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The Doll: A Magical Christmas at the Village Playbox

What do you do when a Broadway producer tells you your show needs “a hook”? Local playwright Rob Kristie received this advice in response to his touching tale The Doll. The show already contained compelling characters and a strong soundtrack. Just what kind of “hook” did it lack? To incorporate the producer’s suggestion, Mr. Kristie transformed the piece into a “magical” Christmas show.

Appropriately, the Village Playbox launched the Holiday Season on Black Friday. This November 29th the company presented Mr. Kristie’s The Doll: A Magical Christmas. Your correspondent attended this opening night performance.

Samantha Flannery (played by Amanda Rose Kipila) felt alone and isolated due to her blindness. Samantha’s mother, Ann (played by Mary Simrin) provided her only companionship. After the grand opening of his new store, also called Grand Opening!, Adam Barter (Doug Cohen) presented Samantha with a doll that she named Flopsy (Gracie Sokoloff). The latter came to life and encouraged Samantha to experience life. Adam found himself interested in Ann, a widow.

Mr. Kristie and John Blackwell co-directed this outstanding Christmas spectacle. The directors employed a unique means of drawing the spectators into the show at the beginning. Cast members threw “snowballs” into the audience. Those fortunate enough to catch one received a complimentary Christmas ornament. Without giving away spoilers, they crafted an even more spectacular finale.

Vocal Director Mark Kozachyn worked with a host of diverse styles presented by Mr. Kristie’s songwriting. The cast provided him with a lot of talent to guide.

The Neighborhood Children performed as a wonderful acapella chorus on “Children’s Carol.” Doug Cohen and Mary Simrin sang a bossa nova tinged duet on “Completed Day.” Ms. Simrin performed an acapella track on “Any Completed Day.” Mr. Cohen sang a passionate reflection on the true meaning of the Holiday with “Just Like Christmas.”

Because of the range of genres the soundtrack contains, The Doll will appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes. Mary Simrin executed the complexities of “Don’t Take My Time” brilliantly. This majestic song featured a melody in 12/8 time with a bass line that would please both Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. The “2-4” duet performed by Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff included flamenco style muted guitar strumming a la Jimi Hendrix performed on a 12- string acoustic.  Ms. Sokoloff sang the synthesizer driven “If You Can Imagine.” The performer’s vocals captured the song’s 1980s vibe. Ms. Kipila navigated the disco portions of “Why Can’t I” like an authentic 70s diva.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of musical theatre, a songwriter was influenced by the music of the Drifters. This reviewer heard references to the bass line for “Under the Boardwalk” in “I Really Don’t Care” and “Completed Day.”

Amanda Rose Kipila played an outstanding Samantha. Ms. Kipila possesses a beautiful voice. It complimented Mr. Kristie’s lyrics and melodies on tracks such as “I Really Don’t Care” and “I Don’t Know.” The performer also showed exceptional acting prowess. Ms. Kipila captured Samantha feelings towards a range of experiences such as her loneliness and her surprise upon discovering that Flopsy talked. Ms. Kipila made her character’s change appear realistic.

Gracie Sokoloff applied a lot of energy to her performance as Flopsy. She made the character very likable. Ms. Sololoff “broke the fourth wall” to introduce Scene 3 of Act 2. The performer engaged the audience with great charm, wit and enthusiasm. She maintained that engaging persona throughout the entire show.

Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sololoff complimented one another very well. The former played the character timid about experiencing life. The latter performed as an upbeat free spirit with a zeal for life. The two enacted the conflict very credibly.

Stevie Rose Gerhart coordinated outstanding choreography. The opening number featured the neighborhood children singing while performing an intricate dance routine on “Christmas Time.” Ms. Sokoloff’s effort at showing Ms. Kipila how to dance on “I’ll Lead the Way” became one of the show’s most enjoyable scenes.

Production Teams at the Village Playbox optimize the space allotted to them. When performing at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, they transformed the stage into the world of Dr. Seuss for Seussical. The quick set-changes they executed during the intermissions for Noises Off! will go down in the annals of South Jersey theatrical lore. They proved they could show the same creativity when performing at the Fellowship Methodist Church a few blocks from that venue.

