In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

August 27, 2015 - Comment

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 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 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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CYNTHIA ABEL says:

best one-volume history of the Salem witch trials of 1692 Every historian dealing with the Salem witchcraft episode has attempted to explain “why Salem?” in terms of their own times. Reasons why have ranged from sheer fakery to mass hysteria to land greed or medical causes. Noted historian Mary Beth Norton has throughly combed through the surviving original records to arrive at a new and convincing explanation of the infamous 1692 witch crisis: the very real fear of Indian attacks on settlements in Massachusetts and Maine. Norton explores the news and…

Zeldock says:

THE definitve work on the Salem witch crisis. It is hard to imagine that Prof. Norton’s narrative and analysis of the Salem witch crisis will be surpassed anytime soon. This book re-examines an episode in American colonial history that many other historians have tried to tackle. What makes Norton’s book special is the care with which she has combed through the primary sources and the skill with which she sifts the data in arriving at what is, for my money, the best explanation of the Massachusetts tragedy.As Norton points out, the…

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