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Thursday, November 6th, 2003


In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

by Mary Beth Norton


A review by Alan Taylor

The Puritans of colonial New England puzzle or appall us for having believed in witchcraft unto the death of its suspects. Their witch-hunting infests our popular memory as an original, national sin: as something we can congratulate ourselves for outgrowing or as a cautionary reminder of our lingering potential for collective folly and cruelty. We would like to consider ourselves more rational and scientific than they, but can we be so sure? Indeed, we cannot shake the anxiety, as Arthur Miller insisted in The Crucible, that we conduct latter-day witch hunts against imagined traitors within. So we never think about Puritan witch-hunting without making it about ourselves in the present.

With mixed results, historians try to transcend such "presentism" by scrupulously reconstructing the cultural context of the past so as to treat the Puritans on their own terms rather than as inferior or interior versions of ourselves. In their time, a belief in witches followed logically from seventeenth-century conditions and assumptions that were pervasive in Europe as well as in the colonies. Early modern people did not dwell in the disenchanted universe of pure reason (nor, of course, do most contemporary Americans — witness the popular credulity for the existence of angels, ghosts, space aliens, and compassionate conservatives). The Puritans saw and heard wondrous signs of God's purpose and the devil's menace: ominous lights in the sky, prophetic dreams, multiple suns, eclipses, comets, deformed births, speaking infants, poltergeists, unseen and portentous voices, eerie coincidences, apparitions of warring armies or ships in the sky, and cases of blasphemers and Sabbathbreakers suddenly struck dead. Given God's omnipotence and Satan's malignity, all such "remarkable providences" seemed pregnant with a divine meaning that the Puritans struggled to decipher as a guide to communal security.

The colonists shared the seventeenth-century European conviction that Satan recruited humans to become his servants — his witches — by signing their names in blood in his book. Selling their souls, witches obtained magical power to harm and to kill their enemies on earth. When cattle and children sickened and died, the New England colonists suspected witchcraft by some in their midst. To protect the community, the Puritan magistrates had to identify, to prosecute, and to execute witches — by hanging rather than the burning of popular myth.

Witchcraft made perfect sense to a pre-modern people vulnerable to an unpredictable and often deadly natural world beyond their control: fires, floods, windstorms, droughts, crop blights, livestock diseases, and human epidemics. Unpredictable and deadly afflictions demanded explanation, some attribution of cause, that might protect people from further suffering, or at least console them with resignation to God's will. No Puritans wished to believe that misfortune lacked a supernatural meaning, for random accident would confirm their helplessness and their isolation in a world without God. Witchcraft was also plausible because some colonists did dabble in the occult to tell fortunes and to cure, or to inflict, ills — though there is little reason to believe that such "cunning folk" worshipped Satan or that they possessed more than the ominous power of suggestion.

The victims of affliction usually blamed aggressive and contentious individuals — particularly poorer folk and older women who acted with an assertion deemed beyond their assigned social station. Females constituted the majority of both the accusers (mostly young) and the accused (mostly older). While attesting that the words of women had power in Puritan communities, their disproportionate prosecution also demonstrated the considerable unease generated by that power — and pointed to a generational tension between young and old.

Although the belief in witchcraft was pervasive and continuous, the prosecution of witches was sporadic and localized, occasionally erupting in a few especially fractious towns, where long memories nurtured grudges and suspicions. Rather than rush to judgment, the authorities usually contained suspicions short of trials by scrupulously following legal procedures in gathering evidence and examining witnesses. Even when a case proceeded to trial, it was no easy matter to prove witchcraft. The New England colonists prosecuted ninety-three witches but executed only sixteen — until 1692, when a peculiar mania at Salem dramatically inflated the numbers.