The set created fantastic ambiance. Set designers Paul Becker and Gary Kochey (and the cast members who helped construct it) converted a small stage into the front of the Flannery home, both the inside and outside of Grand Opening!, the exterior of candy store South Street Sweets, a hospital room and a bedroom. They also allowed for Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff to perform a scene in silhouette from behind a shade.

The sparse use of Christmas lights on the stage worked very well. They allowed the audience to understand that the story occurred during the Holiday Season. They weren’t so prominent that they distracted the audience from the action on stage. The intermittent lighting of the Christmas tree to house right enhanced the mood perfectly. Compliments to Jack Bozzuffi for his work on the sound and lights and Gary Kochey as the light operator.

Other members of the cast included: Mia Grace, Karen Smith, Lisa Aliquo, Chrissy Luther, Gregory Furman, Colin Becker, Michael Mellor, Emily Joyce Kipila, Sophia Izabella Vaughn and Lily Allen.

The Production Crew comprised of: Producer Steve Allen, Costumer, Props and spot light operator Leslie Romanuski, Denise Lallier and Rob Kristie handled props, Stage Manager Paul Becker, and Stage Crew Angela Becker.

The Doll: A Magical Christmas will hook audiences. This performance can be summarized in one word: smileicious. The show runs through December 8th at the Village Playbox.

 

Lecture Review – “For the Work of a Day We Want Something to Say: Social Change and Suffrage” by Lara Vapnek, PhD

2019 marks the centennial of American women’s achievement of a right that so many take for granted: the right to vote. To commemorate this milestone in human history, the Alice Paul Institute is presenting a series of lectures as part of the “Suffrage Speak: Honoring the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote” program. This Women’s History Month Dr. Lara Vapnek delivered a talk entitled “For the Work of a Day We Want Something to Say: Social Change and Suffrage.” The event occurred at Paulsboro in Mount Laurel, NJ on March 9th.

According to her biography on amazon.com: Dr. Vapnek teaches history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. She earned her PhD at Columbia. She specializes in the history of gender and labor in the nineteenth and twentieth century United States. The professor based the speech on her 2009 book Breadwinnners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865 – 1920.

Dr. Vapnek structured her comments along three themes. The working women during the time period considered themselves “breadwinners.” They worked out of necessity to financially support either their families or themselves. These women didn’t feel that men either represented or protected them. Their inability to vote inhibited them from achieving full political equality with men. Lacking that parity affected their ability to achieve their goals within the labor movement.

Stereotypes inhibited the efforts of early reformers. Society viewed women’s proper role as that of homemaker. The “male breadwinner ideal” mythos permeated the eras’s thinking. So did the “middle class ideal” of women belonging at home. Through a series of statistics Dr. Vapnek showed this chauvinistic belief as just that: a fantasy. In 1870, 15% of women participated in the work force. By 1920 that percentage jumped to 25%. In urban areas the figure reached one third.

The professor included some brief biographies of early leaders within the women’s rights movement. She described the contributions of individuals such as Jennie Collins, Leonora O’Reilly and Leonora Barry among others. As many of these figures gave excellent speeches, Dr. Vapnek added memorable quotations to her talk. Some of the best included an 1866 line from Frances Harper: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” While testifying before the US Congress in 1912, Leonora O’Reilly stated, “We women have dreamed of democracy but we have never enjoyed it.” The most prescient also came from Ms. O’Reilly. In 1899 she observed:

Women, whether you wish it or not, your first step must be to gain equal political rights with men. The next step after that must be equal pay for equal work.

A shorter work day was another goal for which these reformers fought. During the nineteenth century people typically worked 12 to 14 hour days. Jennie Collins pushed for a “reduced” 10–hour day. Years later Leonora Barry advocated an 8-hour one.

These advocates proved adept at organizing. They established groups such as the Women’s Trade Union League (in 1903) and the Wage Earners Suffrage League (in 1911). During the fall of 1909, the “Uprising of the 20,000” occurred. These women’s garment workers initiated a walk out in protest of conditions within the industry. The work stoppage lasted until February of 1910. The media at the time portrayed it as the “girls strike.” In a crass attempt to send a message, the authorities tried many of those arrested in night court along with prostitutes. Some 700 received sentences of hard labor.

