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Witchcraft, War, and "Pannick Fear"

Salem reinterpreted and its implications for modern America

July-August 2003

The history of Salem witchcraft has its own history, its own long, tortuous, emotionally freighted sequence of tellings and retellings. Novelists and poets, playwrights and moviemakers, popular authors and, not least, historians have all contributed their piece. Most nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing on the witch trials was designed to discredit their "Puritan" sponsors. The belief in witchcraft, and actions springing from such belief, appeared to reflect a credulousness and repressiveness that subsequent generations had thankfully outgrown. Then, in the 1930s, Harvard's late, great professor Perry Miller dismissed this idea—and witchcraft itself—as a mere distraction from the main line of Puritan studies. Miller was in the midst of a major effort of historical rehabilitation: the Puritans on his pages were high-flown intellectuals, struggling with questions of eternal, existential significance. Witchcraft was beneath them (and him); so...scholars be warned.

For at least a generation scholars took the hint, and averted their eyes. But Salem witchcraft would not go away. In 1945 Marion Starkey, an independent writer of considerable gifts and Freudian leanings, produced a fresh synthesis which emphasized the "hysterical" dimension. And several years later, along came Arthur Miller with his powerful play, The Crucible, linking Salem to the political "witch hunts" of the 1950s.

Soon thereafter, professional historians re-entered the fray—at first in a spirit of some reluctance and embarrassment (Perry Miller's ghost still loomed), then with a gathering rush that continues today. Since the mid 1960s at least a dozen major studies have put the Salem "crisis" under one or another type of scholarly microscope. Each has pursued a different angle, to a different set of diagnostic conclusions. The suppression of religious malcontents; a backlash against independent-minded women; a factional struggle prompted by the first stirrings of capitalism; an outbreak of ergot poisoning (or maybe it was encephalitis): these have emerged as leading theories. But are the returns at last diminishing? Can there be anything really new, and important, left to say?

 

The answer, as provided by Mary Beth Norton's book In the Devil's Snare, is clear and resounding: witchcraft-study lives on! Norton, an alumna of Harvard's graduate school and currently the Alger professor of American history at Cornell, has come to this territory after a long and wide-ranging professional career; her skills are those of a mature scholar, her goals nothing less than the deepest possible level of understanding. Her chief strategic innovation, in contrast to virtually all her predecessors on Salem, is to place events "firmly in the context of [their] very specific time and place" and thus to present the entire affair "as people in Essex County experienced it in 1692."

This might seem, at first glance, a non-starter; doesn't every historian seek to recreate specific times and places? In fact, historical study is always a kind of balancing act, in which the stuff of past experience blends with the values and concerns of a scholar's present. The balance is necessarily delicate, and sometimes tilts to one side or the other. With witchcraft, temptations to present-mindedness have been especially strong—be they feminism, Marxism, liberalism, whatever. Norton's book is definitely a tilt back the other way.

Her means to this end is an extraordinary resourcefulness, and doggedness, in local research. Indeed, she has seemingly explored every last inch of the relevant countryside (not just Salem, but adjacent communities as well) and unraveled every conceivable detail of the inhabitants' lives. From this painstaking effort she is able to reconstruct an elaborate, many-stranded web of personal connections that allows her to situate each key development in the unfolding sequence. Put differently: Norton begins again and again in the courtroom, but then moves relentlessly outward to probe specific relationships within and among the crucial categories of accusers, suspects, confessors, judges, and witnesses. Moreover, she is especially alert to chronology; thus her narrative—and it does remain a narrative, albeit one that incorporates much thoughtful commentary—proceeds on a week-by-week, day-by-day, sometimes even hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute basis.