Salem was an especially troubled township, internally divided into two parishes with distinct communities and churches: the commercial seaport of Salem Town and the farming hinterland of Salem Village (now Danvers). The latter was particularly rancorous, squabbling over farmland and a succession of ministers with short tempers and tenures. That January in Salem Village, two teenage girls in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris began to suffer fits and hallucinations. Encouraged by local adults, principally the confrontational Parris, the girls accused a growing number, and an expanding orbit, of witches. Taken with deadly seriousness by the county magistrates, the accusations ultimately led to formal charges against 144 people (thirty-eight men and 106 women) from twenty-two different towns. The prosecutors secured fifty-four confessions, which provided the critical evidence to convict and execute twenty people (fourteen women and six men). No previous episode could compare in scale or intensity. Ending in early 1693, the spree left such bitter feelings and guilty consciences that New Englanders abandoned judicial witch-hunting.

Every new history of Salem witch-hunting offers a particular theory that resonates with contemporary American concerns. In 1975, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum published the provocative and influential Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Troubled by American materialism, they found a tension between the peasant values of Salem Village and the nascent capitalism of Salem Town. A year later, popular interest in psychotropic drugs influenced Linda R. Caporael's argument, published in Science magazine, that ergot poisoning caused the hallucinations and the paranoia of Salem in 1692 (a shaky interpretation much recycled in print and on television). In 1987, feminism informed Carol F. Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, which more clearly discerned Puritan misogyny in the selective and disproportionate prosecution of assertive women. And now Mary Beth Norton reflects historians' current drive to recover the importance of Indians, and especially the violence by and against them, in the making of American culture and society.

Norton is an especially productive and influential scholar, specializing in the history of women in colonial and revolutionary America. As a feminist, Norton initially felt drawn to the Salem story because it pivoted around female protagonists: the accusing girls and most of the accused witches. In Puritan society, the reinforcing hierarchies of gender, age, and wealth ordinarily cast young women working as household servants at the social bottom. They were supposed to labor in humble and silent obscurity, deferring to their male elders and betters. In Essex County in 1692, however, a group of teenage girls, most of them servants, inverted the social hierarchy by claiming supernatural powers to discern witches. They boldly spoke out in meetinghouses and courts — centers of community power that were ordinarily closed to them except as a passive audience. The accusing girls also implicitly challenged the patriarchy by calling the tune for the prosecuting magistrates and by imperiling the reputations and the lives of some high-status men and women. "As in no other event in American history until the rise of the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century," Norton remarks, "women took center stage at Salem: they were the major instigators and victims of a remarkable public spectacle."

But deeper research soon persuaded Norton that the primary, long-hidden story required closer attention to "the hitherto neglected men accused in 1692," especially Reverend George Burroughs. The writing of social history has certainly reached a new stage when a leading feminist scholar can conclude that her peers have so successfully rescued colonial women from obscurity that — at least for the Salem story — we have lost sight of pivotal characters because they were men.

Norton also transcends the usual focus by historians on Salem Village, where the crisis began, moving outward to the rest of Essex County, where that crisis culminated. It was the town of Andover, rather than Salem, that generated the largest number of accusations, forty of them. "Thus the term Salem witchcraft crisis is a misnomer," Norton explains. "Essex County witchcraft crisis would be more accurate." But old terms die hard, for the subtitle of Norton's book remains The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

In a third break with previous scholars, who depict a unified and steadily expanding crisis, Norton divides the crisis into two starkly different stages, with mid-April as the line of demarcation. In the early stage, the Salem Village episode resembled previous outbreaks: accusations were few, local, and conventional (quarrelsome older women and some of their husbands); and the authorities proceeded cautiously, probing the evidence before prosecuting. All that changed in late April, when the number of accusations suddenly soared, ascended the social hierarchy, and spread throughout Essex County and beyond. Something happened in April to render the Salem outbreak unprecedented in scale and consequences. For Norton, explaining the escalation in April trumps in importance the outbreak in Salem Village in January.

