In the interests of honesty, I had hopes for some more adequate explanation of the events and their cause(s). What I discovered was that I wasn’t going to find that in this source. But, I have to admit that the book was exactly as advertised; a day-by-day discussion of the “witchcraft” related events from January 1, 1692 through January of 1697, as things were happening on a daily basis for much of this period. If one adds to that some Prologue and Introduction and some Epilogue, you have a large book (over 700 pages including Notes, Bibliography, etc.). The writing style is what I would call “academic,” that is, it’s not intended to be casual reading, it’s intended as a serious, historical study of the facts surrounding this incident in colonial history. I think it’s fair to say that Roach was not trying to offer any particular explanation of why or how these events occurred but was attempting to bring together as complete a documented record as possible of what actually happened with little, or no, discussion as to why.
By the end, what I learned was, in fact a good deal. What I had previously thought to be a fairly small, isolated incident centered in one Puritan community was revealed to be a fairly lengthy series of events of a substantially greater nature; involving essentially the entirety of the New England colonies from New York to Maine and having serious impacts on a very large number of people for at least five years (and some continuing consequences down to the present.
What most people “know” about these events they (apparently) got from Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, or the movie/TV versions of it. Of course, one doesn’t have to look very hard at Miller’s work to discover that he was not writing a “history” play, but a play about the early 1950’s set in the historical period of 1692. To put it bluntly, he got it wrong and he knew he did because he said so. His interest was more in discussing what he saw as the parallels between the events of the McCarthy era and Salem than in revealing anything about the Salem experience, itself.
I guess that what this book drove home to me, more than anything else, was that (like so many things in history) it was far more complex and complicated than many “historians” would like you to believe. Yes, I understand that the straightforward theory which “solves” the question of why some event happened, or “explains” the existence of some artifact can be very satisfying and can serve to help someone obtain tenure or make a good deal of money because it explains (in one short, easy to understand book [generally with few notes and more theory than factual basis]) such things as “The Meaning of Stonehenge: How it was Built and Why!” in 200 pages or less for only $10.95. I’m unconvinced that ANY of such discussions are actually likely to go very far towards an adequate explanation. That’s been my problem with Salem, even before I encountered Roach’s book. After reading her book, I am even less convinced by any of the “explanations” I have encountered.
After a pretty close reading of Roach’s discussion, what I find revealed is a community centered around Salem, but which included many other communities in the area which were caught in a vast network of petty squabbles focused around political and social power, lawsuits over land titles and inheritances, and the influences of (and over) the local church. I don’t think one can emphasize strongly enough the role of the church in essentially ALL events in the Massachusetts colonies.
One must remember that the many small communities within the larger colony were all centered on the church as a major focus of political and social power. It was also intimately tied into the legal structure, especially since the educational system [mostly Harvard] was heavily focused on providing appropriately trained Protestant ministers, although some graduates did pursue careers in business and/or law. Still, the essential training was focused on a specific view of religion.
One also must remember (or know) that while attendance at church was expected (if not required), it was not democratic. Given the Calvinistic nature of these churches, there were those who simply attended (the great mass of people) and those who formed the REAL church, who had been accepted to be able to participate in the sacrament of bread and wine and were, therefore, FULL members of the church. While this status did have obligations, it was, in fact, also a sign of advanced social status.
One must also remember that women (who made up the majority of those accused of witchcraft) were also definitely second-class citizens at this time (I’m not sure that’s really changed a lot, no matter what we say!) and were, in large measure, poorly educated (Roach is constantly noting females actually signing documents with a mark, and many of those who ultimately “confessed” to witchcraft stated that they made a mark or simply touched the “Devil’s book” which was being offered to them. There is some reason (at least I think so, based on what I have read) to believe that a large portion of these colonial women not only couldn’t write, but couldn’t read either, although that may well not have been true of the “higher classes.”
There was also a virtually constant and ongoing threat of physical attack from the French in Canada and their allies from among the indigenous population. We have to remember that, while the King in England “gave” the colonies to the various groups, the land had been in use by others for a long time, and the French King also disputed the right of the English King to claim (and dispose) of this land. Given this, there was, essentially, a constant state of war with attacks of small, outlying communities and land being conquered and reconquered with some frequency and various people being captured, held as hostage, released (or not) and, certainly, being killed and/or scalped on a constant basis.
