Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Halloween nears - A recent book on the Salem Witch Trials - Witchcraft was above all a religious & political crime


Emerson Baker's A Storm of Witchcraft. The Salem Trials and the American Experience (October, 2014)

In 1692 Massachusetts, 156 residents of Essex, Middlesex & Suffolk Counties were formally accused of practicing witchcraft, a capital crime; 113 were imprisoned, 20 persons were put to death & at least 5 died in prisons in Boston, Cambridge, Ipswich & Salem.  



A Most Certain, Strange and True Discovery of a Witch, 1643

Witchcraft was above all a religious crime, which took on terrifying significance at a time of extreme danger in New England's history. New England Puritans inherited centuries of belief in witches as a probable cause of things gone wrong due to the malicious mischief they committed as agents of the devil. Nearly everyone feared witches, for they could be held responsible for epidemics, crop failure, shipwrecks, & storms. Witches could cause a child to sicken & die or cause a cow to cease producing milk. Any man, woman, or child could be a witch just as any cat, dog, or bird might really be a "witch's familiar." And witches didn't even have to be seen to strike. Their specters or spirits even had the power to escape from prison to afflict others. Witches not only brought family suffering & sometimes death, they could overthrow your government, your religion & your culture. 



Balthasar Bekker & another man (Christian Thomasius?) sieve diseases from devils. Engraving, c 1695.

The many problems that coincided at this time included Mass Bay Colony's reactions to the Royal Charter of 1691, which many citizens believed limited freedoms set forth in their original charter & threatened Puritanism in its provision to permit other religious practices. Now, by order of the King & Queen of England, other religions had to be tolerated.  Religious tension at the close of the 17C was a major cause of the witch hunt & many members of non-Puritan clergy & their immediate & family members were targeted. Many of the accused had ties to Quakers & Baptists which threatened Puritan orthodoxy. 




Puritains had been through a series of wars with the Native Americans & the French. Puritans, convinced they were God's Chosen People, could not comprehend why they were losing battles on the frontier.  In 1692, Salem was involved in a "disastrous & costly war (which) exacerbated existing economic, political & spiritual tensions." A number of the "afflicted girls" were survivors & orphans of Native American attacks in Maine & New Hampshire.  And in the 1690s, there was growing opposition to the witch trials.  Massachusetts Bay residents came to realize that innocent victims had been incarcerated & put to death.  Some courageous citizens who expressed disapproval of the witch hunt almost from the moment it began. 




In his just published book, Emerson Baker examines the Salem Trials as a metaphor not for magic but for persecution, paranoia, ignorance, superstition, jealousy, judicial blindness, guilt, shame, & bigotry.  Baker says the "witch trials triggered political, social & religious changes that would transform Massachusetts Bay Colony."  Salem in 1692 was a critical moment for the fading Puritan government of Massachusetts.


In both the British American colonies & in Europe, the Enlightenment, beginning in the 1600s, contributed to the end of witch-hunts.  The Enlightenment brought empirical reason, skepticism, &  humanitarianism, each of which helped defeat the superstitions of the earlier age.  The Enlightenment suggested that there was no empirical evidence that alleged witches caused real harm.


A Complete History of Magic and Sorcery and Witchcraft 1715-16

Over years, Salem became "Witch City" & the Halloween capital. The colony's attempts to suppress the story of the trials & erase them from memory only served to fuel popular imagination. Travelers & authors from England & there were writing about Salem's Witch Trial a century before American literary icons Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Longfellow, & Louisa May Alcott spun their witchey tales & put Puritans in their fiction.  Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible which was never meant as history but as a metaphor for Senator Joseph McCarthy's persecution of supposed communists during the 1950s. Public fascination with Salem as early America's "witch city" actually began in 1699 with a London travel writer named Ned Ward, and continues to this day.


See:  Emerson Baker A Storm of Witchcraft. The Salem Trials and the American Experience (October, 2014)


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