Order

The result is—lo and behold!—a "new interpretation." Norton professes to have had "no idea," on starting out, where her investigation might lead. But lead it did—straight to the violent frontier of northern New England, especially coastal Maine. There a situation of chronic warfare had persisted for nearly two decades, as Wabanaki Indians and their French Canadian allies sought to roll back the tide of encroaching English settlement. By 1690 or so, bloody "raids" had become virtually a norm, with repercussions that were felt well to the south—in Essex County and beyond. Norton's research, as it proceeded, uncovered numerous links between this troubled region and the witch-trials. Some involved specific individuals, such as the desperately "afflicted" Mercy Lewis, a leading accuser, and the minister George Burroughs, A.B. 1670, a "ringleader" and "indispensable man" among the supposed witches. Others touched qualitative aspects of the accusations themselves: for example, spectral representations of the devil as a black or "tawny" man, and even particular modes of affliction. The claim of numerous victims to feeling "torn in pieces" or "knocked in the head" referenced the actual sufferings of frontier settlers when captured by Indians.

The accumulation of such details was, and is, compelling. Thus, Norton argues, were Salem and the surrounding towns enveloped in a "supercharged atmosphere" of danger. Thus, too, did "assaults from the visible and invisible worlds become closely entwined in New Englanders' minds." It was, at bottom, this entwining that made the initial round of suspicions—not in themselves particularly unusual or threatening—yield a lengthening chain of lethal persecution without parallel in early American history.

 

The war-to-witchcraft link is the single most original and important contribution of In the Devil's Snare; but the book revises our understanding of its subject in other ways as well. No previous study has so vividly underscored the power of gossip—for the most part outside the courtroom, sometimes far outside—to push events along. By the same token, none has so clearly demonstrated the central role of confessors, those suspects who admitted guilt in order to lessen their chances of execution. Heretofore the afflicted accusers have invariably received top billing, but Norton makes them share it with the confessors. This revision, in turn, underlies a new sense of the trials' pacing. They did not proceed as one sustained, hurricane-strength blast, but in a ragged sequence of surges and pauses that make their eventual end seem all the more plausible. In essence, the "reversal" implied in the public prominence of the afflicted (children, servant girls, and otherwise obscure young women) was itself gradually reversed.

Although she attributes overriding significance to "pannick fear" (the period term, with period spelling) in fueling the crisis, Norton does not evade the question of personal blame. Some of the accusers' sufferings may well have been "contrived," even consciously "faked"; most, however, were "at least arguably genuine." By contrast, the trial judges and others in leadership positions bear a lasting weight of responsibility. "It must always be remembered," Norton writes, in a sentence italicized for emphasis, "that the judges of the Court...were the very men who led the colony both politically and militarily." Moreover, she suggests, "if the devil was operating in their world with impunity,...[their] lack of success in combating Indians could be explained without reference to their own failings." Then, her clincher: "They had too much personally at stake," and were more than willing to credit—or actually to encourage—the charges brought before them.

 

There is, finally, a strange irony about In the Devil's Snare. It's almost as if witchcraft has worked a bit of unexpected deviltry here. As hard as Norton strives to avoid present-mindedness and describe the Salem trials exactly "as people in Essex County experienced [them] in 1692," so, too, does witchcraft insist on its enduring relevance, the uncanny shadow it casts over later times. The writing of this book was completed somewhat before September 11, 2001. But consider...

In the late spring of 2003, as this edition of Harvard Magazine goes off to press, "pannick fear" once again is abroad in the land. Devastating "raids" have cropped up all along the global "frontier"; indeed, some have reached our national center. Most of us are as yet untouched by violence, yet all feel (to one degree or another) threatened. The danger lurks in hidden places, and usually surfaces without warning. The urge to strike back can be overwhelming; and when our foes seem invisible or unreachable, we find surrogates on whom to unleash our fury. The future is painfully uncertain; some anticipate a coming clash of civilizations. Words like "evil," even "Satan," are heedlessly tossed about. Our traditional liberties may soon be set aside for the sake of an elusive (or illusive?) security.

As was the case at Salem in 1692, much will depend on the attitudes and actions of our leaders. What do they have "personally at stake" in the unfolding crisis? Might the "devil" now "operating in their world" be put to use as a cover for "their own failings?" Or will they choose a better way, one that does not exploit the "pannick fear" but instead confronts and deals with it honestly?

Are you listening, down there in Washington, D.C. It's the witches calling.

 

John P. Demos '59, Knight professor of American history at Yale, is the author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England and The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America—winner of the Parkman and Billington Prizes—among other works. In May 2002, he delivered the Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard.