by Diane Brenner
Photographs are by Diane Brenner unless otherwise indicated.
You may have watched it arrive. The large metal chair-like sculpture recently planted at the edge of the Historical Society lawn has a lot of people perplexed. And the title – Jacob’s Ladder – what does it mean? Why a chair? And why honor the Jacob’s Ladder Trail, the scenic byway on Route 20 from Russell to Lee? (Spoiler alert: it is a chair, it does not honor anything along Route 20.) There’s history here – going back, in New England, to the 1690s – as well as some surprising links to the Worthington of today.
The sculpture was designed by local artist Peter McLean and his collaborator Christopher Horton in 1992. It is one of a series of “chairs” they envisioned as their entry for a competition held by the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Committee. The Committee was seeking to memorialize those who suffered through the bleak but enduringly influential period in 1692 when the Puritans, having fled persecution in England, were first establishing themselves along the New England coast.
Jacob’s Ladder was fabricated in 2011 by Gene Flores of Plainfield. The sculpture, made of black welded steel, is 18 feet high and weighs 850 pounds. The bottom portion measures 42″ x 42″ x 42″. The distance between ladder rungs represent a Fibonacci series, also known as the “golden ratio,” in which each distance is the sum of the two distances preceding it. The first distance is the small slot at the front of the seat portion.
Until recently, the sculpture graced the yard at the McLean house on Sam Hill Road; its journey to the Worthington Historical Society lawn is just a part of the story.
The Salem Witch Trials
During the summer of 1692 – on June 10, July 19, August 19, September 19 and September 22 – men and women, all convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill in Salem where they were hanged. Their death warrants were handed down following a brief, hysteria-fueled period of evidence gathering and trials. A total of 19 people were hanged, and an octogenarian was pressed to death for refusing to submit to a trial. Hundreds of others were accused and dozens jailed for months with or without trial – where they had to pay for their own food and lodging – as the witch hunt extended rapidly from Salem and Andover throughout the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. Then almost as suddenly it stopped, although rancor, recriminations and legal battles continued for decades. The section of Salem where many of the accusers and victims had lived separated from Salem Village and was reincorporated as the town of Danvers. Many of the participants moved away.
There are numerous accounts of what happened as well as a huge archive of documentation created by those who prosecuted and adjudicated the proceedings. And while the witch hysteria in this country was brief, its effects have been long-lasting. The complex religious, cultural, economic, medical and physiological factors underlying it have engendered much discussion and generated vast amounts of scholarly writing as well as enduring art and literature. As noted on the Salem Memorial Site: “To this day, the events of 1692 are used as a yardstick to measure the depth of civility and due process in our society.”
The Salem Tercentenary Witch Trials Memorial Contest
In 1991, in anticipation of the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Committee announced an international design competition with a $100,000 prize, seeking a memorial “to honor the victims of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.” 246 submissions were received.
McLean and Horton, both professors at the Hartford Art School had a longstanding interest in public art and monuments. They proposed a series of sixteen, slightly abstract steel chair sculptures each symbolizing a factor that contributed to the anti-witch hysteria in 17th-century New England. They chose chairs because in European cultures they are symbols of “comfort, power, position…hospitality, governance and sociability.” They also provided a structure for representing “the complexity of the Salem witchcraft phenomenon.” Each chair was to be placed randomly throughout the cityaccompanied by a written text that explained its meaning. They were “meant to be surprising, unsettling and thought provoking…not decorative” and to “challenge viewers with their simplicity and strangeness in a public space.” Their proposal, which consisted of drawings, received an Honorable Mention. (You can see the winner here.)
Unwilling to give up on their good idea, and hoping to interest other communities and historical societies in the project, McLean and Horton decided to expand the number of chairs to twenty (reflecting the number of victims) and built a wooden maquette (three-dimensional scale model) for each one. The maquette was accompanied by a description of the piece that explained its symbolism and its relationship to the events at Salem. The original designs were modified slightly during the maquette-building process.
In the case of Jacob’s Ladder, the chair – with its rungs arranged in harmonic progression from the lowest level to on high – represents the path to heaven, the goal ascribed to by many Puritan settlers. (In the original drawing, the rungs run the other way and the top isn’t broken.) The name refers to a passage in Genesis 28:12: “And he dreamed and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” The broken top is symbolic of the devastating loss of the possibility of entering heaven that many of the accused faced when threatened with excommunication.
Sadly, Chris Horton died in 2002, and the project was abandoned.
In 2009, McLean approached the Worthington Historical Society to mount an exhibit of the Salem maquettes. The board agreed, providing that some links could be found to Worthington. These links were not too hard to find. Following the trials, many of those affected left the Salem area, moving eventually to the part of southeastern Connecticut from which several of Worthington’s “pioneers” migrated. We discovered current residents – members of the Cleveland, Dodge, Randall and VanGuilder families – who are descended from those who were executed, notably Rebecca Nurse, Martha Carrier and Simon Wardwell. The pioneering Kinne family turned out to be related to a key trial witness.
For the exhibit, the maquettes were mounted on small platforms at the center of the main room of the Worthington Historical Society. Along the walls were displays with the original drawings illustrating the design process, as well as information about the artists, the contest, Puritan-era Salem, and the accusers, judges and victims, plus genealogies with links to folks living in Worthington. The show attracted much interest.
Peter McLean had always hoped to build full-size versions of his models. In 2012, he finally amassed sufficient funding to build the first one. Working with Plainfield metal sculptor Gene Flores, the original design was slightly modified and then fabricated from steel. At a towering 18 feet, it was not easy to find a location for it, and it was initially installed at McLean’s home on Sam Hill Road. After a series of discussions, the board of the Historical Society accepted McLean’s proposal to loan the Society the sculpture and provide it with a home until a permanent place could be found. On September 22, 2012, Flores, McLean, and Peter McLean Jr. removed the 850-pound sculpture from McLean’s yard, mounted it on the Flores truck, carted it to the Historical Society lawn, and installed it. The process took about three hours and is documented below:
A second chair, titled Accused, has been commissioned and will again be fabricated by Flores. Where it will reside is still undetermined. McLean is hoping to use the full-size sculptures to entice a museum – ideally along the North Shore where the events originally occurred – to provide a permanent home for these evocative and powerful works.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Diane Brenner moved from Egremont, MA, to Worthington in 1994 into a white elephant she shares with her spouse, Jan Roby. She is an indexer with a background in public health and an avid interest in historical research and genealogy. She is a longtime member of the board of the Worthington Historical Society, and has been active as one of the society’s archivists, helping to create many recent WHS exhibits – including the one discussed in this article. She also serves on the Worthington Historical Commission, the Worthington Board of Health and the board of the Hilltown Community Health Centers.
For More Information
If you want to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start. It has an extensive bibliography and references. For those who like their history “raw” or only lightly processed, you can’t beat the University of Virginia’s Salem Witchcraft Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. And for those interested in historical correctness, you might be interested in the debate about the exact location of Gallows Hill. Go to Peter McLean’s website If you would like to see all the maquettes up close, and read their descriptions.
Posted December 9, 2012.