Labor conditions from the Reconstruction through the First World War were harsh. People worked extended hours in cramped and dangerous conditions. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 made the modern expression “workplace safety” seem like an oxymoron. The plight of the “breadwinners” became more egregious than taxation without representation.

The efforts of these labor reformers facilitated the movement for women’s suffrage. They proved that a person couldn’t have economic rights without corresponding political ones. The power to elect those who make the laws provides a strong incentive for politicians to govern prudently.

 

Coach Andy Reid: Theatre Critic

I never knew Coach Andy Reid took such an interest in theatre. Coach was generous enough to share his thoughts on an American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Critique Compendium: Coach, what did you think of Tennessee Williams’ approach to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

Coach Reid: He made a heck of a play there.

Critique Compendium: What did you think of the writing?

Coach Reid: That was a hot read.

Critique Compendium: How would you compare seeing the play performed live to watching the movie version?

Coach Reid: I gotta look at the film on Monday.

Critique Compendium: So you haven’t seen the movie?

Coach Reid: I’m not thinking about that right now. I’ve got to get ready for next week.

Critique Compendium: Coach, we had no idea you took such an interest in theatre. It’s not something I’ve heard you discuss.

Coach Reid: I gotta do a better job there.

-30-

 

Lecture Review – “Paulsdale Metal Detecting Finds” by Michael F. Burns, PLS

This February 9th I received an introduction to a new method of historical detection. Michael F. Burns, Professional Land Surveyor described the nuances of using a metal detector to unearth clues about the past. The event took place at Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.

Mr. Burns possesses a unique expertise on both the subject of metal detecting and local history. A surveyor by trade, he is also a member of the South Jersey Metal Detecting Club, the Mount Laurel Historical Society, the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Club. His metal detecting finds include items such as coins, relics, heirlooms and artifacts. Mr. Burns reported on his findings at the Paulsdale property.

After watching the British television show detectorists, he felt inspired to take up the hobby himself. It seemed a natural extension of land surveying.

The speaker opened his remarks by providing a technical synopsis of the field of metal detecting. Fortunately for your correspondent he did so in language lay people could understand.

He began by introducing the audience to his preferred tool, White’s Spectra V3i. Their machine contains both an audio and a visual component. A polar plot displays vectors that plot the different frequencies the device detects. He, however, prefers to interpret the sounds that represent the different signal strengths. Mr. Burns explained that a good detectorist understands how to read them.

Detecting consists of the following steps: sweeping, pin pointing with the detector, digging, pin pointing with a pin pointer, recovering the target, re-checking the hole with the detector and then filling in the hole.

The latter step is crucial. Mr. Burns along with most detectorists practices “responsible metal detecting.” The trade even has a Metal Detecting Code of Ethics. One component entails getting permission from the property owner before detecting. Practitioners perform their craft with the dual goals of both “saving history and protecting the hobby.”

Paulsdale is a six acre property located on Hooton Road in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. In 1991 the Department of the Interior designated it a National Historic Landmark. It’s most famous as the home of legendary suffragist and co-author of the Equal Rights Amendment, Alice Paul. From 1800 until the late 1950s the property operated as a functioning farm.

Mr. Burns displayed both photos and samples of some items he located on the Paulsdale grounds. He presented an interesting array of objects. The property contained some unusual finds. The speaker located part of a toy gun and a lead toy cowboy from the 1950s. He also found a brass brooch of unknown date, an ignition coil from a Model T Ford dating from the 1920s and a silver plated spoon manufactured in Fairfield, England in 1915.

The most common items he located were old coins. He unearthed a 1922 Order of Railway Conductors convention coin, one from 1938 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Collingswood, New Jersey among some regular currency.

There’s an adage among detectorists that: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” Mr. Burns emphasized that research is the most important part of metal detecting: both in determining where to search and in identifying the items discovered. With his passion for his work, local history buffs will be hearing about Mr. Burns’ discoveries for years to come.

Dr. Richard Connors – The Road to the Armistice 1918

This November we commemorated the centennial of the Great War’s conclusion. Fittingly, in October, historian Richard Connors published his latest volume on the First World War. With The Road to Armistice, he explored the conflict’s final months from the battlefields to the negotiating table to the hustings. As in his 2017 work, New Jersey and the Great War, he included sections that described the war’s impact on the Garden State. A witty and engaging read resulted.

