A historical phenomenon that has always intrigued me is the 17th century New England witch trials. I first learned about the witchcraft hysteria when I was a junior in high school, when my English teacher assigned the class to read the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller. It has ever since remained one of my favorite pieces of historical literature for its unusual account of the sociological breakdown of an otherwise cooperative and holy community. My interest in the witch trials intensified when I became a high school English teacher and began teaching The Crucible in my own class, thus receiving a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Miller’s allegory to McCarthyism in his play intrigued me greatly. The metaphor of “witch” as scapegoat that has been carried on throughout history, whether with the Jews, Catholics, or Communists, is an extremely pertinent lesson in the fabrics of history (Demos 400). The theme of “hysteria tearing apart a community” proved to be a powerful lesson in my classroom, as I was able to link it to the race riots that were occurring during the same time at the school I teach. When I came across the book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Putnam Demos, on the booklist, in the class packet, I was immediately intrigued. As I began to read online reviews of the book, my interest was peaked by the author’s middle name, Putnam. I recognized it for bearing the likeness to one of the couples that became infamous as the accusers in the Salem witch trials. Sure enough, as I began reading the Preface of the book, Demos confesses this family lineage, “In the famous trials at Salem, one family – The Putnams – spurred the prosecution beyond all others…My maternal ancestors, hitherto known to me only through photographs in an old family album (and my own middle name), were Putnams too” (x). Discovering this fact fascinated me even more because of the unique perspective (or perhaps bias) the author could conceivably bring to the book.
In his book, Demos does a thorough job researching the various accusations of witchcraft that went on in the Puritan towns of New England during the 1600s. He goes far beyond simply telling the stories of alleged witches from what he gathered via the incomplete court records, personal journals, or other historical evidence left behind. He takes the study a step further by giving an in depth analysis regarding the backgrounds of the accused witch and the accusers, the social status of both parties, their occupation, family size, lifestyle, reputation, and gender. He breaks the book up into four parts: Biography, Psychology, Sociology, and History, in an attempt to use these fields of study to draw a conclusion as to why and how the witchcraft hysteria (evil) was able to manifest itself in such a Christian environment (good).
It is difficult for Demos to draw any definite conclusions due to the incomplete records that he is limited to using for his research and the uniqueness of each witchcraft case. However, Demos is able to draw several parallels in the behaviors and backgrounds of the participants to arrive at a solid understanding of what makes certain people a target for being accused as a witch and what forces cause the accusers to charge their neighbors with such a heinous crime. He determines that most, but not all, accused are female (61). Males that are accused are often the husbands of an accused witch (60). The accused are most often from a lower social class or have recently risen in class and, therefore, a source of envy among their former peers (85). The most common demographic for an accused witch was a female between forty and sixty years old with two kids or fewer (65). Demos hypothesizes that the reason for targeting females of this age bracket has to do with it falling in a woman’s menopausal period. During this time, a woman loses her ability to give birth and to account for this loss others perceive they turn to witchcraft as a way to get that edge of power back (69). Witches’ backgrounds are also suspect, as they seem to have no prior legacy, meaning nobody knows who their parents are or where they were born and raised (71). In essence these people seemed to appear out of thin air, thus causing suspicion. In terms of personal qualities, an alleged witch often has a difficult personality type, can be seen as stubborn or introverted, and often has a somewhat petty criminal record (77). He/She often argues with his/her neighbors and is heard making vicious threats, sometimes in the name of the devil (86). The most common profession linked to being a witch is midwife (80). Because of a midwife’s function during birth, she often is the one blamed if something goes wrong during this process (81). Other types sought out as witches are people who are seen as a drain to the community. Those who are dependent on the public’s support for life’s necessities are often seen in a negative light by the masses and are therefore vulnerable to accusations (85). Though there is no exact blueprint for what makes one a “witch,” these are several of the common themes that Demos found that create the description of “witch” in 17th century New England.
