Mainely speaking: Tracing the roots of Salem’s witch crisis to the northern frontier


“In the Devil’s Snare” is a captivating new look at a phenomenon that has horrified and captivated generations of Americans: the 1692 Salem witch trials. Mary Beth Norton tries to set the record straight on much of the lore surrounding the case. The “Salem” witch crisis actually centered in Salem Village, now Danvers. Its tentacles reached into many Essex County towns in northeast Massachusetts: Topsfield, Haverhill, and Andover, where more accused witches lived than in Salem itself. By quoting extensively from extant trial records, Norton lays bare the methods used at the trial, which relied so extensively on “spectral” evidence – the reports, from the afflicted girls, that the unseen spirits of the accused were tormenting them. Norton showed the Salem Villagers to be fractious lot, quarrelling with each other over property lines and with their own ministers. And she deals a blow to the common understanding of the start of the crisis. There is no evidence that Tituba, slave of minister Samuel Parris, was responsible for telling Parris’s daughter and niece stories of dark magic. And to deny her modern readers any feeling of superiority over the Puritans, Norton tells us that the verdicts and deaths were repudiated by many of the participants just a few months or years after the end of the crisis.
But Norton’s main thesis, one which she trots out whenever the opportunity presents itself, is that the Salem crisis cannot be understood, and indeed can be explained nearly wholly, by setting in the context of the precarious situation that New England’s 17th-century colonists held vis-a-vis the Indians. There is a great deal to be said about this perspective. The colonists were settled along the coast, in seaside villages up and down the New England seacoast. The Indians were literally in the backyards of the townspeople, whose small numbers and flimsy garrisons provided scant protection against raids. The godly Puritans, whose mission was to bring Christianity to the benighted savages and their demon-possessed land, could hardly be faulted for seeing Satan’s power lurking in the dark forests, along with his bronze-skinned minions. Add to this a world view that accepted every victory as grace from God and every defeat as a chastisement, and you have the perfect formula for a deep and abiding paranoia, bordering on madness. At the time of the crisis, the colonists were in the midst of a second great war with the Indians. Towns like Cocheco (Dover, NH) and Oyster River (Durham, NH) and the Maine towns of Wells, York and Falmouth were attacked by Indians and the French allies. Houses were burned, livestock stolen and residents killed, mutilated or enslaved. The refugees, among whom were future witchcraft accusers, ended up in places like Salem.
Norton is strongest when presenting us with information about the trials. She quotes extensively from the trial transcripts. She even identifies curiously missing entries in the transcripts and in the diaries of the Salem judges, suggesting their own embarrassment at their participation or that of their families. She traces the crisis of the English monarchy during the period, when fallout from the Glorious Revolution (in which monarchy had been restored after years of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule) rearranged the power structure of the colony, as well as the status of its charter. And she shows how the crisis’s days were numbered when the accusing girls started to accuse the wealthy and the high-ranking of being in league with Satan. It was one thing to accused some mumbling crone wandering the back roads of Salem. It was quite another to accuse the wife of the governor.
In spite of Norton’s confidence in her thesis that the roots of the crisis lay on the frontier, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was not getting the whole story. It was not until far into the book that Norton mentions, in passing, that some  of the accused were browbeaten into confessing by their captors. In fact, many of the confessed witches of Andover soon recanted, making it clear that they had been intimidated into admitting their guilt. Norton also withholds an important facet of 17th century New England: that Puritan communities relied on consensus, with the entire community working toward a particular point of view, steamrolling the opinions of individuals. Both of these facts undermines Norton’s Indian War thesis. This suggests that, at most, Norton could claim a “perfect storm” of conditions, including paranoia about Indian raids, that precipitated the crisis. Nor does Norton explain the mechanism by which so many young women began their litany of accusations that ensnared neighbors and a former minister. Though Norton  poo-poos claims of other writers that the girls were victims of ergot poisoning, or were involved in a land-grab, her own claim--that the girls’ fits were induced by the trauma of seeing their families butchered—has few legs to stand on. Certainly, some of the girls had frontier connections. But others had none. What was their angle? Were they all caught up in the mania of being important, in a culture where children and women had little status? Were some of them insane? Could guilty consciences (over adolescent dabblings in the occult) have caused psychosis? Or was this all a sham perpetrated by the girls for their own reasons? Even, diabolically, just for fun?
The book left me with many unanswered questions. But it did spur my to seek out the sites of many of the scenes in the books – some of which, like house of Samuel Parris and the location of the Salem Meeting house – still exist far from the commercialized and folly of today’s Salem, built on the tourist fascination with witches and hanging trees. “In the Devil’s Snare” did not resolve the mysteries surrounding the Salem witch crisis. But Norton’s book, in spite of its claims of finding the missing link to the puzzle, has expanded the means by which investigators can approach the problem. The Indian Wars of the late 17th century must now be seen as a critical link between the God-fearing intentions of our Puritan forebears, and the devilish madness they unleashed on themselves in 1692.