Halloween, it seems, never fails to arrive in “Witch City” without a spike in tourism. These tourists have conferred the nickname on Salem, Massachusetts. For the past several decades, the otherwise ordinary Essex County community of 41,000 has been the destination of people with a sometimes-lurid fascination with an episode in American history that is forever associated with the city. Police cruisers bear a witch logo, and one local high school team calls itself “the Witches.”
Salem is indelibly identified in Americans’ minds with the witch-hunting frenzy that broke out in 1692. In 2009, the Boston Globe reported that “Salem owns Halloween like the North Pole owns Christmas,” and, of course, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist investigations in the 1950s.
The historical episode was serious and certainly tragic. It began in February, with the Rev. Samuel Parris, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife observing that their daughter and her cousin were behaving strangely. According to a surviving account, “These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits, or natural disease to effect.” Soon afterwards, other locals reported similar phenomena in themselves or in their children. Nobody knew what it was. A rumor took hold that the cause of the problem was witchcraft, something almost everybody believed in at the time. That set in motion a hunt for the possible perpetrators and a menacing number of confessions and convictions for witchcraft.
Before the whole hysteria came to an end around October 1692, 152 people had been prosecuted and many imprisoned. One-third of the accused actually admitted to witchcraft and were convicted. At the end of the sorry story, 25 people had lost their lives: 19 at the gallows, 1 by being pressed to death, and the remainder dying in the squalid jails.
The facts of the Salem witchcraft episode have long been undisputed. What is interesting, and what Emerson Baker uncovers, are the complex, unexpected factors in the background. Several of the afflicted—the suspected witches and their accusers—had lost property or money during the recent King Philip’s War with the Indians. There was a plethora of property disputes around Salem and the possibility that, in some cases, the accusations came from the disgruntled. Finally, the dominion of New England, established during the unfortunate reign of James II, had been overthrown in 1689, and the new charter for the colony of Massachusetts had been established only in 1691. The newly appointed governor, William Phips, arrived from England at the height of the witchcraft frenzy and immediately set up a court of Oyer and Terminer (Old French for “hear and determine”), which, then, became the engine of the inquisition.
Many New Englanders, in fact, opposed the whole legal onslaught from the beginning. One of the most outspoken opponents was Increase Mather, former president of Harvard College and the father of Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine eager to pursue witches from the outset. What is often unmentioned about the Salem witch episode is that the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts, when they did come to their senses, very quickly acknowledged their tragic mistake and made strenuous efforts to provide reparations to the victims and their relatives. Baker details the moving public displays of contrition by several of the judges, such as Samuel Sewall’s 1697 apology.
What this book doesn’t make plain is what caused the phenomena of the afflicted in the first place. Baker dismisses ergot poisoning and encephalitis. There was certainly widespread belief that the Native Americans were heathen and delved into devilish cults and religious beliefs. There was also common acceptance of the reality of the occult, in tarot cards and palm-reading. Obviously, there was psychological hysteria on a mass scale; but why in Massachusetts, and why at this time? As the author acknowledges, there were far more lethal witch frenzies in parts of Europe around the same time as the Salem events. In fact, during the entire period of Puritan primacy in New England, from 1630 until the end of the century, there were only 34 executions for witchcraft. During the same period in Scotland, there were hundreds more executions for the same offense.