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

By David McNair
November 4, 2002

Considering the enormous fear and paranoia that a sniper caused the general public in and around Washington, D.C., and that the war on terrorism has apparently caused the whole world, it is not hard to imagine how seventeenth-century settlers in New England must have felt during the two Indian Wars. Surrounded by a vast, unknown wilderness occupied by Indian tribes that frequently emerged like painted demons from that wilderness to raid settlements in sometimes brutal fashion, hacking men, women, and children to death, burning homes, and destroying livestock, it’s no wonder these early settlers grew somewhat hysterical. Combine that with the prevailing Puritanical religious attitudes of the time–which considered the Indian Wars to be the work of the devil and the result of God’s unhappiness with the settlers–add a bit of political and economic turmoil, the age-old tendency of those in power to cover up their mistakes, and the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and you have most of the ingredients in historian Mary Beth Norton’s new book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Unlike past histories of the Salem witch trials, which tend to focus on the trials themselves and particularly the misogynistic treatment of the women involved, Norton attempts to write a "dual narrative of war and witchcraft" by making a direct connection between the witch hysteria and the First and Second Indian Wars (King Philip’s War, 1675-1678; and King William’s War, 1688-1707). In a cinematic opening sequence, Norton describes an attack by a band of 150 Wabankis Indians on the Maine settlement of York, during which the "whole town" was burned and looted, 50 people were killed, and another 100 captured. Among the dead was the town pastor, who, according to a report from a militia captain who arrived too late, "was barbarously murthered stript naked Cut & mangled by these sons of Beliall." Norton then cuts to a dramatically different scene a week before the attack on York in which two young daughters of a pastor in Salem Village began to have strange fits and visions. Months later,144 men, women, and children in Salem would be accused of witchcraft or some allegiance with the devil. Most would be jailed for long periods, 14 women and five men would be hanged, one man would be pressed to death with stones, and three women, a man, and several infants would die in custody.

Norton believes the two events were intertwined and connected, and she goes about proving that in Devil’s Snare with the persistence of a criminologist, the intuition of a psychologist, and the thoroughness of a historian willing to imagine what life was really like in northern New England in 1692. Norton starts by uncovering evidence that many of the accused and accusers were refugees from the Indian Wars, either directly involved in the violence or having lost relatives. In addition, she researched general correspondence from the time, not necessarily related to the trials, and found that the public was obsessed with the Indian Wars in much the same way we are now obsessed with the war on terrorism. People were paranoid and fearful about evil lurking in the shadows. To make matters worse, Puritanical New Englanders at the time believed the land they were trying to settle had been ruled by the devil and that it was their job to help God conquer this new wilderness. Pastors declared the attacks were carried out by "Demons, in the shape of Armed Indians and Frenchmen." (French settlers often fought with the Indians against the English settlers.) They also believed that events in daily life–sudden deaths, sicknesses, good fortune, droughts, comets, and shooting stars–carried with them messages from God to be interpreted. Although Norton admits that the reasons for the original fits and visions of the young sisters in Salem Village may be unknowable (certainly their father’s fire and brimstone sermons, in which he dramatized this battle to overcome the devil, might be a root cause; as well as various anxiety disorders the settlers weren’t equipped to diagnose) she says the convergence of fears about living in this unsettled, godless land and the effect that had on people, especially those who bore witness to the Indian violence, were at the heart of the witch hysteria.

But Norton goes a step further and argues that much of the blame for the witch hysteria rests on the shoulders of political and judicial leaders of the time who allowed it to get out of hand. In what amounts to a very convincing political conspiracy theory, Norton suggests that the men presiding over the trials exploited the prevailing public fear and paranoia to divert attention away from their failure to protect the settlers on the northern frontier.

It is interesting to notice the parallels between Norton’s history of the witch hysteria in 1692 and the war on terrorism in 2001. Both were triggered by savage attacks on ordinary citizens in a way that inflamed the public’s imagination. In Salem, one of the more horrific stories reported was of a male captive of the Wabankis Indians being tied to a stake and slowly burned while the Indians danced around him hacking off large chucks of his flesh with their knives and throwing them in the man’s face. In New York and Washington, D.C., there needs to be no retelling of the horror we all witnessed. Both the Indian attacks and 9/11 were attributed to "agents of evil" by government leaders, and in both cases prominent religious leaders declared the attacks were God’s way of punishing a sinful nation. In their immediate aftermath, public discussion revolved around the anxiety of figuring out how to protect ourselves from this shadowy enemy amongst us.

