Salem’s Most Famous Statue
By David Moffat for the Salem Historical Society
It’s a common sight in October: a group of tourists taking pictures in front of the statue in the middle of Brown Street. The trope among locals is that tourists mistake the statue of Salem’s founder, Roger Conant, for a witch. At least from what I’ve seen on blogs, most identify the statue correctly, though those who research the subjects of their photos and post a little bit about them online are a self-selecting bunch. A few people cop to assuming the grim figure with a flowing mantle and steep buckled hat is a witch before they read the plaque. We can assume that some percentage of tourists don’t read the plaque and walk away with the idea that the statue represents a witch. To be fair though, the statue stands directly in front of the Salem Witch Museum, drawing easy parallels for the inattentive visitor. But in the statue’s defense, it was there long before the Witch Museum was.
More specifically, the statue was put up in 1913 by the Conant Family Association, when the building which became the Witch Museum in 1972 was still a church. The statue was sculpted by Henry Hudson Kitson (1863-1947), an English-born American sculptor whose other best known works are the Founders Statue in Watertown and the Lexington Minuteman. He worked first doing architectural sculpture with his brothers, then studied sculpture in Paris in the 1880s.
Kitson’s work was naturalistic and memorial in nature, often in bronze. His style can be seen as similar to Daniel Chester French (who sculpted the Concord Minuteman), Cyrus Dallin (whose statue of a Native American on horseback, Appeal to the Great Spirit, can be seen in front of the Museum of Fine Arts) and Bela Pratt, who sculpted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s statue on Hawthorne Boulevard. Most of Kitson’s works are in the Boston area, though some can be found as far afield as Kentucky, and his statues dot the landscape of the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. He summed up his philosophy of art in The Collector and Art Critic in 1900: “In the nature of things art cannot be a money making venture. The artist to produce a work of genuine artistic merit must think only of his art.”
His wife, Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson (1871-1932), began as his sculpture student and eventually became the first woman admitted to the National Sculpture Society. Her most famous work is The Hiker, a monument to the American soldiers who fought in three wars at the turn of the twentieth century: the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine-American War, and the Spanish-American War. Copies of The Hiker can be seen in Lynn, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Newburyport.
The man in the statue, Roger Conant, was born in England in 1592 as the youngest of eight children. He became a seller of salt, and at 31 left England for the fledgling Plymouth Colony in 1623. He departed Plymouth quickly, the story going that he didn’t like their harsh treatment of dissent, and joined up with a fishing station begun on Cape Ann by Thomas Gardner and the Dorchester Company. When the Dorchester Company pulled funding from the unsuccessful venture, some of the colonists went home, but Roger Conant headed south to Naumkeag (what’s today Salem).
Changes came when the Massachusetts Bay Company arrived in 1628 with hot-headed governor John Endicott, but Conant is known today for his diplomacy, forbearance, and good governance. He remained in Salem for the rest of his long life and died in 1679, when Salem had long been established as important Atlantic trading port.
Today, his memory is served by the statue erected 102 years ago, and by the tourists who’ve made him a star.