It also appears, based on Roach’s listing, that these were fairly litigious people, often at odds with each other and suing and/or threatening each other over all kinds of occurrences, and engaging in various sorts of legal/religious infractions (the number of comments about people admitting to “fornication” I found to be staggering). I was led to the conclusion that these people were certainly NOT what is usually believed (or implied) about these people who came to this country to establish “God’s country.”
Once the accusations of witchcraft broke out (it’s worth noting that they kept expanding for months, seemingly ending only when they went so far as to accuse socially prominent people like the Royal Governor’s wife), the whole process was, logically enough, conducted by the educated elite, who were trained primarily as ministers. Most were, in fact, prominent businessmen or lawyers, but their education (all have college degrees, I believe) would have largely been the same as for ministers. And, the “trial” process clearly operated on the assumptions that: 1.) there were witches; 2.) witches were responsible for the experiences of the “possessed” accusers; 3.) the accusers claims to encountering the spectral figures of the accused (who would try to force them to “sign the Devil’s book,” etc., and would torture them if they refused) were clearly true (based on the judges’ and jury’s actions in court).
All too often, when brought in for questioning, or trial, the judges (who also acted as prosecutors and were also expected to provide fair advice to the defendant) would begin with such questions as “With what spirits are you familiar?”, or “Why do you hurt these children?” Thus, there is an appearance of an assumption of guilt right off the bat. The continued reliance on “spectral” evidence throughout the trials (even though opposed by some clergy in a rather “wishy-washy” manner) also seems to continue the assumption of guilt. Certainly, there seems to have been an attitude of requiring an accused to “prove” her/his innocence in the face of “tormented” accusers, whose “evidence” consisted of screams, shouts, and “visions” available only to them, etc.
It’s worth noting (I think) that the majority (but not all) of the “afflicted” accusers were unmarried, young women and most (again, not all) of the accused were women. When you consider that women were likely the group with the least socio/political power in the community, I find it hard to feel any assurance that at least part of what was behind the “afflictions” was simply a desire to feel powerful. That’s not to suggest that psychosomatic conditions are not real, just that their causes can easily be misunderstood, and, as a result, become “reasons” for inappropriate actions.
Much of what this seems to boil down to, at least for me, is that a relatively small group of men were trying to maintain their own power in a situation which was largely out of their control. After all, there was political turmoil between England (the mother country) and France; a, perhaps, somewhat low key, but real, state of war with the French in Canada and their allies from some indigenous tribes; socio/political/religious complications regarding the obligations of church membership and the desire for the Salem Village (farming) community to have its own church separate from the Salem Town (mostly business) community; ongoing conflicts between and within family structures over property rights, inheritances, etc.; dependence on royal authority for major decisions which led to a state of uncertainty for extended periods of time; to say nothing of the likelihood of personality clashes within the community and, probably, other tensions I can’t think of at the moment.
Then, something happened in Salem Village. Two young girls seemed to be afflicted with an unknown condition which was eventually blamed on “witchcraft.” It’s quite understandable that the powerful elite of the community would try to assert that they could control and contain this phenomenon. When it didn’t work quickly and easily, it’s not really surprising that the complications were severe and, probably, became mixed up with other causes, other grudges, other quarrels.
Eventually, although it took years, common sense would prevail, and all of the accused would be declared innocent, although that didn’t do much for those who had been killed. The fact that it took until 2001 for the law to finally clear all of the accused, seems to say a good deal about the slowness of the law and the unwillingness of politicians to acknowledge wrongs they have committed and to take steps to correct them. The fact is, of course, that the system did, eventually, resolve this, when enough people had rubbed their noses in their mess long enough. It’s enough to give one hope that current messes might , eventually, get cleaned up.
All this being the case, Roach’s bibliography is extensive (eleven plus pages of VERY small print) and includes the personal letters and papers of many of the figures involved, records from the investigations and trials, many other scholarly studies, and on, and on. It’s also obvious that Roach was quite familiar with these materials as the text of the book is heavily noted with the sources of the material as it is being presented. All things considered, this doesn’t make for easy reading, but, at least for one with some interest in these events, such as myself, it was definitely worth the time and trouble to follow through on reading the entire book.