Award-winning historian Mary Beth Norton reexamines the Salem witch trials in this startlingly original, meticulously researched, and utterly riveting study. In 1692 the people of Massachusetts were living in fear, and not solely of satanic afflictions. Horrifyingly violent Indian attacks had all but emptied the northern frontier of settlers, and many traumatized refugees—including the main
Award-winning historian Mary Beth Norton reexamines the Salem witch trials in thisstartlingly original, meticulously researched, and utterly riveting study.
In 1692 the people of Massachusetts were living in fear, and not solely of satanic afflictions. Horrifyingly violent Indian attacks had all but emptied the northern frontier of settlers, and many traumatized refugees—including the main accusers of witches—had fled to communities like Salem. Meanwhile the colony’s leaders, defensive about their own failure to protect the frontier, pondered how God’s people could be suffering at the hands of savages. Struck by the similarities between what the refugees had witnessed and what the witchcraft “victims” described, many were quick to see a vast conspiracy of the Devil (in league with the French and the Indians) threatening New England on all sides. By providing this essential context to the famous events, and by casting her net well beyond the borders of Salem itself, Norton sheds new light on one of the most perplexing and fascinating periods in our history.The story of the Salem witchcraft trials is well known, from both historical accounts and dramatic retellings, such as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton now offers a significant reinterpretation of the events that (by her count) led to legal action against at least 144 people, 54 confessions of witchcraft, 19 hangings, and one “pressing to death … by heavy stones.” Norton’s contribution is to contextualize what happened. She studies not just Salem itself, but all of Essex County and northern New England, because so many of the people involved in the witchcraft crisis didn’t live in Salem proper. She also says these grim events must be understood in relation to King William’s War, which the early Americans called the Second Indian War. This frontier conflict and the religious interpretations thrust upon it created the conditions for what happened in Salem and the surrounding region, which, says Norton, would not have occurred in the war’s absence. As might be expected, her narrative does not proceed along traditional lines. It is driven more by the academic imperative to break scholarly ground than by the urge to tell a harrowing story. For readers interested in knowing what really happened at Salem, though, In the Devil’s Snare may be the best source. –John J. Miller
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