National Humanities Center logo TeacherServe® logo

17th & 18th Centuries

19th Century

20th Century

17th & 18th Century Essays

Divining America is made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Divining America Advisors and Staff

Witchcraft in Salem Village:
Intersections of Religion and Society

Brief excerpts from referenced books:

from Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), 103, 104, 105, 109.

To understand this intensity [of the emotions underlying the trials], we must recognize the fact—self-evident to the men and women of Salem Village—that what was going on was not simply a personal quarrel, an economic dispute, or even a struggle for power, but a mortal conflict involving the very nature of the community itself. The fundamental issue was not who was to control the Village, but what its essential character was to be…

From infancy, a Puritan was raised to distrust his private will, to perceive it as the “old Adam” which, above all, constituted original sin… By the end of the seventeenth century, however, this sense that there was a dangerous conflict between private will and public good had become seriously eroded in many quarters by two generations of population growth, geographic dispersal, and economic opportunity: the emergence of pre-industrial capitalism…

Given the social assumptions which prevailed in seventeenth-century New England, it was a perfectly normal procedure for a town to rid itself of deviant or threatening individuals—by changing them if possible, by exile or execution if necessary. A long succession of people, including a number of isolated “witches,” had learned that fact in the most vivid way possible. But what confronted Salem Village, as seems clear in retrospect, was not a handful (even a large handful) of “deviants.” It was a group of people who were on the advancing edge of profound historical change. If from one angle they were diverging from an accepted norm of behavior, from another angle their values represented the “norm” of the future. In an age about to pass, the assertion of private will posed the direst possible threat to the stability of the community; in the age about to arrive, it would form a central pillar on which that stability rested.

from Peter Charles Hoffer, The Devil’s Disciples: The Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 199–200.

In 1692, Salem was contested ground, not just by the Putnam and Porter clans, but by whole cultures. Forest and glade reached to the northwestern edge of the village, almost touching the busy coastal lands that joined the village on the east. The village was the “edge” of the two worlds, where a vast Atlantic commercial system, throughout whose reaches people and consumer durables were in constant motion, met a wilderness, whose natives, long put upon by a foreign force, still struggled to protect their ways and their lands. There witchcraft beliefs and warfare fed each other, creating the stresses and shaping the images of the crisis.

from John P. Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 384–385.

Why, in particular, did this one episode [of witchcraft trials in Salem] attain such massive proportions—i.e., in the sheer quantity of persons involved? The early 1690s seem, in the first place, to have been a time of extreme and pervasive anxiety in New England. The difficulties experienced during the preceding fifteen years had added up to an almost intolerable sum: the wars were more devastating, the epidemic illnesses more prevalent and “mortal,” the constitutional changes more unsettling, than in any earlier period of the region’s history. It was not hard to see in all this a general movement of Divine Providence against New England. Meanwhile, too, there were powerful undercurrents of social change—old enough in their origins, but newly visible in some of their effects. The growth of commerce, the signs in some quarters of a more cosmopolitan spirit, the increasing strength of a merchant class: these were key elements in a process of transformation “from Puritan to Yankee” (a favorite phrase of New England historians)…

So it was that the history of Salem in the closing decades of the seventeenth century expressed a deep clash of interests. Both civil and religious experience were infected by chronic “faction”—and, as another study has brilliantly demonstrated [Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed], the witchcraft trials of the 1690s were simply the climactic act in a long drama of local discord. Almost without exception it was the Villagers who played the roles of “accuser” and/or “victim,” and the Townspeople who were cast as “witches.”

from Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Random House, 1987), 80, 115–116.

Economic considerations, then, do appear to have been at work in the New England witchcraft cases. But the issue was not simply the relative poverty—or wealth—of accused witches or their families. It was the special position of most accused witches vis-à-vis their society’s rules for transferring wealth from one generation to another…

No matter how deeply entrenched the principle of male inheritance, no matter how carefully written the laws that protected it, it was impossible to insure that all families had male offspring. The women who stood to benefit from these demographic “accidents” account for most of New England’s female witches… However varied their backgrounds and economic positions, as women without brothers or women without sons, they stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.

from David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonders, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York: Knopf, 1989), 19, 99–100.

