Salem's bedeviled history

To understand the witchcraft crisis of 1692, look north - to Maine

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"The Crucible," by Arthur Miller, is an illuminating piece of theater. But as one of America's most often produced plays, it casts a spell over our cultural imagination that complicates the historian's task. The factual inaccuracies - composite characters, age changes, the adulterous affair at the center of the play - are, in a sense, the least of it.

Embroiled in the cold-war paranoia of the 1950s, Miller needed a sufficiently distant setting to critique what he called a "perverse manifestation of the panic which sets in among all classes when the balance begins to turn toward greater individual freedom." The play, with its memorable portrayal of John Proctor as a hero who refuses to betray his friends, fundamentally casts the Salem crisis as a test of individual conscience.

Cornell history professor Mary Beth Norton doesn't finger him by name, but it's clear that with "In the Devil's Snare" she wants to wrest the witchcraft episode away from Arthur Miller. What happened in Salem, she argues, was not a timeless expression of the battle between conformity and individuality. Instead, her "new interpretation ... places it firmly in the context of its very specific time and place." There may be lessons here for us all, but, she insists, "The dramatic events of 1692 can be fully understood only by viewing them as intricately related to concurrent political and military affairs in northern New England."

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Norton builds a strong case, but her recitation of the evidence is sometimes so repetitive that to move it along I would have bargained with Satan to endure "The Crucible" one more time. Her perfectly reasonable thesis, which she characterizes as radical, is that Indian attacks on the northern frontier created a climate of panic at a time when Massachusetts had lost its charter and was being ruled by a shaky interim government.

That tense atmosphere led usually skeptical men to accept the hysterical claims of young girls, which they ordinarily would have dismissed. What's more, she continues, the leaders of Massachusetts, having failed to protect their citizens from Indians - the devil's minions - "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."

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

The air over Salem is already crowded with explanations for what happened during those paranoid months. Historians have suggested that revenge or a deadly lust for others' land motivated neighbors to hang 19 people and press one to death. (Puritans didn't burn their witches - that was considered a "Popish cruelty.") Sociologists have examined the resentment that developed between the thinly populated Salem Village and the prosperous seaport of Salem Town. Feminists have illuminated the signs of misogyny in the accusations. Psychologists have analyzed psychosomatic illnesses caused by the anxieties of young people trapped in repressive Salem households. Pathologists have noticed that smallpox often inspired panic about malevolent forces. Biologists have even speculated that moldy grain may have induced hallucinations in the bewitched girls.

Many critics before Norton have noted that the Puritans were terrified of the Indians, whom they regarded as working in concert with Satan to destroy their "city on the hill." But what Norton has done here, more deliberately and carefully than anyone else, is re-create the exact battles with Wabanaki Indians that terrorized specific instigators and perpetrators of the witchcraft crisis. What's more, she's dismantled the proscenium arch over Salem and demonstrated that what happened there must be seen in the broader context of northern New England fighting for its survival.

That effort involves tracing - sometimes with a degree of speculation - the history and family connections of many Salem residents back to the Maine frontier, the site of the First and Second Indian Wars (King Philip's War and King William's War). From there, Norton shows that victims of witchcraft often described their afflictions in specific phrases that echoed the grisly Indian attacks they'd seen or heard about. Norton is also particularly attentive to the flow of gossip, which enables her to reconstruct the drift of certain accusations from town to town until they took deadly root in Salem.

'We must not believe all that these distracted children say.'

Attorney General Thomas Newton, from Boston, was prescient when he predicted, "The tryalls will be tedious," but students of law and the history of science will be fascinated by Norton's careful analysis of the interrogations. Salem investigators made a crucial error when they departed from custom and began questioning suspects in public, thereby creating a forum in which aggrieved parties could interrupt with hysterical outbursts, fits, and curses.

The Puritans lived on the cusp of the Enlightenment. They knew enough already to be skeptical, but they also believed that malevolent forces were at work in the physical world. Despite their attempts to establish scientific and medical tests for witchcraft, the judges clung to the controversial notion that testimony given by spirits and ghosts - "spectral evidence" - was admissible.

To make matters worse, the magistrates began preserving the lives of confessed witches who were willing to expose other witches, a practice that quickly led to the imprisonment of hundreds of "Satan's servants." In a climate that assumed the accused were guilty, it was virtually impossible to mount an effective defense.

As an academic historian, Norton tolerates none of the lurid aura that floats around the witchcraft crisis, but in the process she throws out Rosemary's baby with the bath water. There's no flesh on these characters. She names the names, but they remain just names - who went here, said that, did this. In her sober recitation of legal and historical detail, even the hysterical fits, ghastly visions, and physical manifestations of supernatural attack eventually begin to sound monotonous. Yes, this is valuable scholarship, but nonacademic readers accustomed to spellbinding characters in the work of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin may find this approach as dry as a witch's broom.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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