THE DEVIL IN THE SHAPE OF A WOMAN: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen

THE DEVIL IN THE SHAPE OF A WOMAN: Witchcraft in Colonial New England

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The most plausible explanation to date of an implausible aspect of early American history: the witchcraft hysteria in the New England Colonies that led to over 350 public accusations of pacts with the devil and supernatural powers. With the multitude of details typical of a doctoral dissertation--which this book indeed once was--Karlsen (History/U. of Michigan) presents an astounding array of facts about the accusations and trials of witchcraft in Colonial America. Combing through records surviving from 17th- and early 18th-century Puritan settlements in New England, she describes the lives of accusers and accused. The first few chapters bog down under an avalanche of names, dates, places, and statistics, but the pace quickens like a bolero as Karlsen begins to unravel and analyze factors of age, gender, economics, historical context, politics, Puritan belief systems, and family and community relationships. With the patience and skill of a good lawyer building a case of seemingly disparate and complex clues, she shows how careful examination of each factor eventually reveals witchcraft accusations as Puritan reactions to evidence of independence or rebelliousness in women. This is an explanation of witch hunts long proffered in feminist circles, but with little or no solid information to support it. Karlsen provides the evidence. Although some of the statistics are based on small numbers, the author's material is abundant, her analysis keen and thoughtful, and her conclusions make sense. In fact, once presented, they seem to have been obvious always. An enlightening contribution to US historical studies and to the comprehension of some of the legal and lethal mechanisms of gender stereotyping.

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1987
Publisher: Norton