Dr. Connors employed several writing techniques that made the book very enjoyable; his vernacular style chief among them. Academic historians have a bad habit of overusing fancy words. Some like to include epistemology and ontology with the same frequency that most people use and and the. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He expressed his ideas in lucid language that made them easy to understand.

In his analysis of the “Black Day” of the German Army, the professor provided a clear yet detailed description of events. He did so in a way that would’ve impressed Sir John Keegan.

Instead of the traditional days-long artillery barrage, which alerts the enemy to the location and immanence of an attack, the Allies rely on a last-minute rolling barrage. This is an approach where the artillery fires ahead of the infantry at a prescribed distance, and continues this pattern as the soldiers advance. At 4:20 a.m. on August 8 the guns roar for three minutes, aiming two hundred yards in front of the assaulting tanks, infantry, and cavalry. This formula is repeated until the shells reach a maximum depth of 4,500 yards. The artillery teams then move forward. But plans don’t survive for long. The gods of war take over. Little if any resistance by some German units, wholesale surrender by those surrounded, stiff resistance by other units, difficulty communicating in any direction amid the ear-shattering din and blinding smoke of battle, orderly advances by some troops, pell-mell rushes by others, tank breakdowns, halts to avoid being caught in the rolling barrage or to outflank bullet-spewing machine guns, the roar of airplanes diving down to strafe the enemy, the shrieks of the dying. The result is chaos and confusion accompanied by incomprehensible death and destruction. Chaos and confusion might not be the best choice of words; berserk bedlam might be better. (Loc 118)

As readers could determine from the above passage, Dr. Connors wrote in the present tense. By doing so, he gave the story an immediacy one doesn’t typically encounter in works of history.

The Road to the Armistice 1918 contained excellent use of humor. That’s quite an achievement with such sullen subject matter. In the chapter describing the life of a platoon leader in the 29th Division he observed:

Runners are used as contact agents; paths for them have to be found and maintained. Runners are not always reliable. Sometimes they will run to the rear and just keep on running. (Location 697)

When describing the training the 78th Division experienced in Europe, he noted an unanticipated hardship the war forced American troops to endure.

They are also exposed to the “delights” of British rations, which feature tea, biscuts, jam, and cheese. Not very popular with the doughboys raised on meat and potatoes. (Location 723)

Even with the nation at war, newspapers didn’t limit their coverage to carnage. On August 3, 2018, papers reported the following stories.

New Jersey news includes details of a “slacker roundup”, involving raids of theatres, hotels and saloons, sending some 300 men to the local armory for questioning. On the lighter side, Belmar arrests twenty-three “drippers,” persons walking on the boardwalk with wet bathing suits and inadequate covering. The fine: $5. (Location 107)

The author included interesting information regarding wartime New Jersey. He wrote that in October:

…a Presidential order banning German aliens from a number of coastal towns in Monmouth and northern Ocean counties. The order covers communities east of the Jersey shore railroad tracks, from Matawan south to Point Pleasant. It was triggered by fears that German submarines will bring in spies and saboteurs, bent on destroying war industries and interfering with shipping. (Unknown to the general public, a U-boat shelled the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook during August.) (Loc 264)

I only had one criticism of the book. While I liked the professor’s conversational writing style, I did read a number of clichés. As Dr. Connors is an excellent writer, I thought he could have used more creative expressions than “money to burn” (Loc 409), “spiraling downhill” (Loc 420) and “to put it mildly.” (Loc 466)

Dr. Connors commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the war’s conclusion by publishing The Road to the Armistice 1918. I reflected upon the centennial by reading it. I finished just before Veteran’s Day.

 

Lecture Review – Christopher Andrew Maier: “Just for the Record: The Life of Eldridge Reeves Johnson”

What better way to commemorate the anniversary of someone’s death than through a celebration of that person’s life? As part of the “History Speaks” series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown, Mr. Maier did just that. He delivered a first person lecture on one of the town’s most famous residents, Eldridge Reeves Johnson. The event occurred at the Moorestown Library on November 14th: the 73rd anniversary of the entertainment industry pioneer’s passing.

