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ESCAPING SALEM by Richard Godbeer

ESCAPING SALEM

The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

By Richard Godbeer

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-516129-7
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

The Stamford, Connecticut, witch trial is held up as far more typical of those conducted in late-17th-century New England than its immediate predecessor in Salem, Massachusetts.

His case bolstered by statistical summary, Godbeer (History/Univ. of Miami; The Devil’s Dominion, not reviewed) ably makes his key points: while most Puritan New Englanders were convinced that witchcraft was indeed a “practical” consideration whenever accusations arose—even from trivial neighborly disputes—they remained skeptical of evidence directed against individuals. Salem produced over 150 arrests and 19 death sentences for witchcraft, yet over 60 other proceedings in contemporary New England resulted in only 16 guilty verdicts; or, throwing out the four “confessions” (most likely obtained under some form of torture), a conviction rate of about 20 percent. However, the author stresses, the pervasiveness of “Old World” superstition in the culture was always just below the surface, waiting to be triggered by dire events—pestilence, crop failure, Indian raids—in an already stressful environment. Potential targets were in no short supply: Indians themselves were believed to be Devil worshipers, as were Quakers, particularly those in discrete villages or neighborhoods. But by far the most likely to be accused—80 percent of all recorded cases—were women; most men brought to trial, in fact, were there by association. Any woman who did not fulfill the Puritan role model, Godbeer asserts, was an eligible suspect: those who spoke out too brazenly or had reputations tainted by immorality, even those who were widowed or aged beyond the capacity to provide a man with the necessary “helpmeet,” tended to lie beyond the pale. “Puritan theology depicted witches as heretical servants of the devil,” Godbeer writes, yet the “rigorous and cautious” nature of the early Colonial legal system and its local magistrates kept vengeful hysteria at bay—most of the time.

Thoroughly instructive in the elemental, instinctual nature of witch hunts in any era.