A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

A_Storm_of_Witchcraft__The_Salem_Trials_and_the_American_Experience__Pivotal_Moments_in_American_History___Emerson_W__Baker__9780199890347__Amazon_com__BooksBy Emerson W. Baker. Oxford University Press, 2014. 398 pages. $29.95/hardcover; $21.99/eBook.

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Emerson W. Baker’s book begins on a surprising note, with a discussion of an artifact in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. It is a small wooden chest, probably made in the 1670s for two Salem Quakers, Joseph and Bathsheba Pope. The Popes would play a role in the “storm of witchcraft” that broke out in Salem and neighboring towns in 1692. But most contemporary Friends probably will find their role surprising—Joseph and Bathsheba were not innocent victims of hysterical accusations of being witches. Instead they were accusers, adding their testimony to that which hanged, among others, the saintly Rebecca Nurse and John Procter, the central character of Arthur Miller’s drama The Crucible.

The events in and around Salem in 1692 are among the most studied in U.S. history. Baker, an historian at Salem State University, is concerned both with explaining what happened and why. At the center were girls and young women who lived not in the town of Salem proper, but the adjacent community of Salem Farms or Salem Village. The village was convulsed by conflicts between families over land, inheritance, and leadership—the village church had gone through four ministers in 20 years. The accusers claimed that witches and wizards not only tormented them, but also had been responsible for murders and other crimes over the decades. Their targets ranged from those who fit the classic stereotypes of witches—unpopular, marginalized women—to ministers, military leaders, and politicians and their wives. By the fall of 1692, 19 women and men had been convicted and hanged, and several others had died in prison or in the throes of the legal process.

Baker’s greatest contribution to the ongoing discussion of the events of 1692 is his analysis of the judges who presided over the trials and who were responsible for the sentences. They represented the colony’s elite. In 1692, Baker argues, they had something to prove. Most were men who had been educated for the Puritan ministry, but had instead taken up secular careers. Most had held office under the unpopular government of King James II that was overthrown in 1688–1689. Several faced suspicions about the depth of their religious experiences. They had also suffered significant losses from Indian raids on lands they held in Maine. Before 1692, witchcraft trials in Massachusetts were as likely to result in acquittals as convictions. But in 1692, Baker concludes, the judges were “looking for someone to blame.” They found targets in the men and women who came before them.

Quakers are not central to Baker’s account, but they do appear from time to time. No Friends were accused of witchcraft, although a number of the accused had ties to Quaker families. One of Baker’s heroes is Thomas Maule, a Salem Friend who in 1695 published a ferocious denunciation of the trials. Maule, fittingly, would be the ancestor of a long line of Friends who would continue to be argumentative until the twentieth century.

Baker concludes with what he sees as a moral. In 1692, Puritans in Massachusetts were convinced that Satan had “visited their colony and struck a severe blow.” But while at the beginning they saw him as acting through witches, by the end of the year “they came to understand that Satan’s great work had been to delude them into thinking that many devout Puritans and good people were witches.” He warns us today: “change the word witch to terrorist and we can perhaps better appreciate the complexity of the problem that the people of Salem . . . faced in 1692.”

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