Perhaps inspired by Mr. Johnson’s life, the Historical Society of Moorestown pioneered a trend of its own. Several months ago I attended a lecture they sponsored that included an “opening act.” This came about due to the lateness of the featured speaker. At this event the speaker fulfilled these dual roles himself. Mr. Maier began the evening by displaying some stellar musicianship on the grand piano.

Then the speaker transitioned from tickling the ivories to massaging the audience’s intellectual curiosity. Mr. Maier segued into his lecture on the life of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s founder, Eldridge Reeves Johnson.

The speaker’s passion for his subject came through in his remarks. He chose to deliver them in the first person; in essence, becoming his subject. Mr. Maier described the development of the gramophone, “as important as the Guttenberg Press.” This innovation led to the company employing such cultural luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It even hired an unknown artist named Andy Warhol to design their artwork.

It seems odd that someone who founded such a remarkable organization had such inauspicious beginnings. A high school instructor told Johnson to “learn a trade” as he wasn’t “college material.” That’s the polite description of the conversation. Mr. Maier even said this person referred to Mr. Johnson as “dumb.” Mr. Johnson opted to become a machinist. Circumstances showed he made a good choice. The skills he developed served him well upon meeting his future business partners Emile Berliner and Alfred Clark.

Johnson’s career proved the business adage about the importance of surrounding one’s self with “good people.” While working with Alexander Graham Bell, Mr. Berliner developed a microphone used on the first telephone. Mr. Johnson’s future rival, Thomas Edison, employed Mr. Clark. The latter invented a governor that regulated a gramophone’s speed. The one he produced served a key function in Victor’s record player.

When the Victor Talking Machine Company opened for business in 1901, it earned $500 in sales. When adjusted for inflation that equates to approximately $15K in 2017 currency. Just when that instructor who called Johnson “dumb” may have felt vindicated, both the company’s popularity and its revenue grew exponentially. Just five years after starting up, the organization generated $12 million in sales. In 2017 figures, that would come to over $332 million. (Source: westegg.com inflation calculator.)

Mr. Maier described the gramophone’s technical details. He even provided an authentic one as a visual aide. The device lacked a volume control. Shoving something into the horn served as the only means of deadening the sound. The lecturer demonstrated by literally “putting a sock in it.”

In 1906, the company developed a more practical way to address the issue. During that year, the Victor Talking Machine Company produced the Victrola. The speaker’s position beneath the turntable helped to lower the volume.

A Victrola could best be described as a multi-purpose cabinet. The lower portion contained a section where consumers could store their records. It also included a pull-out shelf where consumers could place the records they wanted to play.

Unlike many business barons, such as Mr. Edison, Eldridge Johnson possessed a humble disposition. Decades before management guru Jim Collins advocated this trait, Mr. Johnson recognized that it made good business sense. He understood that Victor’s performers were the company’s real stars. As Mr. Maier speculated that he said: “All is vanity. That’s why no one knows my name.”

In addition to his revolutionary contributions to the entertainment industry, Mr. Johnson contributed his substantial means to philanthropic causes. As Moorestown residents know, he generously provided funds for the Community House. Mr. Maier added that Johnson tore down one of his own mansions to provide a site for the Merion Tribute House (formerly the Merion War Tribute House) located in Merion Station, Pennsylvania. He intended the building as a memorial for local residents who served in the armed forces during the First World War.

After covering the serious side of Mr. Johnson’s life, Mr. Maier added wit to his presentation. He shared a few YouTube videos he produced. One showed his discovery of where Mr. Johnson’s original machine shop stood. (https://youtu.be/cfR9QlL1oUg) In the most amusing segment, the speaker swapped his piano for a beat box. He kicked it old school with his tribute to Victor’s mascot in the form of “Nipper’s Yap Rap.” (https://youtu.be/IFUK4TULQYU)

It seemed fitting that Mr. Johnson’s company rivaled Mr. Edison’s. As Mr. Maier explained, “Edison was an inventor. Johnson was an artist.” With the speaker’s proficiency at music, performance art and knowledge of the gramophone it’s understandable why he developed such an interest in the latter. After attending his lecture, one can also understand why his audiences experience that same enthusiasm.