It is harder for Demos to pinpoint a specific type of person who fits the mold of an accuser, so he focuses his study on the motives behind why accusers may have charged their neighbors with such grotesque behaviors. With that being said, Demos points out that the stereotypical accuser is a teenage girl, who goes off into uncontrollable unexplainable fits (94). Demos researched the background of several teenage accusers to find the short-term cause of the phenomenon. In one teenage accuser named Elizabeth Knapp, he found a child who lacked a stable home environment while growing up. She was an orphan who knew little about her family’s background. He links her lack of identity and psychological issues stemming from her dysfunctional childhood to her accusatory behavior. The result was that Knapp became the center of attention and even a quasi celebrity in the community during the time she was “possessed,” as ministers were called in from nearby towns to question and examine her (102). This sudden increase in attention spurred her on to calling out two women as a witch and even admitted to compacting with the devil. Regardless, the attention she received is exactly what she felt she had been lacking through her tumultuous childhood. The long-term cause of Knapp’s actions is that as people from other towns began to hear of her situation, it began a fifty-year pandemic of teenage girls starved for attention throwing themselves into fits supposedly brought on by witchcraft.
For this reason, the teenage girl has been given the label of accuser; however, they do not, by any means, exhaust the list of the accuser type. Another common scenario is when men and women from a low social class start the accusations; however, the charges consist of nothing more than gossip within the group with no court indictments being made (279). Often times, rumors are spread throughout the city, with little credence given to the talk, until a member of the upper class chooses to cry out that particular “witch.” At this time, the law quickly intervenes and the alleged witch is usually arrested and put on trial (280).
Demos’ witch hunt stories are often characterized as a neighborly feud in which one party decides to play his/her trump card by calling out the other as witch. Many of these arguments are set in motion by petty squabbles over land boundaries, livestock, and verbal defamation (247). Demos gave a couple interesting reasons for such neighborly insubordination. The most common cause he gave was jealousy, which to me wasn’t surprising. However, what was much more eye opening, was how he was able to compare how both parties were viewed in the eyes of the community. Interestingly, they both were seen in much the same negative light for similar reasons; therefore, they tended to share each other’s negative personality traits. With that, Demos determined that those who accuse others as witches do so because their neighbors possess the same traits they find insufferable in themselves (210).
The outcome and aftermath of the trial is another topic Demos researched extensively. It was interesting for me to learn that, unlike the Salem hysteria, few witches were convicted and even fewer put to death. In the 60-year history of witchcraft trials that Demos studied, only 14 of the 139 cases, excluding Salem, ended with an execution (402-409). Many of the court records Demos found on such cases showed that juries were suspicious of the witch, but didn’t feel they had enough proof to convict them. The end result would often be a lesser sentence such as having to pay the court fees or being banished from the town. In some cases, juries would deliver a guilty verdict, only to be overturned by the court magistrates who felt the jury was either tainted or did not have enough evidence for a conviction (287).
If the acquitted witches decided to stay in town, which they often did, they would continue to face scrutiny throughout their lives and sometimes even be retried with much the same evidence used against them the second time around (305). This triggered Demos to seek out the reasons why these people would make a choice to continue living among those who testified in court against them in an attempt at their lives. Demos concluded that multiple causes led to the decision of these wrongfully accused witches. First, moving comes at a great expense, and those who did decide to move under these conditions often had to leave valuable property and even sometimes their children behind (303). In the case of Mary Parsons, she chose to stay in her hometown and raise a family despite the aggravation of her neighbors’ perpetual suspicious eye against her (302). Demos ultimately concludes that Parsons, and those in her position, often choose to stay in the town which they were accused because they become a “force to be reckoned with” (304). The community sees them as imposing and powerful figures, and it is human nature to enjoy and soak up that power.
Finally, Demos draws conclusions as to why the witchcraft hysteria began in New England. First, it was logical, in the eyes of the Puritans that witchcraft to surfaced in New England, because they saw their land as holy, so it would only make sense that the devil would lurk where faith is the strongest (310). This acceptance of witchcraft opened the door for those looking to get back at their enemies. Although ministers are seen as the opponents to witchcraft, they actually invite its influence, for it strikes fear of the devil in the town. Citizens must be on their best behavior and even those afflicted must ask, “What sins did I commit for this to happen to me” (312)?
Social forces are another aspect one must look at when trying to make sense of the witch trials. They can be defined as the behaviors in a society that shift what has been deemed to be the norm in the past and allow the future to take shape. Carl Gustavson made the following observation about social forces in his book A Preface to History. “Society is dynamic. These contours change, however slowly. This may not be so clearly realized in America, where, in the midst of apparent stability, alterations are gradual and nonviolent (26). Although New England was not yet part of America in the 1600s, this reflection still applies. The Puritans moved to New England in the early 1600s to escape persecution from the Church of England. As they became comfortable in their new home, they formed their own society and with it unmistakable social forces emerged. The Puritans, notorious as a radical group in England, began practicing what they preached by eschewing anything that had to do with pleasure and fearing all things that seemed to be related to the devil. These behaviors gradually brought on a change in the Puritan communities, as citizens became paranoid of those around them and began linking unfortunate events in their lives to their neighbor’s interactions with the devil. The social forces, in this case, brought on a hysteria of accusations, vengeance, and murder due to the constant pressure to act perfect and live up to God’s expectations of them.
