Monday, October 29, 2012

The Late Unpleasantness in Salem

While the colonial period of American history is full of drama and violence, public remembrances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have generally bled all traces of excitement from the story. Our commemoration focuses instead on an arid narrative of pious pioneers building orderly towns on the edge of a wilderness, from which Indians occasionally emerged to skulk about and eat turkey. One well-known episode of public violence and madness interrupts this otherwise dreary story: the Salem witch trials of 1692, popularized in the twentieth century by Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. The bare outlines of this story - ten teenage girls in Salem afflicted with unexplained pains and spectral tormenters, snowballing accusations by locals against other suspected witches (including Salem Village's former minister), a special court which allowed "spectral evidence," over two hundred people accused of witchcraft, 150 of them imprisoned and 20 executed - are reasonably well known today. The causes of the crisis, however, remain a matter of controversy. To a nation with a short and shallow public history, and without much of a tradition of supernatural events, the Salem crisis necessarily remains weird and fascinating. In his recent overview of New England history, Saints and Strangers (2006, pages 121-130), Joseph Conforti performs the useful task of summarizing historians' theories about the origins of the Salem witchcraft trials. I am pleased to recount, with my own observations and glosses, some of his findings here:

I. It was a social forces/conflict/thingie: Forty years ago, in Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum observed that the initial accusers in the Salem cases and the people they accused lived on opposite sides of Salem Village, the inland community (now Danvers) where the witch craze began. There may have been an element of class conflict behind the accusations: the accusers lived in the poorer, western part of town, which the "witches" lived in the more commercial, eastern part of town, near Salem port and the Ipswich Road. Certainly there was social conflict within the village: westerners wanted to make Salem Village a separate town, independent of the port of Salem, while easterners preferred existing arrangements.

II. It was a gender conflict: About 80 percent of the people accused of witchcraft in Essex County were women. This was also characteristic of the smaller witchcraft trials held in Massachusetts and Connecticut earlier in the century, and of the much larger trials in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. Puritan theology held that women were "weak vessels" prone to sin and vulnerable to corruption by the Devil, communion with whom was the essence of witchcraft. Gerald Klaits observes (Servants of Satan, 1987) that in early modern Europe, theologians commonly linked witchcraft to sexual congress with the Devil, and assumed that women, whom they believed more lustful than men, were particularly attracted to the prospect of Demonic Sexytime (TM). Puritan men tended to concur with this judgment, all the more worrying since woman had by the late seventeenth century become a majority of the communicants in Massachusetts's churches.

III. The Puritans really believed in witchcraft: The witchcraft trials reflected not only underlying material conflicts but a common, widespread Puritan belief in supernatural forces. David Hall, in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1990), described the seventeenth-century Puritans as far more "Elizabethan" than modern in their religious beliefs. Those beliefs included the notion that God communicated with his People through meteorological signs, numerology, dreams, and unusual events (such as earthquakes and comets). The Puritan elite thus believed that one could ascribe strange occurrences to the supernatural. Since they also believed in a Devil, it is unsurprising that they attributed some of their misfortunes to him. In the case of witchcraft the Devil had to work through human agents, such as women, or Indians.

IV. It was the Indians' fault: Apart from the Pequot War, the Puritans had a fairly peaceful relationship with their Indian neighbors for half a century after the start of the Great Migration. Puritan land theft, legal discrimination, and other provocations progressively strained Puritan-Indian relations until finally, in 1675, Wampanoag sachem Philip led a confederacy of Indian warriors against the English colonists. "King Philip's War," which burned on in northern New England until 1678, killed seven thousand people and persuaded many second- and third-generation Puritans, like captive Mary Rowlandson, that Indians were not only barbarous but intrinsically devilish. The Abenaki Indians reinforced this view during King William's War (1689-97), when then raided several English settlements in Maine and New Hampshire. Refugees from those raids came south to Massachusetts, bearing frightful accounts of attacks on civilians. The residents of Salem, according to Mary Beth Norton, would have been primed to view the witchcraft outbreak in Salem and the Indian attacks on the Maine frontier as part of a single demonic conspiracy against New England. One of the accused witches at Salem, Abigail Hobbs, had recently moved to that town from Maine, where she confessed that the Devil persuaded her to recruit other witches; witchcraft accusations in Salem rose dramatically after she gave her testimony. Several of the "afflicted" girls in Salem were refugees from the Indian war in Maine, and some said they had seen a spectral "black man" whispering to some of the accused witches; New Englanders of the era assumed that this man was an Indian. (See Norton, In the Devil's Snare [2002].)

V. Good government could have prevented the crisis: When the Salem witch trials took place, Massachusetts Bay did not actually have a legitimate government. King Charles II had condemned the overly-independent colony's charter in 1684, and a year later his successor James II merged the New England colonies with New York. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 Massachusetts's magistrates arrested James's unpopular governor, Edmund Andros, and sent him back to England. The province had no charter and only an interim government until 1693. If Massachusetts had had a legitimate governor and legislature, its government might have shown more restraint and confidence in dealing with the crisis in Essex County, instead of deferring to the judgments of a special court of oyer and terminer. When Massachusetts's new governor, William Phips, finally assumed office he was quick to dismiss the remaining 50 or so witchcraft cases still pending and free those still in jail.

In sum, historians can't fully explain what happened in Salem and the surrounding towns in 1692, but they can use the witchcraft crisis as an excuse to talk about other subjects that interest them more - and which may, in fact, be more important.


And, no, it wasn't ergot.


Jennifer said...

Since Hurricane Sandy is threatening Salem's Halloween festivities which include a beer garden and firework's display, Personally, I'm going with WORLD OF WONDERS one this one. Obviously, God is evangelical...and doesn't find Halloween or alcohol funny at all (says while contemplating a bourbon and ginger ale).

Le Loup said...

Excellent post, well done. I shall link this one to my blog.
Regards, Keith.

Dave Nichols said...

Thank you, Monsieur Le Loup!