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Salem's bedeviled history

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

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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.

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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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