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In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 Paperback – October 14, 2003
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“Stunning. . . . A rabble-rouser of a book.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Fresh and persuasively argued. . . . Norton builds her case with the precision of a criminal prosecutor. . . . Her conclusion is forceful.” –Boston Globe
“The freshest, and most detailed account . . . that we have had in a decade. . . . A landmark achievement. It may well herald a new golden age in American history.” –Los Angeles Times
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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.
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In the opening chapter, Norton directly connects the witchcraft hysteria to the First and Second Indian Wars. Norton vividly describes how a group of a hundred and fifty Wabanakis Indians raided and burned the settlement of York, Maine in 1691. Norton’s evidence suggests that the accusers and those accused of witchcraft were refugees from the Indian Wars and directly associated to the violent attacks by the Wabanakis Indians (54-55). Ignoring a yearly Tribute of Corn, disrespecting the Wabanakis fishing rights, and settlement on unpurchased land by the colonists caused friction with the local Indians prompting raids on English villages (94). Norton argues that redeemed captives of the Wabanakis had returned to the villages with tales of English settlers being ‘roasted’ to death by slow fires as one explanation for the mass accusations of witchcraft during 1692 (48). The previous experiences of the participants of the witchcraft trials on the Maine frontier, specifically their connection to the Indian Wars, was the first contributing factor to the witchcraft hysteria.
Norton also argues, “Satan had preferred to deal with women, who were ‘more credulous’ and ‘more malicious’ when displeased than men, ‘and so herin more fit instruments of the Divell’ ” (32). Women were also more likely escape the Indians and return to the village retelling the horrors witnessed on the frontier. Norton argues the men presiding over the trials were to blame for the hysteria getting out of hand. The political and judicial leaders used public fear to divert attention from their failure to protect settlement expansion of the frontier into Indian Territory. In other words, the witchcraft trials were a political conspiracy to cover up the inadequacies of Puritan leaders. Norton’s research concludes the judges of the witchcraft trials were the generals who led the English army into battle with the Indians and were loosing the war on the Maine frontier. Accusations of witchcraft shifted the focus of the battle from the frontier and into the courtrooms. In the courtrooms, the founding members of New England settlements leveraged a deeply religious community blaming the devil for the attacks and the spectral visions seen by the accused.
As Norton points out, the Salem witchcraft episode involved many more people, and was much more intense, than any other such episode in America or England. Her central explanation for Salem's "uniqueness" is that, in Massachusetts in 1692, there was a fatal concurrence of New Englanders' belief in witchery and the supernatural, renewed war against northern New England settlements by the French and the Wabanaki Indians, and a series of military disasters for Massachusetts (including the wiping out of several villages). Although, as Norton readily acknowledges, this theory was advanced by other historians in scholarly articles in the 1980s, no one had previously attempted to flesh out the theory fully and examine the entire, sad series of events in light of it.
Not only does Norton do a fantastic job as a scholar, but she also is (contrary to what some Amazon reviewers have said) quite a good writer. I only wish all scholarly works were written with Norton's careful craftsmanship and scorn for pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook. The book also includes excellent and helpful maps, appendixes, and index. It should be noted as well that Norton is amazingly generous in her acknowledgements (in her notes and elsewhere) to all the researchers and even graduate students who gave her ideas and data. She sets a fine example for other historians.
I wouldn't think that this book would be beyond the capacity of anyone with a college education. Some of the other reviews, unfortunately, show that my estimate of the reading public may be too high. I suppose that, if you just want to be titillated and not have to think too hard, there are other books you should buy. But, if you really want to understand an important and notorious series of events in American history, then this is the book to read.