Norton emphasizes the confession on April 19 by Abigail Hobbs, a teenage refugee from Falmouth (now Portland) in Maine, then a frontier region governed by the colony of Massachusetts. In early 1692, most of Maine's settlements, including Falmouth, suffered destruction by the Wabanaki Indians and their French allies, sending demoralized refugees to Essex County. Under pressure from the accusing girls and the judges, Hobbs confessed that she had met the devil in Falmouth and signed his book. "Those who heard her confession readily grasped the connection between Satan and the Wabanakis," Norton announces; Hobbs's "confessions pointed everyone's attention toward events in Falmouth, and on the Maine frontier, with striking results." A night later, Ann Putnam — one of the leading accusers — had a horrific vision that identified the devil's viceroy in Maine as Reverend George Burroughs, a former resident of both Salem Village and Falmouth. Nothing could have been more sensational and shocking to Puritans than to discover that a minister had betrayed God and his Christian people to serve Satan. So it is striking that, instead of dismissing as incredible the spectral testimony of two young women, the magistrates made the most of it, arresting Burroughs for trial in Salem for his life.

Alas for Burroughs, he had made too many enemies, had sparked too much damning gossip, and had been in the wrong places at the wrong times. Although he was Harvard-educated and a minister, Burroughs held unorthodox religious beliefs and behaved in unconventional ways. He never sought ordination; he did not baptize his children; and he neither offered nor received the other ritual sacraments. Local gossip implicated Burroughs for abusing, and perhaps murdering, his first two wives. His checkered ministerial career included a contentious stint in Salem Village during the early 1680s, when he had lodged with the family of Ann Putnam, who reflected parental gossip in her vivid accusations. Moving northeast to the frontier settlement of Falmouth, Burroughs knew Mercy Lewis and Abigail Hobbs, who later fled to Salem as refugees and there became leading witch-accusers. His enemies suspected demonic premonition when Burroughs twice left frontier communities, including Falmouth, shortly before their deadly destruction by Indians. The suspicious also detected a satanic bargain when Burroughs displayed a prodigious strength that transcended his short and wiry build.

Burroughs, his enemies charged, plied satanic magic to lead the dual attacks on New England: Wabanaki on the margins and witches at the core. To save their colonies, the Puritans had to destroy Burroughs and his network of witches. Convicted of witchcraft, Burroughs died at the Salem gallows on August 19. The Reverend Cotton Mather, a champion of the trials and executions, exulted that "our good God is working of miracles."

When the Salem magistrates readily prosecuted a minister, the floodgates of accusation opened, flowing far and wide and up the social ladder to imperil other colonial leaders. "What linked them all — and what nearly all historians have failed to recognize — was the relationship of their targets to the Indian wars on the Maine frontier," Norton maintains. The new suspects included Captain John Floyd, a militia officer defeated by the Wabanaki, and Captain John Alden, a mariner suspected of trading ammunition to Indians and of taking their sexual favors in return.

Norton attributes the expanding Salem witch hunt to the shock felt by Puritan colonists at their stunning defeats on the northeastern frontier at the hands of the Wabanaki. Seeking revenge for stolen land, traders' cheating, and colonial insults, the Indians rapidly destroyed most of Maine's farms and towns with fire and massacre. Shocked out of their complacent sense of superiority over pagan savages, the Maine settlers blamed their colonial rulers based in Salem and Boston. Anguished colonists wondered why military assistance was too little, too late, and conducted by incompetents. And surely, the refugees reasoned, the simultaneous outbreak of witchcraft in Essex County could be no random coincidence.

To save themselves, the colonists had to determine what they had done to offend their vengeful God, who had lifted his protection to permit rampaging Indians and witches to smite his chosen but sinning people. The Puritans felt compelled to purify their ranks by forsaking their blind indifference to Satan's evident minions working within. And those minions, Norton suggests, could best be found among the men blamed for the military follies on the Maine frontier.

