Authors: Mary Beth Norton
Table of Contents
For the other Americanists and the other women
in the Cornell history department, and especially for
I. V. (Itsie) Hull
Mary Beth Norton
IN THE DEVIL’S SNARE
Los Angeles Times
Best Book of the Year
Best Book of the Year
Best Book of the Year
“Compelling. . . . Provocative and persuasive. . . . [This book] also provides a poignant reminder of how the perceived failure of leaders to defend their people against an external threat, then, as now, can lead to terrible efforts to purge the demons within.”
“Dazzling, even suspenseful. . . . Norton, the master historian-detective, has pointed to a glaring clue about the origins of the Salem witchcraft crisis.”
—Fresh Air, NPR
“What we have . . . is not merely a compelling study of Salem witchery, not merely a nuanced piece of archival research, and not merely an engaging retelling of a favorite seventeenth-century tale. We have a standard-bearer for American history.”
“Brilliant. . . . It is difficult to communicate the full horror of what happened in such a dismal time in our country’s history, but Mary Beth Norton does a superb job. . . . Her conclusions are ground-breaking.”
The Baltimore Sun
How long have you been in the snare of the devil?
—Justice of the Peace John Hathorne, 1692
SALEM. The word alone evokes persistent images in the minds of twenty-first-century Americans: the misogynistic persecution of women, hysterical girls telling tales of being tormented by specters, falsely accused “witches” bravely refusing to confess, even—erroneously— women being burned at the stake. Few other events in colonial American history have so fascinated modern residents of the United States; few other incidents in the seventeenth-century Anglo-American colonies have been so intensively studied by historians. And yet much of the complicated Salem story remains untold. In the Devil’s Snare is my narrative of that untold tale.
The basic facts can be briefly summarized. The witchcraft crisis began in mid-January 1691/2, O.S.,
when two little girls living in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts, began to suffer from fits that they and their elders soon attributed to witchcraft. In the months that followed, growing numbers of accusers claimed to be tortured by the apparitions of witches, and to see the ghosts of dead people charging the witches with killing them. Other accusers—most commonly neighbors of the suspects—came forward as well, to describe how they and their animals had been bewitched by the malefic acts of the accused. Around mid-September the crisis began to wane, and it limped to a close on November 5 with the filing of complaints against the last three witches to be formally charged. Legal proceedings extended from February 29, 1691/2 (the first official complaints), to late May 1693 (the final trials of suspects).
Those months encompassed legal action against at least 144 people (38 of them male), most of whom were jailed for long periods; 54 confessions of witchcraft; the hangings of 14 women and 5 men; the pressing to death of another man by heavy stones; and the deaths in custody of 3 women and a man, along with several infants.
Throughout the crisis, the most active accusers were a group of young Salem Village and Andover women ranging in age from eleven to twenty, several of them servants (see appendix 3). Accordingly, as in no other event in American history until the rise of the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century, women took center stage at Salem: they were the major instigators and victims of a remarkable public spectacle.
Scholars have developed a variety of interpretations of the crisis. Some have detected natural causes for the girls’ visions of ghostly specters: ergot poisoning or, most recently, an encephalitis epidemic.
One has argued that at least some of the accused really were practicing witchcraft and thus that some of the charges had merit. Several historians contend that the girls were faking their fits from the start, others that they were hysterical, angry, or delinquent adolescents.
The influential Salem Possessed (1974), by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, attributes the crisis to long-standing political, economic, and religious discord among the men of Salem Village, denying the significance of women’s prominence as both accused and accuser.
My narrative builds on the research and interpretations advanced in prior works on Salem; at the same time, it disagrees with many aspects of those interpretations. In addition to studying the trials, as have most other historians, I examine the broader crisis that produced the trials. Indeed, the search for documents to illuminate the origins and extent of that crisis has led me in directions I failed to anticipate when I first embarked on this project. Intrigued by the complex interrelationship of gender and politics in early America, I expected to base this volume largely on a feminist reinterpretation of familiar materials, primarily the court records published in the
and other documents commonly consulted by Salem scholars. But I also wanted to learn how people in Essex County and New England in general (perhaps even in other colonies) reacted to the witchcraft allegations. Thus when I read published materials or visited archives, I cast my net widely, looking for correspondence and journals covering the entire period of the late 1680s through the early 1690s.
