Satan in Salem

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft

by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum
Harvard University Press, 231 pp., $10.00

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.

Upham was a Unitarian minister, pastor of the Salem Church, and a local politician. He wrote to exculpate the villagers of ultimate responsibility for the tragedy, blaming instead the magistrates and the government. He was hostile to the Puritan ministers involved in the affair and indeed it was his criticisms of Cotton Mather which seem to have attracted the most attention at the time. But his main thesis was that the passions which expressed themselves in the accusations of 1692 had their roots in long-standing village hostilities. It was in the previous history of disputes over land, village boundaries, and the maintenance of the ministry that the key to the conflict was to be found. Upham was a verbose writer who buried his insights in over a thousand pages of leisurely prose. Yet it is from those pages that most subsequent writers have taken their facts about Salem, and it is by the deft use and extension of those insights that Boyer and Nissenbaum have been able to do so much to advance our understanding of the affair.

For what Upham did was to reconstruct the community of Salem Village in the most minute topographical detail. Boyer and Nissenbaum, by discovering new sources and making more rigorous use of the old ones, have been able to improve on his work in many respects. Nevertheless, Upham’s admirably precise map of the houses and landholdings in the Village provides the starting point of their research; and a photograph of Rebecca Nurse’s house adorns the dust jacket of their book, just as a sketch of the same house served as frontispiece to Upham’s first volume. Salem Possessed indeed provides an admirable illustration of the general rule that, in Old and New England alike, much of the best sociological history of the twentieth century has only been made possible by the antiquarian and genealogical interests of the nineteenth.

Boyer and Nissenbaum have tried to lay bare the roots of the Village tensions which revealed themselves in 1692. Like so many other historians who have written on the subject in recent years, they are interested not in witchcraft as such, but in those larger questions of social structure and moral values which witchcraft accusations can be used to illuminate. Their book, though half the length of the useful selection of relevant documents which they published as Salem-Village Witchcraft two years ago,4 is a notable addition to that growing number of microscopic reconstructions of local communities which are so characteristic of the present generation of social historians. But it has the extra recommendation of telling a gripping story which builds up to a horrifying climax.

Salem Village was an outlying rural district of Salem Town. In 1752 it was to be granted full independence as the township of Danvers, by which name it is still known. But in 1692 its status was anomalous. The farmers of the Village resented their dependence on the Town and had secured the right to build their own meetinghouse and to pay their own minister. But not until 1689 were they allowed to constitute a formal “church” of their own; and even then most Village affairs remained under the jurisdiction of Salem Town, which was by this time a thriving commercial port, with wealthy inhabitants and a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The Villagers differed in their attitude to the Town. On the southeastern side, where land was better and access to the market easy, most of the farmers saw the Town as a source of commercial advantage. So did the tavern keepers on the Ipswich Road, which formed the boundary between the Town and the Village. But on the northwestern end of the Village the farmers were hemmed in, unable to take advantage of the Town market, and engaged in bitter boundary disputes with the neighboring districts of Andover, Wenham, and Topsfield. To them Salem Town was an alien influence. It was this fundamental clash of interests which underlay the factions for which Salem Village had by 1692 become notorious.

The situation was made worse by the lack of any clear structure of authority within the Village or any adequate mechanism for resolving disputes. There was a Meeting and an annually elected Committee, but they were feeble reflections of the town meeting and board of selectmen possessed by an independent township. In consequence the protracted disputes about the choice and maintenance of the Village’s pastor, though of a kind familiar in New England at this time, proved excessively painful. The first minister, James Bayley, left in 1680 after prolonged bickering. The second, George Burroughs, departed in 1683 after the Village had failed to pay his salary. The third, Deodat Lawson, went in 1688 when a section of his flock opposed his ordination as minister to a fully covenanted church. The fourth, Samuel Parris, drove a hard financial bargain on his arrival, only to create a new source of dispute which polarized the Village into bitter factions until he finally resigned in 1696.

Boyer and Nissenbaum suggest that there was some continuity in the faction which first opposed Bayley and Burroughs and then supported Lawson and Parris. This party was based in the northwest of the Village and its members were less well off than their opponents in the southeast. In 1691 the anti-Parris group secured control of the Village Committee and called for an investigation into the minister’s financial position. Defeated politically, “the members of the pro-Parris faction unconsciously fell back on a different and more archaic strategy: they treated those who threatened them not as a political opposition but as an aggregate of morally defective individuals.”