[I]t may surprise some readers (as I myself was surprised) to discover how much “magic” circulated in New England—the magic of “murder will out,” prophetic dreams and visions, pins hammered into buildings, shape-shifting dogs, and much more besides. The religion of the colonists was infused with ancient attitudes and practices, some indeed so old as to antedate the rise of Christianity. Much of this magic was in disfavor by the close of the seventeenth century. But the persistence of such old beliefs is one reason why it is wise to look upon the colonists as Elizabethans and not think of them as protomodern.

Rebecca Johnson told the Salem court in 1692 that, wanting to know if her son “was alive or dead,” she had her daughter perform “the turneing of the sieve…and that if the sieve turned he was dead, and so the sieve did turn.” To make this device work she used word magic, repeating the phrase “By Saint Peter & Saint Paul, if [the person] be dead let this sieve turn round.” Sarah Cole of Lynn “owned” to the same court “that she & some others toyed w’th a Venus glase & an Egg what trade their sweet harts should be of.” (John Hale, the minister of Beverly, heard that “there came up a Coffin, that is, a Spectre in likeness of a Coffin.”) Drawing on an old folklore, people nailed up horseshoes to protect themselves or struck back by tricks that broke the power of witchcraft—baking a cake made out of a suspected person’s urine mixed with flour or else boiling or baking bits of hair.

from Richard Godbeer, The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 5, 30–31.

Alongside Protestant Christianity there coexisted a tangled skein of magical beliefs and practices that the colonists brought with them from England. Puritan ministers condemned magic as blasphemous and diabolical. Magic had no place in their vision of New England and so they were appalled to discover that colonists were using magical techniques. “It is a sad thing,” lamented one cleric, “that ever any person should dare to do thus in New England…” The ministers’ greatest cause for alarm was that magic appealed not only to those who rejected Puritanism, but also to church members…

New Englanders used magic to surmount the barriers of time and space, to look into the future and across vast distances. Magic also enabled them to harness the world and adapt it to their own ends: to heal the sick, to protect against harm, and also to inflict harm. Through magic, men and women overcame their natural limitations: it made the world a more immediate and accessible place, giving new powers of perception and action to those who mastered its possibilities.

from Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 71–72.

Chadwick Hansen’s study of the 1692 Salem trials, Witchcraft at Salem, uncovered reference to varied magical practices among the accused. Dorcas Hoar was known as a fortune-teller in the 1680s; her description, given at her 1692 trial, of a manual on chiromancy [palm-reading] suggests that she both owned and used it. Goody Bishop possessed rag dolls stuck with pins and could not satisfactorily explain why she kept them. A black or Indian slave named Candy produced rags, grass, and cheese that she used as mediums through which she attempted to harm others. And several witnesses reported that Wilmot “Mammy” Red cursed a woman to prevent her from urinating.

Earlier New England trials produced similar descriptions. As with those offered in Salem, their significance lay in their specificity. In 1655 John Brown of East Haven claimed that he could “raise the Devil,” much as the legendary John Dee conjured angels, and he drew horoscopes and invoked jargon (“lords of the second, third, tenth, and twelve houses”) that neighbors recognized as astrological. Katherine Harrison, a woman of considerable wealth, admitted that she told fortunes and claimed to have learned it by reading “Mr. Lilly’s book,” probably Lilly’s Christian Astrology (London, 1647). Other accused witches had reputations as wise men or wise women; their crafts made them immediate suspects when unexplainable or disastrous events occurred.


NHC Home  |  TeacherServe  |  Divining America  |  Nature Transformed  |  Freedom’s Story
About Us  |  Site Guide  |  Contact  |  Search