No matter how many Salem books appear, the question of New England witchcraft never seems to be exhausted. It forces us to confront the fragility of some of Americans’ dearest assumptions about ourselves: that we are tolerant, that we value the socially marginalized, that we are rational and can be persuaded by reasoned argument. Salem means that we can’t take our toleration for granted. Instead, we hunt for justification. Usually we point to “hysteria,” as though living in the past, according to a past set of beliefs, automatically makes one crazy.
But it is not so. They weren’t crazy at all.
In 1690s New England, Salem was only the most extreme example of an otherwise common legal problem. We don’t bother to legislate against imaginary threats, after all. The Salem participants – accusers, accused, judges, jury, theologians, the lieutenant governor – all lived in a religious system which assumed witchcraft to be real. The Salem episode was unusual for its breadth and longevity, facts not lost on observers at that time. But for people who believed themselves to occupy still-new lands “that were once the Devil’s territories,” the presence of Satan working through earthly interlocutors was a credible, and terrifying, threat. Looked at from this perspective, the Salem trials resemble the most rational response available to a community struggling to free itself from the ravages of evil incarnate.
The idea of witch-hunting as rational, however, might be too chilling to contemplate. A mere decade after the panic ended, several participants began to regret their role in the trials; Samuel Sewall, a judge, and Ann Putnam, an afflicted girl, both made humble public apologies for their participation in what they now felt was a miscarriage of justice. The speed with which Salem was reconsidered, even in the colonial world, is itself reassuring – even they thought they were being crazy! Phew.
And yet, for the first many months of 1691/92, inquiry into the presence of witches in Essex County was anything but crazy. In fact, it was imperative, given the cultural and religious structures in place in that community at that time. One wonders what other assumptions, imperative in our own time, will be hysterical in another?
Katherine Howe is author of The Physick Book Deliverance Dane, just published by Voice (Hyperion).