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Witchcraft in Salem Village:
Intersections of Religion and Society

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center


The Salem Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial
Danvers, Massachusetts (formerly Salem Village)
Photo by Richard B. Trask
Town Archivist, Danvers, MA
In 1691, this notorious episode in the history of early New England began to unfold in a small rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Salem town, then the second-largest seaport in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Several adolescent girls in Salem Village began to exhibit strange and alarming symptoms that some of their parents quickly came to interpret as the result of witchcraft. When urged by those adults to identify who had bewitched them, the girls first named several of their neighbors in Salem Village and then gradually widened the circle of those accused to include hundreds of people in Salem town and other Massachusetts Bay communities. By the spring of 1692 the jails were crowded with suspects, and before the hysteria at last subsided at the end of that year, twenty people had been executed for witchcraft—which was treated as a capital crime in seventeenth-century New England, as it was elsewhere in early modern Europe.

This is only the briefest outline of the Salem tragedy. For a full narrative of events, you can consult either the opening chapter of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed, or a more recent work by Peter Hoffer, The Devil’s Disciples. [See Works Cited link at end of essay.] After reading either of these sources, you'll understand why so many historians have been drawn to this riveting topic. Indeed, the witchcraft outbreak in Salem Village is probably the single most intensively studied event in colonial North American history.

What commands so much notice is, in part, the peculiarity of what happened at Salem Village within the broader context of British North American experience. While similar witch crazes had wracked many early modern European communities and often resulted in mass trials and executions, most cases of witchcraft in colonial communities (nearly all of them in New England) typically involved only one suspect, and relatively few prosecutions ended in the execution of the accused witch. (For a thorough overview of such cases, all of which occurred before the Salem outbreak, see John Demos’s Entertaining Satan.) Viewed in this light, what happened in Salem Village is, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison aptly noted, only “a small episode in the history of a great superstition.”

Historians Debate

Yet it is precisely the uniqueness of Salem Village hysteria in colonial experience that has fascinated so many scholars. By probing the underlying causes of this protracted outbreak, they hope to gain deeper insight into broader tensions and conflicts that beset a maturing provincial society at the end of the seventeenth century. For example, in Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum contend that the witchcraft hysteria registered the strains attending the emergence of a commercial economy in New England generally and the wider Salem community specifically. In their view, what prompted accusations of witchcraft were the anxieties and resentments festering among some Salem Village families who were faltering and falling behind in a society being rapidly transformed by the quest for profit and material comforts. By contrast, in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol Karlsen argues that accusations of witchcraft both in Salem Village and elsewhere in New England, which targeted in disproportionate numbers those women who stood to inherit property, reflected the depth of misogyny within this Puritan culture.

Still other historians have turned their attention toward Salem Village because it figures as a spectacular example of how “pagan” forms of supernatural belief endured even in the fervently Christian culture of Puritan New England. As David Hall (Worlds of Wonders, Days of Judgement) and Richard Godbeer (The Devil’s Dominion) have shown, what the case of Salem Village vividly illustrates is the remarkable persistence among all early New Englanders of beliefs in witchcraft and magic, demonical possession and angelic visitations, spectral apparitions, prophetic dreams, and portents. Not only did the wealthy and learned credit such phenomena as readily as humbler folk, but such convictions coexisted easily with their devotion to Puritanism. In short, New Englanders (and, indeed, all early Americans, as Jon Butler emphasizes in his most recent book, Awash in a Sea of Faith) inhabited a complex supernatural universe, one in which Christian doctrines and practices were mingled with varied beliefs in “a world of wonders.”

Guiding Student Discussion

This subject never fails to arouse the curiosity of all students at every age and level of ability. So your challenge is not to get their attention, but rather to decide how, at least once during the semester, you can make the most of having it all.

Assigning secondary sources isn’t the best option: while any of the books mentioned above will keep you turning pages well past the witching hour, all of them are too sophisticated for your students. The single exception here is Salem Possessed, which works well with junior/senior honors/AP classes at the secondary level. Most fresh-persons in my college survey—students who did not place out of taking history—are much taken with this deftly written and provocative book.

But for most high school classes, you’ll find that assigning a few carefully selected primary sources is the more effective strategy. [See the links list at the end of this essay.] There are two good collections. The first, edited by David Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England, includes documents and helpful commentary pertaining to all witchcraft cases. The second, edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem-Village Witchcraft, focuses on that specific episode.

If you decide to concentrate on Salem Village, a sure-fire winner is to start with the theme of relations among different generations, because that’s almost certainly the first thing that your students will track on. Why was it that most of the accusers in Salem were adolescent girls and most of those they first accused women of middle age or older? What, if anything, might that indicate about the conflicts experienced by young women coming of age in early New England? About their relationships with their mothers and other mature female relatives? On the other hand, there were the magistrates and ministers, men of middle age and older who credited the girls’ accusations. What might account for their willingness to believe that seemingly respectable and godly women in Salem Village were guilty of witchcraft? Such a discussion might lead in a number of directions—acceptable gender roles within Puritan New England, tensions within Salem Village and between Salem Village and Salem town, and the range of beliefs in the supernatural.

If you decide to cast a wider net and explore the history of witchcraft everywhere in seventeenth-century New England, your best bet may be to focus on the accused witches. That would involve assigning students to read a sampling of witchcraft cases and then asking the question, “What sort of behavior was most likely to make a community suspect an individual of witchcraft?” The answers will bring to light the matters that most deeply concerned ordinary New Englanders in the seventeenth century, as well as illuminating the dynamics of social interactions in neighborhoods and arraying the range of beliefs about the supernatural world.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

Address comments or questions to Professor Heyrman through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

List of works cited in this essay

Links to online resources

To cite this essay:
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Witchcraft in Salem Village: Intersections of Religion and Society.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/salemwc.htm>

 

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