Growing up as I did just down the road from Gettysburg, I’m well aware of the deep impact and fascination that history can hold for people. However, certain events seem to become rooted in an unchanging mythological shorthand in our minds by the media and society which aren’t changed unless we make an explicit effort to learn more about them: Columbus discovering the New World. The shootout in the O.K. Corral. The Salem Witch Trials.
Common lore that we all “know” says that women were burned at the stake for deals with the devil, that the accused witches were all women, and that it was solely confined to Salem. The first part is totally wrong: no one was burned in Salem. Twenty-four people died: nineteen by hanging, one by pressing under large rocks, and five died in prison. Eight of those who died were men. The accused ranged from a 75-yr-old woman to a little girl of 4, and numbered powerful and influential people among their number as well as the “usual suspects” of old women who had quarreled with their neighbors. And there were accusations in other towns besides Salem such as Gloucester and Salisbury, and even a group of them in Connecticut.
The main question of the trials has obviously been not whether the suspects were true witches, but why the accusations were made, and why were they believed and pursued with such fervor. Both of these questions have been meat for many scholars and historians, and the explanations have ranged from a need for attention by the largely young, female ranks of the accusers (a group who were near the very bottom of the Puritan social ladder) to hallucinations brought on by fungus in their rye bread. The whole truth behind their motives and what actually happened will never be known, but an intriguing theory is presented by Mary Beth Norton in her book In The Devil’s Snare.
In it, she examines not just the pattern of the “attacks”, but also the legal proceedings and courtroom drama that accompanied them, the aftermath of the flurry of executions, but also the larger picture of the area and the way it may have contributed and influenced the entire incident. Specifically, she contends that the outbreak of hostility and attacks by local Native Americans and French trappers could have left a psychological scar on the minds of the people of Salem, making the suggestion of an assault by unseen malevolent enemies that much more believable.
It was a time of trouble and discontent. King Phillip’s War & King Williams’s War had meant that the settlers had endured nearly two decades of battle and harassment by an enemy they saw as being inhuman monsters. Lack of a newspaper meant that information about attacks traveled by infrequent letters or more commonly by word of mouth, with some gory embellishment undoubtedly thrown in to spice things up. Most of the accusers in the trials had either lived on the frontier before war touched the area, or had relatives who had lived or died there. Likewise, many of the judges and overseers of the trials had a connection to those armed conflicts, and were ready to accept supernatural aid as a reason for the brutal attacks and victories of their enemies.
Norton suggests that these attacks and the reports of others created a kind of hysteria in the accusers, causing them to lash out at those they had heard disparaged by others or with their own connection to attacks. Many of the complaints mention the presence of a “black” man presiding over evil ceremonies, a word commonly used during that time and place to refer to Native Americans. Indeed, the famous writer and clergyman Cotton Mather himself stated that the witches called Satan the “Black Man”, and “they generally say he resembles an Indian.”
Reports of skirmishes and the political fallout caused by these incidents, as well as the martial description of ghostly covens by the accusers and confessors reinforce this idea, and Norton has done an exhaustive job of researching and collecting contemporary accounts of the events leading up to, during, and the sudden collapse of the whirlwind of activity during the events in Salem. More impressively, she presents all of this information in a readable, detailed voice that’s both enjoyable and solidly clinical in the best way.
She offers a plausible and fascinating explanation for the actions of all involved. It doesn’t excuse or condone the death and misery caused by the accusers and judges, but the psychological pressure and turmoil present in the area, as well as the religious teachings of their leaders and their desire to make their home into a paradise makes the behavior of all involved much more understandable.
History can be endlessly fascinating if handled properly, and brain-killingly dry if the writer doesn’t have the needed talent or passion. Norton has both, and I’d happily hand this book to anyone interested in American history in general or Salem in particular.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.