The best books on witch hunting in Colonial America

Malcolm Gaskill Author Of The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
By Malcolm Gaskill

The Books I Picked & Why

Witchcraft in Old and New England

By George Lyman Kittredge

Book cover of Witchcraft in Old and New England

Why this book?

Nearly a century old now, this was one of the first books to open up this subject for me, and to connect witch-beliefs (and trials) in England and colonial America. It’s more of a collection of essays than a coherent monograph, but they’re thoughtful essays, and, crucially, not excessively lofty. Kittredge was at pains to understand witchcraft in the past rather than judging it from the vantage point of an enlightened present.

They are chapters on image magic, shape-shifting, diagnostic tests, witches’ sabbats, and many other subjects – all discursive explorations, drawing in examples from here and there, and presented in the leisurely style of the gentleman scholar. There’s some strong narrative, too, especially in the chapter on James I, which stands up as an account of how changing thinking about witchcraft, and its relationship to politics and religion, affected policy and legal practice. All in all, it’s stuffed with interesting material, rather like Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic.

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Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England

By John Putnam Demos

Book cover of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England

Why this book?

A truly trail-blazing book that combines exhaustive and careful archival research and conceptual insights drawn from sociology and psychology. As such, it’s both a work of record about colonial witchcraft and a compelling interpretation. In a way, it does for America what Robin Briggs’s Witches and Neighbours would later do for Europe. Demos guides us into the textured economic and political world of the pre-modern (yet stressfully modernizing) farming community, and asks us to take its people and their beliefs as we find them. Accusers and accused alike have facets to their characters, as well as back stories, which help us make sense of their avowed convictions.

By reaching speculatively into the psychic dimension, Demos goes even further. We understand witchcraft as part of a serious dreamscape in a profound yet conflicted religious culture. In this way, Demos the social historian anticipates much of the ‘new cultural history’, with its aspiring interest in mentalities, emotions and interiority.

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Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

By Richard Weisman

Book cover of Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

Why this book?

This is another sociologically inflected study, which broadens the context of belief behind witchcraft accusations. Like all the best work of the last forty years, it helps us to grasp the internal logic of witch-beliefs in the minds of intelligent and actually very sophisticated people, rather than falling back on the old chestnuts of hysteria, prejudice and the madness of crowds.

Weisman constantly reminds us that a supposed superstitious consensus (in contrast to the sceptical consensus of the modern world) simply didn’t exist. So much of the furious energy of thinking about witches was generated by disagreement and doubt. We’re also presented with conflicting and complementary opinions about witches, both from below in the neighbourhood, and from above among ministers and magistrates. In the end, as Weisman points out, however enduring beliefs about witchcraft may have been, as a crime it could not survive condemnation of the proofs, including so-called ‘spectral evidence’, on which nineteen people were hanged at Salem in 1692.

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The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England

By Carol F Karlsen

Book cover of The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England

Why this book?

A ground-breaking work, which demonstrates how the theoretical witch was embodied by real women, and how a seemingly bizarre fantasy was plausible in among the shapes and rhythms of daily life. This influential study is as much a social, economic and cultural history of seventeenth-century New England as it is strictly speaking a history of witchcraft – indeed, Karlsen demonstrates clearly that the latter cannot be assimilated with an appreciation of the former. Context is everything, and without it we just fall back on stereotypes and tired assumptions.

Witches and neighbours were two-sides of the same coin, the former a projection of the hostile emotions of the latter, and, as Karlsen explains, this fraught relationship was fundamentally gendered. To appreciate how some people were accused of witchcraft, we need first to explore relationships between people in the community, including relations between women. Honour, reputation, age, status and so on, were all factors led to certain individuals falling prey to the finger of suspicion. As Karlsen says, ‘Only by understanding that the history of witchcraft is primarily a history of women . . . can we confront the deeply embedded feelings about women – and the intricate patterns of interest underlying those feelings – among our witch-ridden ancestors’.

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In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

By Mary Beth Norton

Book cover of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

Why this book?

The Salem trials of 1692 have captured the public imagination like no other witch-panic in history. This is partly due to Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible, which made a searing political allegory out of the episode for 1950s America. Miller had a perceptive sense of the issues and especially the language of the time, but one legacy of his drama was over-simplification of the causes, which were complicated and deep-seated, both in Salem’s past and within relationships and individuals. Many historians have worked to set the record straight, to the extent that there are now literally hundreds of books on the subject, many of them very good. So it was no mean feat for Mary Beth Norton to write one that was not only highly competent but strikingly original.

Norton goes back to basics, painstakingly assembling the available archival evidence, setting assumptions aside and leaving no stone unturned. The world she reconstructs for us with is not simply that of the god-fearing communitarian township, introspective and implosive, but one of traumatized refugees from the Indian wars, and tortured memories of the native conflicts of the 1670s, many of them experienced by children, resurfacing in adulthood in another age of political danger and uncertainty. The old demonological fantasy of a conspiracy of witches plotting to bring down Christian society was made real in a devastatingly concentrated way at Salem, where people felt isolated, accursed and beleagured by the massed forces of Satan.

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