The residents of Essex County had particularly strong reasons to imagine that the witchcraft within had links to the Indian menace without. The county's leaders — the magistrates who investigated and tried the witches — also speculated in Maine lands and commanded the militia expeditions that failed so miserably to defend the frontier. And the towns of Essex County became crowded with distraught and disoriented refugees fleeing ravaged homes, mourning dead relatives, and looking for someone to blame. "Unable to defeat Satan in the forests and garrisons of the northeastern frontier," Norton asserts, "they could nevertheless attempt to do so in the Salem courtroom."

During the spring of 1692, the Essex County magistrates, principally Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, made fatal decisions that empowered the accusers to escalate a local crisis into a county-wide communal obsession. Breaking with the tradition of separate, skeptical examination of individual accusers and accused, the magistrates brought them all together in public court to watch the fits fly. Rational deliberation and legal procedure vanished at the public hearings, as the girls erupted in painful outbursts and vivid hallucinations when provided with an audience and faced by the suspects. Those physical outbursts and the "spectral evidence" of their visions became critical evidence against the accused. But to clinch their cases the magistrates needed confessions, which the communal settings promoted.

Under intense public pressure, including from spouses and relatives, many suspects broke down at the hearings, offering lurid confessions that confirmed the authority of the girls and that named new witches for prosecution. The magistrates compounded the incentives to confess by sparing the confessors from trial, provided they testified against the more defiant suspects such as George Burroughs. Some confessed Andover witches subsequently explained that at the communal hearings they were told, "We were witches, and they knew it, and we knew it, which made us think that it was so." One said that she "became so terrified in her mind that she owned, at length, almost anything they propounded to her." A Dutch merchant resident in Boston marveled that "throughout the countryside, the excessive gullibility of the magistrates has caused that which the tormented or possessed people bring in against someone together with other trivial circumstances to be taken as substantially true and convincing testimony against the accused."

By allowing the accusers to dominate the proceedings, the magistrates abdicated some of their power, and most of their discretion, to tormented teenage girls who professed access to a higher power. Norton elaborates: "Thus in the invisible world the afflicted, in effect, assumed the role of magistrates. They listened to the testimony of spectral witnesses (the murder victims) and extracted the confessions that Hathorne and Corwin could not." Ironically, Norton makes an unintended case for elite patriarchy as a lesser of evils — given the irrational destruction of life that marked the triumph of the young female accusers. Had the magistrates defended the powers of the patriarchs, the girls would have been kept in quiet obscurity, and twenty Puritans would have led longer lives to natural ends.

Why did the magistrates defer to the girls? Norton answers that the Puritan elite subconsciously recognized their responsibility for failing to defend Maine against the Indians. Vulnerable to charges of supernatural betrayal, the judges slavishly followed the girls, determined thereby to prove their true zeal against New England's spectral enemies. The judges, Norton writes, "attempted to shift the responsibility for their own inadequate defense of the frontier to the demons of the invisible world, and as a result they presided over the deaths of many innocent people." She boldly concludes that "had the Second Indian War on the northeastern frontier somehow been avoided, the Essex County witchcraft crisis of 1692 would not have occurred. This is not to say that the war 'caused' the witchcraft crisis, but rather that the conflict created the conditions that allowed the crisis to develop as rapidly and extensively as it did."

Norton proposes an ingenious argument, but it is not quite as original as she insists, early and often. Although Norton can justly claim to have explored the Maine connection and the Essex-wide dimensions in unprecedented detail, she scants credit due to previous scholars who, in briefer versions, anticipated her accomplishment. For one example, Norton does not acknowledge Christine Leigh Heyrman's Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Attention, 1690-1750, which appeared in 1984, and called attention to both the Andover accusations and to the psychological impact of the frontier war on the witch hunt.

