Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
By the standards of seventeenth-century Europe the Salem witchcraft episode was a relatively trivial business. About 150 persons were accused, but only nineteen were actually executed. In addition a man was pressed to death for refusing to plead and several women died in prison. All the others were eventually released. By North American standards, however, this was a holocaust of unprecedented dimensions. There had been plenty of witchcraft trials in New England before 1692 and nearly a score of executions. But accusations had usually been directed against obscure and isolated individuals. Only in Salem did accusations of witchcraft get so out of hand that they came near to destroying the whole community. This happened, moreover, at the very time when in Europe witch trials were becoming increasingly anachronistic.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Salem has had such a searing effect upon the American conscience. Even at the time, the episode appeared as a fatal crisis of Puritanism and a visible symbol of the collapse of the ideals of community and harmony upon which the early colonists had been raised. Transmitted subsequently through the pages of Longfellow, Whittier, Marion Starkey, and Arthur Miller, the main actors in the affair have entered American mythology as participating in a cosmic drama. Samuel Parris, the Village’s minister, in whose household the trouble first started; Tituba, the slave woman, with her West Indian voodoo lore; Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, Mary Warren, and the other “afflicted” girls, who denounced their spectral enemies; Martha Cory, the first woman of substance to be brought down; John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and all the other victims hanged for refusing to confess to an impossible crime; Nicholas Noyes and John Hale, the ministers who encouraged the prosecutions; Sir William Phips, the absentee governor of Massachusetts, whose belated intervention brought the trials to an end.
These are the people whose behavior each successive generation has sought to reinterpret in the light of its particular predilections. Were the girls fraudulent imposters or genuine hysterics? Did the ministers manipulate events for their own purposes? Should the villagers be held responsible or must the slaughter be blamed upon the Massachusetts authorities? Does the affair foreshadow Nazism?1 Or McCarthyism?2 Or the generational conflict of the 1960s?3
At first glance the new study by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum might seem yet another effort at bringing Salem up to date. For the authors claim in their preface that the experience of living in the decade of Watts and Vietnam has heightened their understanding of how decent Salem Villagers could be driven to instigate the deaths of their neighbors, and the impression of determined contemporaneity is enhanced by the amiable jacket photograph of the two authors: dark, hairy men in shirt sleeves, with large beards and identical steel spectacles. But in fact their approach recalls that of a much earlier investigator, Charles W. Upham, whose Salem Witchcraft, published in 1867, has hitherto been the most substantial exploration of the whole affair.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.