Tuesday, August 04, 2009


My life right now is a broken record. Excited to move, feeling restless at work, blah blah blah. So that's why I'm going to write another book review. But rather than recommending this book or not, I think I'll write a little more about what I learned from it in hopes the topic, more so than the specific book, may grab your interest.

I bought Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum while visiting Salem, Massachusetts in April with my mom and step dad. The town as it is now is rather disappointing, having over time opted for kitch over actual historical significance. We did visit the Salem Witch Museum, where we were shown some mannequins re-enacting some key events of 1692 but overall the lack of artifacts and access to historical sites made it difficult to fully grasp this strange piece of American history. So at the Salem Welcome Center, I decided to buy a book to help me better understand the Salem witch trials, and decided on Salem Possessed because I thought that not only would it explain what happened there in 1692, but also shed some light on the reasons why it happened.

Most everyone is aware that between 1692 and 1693 nineteen Massachusetts women and men were executed for witchcraft. While allegations of witchcraft were not terribly unusual in colonial New England, the scope of the epidemic that began in Salem and spread radially across several towns clearly remains an aberration in our history. However, it is still unclear exactly what caused the initial outburst to gather momentum and become a full-fledged phenomenon. What made Salem different?

It turns out there were a lot of things that made Salem different from your average New England town in the late seventeenth century, which is the premise of this book. Now, from what (admittedly little) else I have read on this topic, the common consensus is that a perfect storm of political, religious, and socio-economical factors combined in Salem in the 1680s and '90s and continued to gather strength until it erupted in a flurry of accusations (over a hundred total), convictions and ultimately executions.

It is widely believed that the first witchcraft accusations made by a group of young girls was likely due to the overall lack of intellectual stimulation afforded to adolescent Puritan girls of the time. While adolescent boys were allowed to hunt, fish, and play games, young girls were taught to sit around and act pure until they found a husband. It is thought that it was likely sheer boredom which brought about the strange behavior-either as a manifestation of neurosis or simply out of some desire for attention from the elders. Alternatively, it has been speculated that the girls themselves were the ones dabbling in witchcraft by attempting to tell each others' futures (who they were going to marry and how much money they'd end up with) and interpreted their visions as them being bewitched. This is still highly speculative.

If this theory is true, then why did grown men and women chime in and start making accusations? Because Salem itself was a town deeply divided during this time. Salem started out as a small town which eventually grew and naturally split into two factions. "Salem Town" remained where the town center was including all the businesses, the meetinghouse, the church and the port where goods were imported and exported between the colonies and Europe. Meanwhile, as families grew, they began to buy farmland further out (to the Northwest) so as to add both land and the crops they sowed to their own incomes. Pretty soon, "Salem Village" wanted its own church because they were tired of riding their horses 15 miles into town on Sunday mornings. Then they wanted their own representatives in the meetinghouse to negotiate their taxes so they didn't have to pay city taxes for services they didn't regularly use. The request for a church was granted, and the people of "Salem Village" suddenly had a geographical place to gather, and a leader (Samuel Parris) around whom to rally so that they could fight for their rights as a distinct faction. As an aside, which is still very important, the governor might have stepped in at this point to try to diffuse the growing factional tension and try to come to a fair resolution to this problem. However, he was busy being overthrown at the time as a result of the dethroning of King James II, effectively leaving New England with no central government for a period of time.

This is the context for the witch trials laid out in Salem Possessed. And Boyer and Nissenbaum's central thesis is that the rampant accusations of 1692 and 1693 can be explained as a result of the tensions between the two factions. Interestingly, in 1695, a petition was circulated to oust Samuel Parris as reverend of the Salem Village church, and from this petition, they put together two "camps", the pro-Parris and anti-Parris camps, comprised of people whose names show up in several other Salem documents. With the petition as well as the other historical documents from Salem at the time (tax records, marriage records, land deeds, etc), they convincingly piece together a story in which the people in Salem Village feel frustrated, threatened and cheated by those in Salem Town. The evidence? Nearly all of the "accusers" resided in Salem Village. Some of them were people who were cheated out of their inheritance by step parents and an increasing average family size. They all belonged to the same tax bracket, namely they didn't make a whole of of money and were upset about what their taxes were being spent on. And they all went to the Salem Village Church where Samuel Parris preached sermons that began as suggestions of injustice towards the village and crescendoed to incendiary accusations of betrayal and witchcraft. In fact, it was much easier for Boyer and Nissenbaum to build a generic profile of a witchcraft accuser than of the accused.