Norton's Maine connection works better as a partial coloration than as a single explanation for the whole complex, messy crisis. If ties to Maine, especially refugees, were pivotal, why were afflictions more intense, and accusations more numerous, in hinterland communities (Andover, Topsfield, and Salem Village), where refugees were relatively few, rather than in the seaports (Boston, Newbury, Ipswich, and Salem Town), where they were most numerous? And if the shock of frontier war shaped the visions of witches within, why was there no witchcraft outbreak during King Philip's War of 1675-1676? That earlier frontier conflict killed more colonists, destroyed more towns, and affected more of New England than did the Second Indian War of 1689-1697. Although offering plenty of misery, the Second Indian War had an even more miserable precedent in recent memory that must have taken some of the shock out of the less destructive sequel. Norton's solution is to lump the two wars together in the minds of 1692, which begs the question of why it took the Puritans so long to react to the greater, earlier shock.

In driving her thesis, Norton makes the most of her evidence — and then some. She shifts to the foreground every circumstantial link between Maine and Essex County, Wabanaki and witches, while shunting to the background the evidence and the events, especially those internal to Salem Village, that loom larger in previous accounts. Where other historians highlighted the original accusers from Salem Village, especially Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, Norton favors the subsequent accusers from Maine, especially Mercy Lewis and Abigail Hobbs. In assessing the twenty executed witches, Norton emphasizes the two who had lived in Maine rather than the eighteen who had not. To explain the prosecution of George Burroughs, Norton makes more of his Maine residence than of his heterodox religious beliefs, which so horrified his enemies and seem primarily to have motivated his prosecution.

In sorting the accused, she makes much more of those directly associated with the Maine military campaigns than of the larger number who had no such association. This selective emphasis is especially striking, because with the conspicuous exception of George Burroughs, the Maine-connected were often accused but rarely tried. Captain Alden broke jail with surprising ease, while the magistrates eventually dropped their case against Captain Floyd. For Norton, the broad pool of often tenuous accusations — which featured the Maine connection — seems more significant than the smaller subset of especially serious cases carried through to trial, conviction, and execution, where Salem Village predominated. Fundamentally, Norton distills her evidence from a diverse and diffuse body of testimony and then maximizes the weight of that evidence by redefining the topic of Salem witchcraft, focusing on escalation over origins and on accusations over convictions.

Norton's evidence often hinges on a speculative reading of snippets from Puritan testimony or commentary. Some afflicted girls saw spectral witches roasting victims on a spit, which Norton takes as resonating their dread of flaming tortures by rampaging Wabanaki. This is plausible, but hellfire was long associated with witches' satanic power. To clinch her point, Norton needs to demonstrate that torture by burning was a more common motif in 1692 than in previous witch testimony in New England. Similarly, when accusers described the devil and demons as black, Norton says that they were thinking of Indians: "Thus the frequent references to the 'black man' by confessors and the afflicted establish a crucial connection between the witchcraft crisis and the Indian wars." Maybe, but it was a very old convention, pre-dating contact with the Indians, for medieval and early modern Europeans to paint their devils as black. And "tawny," rather than black, was the usual coloration given by colonists to Indians. Apparently only one accuser explicitly described the devil as "not a negro, but of a tawney, or an Indian colour."

At some junctures the speculative evidence thins to nothing. On June 10, 1692, the Essex authorities hanged their first Salem witch, Goodwife Bridget Bishop. The next day Indians attacked the frontier town of Wells. Norton speculates: "Did anyone view the attack as revenge for Goody Bishop's execution? It would have been easy for New Englanders to reach such a conclusion, but no such reasoning is recorded in surviving documents." Similarly, Norton concludes that the judges "quickly became invested in believing in the reputed witches' guilt, in large part because they needed to believe that they themselves were not guilty of causing New England's current woes." But in no surviving document does a judge confess to this reasoning, nor did any of their contemporaries suggest such a judicial psychology of projection, which seems more modern than Puritan.