 

“The Salem Witch Trials: A Conspiracy of Witches” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.

Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.

As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.

Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.

Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.

I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”

The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.

Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.

While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.

At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.

As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.

The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.

“The Salem Witch Trials: Strangely Accused” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

The Historical Society of Moorestown bewitched local historians with another enchanting evening this October 17th. The organization’s President, Mickey DiCamillo, delivered the second part of his lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials.  This installment subtitled “Strangely Accused” further described Salem Village’s decent from normalcy—at least by Puritan standards—into an environment of paranoia and zealotry. The crux of the lecture focused on the reasons for this change.

The Society selected an excellent environment for such a discussion. The cobwebs, pumpkins and eerie lighting served as an excellent backdrop. The Halloween décor along with the howling winds on this brisk autumn evening further established the mood.

The group decided to move the lecture indoors due to the cold…or so they said. I wonder if the real chill everyone longed to escape was the one the darkness and the cool breeze sent up everyone’s spine. The audience moved into a cozier atmosphere in the kitchen at Smith-Cadbury Mansion.

During the early months of 1692, accusations of witchcraft only fell on societal outcasts. As the year progressed this changed. Upstanding members of the community such as 72 year old Rebecca Nurse and church goer Martha Corey found themselves under investigation.

As expected, Mr. DiCamillo included witty observations in his lecture. “Maury Povich would want to meet the people of Salem,” he noted. Martha Corey’s life illustrated one reason why. Mrs. Corey moved to Salem Village to begin a new life for herself. While living in her previous community she’d engaged in an extramarital affair. To make things worse, she became pregnant as the result of this illicit relationship. The fact that her child bore the features and skin tone of a Native American didn’t do much to ameliorate her situation. Hence, she relocated to the community and “repented” for her sins. She remarried and became an ardent Christian woman.

Mr. DiCamillo added other interesting details regarding the witch investigations to his lecture. He emphasized the common themes that developed in the course of them. Those allegedly bewitched often reported seeing animals. Most often they witnessed dogs and yellow birds. In Puritan lore, these figures represented the Devil.

Interrogators often asked those accused if they had written in the Devil’s book. Every witch seemed to carry around a tome in which fellow sorcerers and sorceresses would sign their names. Mr. DiCamillo’s imagery made me think of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks.

While accusations of witchcraft could cost someone his/her life, those acquitted endured financial hardships. During the era prisoners paid for their own food, room and board. An accused person could accumulate large debts while waiting for trial.

Coming from this draconian environment, it seems odd that the Puritans began a benign tradition that persists into the modern era. They established the practice of attending church on Christmas.

As with just about anything the Puritans did, this one comes with an interesting story. In seventeenth century England, people celebrated Christmas much differently than those of us living today. Think mardi gras meets New Year’s Eve meets a frat party.

In the 1680s Anglicans began moving into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans objected to these raucous celebrations. They declared that if a person wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ, one should do so in a church. Revelers swapped their whiskey for communion wine and a great American tradition began.

The “Strangely Accused” lecture showed that anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Neither age, nor gender nor amount of religious devotion immunized a person from these allegations. Mr. DiCamillo piqued everyone’s interest on how this bizarre and tragic situation would resolve. I eagerly anticipate hearing it. The final segment of this tenebrous trilogy of terror takes place this October 24th at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

 

The Ghost Tour Presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown

Even the best place to live in America* has its scary side. I heard tales of Quaker apparitions, mysterious shadows and a visit from the Jersey Devil when I took part in the Moorestown Ghost Tour the evening of October 13, 2018.

Like Prince, Fabio and Bono our tour guide opted to forgo a surname. A man referring to himself by the enigmatic one-word Joe led our group through the journey. We explored Moorestown’s macabre memories surrounding Main Street. An entertaining evening ensued.

The weather accommodated the chilling atmosphere. The unseasonable warm temperatures South Jersey’s experienced gave way to the cool caress of an autumn breeze. A crescent moon bathed the area with a haunting glow on this starless night.

Our tour guide didn’t waste time in getting everyone’s attention. After sharing tales of alleged hauntings at Smith-Cadbury Mansion, we embarked.

