In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692
Mary Beth Norton
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
436 pp., 30.00
Thomas S. Kidd
What Happened in Salem?
Over the past couple of decades, scholars have been reinterpreting colonial American history in the light of the intimate encounter between the colonists and the Native Americans they married and buried, learned from and taught, fought with and against, killed and were killed by. Now a distinguished historian, Cornell University's Mary Beth Norton, provocatively proposes that this interpretive turn allows us, for the first time, to understand properly one of the most exhaustively studied episodes in American history: the Salem witch trials.
Sevententh-century New Englanders believed that people sometimes covenanted with Satan to acquire the powers of witchcraft. That this assumption was nearly universal in Massachusetts made it no different from other European societies, where witches had been prosecuted, tortured, and executed with some regularity since at least the 11th century. But there is no doubt that something strange occurred in Salem in 1692—by far the largest outbreak of witchcraft accusations, prosecutions, and executions in colonial North American history, with 19 people dying and hundreds more accused before the trials were stopped.
So what happened in Salem? The question won't go away. From Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" to Elizabeth George Speare's oft-assigned tale, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the witch trials have inspired some of America's most popular writing. The Internet, predictably, features all manner of sites devoted to the Salem crisis, from National Geographic's "Salem Online Witchhunt Game" (which allows players to imagine what it would be like to be accused) to a "Salem Tarot" page that offers a "Tarot reading with a Salem Witch" for $45 per half-hour. The town of Salem itself has not hesitated to capitalize on its tourism potential, featuring no less than five museums devoted to witchcraft.
Most Americans who know anything about the Salem witchcraft crisis probably have had their impressions shaped by Arthur Miller's 1953 play (and 1996 movie) The Crucible, which saw parallels to 1950s McCarthyism in Salem's trials. For their part, historians have offered many competing accounts, most of them focused on the accusers' motivations. Probably the most influential recent approach is Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's Salem Possessed (1974), which interprets the crisis as a boiling over of long-simmering animosities between the "haves" and "have-nots" within Salem Village, the newer, more agrarian neighbor of old Salem Town. Books and articles on the trials continue to appear at a remarkable pace. Marilynne K. Roach's The Salem Witch Trials is representative of this ongoing interest: her "day-by-day chronicle" will find a place on the shelves of researchers and history buffs for whom the fascination of Salem never palls.
Mary Beth Norton, however, is not satisfied with this vast literature, and her ambitious and complex In the Devil's Snare argues that most of the work on Salem witchcraft has failed to connect the accusation patterns to the one factor that may finally help us understand why the outbreak became such a torrent: the external wartime setting that provided the trials' context. We have heard these sorts of claims before, as many writers have claimed that they will reveal the one compelling piece of evidence that others have overlooked. But Norton's analysis of the witchcraft crisis in the context of the ongoing wars does make a significant new contribution, probably the most important since Boyer and Nissenbaum.
Historians have done a great deal in recent years to begin understanding the North American colonies in their Atlantic context, and in the case of Massachusetts one should remember that the Puritan experiment did not occur in isolation. Beginning with the Pequot War of the 1630s, New Englanders had regular military conflicts with their Native American neighbors. In the 1670s New Englanders barely beat back the resistance of Wampanoag sachem Metacom in King Philip's War, which they also called the "First Indian War." They saw the hostilities that began in 1689 with French-sponsored Wabanakis as the "Second Indian War," in which Maine settlers faced regular Wabanaki attacks, and lurid reports emerged from the front of surprise attacks, the torturing and dismemberment of English farmers and their families, raids that seemed to come from the pit of hell. (How the Indians saw the colonists is another story.)
This war with the Wabanakis provides Norton's critical backdrop to the witchcraft crisis. Though she cannot produce a "smoking gun," Norton provides much circumstantial evidence to show that many accusers and accused had connections to the Indian wars. Numbers of the accusers had lost one or both parents in frontier battles and raids, while some of the accused had suspicious connections on the frontier that might have raised the prospect that they had actually colluded with the French or Wabanakis. Norton makes a plausible case that the accusers and judges believed that a Satanic conspiracy was afoot to destroy New England. Some of Satan's forces were visible, in the form of marauding Wabanakis, while others were invisible, in the form of witches' specters, come to torment the accusers and threaten them with the same fate that had befallen the frontier families in Maine.
The key link between the physical and spiritual threats was the regular appearance in the accusers' testimonies of a spectral "black man." Often this man whispered in the ears of the accused, guiding them in their responses at the trials or commanding their torments of the accusers. The black man appeared to be a demon or the devil, but Norton would have us believe that this was the devil in the shape of a Native American. "Black" at the time did not necessarily refer to African American skin pigmentation; it might instead refer to the "tawny" coloration of the Native American peoples. Cotton Mather noted that confessing witches called Satan "the black man" and that "he resembles an Indian." It is not clear, however, why the "black man," if an Indian, was often described as wearing a "crowned hat." It is also striking—and damaging to Norton's case—that no one besides Cotton Mather seems to have made the connection between Satan and Native Americans so explicitly: one would imagine that if the accusers consciously conceived of the "black man" as an Indian they would have had no reticence in saying so.
Among the accused, Norton significantly elevates the prominence of the Reverend George Burroughs, whom the accusers identified as the leader of the witches. Burroughs had once served in Salem Village but as of 1692 he was ministering in Maine and worrying regularly about the Wabanaki-English skirmishes happening all around him. Accuser Mercy Lewis had known Burroughs in Maine before most of her family was killed there and she relocated to Salem. But it was Ann Putnam, Jr., who made the most devastating accusation against Burroughs: his specter had appeared to her and confessed to many terrible crimes in Maine, including killing his first two wives and bewitching colonial soldiers. Burroughs, who showed an uncanny knack for avoiding Wabanaki raids, came under suspicion precisely because of his survival on the front. And, Norton argues, he became "the indispensable man" of the Salem crisis, appearing regularly in accusatory testimony as the "ringleader" assembling the witches for the devil's sacrament and planning the assaults on Salem.
It is not evident to me that Burroughs has received, as Norton claims, "remarkably little attention" from historians, but she no doubt makes a convincing case that he was more central to the entire crisis than we have known before, and that his pastoral role and ties to Maine made him an obvious candidate for the accusers to paint as the head witch.
So did the Second Indian War cause the witchcraft crisis? Norton is too careful to make such a direct claim, because she knows that New Englanders fought Indian wars before and after 1692 and yet never encountered a witchcraft outbreak like Salem's. She does argue, however, that the Second Indian War created conditions ripe for the massive crisis. If the war had not provided the backdrop for Salem, the controversy would have likely remained a locally contained issue handled by the pastors. Norton even goes so far as to say that it "would not have occurred."
Norton's analysis of the connections between the Second Indian War and the Salem crisis works well because context is crucial to understanding any such historical event. Arthur Miller was, in this sense, wrong to lead us to believe that the backdrop of historical context (1690s Massachusetts or 1950s Cold War America) is largely irrelevant. No one reading this book can come away doubting that the Second Indian War colored the entire Salem episode. But we are still left wondering if Norton really has explained why the crisis came when it did. Though we will likely never have a definitive explanation of Salem witchcraft, the very difficulty in providing one fuels our enduring fascination with it.
Thomas S. Kidd is assistant professor of history at Baylor University.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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