Reading with Rose: The Delusion in Salem

Book_of_Hallowe'en
“Hallowe’en Festivites. From an Old English Print.” From The Book of Hallowe’en (1919) by Ruth Edna Kelley.

This time of year, the streets of Beacon Hill are whimsically decorated with skeletons, pumpkins, gourds, and cobwebs in anticipation of that ever-popular holiday, Halloween. Based on the dearth of references to this occasion in the Nichols family’s papers, we don’t know how much–if at all–the family celebrated. This might explain why Rose’s book collection features very few spooky tales–Macbeth being perhaps the most well-known. During this time of year, when Edgar Allan Poe and Gothic tales reign supreme, we thought it would be fun to see exactly what kinds of spooky tales Rose collected. (She actually did collect Poe’s works, too!)

This Nichols House Museum recently hosted the first event in our new series, Nichols after Dark, in which we delivered a special tour focused on Victorian spiritualism and Salem witchcraft. For this month’s blog, we will take a look at some books that were featured during our special Hallowe’en tour. Along with Poe’s works, William de Morgan’s cheekily titled novel When Ghost Meets Ghost (1914), and the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who wrote extensively on her experiences with spiritualism), we wanted to call everyone’s attention to one particular book with ties to the Nichols family: Charles Wentworth Upham’s Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692 (1831).

RSNupham1
Inscription from Rose Standish Nichols’ copy of Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692 (1831).

 

Charles Wentworth Upham was a Canadian-born (Unitarian) clergyman, congressman, and the seventh mayor of Salem, MA. Born in St. John, New Brunswick to Joshua and Mary Upham, Charles was the son of a Loyalist who fought for the British during the American Revolution. After the Revolution, Joshua emigrated to Canada, where Charles lived until 1816, when he was sent to Massachusetts to apprentice with a merchant cousin. In 1817, after his cousin perceived Charles’ real interest was in studying, not business, Charles was sent to Harvard College, where he placed second in his class. Having done well, Charles spent another three years studying at Cambridge Divinity School; he was finally ordained as an associate pastor of the First Church (Unitarian) of Salem in December of 1824. He retired twenty years later. [1]

Charles_Wentworth_Upham
Charles Wentworth Upham.

Charles’ political life gathered momentum in 1848, when he aligned himself with the Whig party. From 1849 to 1850, he was a member of the state House of Representatives; 1850-1851, a member of the state Senate; 1853-1855, a member of the 33rd Congress. In 1857, he began a two-year term as the presiding officer of the Massachusetts state Senate, and in 1859 began another two-year term as a member of the state House of Representatives. [2] Throughout his professional career, he became known as a historian of the Salem witch trials, writing multiple volumes on the subject. In Lectures (p. 6-7), he describes his reason for publishing this volume:

“In the hope that they may contribute, in combination with the great variety of other means now employed, to diffuse the blessings of knowledge, to check the prevalence of fanaticism, to accelerate the decay of superstition, to prevent an unrestrained exercise of imagination and passion in the individual or in societies of men, and to establish the effectual dominion of true religion and sound philosophy, they are now presented to the public.” [3]

SalemWitchcraftTrial.jpg
“Witchcraft at Salem Village,” 1876.

We aren’t quite sure why Rose collected this book on witchcraft, but we do have our theories. It’s possible she wanted to study more about her paternal great-grandmother, Susannah Towne Nichols, whose portrait hangs in the Nichols House dining room. Susannah was a descendant of Rebecca (Towne) Nurse, who was famously persecuted during the Salem “delusion.” Whatever the reason, the inclusion of Upham’s book is an certainly a welcome–and appropriate–companion to the portrait of Susannah Nichols.

Notes

[1] “Charles Wentworth Upham.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Upham, Charles Wentworth. Lectures on Witchcraft Comprising a History of the Delusion in Salem, in 1692. Boston, Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1831.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.

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