In January 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts, two young girls began to suffer from inexplicable fits. Seventeen months later, after legal action had been taken against 144 people--20 of them put to death--the ignominious Salem witchcraft trials finally came to an end.
Now, Mary Beth Norton--one of our most ad-mired historians--gives us a unique account of the events at Salem, helping us to understand them as they were understood by those who lived through the frenzy. Describing the situation from a seventeenth-century perspective, Norton examines the crucial turning points, the accusers, the confessors, the judges, and the accused, among whom were thirty-eight men. She shows how the situation spiraled out of control following a cascade of accusations beginning in mid-April. She explores the role of gossip and delves into the question of why women and girls under the age of twenty-five, who were the most active accusers and who would normally be ignored by male magistrates, were suddenly given absolute credence.
Most important of all, Norton moves beyond the immediate vicinity of Salem to demonstrate how the Indian wars on the Maine frontier in the last quarter of that century stunned the collective mindset of northeastern New England and convinced virtually everyone that they were in the devil's snare. And she makes clear that ultimate responsibility for allowing the crisis to reach the heights it did must fall on the colony's governor, council, and judges.
A vivid, authoritative historical evocation and exploration that will alter forever the way we think about one of the most perennially fascinating and horrifying events in our history.
In her splendid re-creation of the notorious events of 1692, Cornell historian Norton (her Founding Mothers and Fathers was a Pulitzer finalist) offers fresh and provocative insights into the much-studied Salem witchcraft trials. Using newly available materials from the trial records, letters and diaries, she argues that a complex of political, military and religious factors led to the outbreak of hysterical fits and other behavior that ended in the infamous trials. As Norton ably demonstrates, the settlers saw the First and Second Indian Wars and their resulting loss of prosperity as God's punishment for their sins. In April 1692, as these losses mounted, several teenage girls began having fits that they attributed to the devil, to witches and to Indians. The colonists thus found themselves, says Norton, being punished both by visible spirits (Indians) and invisible ones (the devil). In an unusual turn of events that Norton explores, the magistrates of the village took the testimony of these women who normally were not given any political or judicial authority at face value and began the trials. Moreover, as Norton shows, some judges used this opportunity of blaming witches to assuage their own guilt over their responsibility for political, economic and military mismanagement. Part of the originality of this study lies in Norton's refusal to read events through the lens of contemporary psychology, offering instead a lively account of the ways 17th-century men and women would have thought about them. Very simply, Norton's book is a first-rate narrative history of one of America's more sordid yet ever-fascinating tales.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 12, 2003
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Excerpt from In the Devil's Snare by Mary Beth Norton
Under an Evil Hand
January 15-March 6, 1691/2
Monday, January 25, 1691/2; York, Maine. About noon, in heavy snow, when (in the words of a contemporary historian) "the Inhabitants were in their unguarded Houses, here and there scattered, Quiet and Secure," about 150 Indians led by Madockawando, a sachem of the Penobscot band of the Wabanakis, took York completely by surprise. One by one they captured most of the town's garrisoned houses and split into small parties to burn houses and to kill livestock and people. Captain John Floyd, who with a small troop of militia rushed to the scene from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, found on his arrival that "the greatest part of the whole town was burned & robed," with nearly 50 killed and another 100 captured. Among the dead was the Reverend Shubael Dummer, who was, Floyd reported, "barbarously murthered stript naked Cut & mangled by these sons of Beliall." The Indians seemed to have known when and where to strike, and help had arrived much too late.1
From the neighboring town of Wells, the Reverend George Burroughs described "the Sorrowfull tideings" from York for the leaders of Massachusetts. "The beholding of the Pillours of Smoke, the rageing of the mercyless flames, the insultations of the heathen enemy, shooting, hacking, (not haveing regard to the earnest supplication of men, women, or Children, with sharpe cryes & bitter teares in most humble manner,) & dragging away others, (& none to help) is most affecting the heart." Burroughs concluded that "God is still manifesting his displeasure against this Land, he who formerly hath set to his hand to help us, doth even write bitter things against us."2
When he wrote that letter George Burroughs would not have known that about a week before the attack on York, two little girls living in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris in Salem Village--a house Burroughs had once occupied--had begun to have strange fits. Nor, unless he had the occult powers eventually attributed to him, would he have known that as a result just three months later he too would personally experience "bitter things."
In the winter of 1691-1692, Salem Village, a thinly populated rural precinct bordering the crowded, bustling seaport of Salem Town, simmered with contention, much of it revolving around the church. Its pastor, the Reverend Samuel Parris, had become the focal point for considerable discontent, which his actions in the coming months would magnify rather than dampen. Indeed, the strange behavior of the girls in his household beginning in mid-January would, as he later reflected, set off a "horrid calamity (which afterwards, plague-like, spread in many other places)."3
Land grants in the mid to late 1630s had initiated movement into the area that eventually became known as Salem Village, which was located north and west of the town center. Salem, the first permanent settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was founded in 1626 on a peninsula commanding a superb natural harbor, and the town quickly became the focal point of the area around Cape Ann. Immigrants flowed in during the 1630s, and furs and fish flowed out. The newcomers moved inland to found new towns and to settle in Salem's own hinterland, first referred to simply as "the Farms."4
As the decades passed, friction developed between the Town and the Farms. Residents of Salem Town wanted the tax revenues contributed by residents of the Farms; for their part, the Farmers, though usually outvoted by the more numerous Town dwellers, sought to avoid civic obligations in the distant Town. By the early 1670s the Farmers' fight for greater autonomy focused on their desire to build their own meetinghouse and to support their own minister. Like other residents of outlying areas of colonial New England settlements, they complained of the long weekly journey to the town center to attend church services, arguing that they should be able to establish their own parish. In October 1672 the Massachusetts General Court agreed to their request. For years thereafter, however, Salem Town still claimed the right to assess Farmers for ecclesiastical expenses, and the Farms, later Salem Village, did not become the independent town of Danvers until 1752.5
Ironically, the long-sought meetinghouse and minister--the subject of so much contention with Salem Town--also proved to be a major source of discord within Salem Village itself. Whether because strife in the Village came to focus on the church or because the Villagers made inappropriate choices of clergymen, each of the first four ministers who served the Village failed to earn consistent support from his parishioners.