Thursday 7 May 2015

Review: A Storm of Witchcraft - Salem Trials

If you want to know everything that can be known about the Salem Witch Trails, read A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.

In its 400 pages, historian Emerson Baker takes a comprehensive look at Salem, where  in 1692 hundreds of people were accused of being witches. It is one of the most infamous incidents in which innocent people were persecuted for witchcraft, and over the years has prompted numerous theories for the reasons why it happened, from greedy land-grabs to mass hysteria to ergot poisoning.

Emerson, former Dean of Graduate School at Salem State University, is better placed than many to investigate the real reasons for the witch hunts. He examines the geography of the region and origins of the village, the people who lived there and the relationship between them, the hardships they faced due to harsh weather and crop failures, political and religious differences, disagreements over land boundaries and bitter wars against the French and Native Americans.

He also looks at possible psychological and medical explanations for why a group of villagers - mainly girls - started to behave strangely and claim they were being attacked by spectres sent by agents of Satan. The book, of course, gives an in-depth account of the trials that led to 19 people being hanged for witchcraft and another pressed to death by stones.

What comes out is that there was almost certainly no one reason behind the Salem Witch Trials - instead a variety of factors came at once to create a "perfect storm" for the persecutions to happen. The girls may have been affected my mass hysteria, may have been trying to get their own back at people who had been unpleasant to them and may have been prompted to make the claims by those in powerful positions - although ergot poisoning (a factor claimed in the past) is ruled out. The staunchly Puritan judges almost certainly believed that witches really existed and that they were fighting a real war against Satan and his minions as much as the area was fighting a real war on its frontiers. Times were hard in general and when the cold bites, business is bad and food becomes scarce it is easy to look for a scapegoat to blame.

A Storm of Witchcraft doesn't stop at the end of the trails, it goes on to look at the aftermath of the situation, what happened to the families involved and the attempted cover-up that was America's first government conspiracy. The last chapter looks at Salem today and how its history has turned it into Witch City, where witchcraft tourism is big business and where many modern pagan witches, including Wiccans, have chosen to make their homes.

I found it a really fascinating book. I'd left it sitting on my shelf for a couple of months after I got it because it looked a long and heavy hardback - but once I had started reading it I couldn't put it down. As history books go, I found it is a real page-turner.

A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experienceis published by Oxford University Press.

Links and previous related posts
A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Pivotal Moments in American History)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great book review. Thanks for sharing with us.