Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
In her splendid re-creation of the notorious events of 1692, Cornell historian Norton (her Founding Mothers and Fathers was a Pulitzer finalist) offers fresh and provocative insights into the much-studied Salem witchcraft trials. Using newly available materials from the trial records, letters and diaries, she argues that a complex of political, military and religious factors led to the outbreak of hysterical fits and other behavior that ended in the infamous trials. As Norton ably demonstrates, the settlers saw the First and Second Indian Wars and their resulting loss of prosperity as God's punishment for their sins. In April 1692, as these losses mounted, several teenage girls began having fits that they attributed to the devil, to witches and to Indians. The colonists thus found themselves, says Norton, being punished both by visible spirits (Indians) and invisible ones (the devil). In an unusual turn of events that Norton explores, the magistrates of the village took the testimony of these women who normally were not given any political or judicial authority at face value and began the trials. Moreover, as Norton shows, some judges used this opportunity of blaming witches to assuage their own guilt over their responsibility for political, economic and military mismanagement. Part of the originality of this study lies in Norton's refusal to read events through the lens of contemporary psychology, offering instead a lively account of the ways 17th-century men and women would have thought about them. Very simply, Norton's book is a first-rate narrative history of one of America's more sordid yet ever-fascinating tales. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The author of Founding Mothers and Fathers (1996) evaluates a less edifying episode in early American history-the infamous 1692 witchcraft scare-and finds connections between the terrors of American's Second Indian War and the colonial authorities' endorsement of the trials. Instead of writing another history of the oft-chronicled crisis, Norton (American History/Cornell Univ.) looks at the notoriously flawed and unfair trails from a 17th-century perspective. She quickly uncovers a number of historical threads not previously explored by scholars. Most prominently, Norton argues that massacres of colonists by the fearsome Wabanakis tribe during the Second Indian War and the colonial government's failure to effectively counter such killings were the main precipitators of the witchcraft trials. According to the author, the contemporary Puritan worldview insisted that the military failures of such notable officials as chief judge William Stroughton and Sir William Phips indicated God's displeasure with the New England colonies. Furthermore, Norton reveals, many of the Salem accusers had suffered personal losses at the hands of brutal Wabanakis. In her analysis of spiraling war fears and spiritual hysteria, the author contends that the state's leaders were all too willing to believe allegations of witchcraft, which they convinced themselves was evidence of Satan's rather than their own incompetence. Norton, a feminist scholar, blames the Massachusetts governor, councils, and judges for the executions of innocent Salem "witches." Her fascinating new take on the crisis has particular relevance in our own era, when rumors of war and resurgent religious fervor again create a volatile cultural mix. Blazes new trails into Salem's well-explored history.
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