Who were the accused? This is much more difficult to pinpoint. The "witches" lived in various towns around Salem, and in Salem Town as well as Salem Village. But for the most part, they lived in Salem Town. While they were mostly women, there were some men. You had your usual "witch" suspects for the time: the spinsters, the promiscuous, the social outcasts. But you also had rich people, powerful people, and very poor people. They infrequently bore any direct relation to the accusers at all. This is where Boyer and Nissambaum's thesis gets interesting. They found two patterns for the accusers and the accused:
  1. The accuser felt some personal wrong in their lives and in many cases the wrongdoer was readily identified, but not accused. The accusers, in general seeing Salem Town as their "oppressors" would project that personal wrong onto an analogous member of Salem Town. A classic example would be a person living in Salem Village who was written out of their father's will under the influence of their stepmother. Instead of confronting their stepmother, they claimed to be bewitched by some older woman in Salem Town who had likewise married into wealth. Whether this behavior was conscious or subconscious was not ascertained, though their was patterns of evidence to back up this hypothesis.

  2. The accused witches were all "threats to the social order." That is, their social position at the time of accusation was different from that where they started or where society would traditionally have them. Those that were rich had married into money or had come across it luckily. Those that were poor were fallen, not born poor. There were women who had married socially beneath them that were accused and one extremely "lucky" man who in reality was amazingly shrewd and rose to the ranks of one of the richest men in Salem Town through smart business dealings. In this day and age, we are used to the notion that we bring about our own destiny. But that wasn't always so, and the average colonial American died in the same place in the social hierarchy in which he was born. America, evidently, had not yet whetted its appetite for capitalism.

Overall, I walked away with a couple impressions about the book. One, I wished it had contained more explanation about the the witch trials and the events leading up to it using a broader brush stroke. I knew the basic story and there is a time line in the front. And towards the end, they outlined a few of the cases I alluded to above. But perhaps one chapter where it gave a typical text book description of the accusations and the trials before delving into the analysis would have helped tremendously. I actually found myself going to Wikipedia on occasion to revisit the outline and reconstruct a fluid story into which all the facts and figures could fit.

Second, it was actually a little dry. I am happy I read this book or I never would have thought of the witch trials in terms of socio-economic upheaval and village factionalism. I am happy for the knowledge I gained, I just didn't always enjoy getting there. I love data as much as the next geek, but I can only stand to look at so many tax tables cross-referenced with town petitions before even my eyes begin to cross.

I have really been getting into American history lately. Perhaps it has been this past year of living in the oldest part of the country, where history is all around me and so accessible. What parts of American history, big or small, most interest you?


Anonymous said...

I like non-fiction - history and biographies and if I read fiction it's often historical novels. One of the books I'm reading now is titled: A Fate Worse Than Death - Indian Captivities in the West 1830-1885 by Gregory and Susan Michno. The accounts leave one wondering how these people survived to tell them.

gabrielle said...

Reminds me of the cruelties of Junior High but higher stakes. Socrates. Sacco Vanzetti. McCarthy. Guantanamo. Malleus Malicicarum as a primary source is fascinating.

Sarah Vowell calls herself an amateur historian, but is an avid researcher, and really makes these stories come alive. It’s a real treat to listen to her on books on tape in her conversational ironic tone.
The Northwest is so rich in history, tradition and lore!

Jeni said...

Although I love history -particularly American history, the majority of the books I read or will read tend to be fictional accounts. I also tend to prefer history pertaining to any of the wars even though I tend to learn very much on the anti-war side. Why? I have no clue! Guess that's just one of my little quirks, ya know. (I took three American History classes in college and loved, absolutely loved, reading the textbooks in each class!)

Dianne said...

what strikes me as I read this is how the America of 2009 bears a striking and unsettling resemblance to the Salem of 1680

Beth said...

I have been into the Salem witch trials my entire life. And I mean ENTIRE. I don't know if it's because I was born on Halloween or not. I visited Salem and it's like they bulldozed everything that could have been a record of their "real" past. It's all recreation now, but they don't tell you that on the tours.

Oh, and my add-on to all blogs:

Hey, did you have become an e-mail subscriber to wwww.thriftybif.com? It would really be a great thing.

Natalie said...

Sounds fascinating, and very disturbing. I recently bought Mayflower. It got NYT notable book and I have always wanted to know more it.

Yeah, there were some similarities to my own experience too. And Assassination Vacation is next on my reading list!

That's funny. I usually don't like military history, though I really got in to Fiasco. But I like books about the lead up and consequences of war.

I was struck too. You are astute. One thing I liked about the Salem Museum was that they weren't afraid to liken the witch trials to other witch hunts in American history such as McCarthyism and improper detainment of prisoners in the war on terror.

Have you read this? If not, you should. Yeah, I was really disappointed in Salem. But in all fairness, it seems the actual history was made all over Massachusetts. But overall the place was a tourist trap. I'd recommend to anyone to pick up a book instead if you are undecided about visiting. And I signed up for your email alerts. ;)

dr sardonicus said...

I read all sorts of American history - it's always been one of my favorite subjects, and sometimes I think that studying and teaching history is what I should have done with my life. As you mentioned Howard Zinn's People's History Of The United States on my blog, you are certainly aware that much of our history has been glossed over by mainstream historians, if not ignored altogether. Over the last several years I have become fascinated with the Civil War and Reconstruction era, as I'm still trying to understand this crazy part of the world in which I've wound up in.