Joe discussed the horrific occurrences in the area where the TD Bank now stands. Two local celebrities lived in a home near its grounds. Edgar Sanford served as the first rector of the Episcopal Church on Main Street. His wife, Agnes Sanford, founded the Inner Healing movement. Historians cannot identify the precise location where their house stood.

Mrs. Sanford described the Inner Healing Movement as a process of “the healing of memories,” according to Wikipedia. It’s somewhat ironic that she could have used that practice upon herself. She reported her “senses deadened” and witnessing “shadows moving without light” in her Moorestown home.

A later portion of the tour entailed a visit to Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Joe forewarned my group that some tour goers have experienced discomfort visiting that graveyard at night. In fact, a few reported the appearance of shadows in the absence of light; an intriguing observation regarding the ground next to the church where Reverend Sanford preached.

I encountered a potential run-in with the occult while in the cemetery. The young lady next to me reported seeing “beady eyes” staring at her from off in the darkness. “It must’ve been a cat. At least, I hope it was a cat,” she said. As I prepared to investigate, I thought it would’ve been impolite if I proved her wrong. I figured it more honorable to go along with her suggestion.

The Trinity Episcopal Churchyard serves as the resting place of Edward Harris. Before Iron Maiden fans “run to the hills” and become “invaders” to Moorestown they should be aware: this is a different Edward Harris than the band’s mascot. The Moorestown Edward Harris befriended John J. Audubon and owned Smith-Cadbury Mansion; the Historical Society’s current headquarters.

Joe told multiple tales of spectral figures attired in Quaker garb haunting the community. During the early twentieth century a farm worker encountered one. While at the site where Hooton’s Hall once stood, he witnessed a ghostly figure in a dark suit and hat walking across the hay and through the wall of a barn.

A customer at the real estate company occupying the Hopkins home on Main Street reported a comparable experience. Upon entering the building he witnessed a man dressed like a nineteenth century Quaker sitting on a chair and staring at him. The figure bore an uncanny likeness to the home’s original owner John Clement Hopkins.

Not all supernatural occurrences in Moorestown are of the spectral variety. January 19, 1909 proved a memorable day in the town’s history. Not only did a snowstorm affect the area, but a series of unexplained phenomena occurred. One resident reported hoof-like tracks in the snow near Stokes Hill. They began in his front yard and trailed around to the back of the house. There they stopped abruptly. That seemed rather odd as the snow had just fallen.

Other residents witnessed a UFO over the site of the current Community House. They described it as a small creature about three feet in length with a two foot wingspan. Its head bore that of a collie’s and the face resembled a horse’s. While on his legendary tour of the Mid-Atlantic region in January of 1909, the Jersey Devil apparently decided add Moorestown to his itinerary.

Joe discussed a variety of other stories that do not appear in this article. I didn’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t taken the tour, yet.

On a very serious note he asked for assistance on a local cold case. He requested that anyone with information about the August 22, 1975 disappearance of Carolyn Majane please contact the authorities. More information regarding the case can be found on his website.

I later found out that Joe does, in fact, have a last name. More information regarding Mr. Wetterling’s research can be found at moorestownghosts.blogspot.com. As he mentioned during the tour, the newspaper articles posted there are very graphic. Parents should review before allowing their children to read.

You know it’s a popular community when even those who’ve passed on don’t want to leave. After taking the Moorestown Ghost Tour, it’s hard to blame them. The program included a stroll through the downtown area. Tour goers got a close-up view of the historic homes, churches and businesses that flank Main Street. Even those interested in the more earthly aspects of Moorestown’s history would enjoy the program. The town’s beauty may haunt them long after Halloween, however.

 

*Money Magazine declared Moorestown, NJ the “Best Place to Live in America” in 2005.

“The Salem Witch Trials: The Usual Suspects” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

What words would best assess the Salem Witch Trials? Historical Society of Moorestown President, Mickey DiCamillo chose some unexpected ones. Describing the event as both “complex” and “nuanced”, he proceeded to correct a “shallow understanding” that has developed around them. Mr. DiCamillo delivered the first phase of a thorough explication of this macabre chapter in American history at the Garden at Smith Cadbury Mansion this October 10th.

