Salem to see the filming locations.  She knew that Charter Street was not the cemetery featured in the movie, but visited anyway. 

Another woman was from Seattle, and on a trip east.  She had come up from Boston with her boyfriend.  She told me that she always made a point to visit cemeteries when she could; being a history buff, cemeteries are an important resource.  She was looking for Mary Corey’s grave.

Another pair of women told me that they were genealogists, just visiting for the day, and they always checked out graveyards on the off-chance that they recognized a familiar name.  So far today, they hadn’t.

As I was leaving, a father was coming in, with a couple of young, single-digit aged kids.

“Remember, it’s not a playground,” he said.  “This is a graveyard, you have to be respectful.” 

It’s easy to troll social media and find pictures of people misbehaving.  I’ve seen those pictures, too, and it pisses me off as much as it does you, believe me.  But I think most people understand where they are, and treat it with respect.  Not everyone, obviously, but I would say the vast majority.  It’s not a scientific sample by any means, but on my visit today, I saw people with genuine interest in the history of the cemetery, and Salem generally.  I didn’t see the “people wearing all black, and talking about horror” that one of the cemetery commissioners so reviled (see the post titled, “Those People”).  I just saw some nice people who were happy to be there, and they would have been locked out last week, too.  And that would have been a shame.           


Monday, November 4, 2019

An Aged Person

Being Cotton Mather's brother couldn't have been easy.

The Mathers all seem to have been overachievers -- Increase Mather, the family patriarch, was president of Harvard.  Nathanael's brothers, Cotton and Samuel, were both Harvard-educated ministers.  Nathanael entered Harvard at the tender age of 12(!) and earned a degree (his first) at 16.  He"excelled" and was called "extraordinary."  At age 14, he dedicated his life to God ... and that is perhaps when his health began to decline.  Noted Salem historian Sidney Perley tells us that, "His dedication consisted of devotion to prayer for personal sanctity, and he deliberated so much and so seriously that had became morbid and melancholy." 

Perley goes on to say that "He had contracted ill habits of posture of body, which, persisted in, produced effects which made him appear like an old man."  

Nathanael earned a second degree from Harvard and that's when he health seem to have become a serious problem for him.  He came to Salem seeking treatment under a Dr. Swinnerton; future Salem witch trials judge Samuel Sewall (the judge who would later apologize for his involvement in the hangings, and call for a day of fasting and prayer and atonement) visited, as did Nathanael's older brother, Cotton.  Sickly and worn out, Nathanael died at the doctor's house on October 17th, 1688.  Cotton closed Nathanael's eyes and is said to have written his epitaph --

Nathanael Mather
Decd October ye 17th 
An Aged person
That had seen but
Nineteen Winters
in the World.

He didn't die in the wintertime, and so the use of "Winters" as opposed to "Summers" underscores the sense of loss here.   

Dr. Donna Seger has also written about this on her blog, The Streets of Salem, which is well worth your attention. 

(I apologize for the quality of the photo above; it was the best I could do, racing into the cemetery just before it was (illegally) locked up.  I couldn't come back the next day when the light was better.  And no, that's not an "orb" at the top, it's lens flare.  Grow up.) 

UPDATE:  With the cemetery reopened, I was able to go back yesterday and get a better photo of Nathanael's headstone.  I did not realize, upon my first visit, that he is laid to rest next to Dr. Swinnerton and his wife, so I have added their stones as well.  I may look up the Swinnertons and do a post on them in the future.   



Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Go Ask Alice

Alice Orne died too young, at only 30 in 1776, and her grave is marked with a impressive headstone. The cherub is distinctive, and I almost wonder if it was based on someone specific. (I say “almost,:” because as far as we know, such portraits were not a thing).

Her epitaph reads:

This stone has something great to teach,
And what you need to learn:
For graves, my friends, most loudly preach
Man's infinite concern.

What Don't Two Wrongs Make ...?

For a little while, I seemed to be having some variation on this conversation once a week –

ME: Locking up a cemetery and denying public access is against the law.

SOMEONE: But the Quaker Cemetery is locked!

ME: That would still be against the law ….

Put another way –

ME: Robbing banks is against the law.

SOMEONE: But Dillinger robbed banks!

ME: That would still be against the law ….

The Quaker Cemetery, also called the Friends' Cemetery, is located on Essex Street, right next to my dentist's office; last year I got a crown in the room that looks out over the cemetery. Quakers were NOT welcome in early Salem, and indeed Puritans outlawed the religion and punished Quaker missionaries who came to town to preach or protest.

The cemetery was open for a century, from 1718 to 1818, next to the long-gone meeting house. Findagrave tells us that “Many graves are unmarked and several stones are severely eroded,” and informs us that the cemetery also holds the remains of Quakers transported from other locations in Boston and Peabody.

Pointing out that one cemetery is locked in no way makes locking a second cemetery permissible. I really have no idea what the logic behind that argument is supposed to be. Two wrongs, we were all told as kids, don't make a right.

But it does set a troubling precedent.

One of my concerns, from the very beginning, has been that once the Charter Street Cemetery is locked, it will remain locked. Those in charge will decide that it is easy, it doesn't cost money, and it seems that most people who express an opinion on the matter are in favor of the closure (if only because those of us who opposed it are being ignored). And we already have one locked up cemetery, and no one is complaining about that, so why not a second?

And even if it does not remain locked year round, the city could decide to lock it back up next October. It went so well the first time, right?

When I have pointed out that locking a cemetery is against the law, I am sometimes met with vague assurances that it is allowable if the cemetery is deemed “at risk” or “endangered.” When I have asked, no one has cited a source for this supposed information.* The Quaker Cemetery can in no way be described as at risk or endangered. It is under no imminent threat. But it's locked. And it shouldn't be either.

*people “know” that an endangered cemetery can be locked in the same way people “knew” a witch couldn't recite the Lord's Prayer. It's something they just kinda think has to be true, right? Because it just makes sense. Even it it's not actually documented anywhere. FFS, let's not go making decisions on things we just think must be true; we got into a lot of trouble in town for that last time.