Norton responds that the silences in the documentary record indicate a purge of embarrassing documents by the authors or their descendants: "the holes in the documentary record are too consistent and specific to be explained in any other way." By imagining that the Puritans did write explicit evidence for her argument but then suppressed it, she sustains her pose of scrupulously reflecting their world rather than her own modernity. Faulting other historians for applying "modern-day terminology to the incidents," she counters that "I have deliberately omitted attaching contemporary labels to the participants and their actions. Instead, this book focuses on describing and analyzing the crisis in seventeenth-century terms."

If this were literally so, Norton would endorse the Puritan explanation that the devil really did employ witches to torment colonial bodies and minds. In fact, as a twenty-first-century writer, she cannot simply borrow the past's own terms and categories. By plunging into archives to analyze documents by the rational conventions of modern scholarship, Norton inevitably interprets an alien past to contemporary readers seeking a secular explanation. By accounting for the witch hunt of 1692 in terms of mass hysteria following military defeat, Norton speaks to us rather than for the Puritans. In sum, she is too skilled a historian literally to practice her oft-repeated but misleading declaration of seventeenth-century authenticity. And given her own creativity at connecting the dots of circumstantial and rhetorical evidence in ways that no Puritan could, why would Norton wish to deny the impressive modernity of her effort?

Although Norton explicitly denies the pertinence of modern psychology, it implicitly shapes her interpretation of the tormented (and tormenting) girls, as well as of the projecting judges. Only at the book's end, in a retrospective, does Norton render explicit her assumptions that the original afflictions were "genuine" and that the later confessors, especially the war refugees, manifested "post-traumatic stress disorder." But she also finds "prearranged collusion" in the synchronized visions that doomed George Burroughs, and Norton concludes that eventually "some of the afflicted accusers, reveling in the exercise of unprecedented power, began to augment and enhance their stories." Although credible to modern readers, none of these judgment calls echo seventeenth-century terms.

In her quixotic pursuit of a premodern sensibility for her explanation, Norton organizes her book in a manner meant to segregate her roles as narrator and historian. In the body of the text, printed against a white background, she gives a detailed day-by-day recapitulation of the events in Essex County during 1692 with minimal analysis but many flashbacks to conflicts on the Maine frontier. She apparently intends to plunge readers into the spontaneous confusion of the unfolding events, as an antidote to the heavy-handed "modern" interpretations that Norton disdains in other histories of Salem. But Norton intermittently interrupts her narrative for briefer passages, boxed and printed on shaded pages, where she becomes the analytical historian, overtly explaining her methods and interpretations. She apparently assumes that most readers want their story "pure," with an invitation to skip past easily identifiable, and presumably boring, bits of scholarly explanation. In practice, however, Norton's shaded interludes are tighter, more lucid, and more compelling than the body of her narration, which suffers from long, repetitive stretches recapitulating testimony and random events. The innumerable snippet quotes, excessive detail, and blizzard of minor characters often lack any clear connection to her larger interpretation — other than the claim to immerse the reader in the (confusing) past.

The historian as detective explicitly weighing the evidence is the voice that best serves Norton — better than she recognizes, and far better than her distracting attempt at narrative verisimilitude. Indeed, if freed from confinement in a few boxes, the analytical mode would have brought clarity and discipline to the whole text, framing and winnowing the details, giving forest to the trees. In the end, Norton introduces a plausible dimension to the great American witch hunt: its intriguing, albeit tentative, links to frontier fear and loathing. But she falls short of her greatest ambition: to provide the one master key to the Salem witch craze, to present a supreme interpretation that sweeps all other contenders into the dustbin of history. The perplexity of the Salem witch hunt is not over. Neither readers nor historians can resist taking the Puritans' measure at their most mysterious, as believers in Satan's infernal world and in his destructive traffic in human lives and souls, because we long to know human nature in its most extreme and the past at its strangest. As our own culture evolves, we will revise our relationship with the witch-hunters, with renewed attempts to fathom a world that may be lost, or may be all too close at hand.

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