What I found has led me to develop a new interpretation of the witchcraft crisis, one that places it firmly in the context of its very specific time and place: Essex County, Massachusetts, in the early 1690s. The county’s residents were then near the front lines of an armed conflict that today is little known but which at the time commanded their lives and thoughts, as was demonstrated by the ubiquity of the subject in the letters and diaries I was reading. They called it the Second Indian War. Early American historians today term it King William’s War. Whatever the name, after 1688 that struggle with the French and the Indians for control of New England’s northeastern frontier dominated public policy and personal decisions alike. Historians have examined Salem Village itself, Massachusetts legal practice, and Puritan attitudes toward women, all of which provide essential background for comprehending the witchcraft crisis.
In the Devil’s Snare, though, contends that 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.
Other scholars have touched on connections to the Second Indian War but did not explore them in detail. In the 1980s, I learned from Carol Karlsen’s
The Devil in the Shape of a Woman
and an article by James Kences that some of the “afflicted girls” of Salem Village were refugees from the Maine frontier. When I started my research, I expected the accusers’ familial origins to prove to be important for my analysis, but I had no idea that this book would become what it has: an exploration of the history of frontier warfare and its impact on the collective mentalité of an entire region. Yet the more I read the documents produced in New England in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the more I realized that the evidence required such an approach
The histories of King William’s War, King Philip’s War (its equally brutal predecessor in the 1670s), and the Salem witchcraft crisis are intricately intertwined. In the Devil’s Snare explicates those links through what has evolved into a dual narrative of war and witchcraft.
This book primarily aims at presenting a comprehensive overview of the crisis as people in Essex County experienced it in 1692. Accordingly, for the most part it eschews applying modern-day terminology to the incidents it describes.
I have deliberately omitted attaching contemporary labels to the participants and their actions. Instead, In the Devil’s Snare focuses on describing and analyzing the crisis in seventeenth-century terms—that is, on attempting to understand it as it was understood by those who lived through it, and to present
reactions to, questions about, and critiques of what happened during the seventeen months between January 1691/2 and May 1693. Precisely because the witchcraft crisis has become an iconic event in our collective past and has often been abstracted from its context by modern commentators, grasping the origins and significance of the episode in its own day is crucial to our understanding of its meaning.
A fundamental part of that understanding must rest on comprehending the worldview of late-seventeenth-century Puritan New Englanders, who lived in a pre-Enlightenment world that had not yet experienced the scientific revolution, with its emphasis on the careful study of physical phenomena through controlled experimentation and observation. In the world of 1692, many events lacked obvious explanations. Children suddenly sickened and died; animals suffered mysterious ailments; strange noises were heard or ghostly visions seen. Early New Englanders envisioned themselves as residing in what one historian has termed a “world of wonders,” in which the universe of invisible spirits surrounding them was as real as the one they could see, touch, and feel. For them, visible and invisible realms coexisted and often intersected. With very few exceptions, they believed unhesitatingly in the existence of witches. When they encountered harmful events that otherwise seemed inexplicable, New Englanders often concluded that a malevolent witch had caused their troubles. And, as shall be seen, during the early 1690s residents of the Bay Colony were experiencing many setbacks that needed explanation.
Behind most events in the crisis lay gossip. With one very short-lived exception, late-seventeenth-century New England had no locally produced newspapers or magazines, and so information spread primarily through talk among neighbors, friends, and relatives. (Letters, requiring scarce and expensive paper, were employed mainly for long-distance communication.) Occasionally the court records explicitly mention verbal exchanges, while at other times the existence of such must be inferred. But understanding the dynamics of the witchcraft crisis requires paying attention to the ways in which news was transmitted from person to person, farm to farm, town to town. The witchcraft accusations in Salem Village aroused curiosity throughout all of New England, especially in Essex County, and people must have constantly discussed the most recent fits and complaints of the afflicted, along with other news stemming from examinations and, later, trials. Gossip thus serves as a leitmotif in the pages that follow.