Due to the event’s intricacies, Mr. DiCamillo opted to divide his remarks into three separate lectures. The Historical Society of Mooretown scheduled the following talks over three Wednesdays in October leading up to Halloween: “The Usual Suspects,” “Strangely Accused” and “A Conspiracy of Witches.”

While fusing the ghastly tone of the subject along with some superb Halloween ambiance, the Historical Society of Moorestown established the mood brilliantly. I wasn’t sure if I was attending a history lecture or walking into a coven of witches. A series of candles illuminated the walkway. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorned the periphery. Stray leaves fell from the trees throughout the evening. Mosquitos served as the only blood sucking creatures one needed to fear, however. The balmy 80 degree evening made the autumn evening feel more like the dog days of summer. A large stake and ominous witch figure behind the seating area brought audience members back into the spirit of the season.

I’ve attended several lectures Mr. DiCamillo has presented at the Historical Society. His talks include myriad details which reflect both diligent research and scholarly erudition. In this speech he added another feature to his repertoire: humor. While speaking for over an hour–without notes–, he added comical quips that made the talk even more engaging. His observation regarding a deadbeat husband showed both creativity and a flair for alliteration: “Goodman Goode was good for nothing.”

The opening lecture explored the background that served as the catalyst for the infamous events of 1692. Mr. DiCamillo described that context as including poor governance, continuous warfare and a society rent by factions.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leaders failed to fulfil the responsibilities of their offices. In fact, they proved so inept that during the 1680s the British government revoked the colony’s charter.

Interminable wars with Native American plagued the community. These conflicts became brutal affairs. Both adversaries engaged in barbaric acts against one another. When combined with an ineffective government, these struggles exacerbated the environment of fear in the colony.

Dysfunction permeated the area’s religious institutions, as well. Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) hired and fired three ministers in 15 years. As a harbinger of the American system of voting, church members elected their preachers from among the congregation. The continual turnover displayed the prevalence of factions among the faithful.

The Puritan mythos held a belief that they were chosen by God to build a New Jerusalem. It proved as practical as the striving for Camelot that inspired Europeans during the Middle Ages. Along with the conviction of a pending “Puritan apocalypse”, their failure to achieve the “City of a Hill” led them to seek a scapegoat.

While none of these matters served as a harbinger of good things to come, the community also harbored a belief in witchcraft. Their legal code included penalties for its practice. In the days long before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, the standards for conviction proved difficult. A confession proved the most durable. Lacking that, Puritan prosecutors tested the accused on their knowledge of religious precepts; such as prayers or Biblical verses. They would also investigate “body evidence.” This included either warts or odd markings on the body. Puritans believed these served as portals where “magic” could enter a person. If the “bewitched” individual claimed the “witch” appeared to him/her as an apparition, that provided another form of evidence. “Anger resulting in mischief” could also be raised against the accused. This entailed upsetting someone and then something bad happening to him/her.

This minatory concoction reached a climax in Salem Village during the early 1690s. It seems fitting that a disgruntled preacher would trigger a more ignominious phase of colonial history. Reverend Samuel Paris’ daughter and niece both suffered from a mysterious illness. The symptoms included barking, growling and running. Following these outbursts, the children would engage in a long period of staring. When the doctor couldn’t provide a medical diagnosis for this behavior, he suggested witchcraft as a potential source.

The speaker then described the events and personalities that shaped the early stages of the trials. He even included an audience participation exercise. Showing the skill of a seasoned showman, he left an excellent cliff hanger for the October 17th lecture

For readers contemplating hopping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to visit this era: there’s more. Even by the standards of the time, Puritans engaged in much quirkier practices than those described.

Mr. DiCamillo included some of these activities in his talk. People practiced an unusual means of fortune telling during the late seventeenth century. They would break and egg and pour it into a glass of water. Participants would interpret the shapes formed by the egg white in order to discern the future.

But this wasn’t the strangest thing people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did with food. They also baked “witch cakes” to determine whether or not someone had been bewitched. The ingredients included dough, flour and the urine of the afflicted. The concoction would then be fed to a dog.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented an exceptional opening program on the Salem Witch Trials. Kudos to Mr. DiCamillo for doing some bewitching of his own. His unique combination of scholarship and wit cast a spell upon the audience. One doesn’t need to pour an egg into a glass of water to know those who attended will return for the October 17th program.