According to Norton, the Indian Wars didn’t cause the witch hysteria, but they did create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that made it possible. Suddenly, laws were being applied in ways that would have been unthinkable before the attacks. Norton says that accusations of witchcraft rarely resulted in a conviction before 1692. Judges believed in and considered spectral evidence, but they were always skeptical. But public fear during the Indian Wars changed that. And as a recent Washington Post article looking back on the last year put it, "the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon didn’t just set off a national wave of mourning and ire. They reignited and reshaped a smoldering debate over the proper use of government to peer into the lives of ordinary people." In Salem, the spectral testimony of the afflicted, the people who claimed to have been tormented by witches and minions of the devil (who visited them in spectral form) were used to delve into the private lives of the accused. In addition, many of the trials were held in secret, much like the proposed military tribunals today, and what followed was, literally, a government "witch hunt." Likewise, one of the fears caused by the renewed emphasis on security in the aftermath of 9/11 was the reemergence of a 1960s COINTELPRO-style "witch hunt" that would allow the FBI to delve into the private lives of people deemed a threat to national security, as they had in the 1960s by undermining and trying to destroy the lives of political activists like Martin Luther King Jr.

As mentioned earlier, Norton also suggests that the witch hysteria happened in large part as a consequence of the government’s failure to protect its citizens. As strong evidence of this, Norton points out that "the examining magistrates in Salem (John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin) had helped to cause one of the greatest defeats in the war by recommending the withdrawal of a substantial militia troop just prior to a major Indian attack that killed several relatives of the accusers." And as one leading member of an FBI watch dog group recently stated, "They (the FBI) screwed up so bad. With all the power and resources they have, they should have caught these guys (the 9/11 terrorists)." Norton suggests that in an attempt to shift blame for the failure to protect the settlers, government leaders were quick to embrace the idea of a demonic force that had been let loose in the world as an explanation for the attacks and for the measures taken to combat it. In our time, groups we had known about, and even helped to fund and create, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, were suddenly declared supremely evil and the cause of all our fears. Norton asks, as perhaps should we, whether the government was diverting attention away from its own complicity in and failure to protect the public by attributing it all to an evil force in the world? Was that what made the witch trials possible? Likewise, is the assault on our Bill of Rights by the USA Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that congress never would have passed before 9/11, an exploitation of the public’s fear and paranoia? And to what extent are we all complicit in the hysteria as Norton’s early settlers were? As William O. Douglas once confided to columnist Nat Hentoff, " As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of changes in the air–however slight–lest we become unwitting victims of darkness."

It’s clear that the early settlers involved in the witch trials of 1692 became aware of the excesses they had allowed. As Norton reports, almost no records from that time have survived, because in large part, Norton speculates, officials and citizens destroyed them. In analyzing a recent poll by the National Opinion Research Center, poll director Tom Smith reported that, "In the aftermath of the attacks (World Trade Center and the Pentagon), there was this huge approval of authority figures. People thought: we have to do what is necessary. But over the months a number of questionable situations have arisen. People have been detained, in secret and without explanation…"

Most ominous now are the new powers given to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Before 9/11 the court was set in place to permit the government to spy on people for the purpose of gathering information. Now, thanks to the USA Patriot Act, this secret court has the power to permit the government to spy on people for the purpose of gathering information in order to put them in jail. That is, given the right set of circumstances , the government could have the power to conduct a Salem-style witch hunt on anyone it deems a threat to national security.

Of course, Norton’s history of the Salem witchcraft crisis makes no allusions to current events. Her observations and speculations on how the Indian Wars were handled by government leaders and how the drumbeats of war affected the general public are an attempt to explain a societal phenomenon that took place over 300 years ago. But as anyone who carefully reads Norton’s fascinating history will notice, this "dual narrative of war and witchcraft" is frighteningly relevant to our time as well.




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