Furthermore, basic to understanding the witchcraft crisis is recognizing the way in which it developed over time. As I shall argue subsequently, what eventually became a unique crisis did not begin as such. Instead, the initial fits and accusations, although unusual, did not lack precedent in either old or New England. But incidents in mid-April irrevocably altered the course of events, creating the singular episode now known simply as “Salem.” Earlier historians have missed the far-reaching significance of that turning point because they have not organized their narratives in terms of a chronology of actual events. Instead, scholars have tended to discuss incidents involving particular accusers and suspected witches in a chronological context determined by the timing of court proceedings. Yet, as can be seen in appendix 1, prosecutions of suspects followed reported bewitchments at erratic and occasionally lengthy intervals. Employing what might be called a “legal chronology” serves as an effective means of organizing extraordinarily complex materials, but stands in the way of re-creating the burgeoning crisis as people lived through it.
In the Devil’s Snare traces the incidents of 1692 daily and weekly, showing which events stimulated increased numbers of complaints, demonstrating the impact of happenings outside courtrooms on occurrences inside them, and tracking the progress of specific accusations. (Distinguishing charges immediately accepted by the community from those that required further confirmation before official action was taken suggests that some stories—and some accusers—were regarded as more credible than others.) In addition, a chronological approach reveals the chaotic overlapping of incidents involving the various people accused of malefic practices. At the height of the crisis in late May, cascades of complaints not only continually introduced new names into the proceedings but also supplied additional accusations of individuals already jailed for several months. The minds of Essex County residents must have reeled from the shock as every day they learned of fresh spectral attacks launched by both old and new suspects, together and separately, against members of the core group of afflicted children and teenagers.
Traditional approaches to Salem witchcraft overlook or obscure these aspects of the crisis. Authors have not for the most part concerned themselves with depicting the developing day-to-day dynamics during 1692. Regardless of the specific interpretations they advance, most historians have adopted the same metanarrative, in which the examinations and trials of accused women constitute the chief focus. Accounts of legal proceedings fill their books. Scholars emphasize the common characteristics of many of the accused and largely ignore the background of the key accusers. Few pay much attention to accused men (even the six who were executed), to the important role played by the many confessors who validated the accusers’ charges, or to the judges’ possible motivations.
In general, stories about people from Salem Village examined early in the crisis have dominated most narratives; the numerous Andover confessors and people from other towns who were accused later have been largely ignored.
This book abandons that standard metanarrative. Although courtroom proceedings are considered at length in the pages that follow, In the Devil’s
moves out of the legal realm to examine the origins and impact of the witchcraft charges in Salem Village, Andover, Essex County, and Boston as well. It devotes a great deal of attention to the accusers, confessors, and judges; and it focuses, too, on the hitherto neglected men accused in 1692, including some who, for a variety of reasons, were jailed but never tried. And above all it poses a deceptively simple but rarely asked question: why was Salem so different from all previous witchcraft episodes in New England?
Many historians have not even noted that 1692
different, except perhaps in terms of the number of people accused. In part, that is because scholars have tended to write books that focus either on the Salem trials or on other colonial witchcraft episodes.
Thus contrasts have not been sharply and explicitly drawn. Then, too, the Salem crisis contained many elements common to earlier witchcraft incidents, thus obscuring the numerous anomalies. A large proportion of those accused at Salem were indeed the quarrelsome older women, some with dubious reputations, who fit the standard seventeenth-century stereotype of the witch. Most of them were accused of practicing maleficium—of harming their neighbors’ health, property, children, or livestock—over a period of years, just as had been the case with other suspected New England witches for the previous half-century. Many others among the Salem accused were closely related to such stereotypical women; husbands, sisters, daughters, mothers, and sons of witches also had long been vulnerable to the same charges.