Several individuals played large roles in the witch trials, whether as accuser, victim, witch, or expert; however, without individuals such as Elizabeth Knapp, Elizabeth Howell, Sarah Bridgman, or Cotton Mathers, would the witch trials still have taken place? Gustavason’s answer is, “Individual persons have usually appeared to be little more than pawns of powerful social forces” (123). In other words, it was the social forces at work spurning on the witch trials not the individual. Individuals, from a historical perspective, are simply people who were around at the right time and place and, therefore, seemed to have an important role in history. Gustavson explains history sometimes concentrates on the individual only because, “Historical figures evoke our interest, sympathy, or hate far more than the impersonal functioning of government machinery or the abstract interplay of economic forces” (124). Therefore, all the names mentioned in Entertaining Salem are irrelevant. Even in their absence, others would have stepped up and played each role, for it is the social forces of society that shape the present and future.
When comparing the witch trials to recent trends in historiography, it is easy to make several connections. In fact, phrases such as, “It has become a witch hunt,” can commonly be heard. The phrase is used in the context when any group of people is being targeted as a scapegoat. Probably the most famous comparison to the witch-hunts was in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy zeroed in on communists as the reason for all the country’s problems. More recently, the witch-hunt metaphor could be seen soon after the 2001 World Trade Center bombing. After it was determined that Muslim radicals led by Osama bin Laden were responsible for the bombing, Muslims or anyone of Middle Eastern descent fell under particular scrutiny. I heard one report that passengers on an airplane refused to fly unless they removed a fellow passenger wearing a turban. The man with the turban was in no way associated with terrorism; in fact, he did not even share Bin Laden’s religion or ethnicity, yet it is this ignorance that breeds hatred and hysteria. An even more recent example of the witchcraft metaphor involves steroids in baseball. When it was determined professional baseball players commonly used steroids, finger pointers began targeting the most prolific power hitters. These suspicions were merely assumptions and baseball fans’ attempts to deface the reputations of players they did not like, for without concrete proof, such as a positive drug test result, it is not right not to prematurely indict someone. These are the lesson that should have been learned from the 17th century New England witch trials.
The 400-page book (with an additional 100-plus pages of appendixes and footnotes) Entertaining Salem is an incredible feat of research by John Demos. His thoroughness in digging up the existing historical records of every New England witch trial, outside of Salem, is truly remarkable. The highlight of his book is the unique and intriguing witch stories, which set the table for his study. This part was interesting to read; however, his analysis could get quite lengthy and monotonous. I felt the piece on psychology traveled far out of the sphere of relevance. His writings about Sigmund Freud’s theory of the pre-oedipal male and its relation to the witch hunt was a stretch, for “witch hunts” (in some form or another) have been going on for a long time, and they rarely focus on males opposing females. Therefore, psychological and biological rivalries inherent in the two genders are not relevant in the witch-hunts. In lieu of such over-analyzing, I would have liked to hear more about the historiography of the witch trials in Great Britain that preceded the ones in New England. I would be interested to know their similarities and how the ones in Great Britain may have spawned the ones in New England. Demos, however, would probably argue that this was beyond his scope.
I am also curious as to why he decided to omit the Salem witch trials from his book. I figure he either felt enough attention had been given to those already, or maybe he did not feel he could objectively write about it given his ancestry, but I would have been interested in his analysis of Salem. Being a person who likes definitive answers, I was a bit disappointed in the way Demos lacked concrete conclusions, merely listing the connections and links of speculation he found in his research; however, I understand there are no clear-cut answers for the behaviors during this period, and Demos did the best anyone could to answer the question with what he had to work with. I was impressed, though, with his analysis for why witchcraft sputtered to an end in New England. “Where such belief (in witchcraft) was once largely ‘functional,’ it became with the passage of time simply irrelevant. Put crudely, Americans of the modern period had less need to credit the existence, and malign activity, of witches” (399). Although, on the final page, he admits that witch craft, in other forms, continued, he concludes that the New Englanders became “a-historical” by moving beyond witchcraft without having to look backward. Consequently, the social forces were again in action, which moved the Puritans beyond witchcraft.