In the witch trials the accusers tended to come from the northwest, whereas the accused and their defenders were based in the southeast and had links with the Town; John Proctor and Bridget Bishop both kept taverns on the Ipswich Road; Phillip English was the largest shipowner in Salem; and Daniel Andrew was a rich man with a successful construction business and many urban contacts. The continuity with the earlier ministerial disputes is well illustrated by the fact that Deodat Lawson returned to assist Parris in his denunciation to witchcraft, whereas George Burroughs was dragged back to be executed as a witch.

Boyer and Nissenbaum pick out the families of Putnam and Porter as representative leaders of either side. The Porters lived on the Town side. They had wide economic interests and they displayed a cautious opposition to the witch trials, though rallying openly to the defense of the wealthy Rebecca Nurse. The Putnams, by contrast, were hemmed in on the interior, living on land inadequate to support a third generation at the family’s accustomed level. In 1692 they were passionately involved in forwarding the trials, no fewer than eight members of the family being involved in the prosecution of some forty-six witches. The one exception to the family pattern was the appropriately named Joseph Putnam, hated by his three half-brothers for being the sole recipient of their father’s inheritance, and for marrying into the Porter clan. He alone among the Putnams was a prominent opponent of Parris; and it was the personal grievances of the family of Thomas Putman, Jr., against this wealthy relative which helped to shape the vision of a diabolical conspiracy against Salem Village as a whole.

In this way Boyer and Nissenbaum succeed in linking the Salem witchcraft affair to the general problems of New England in the seventeenth century: “the resistance of back-country farmers to the pressures of commercial capitalism‌; the breaking away of outlying areas from parent towns; difficulties between ministers and their congregations.” In a brilliant analysis of Parris’s unpublished sermons they show how the struggle between the conflicting ways of life was enacted in the mind of the minister himself. For Parris had begun life as an unsuccessful trader and his attitude to financial matters remained deeply ambivalent. While preaching on Judas Iscariot as a symbol of betrayal by the cash nexus he could at the same time despise him for getting only “a poor and mean price” for his bargain.

For Parris and other Villagers Satan came to personify the power of emergent capitalism, at once repellent and seductive. The subversion of the old subsistence-based economy thus expressed itself both as a conflict between rival groups in Salem Village and also as a psychological struggle within men’s minds. Forty years later during the Great Awakening, when capitalism had progressed yet further, the New Englanders would not denounce others for witchcraft; they would accuse themselves of corruption.

Salem Possessed thus offers an illuminating and imaginative interpretation, of more nuance and subtlety than can be conveyed here, of the social and moral state of Salem Village in 1692. Yet as an explanation of the witchcraft epidemic it is ultimately inconclusive. For, as the authors are the first to admit, the rival factions are hard to reconstruct and the pattern of accusation is too ragged to permit any close correlation with them. Some of those accused were beggars and outcasts who do not fit the pattern at all, while many of the wealthy who ought to have been attacked were, like Joseph Putnam himself, left untouched. The authors are therefore forced back on to the always doubtful theory of the “substitute” victim, arguing that the Putnams “projected their bitterness onto persons who were, politically or psychologically, less threatening targets.” At this point their argument becomes unverifiable. The same difficulty arises when they invoke the concept of “allegorical projection” to explain why persons allegedly worried about land shortage and encroaching capitalism should have accused their victims not of avarice but of maliciously afflicting young girls by occult means.

In concentrating on the Village background Boyer and Nissenbaum tend to neglect some of the central problems of the trials themselves. They say little about the afflicted girls because they regard them, with some justification, less as the real accusers than as the mouthpieces of the adults. But they also say little about the men who conducted the hearings. Yet we know that it was the hectoring interrogations of the Salem merchant John Hathorne that resulted in so long a list of defendants to stand trial; and we also know that the bench manipulated the subsequent proceedings by turning a deaf ear to charges against some persons while forcing the jury to revoke its original acquittal of Rebecca Nurse. In Salem as else where it was the attitude of the authorities that proved decisive.

All this serves to remind us that the study of village tensions can never in itself explain the outcome of witchcraft accusations, any more than it can account for the existence of witchcraft beliefs as such. The functionalist approach of Boyer and Nissenbaum sometimes leads them to imply that belief in the Devil was the product of local tensions and anxieties rather than a culturally inherited concept. Nevertheless, their sensitive, intelligent, and well-written book will certainly revive interest in the terrible happenings at Salem. It remains now for someone to make a similar study of Andover and the other townships involved, for only a tiny proportion of those accused in 1692 came from Salem Village itself. This kind of painstaking research will probably never explain why our ancestors believed in witchcraft. But it will at least help to reveal why they accused some people of being witches but not others.

  1. 1

    Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts (1949).

  2. 2

    Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953).

  3. 3

    John Demos, “Underlying themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” American Historical Review, lxxxv (1970).

  4. 4

    Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England (Wadsworth, 1972).