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

Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I taught history for many years at several UK universities, and I was the Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. I am the author of six books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches and Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. His latest book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, will be published in November by Penguin. I live in Cambridge, England, and I am married with three children.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

What is my book about?

In the frontier town of Springfield in 1651, peculiar things begin to happen. Precious food spoils, livestock ails, property vanishes, and people suffer convulsions as if possessed by demons. Disturbing dreams and visions proliferate. Children sicken and die. As tensions rise, rumours spread of witches and heretics, and the community becomes tangled in a web of distrust, resentment, and denunciation. The finger of suspicion falls on a young couple with two small children: Hugh Parsons the prickly brickmaker and his troubled wife, Mary. It will be their downfall.

This book tells the dark, real-life folktale of witch-hunting in a remote Massachusetts plantation, where dreams of love and liberty, of a 'city upon a hill', gave way to paranoia and terror, rage and violence. Drawing on unique, previously untapped source material, Malcolm Gaskill brings to life a frontier past in which lives were steeped in the divine and the diabolic, in omens, curses, and enchantments.

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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 did I love 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.

By George Lyman Kittredge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Witchcraft in Old and New England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A documented study of witchcraft and witchhunting in Tudor England and colonial America

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

Why did I love 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.

By John Putnam Demos,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Entertaining Satan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the first edition of the Bancroft Prize-winning Entertaining Satan, John Putnam Demos presented an entirely new perspective on American witchcraft. By investigating the surviving historical documents of over a hundred actual witchcraft cases, he vividly recreated the world of New England during the witchcraft trials and brought to light fascinating information on the role of witchcraft in early American culture. Now Demos has revisited his original work
and updated it to illustrate why these early Americans' strange views on witchcraft still matter to us today. He provides a new preface that puts forth a broader overview of witchcraft and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Weisman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Salem witchcraft persecutions are one of the most well-known events in history, but there is more to the story. In this book, Weisman explores the social, political, and religious implications of witchcraft. He ventures outside of the usual studies of the Salem trials to provide a comprehensive understanding of 17th-century Massachusetts witchcraft as a whole. In the first section, an attempt is made to explicate the logic and meaning of the two major interpretive frameworks of witchcraft in terms of which the category was understood by inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay. The second and third sections of this study deal…

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

Why did I love 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’.

By Carol F Karlsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Devil in the Shape of a Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Confessing to "familiarity with the devils," Mary Johnson, a servant, was executed by Connecticut officials in 1648. A wealthy Boston widow, Ann Hibbens was hanged in 1656 for casting spells on her neighbors. The case of Ann Cole, who was "taken with very strange Fits," fueled an outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Hartford a generation before the notorious events at Salem.

More than three hundred years later, the question "Why?" still haunts us. Why were these and other women likely witches-vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft and possession? Carol F. Karlsen reveals the social construction of witchcraft in seventeenth-century New England…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Mary Beth Norton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked In the Devil's Snare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning historian Mary Beth Norton reexamines the Salem witch trials in thisstartlingly original, meticulously researched, and utterly riveting study.

In 1692 the people of Massachusetts were living in fear, and not solely of satanic afflictions. Horrifyingly violent Indian attacks had all but emptied the northern frontier of settlers, and many traumatized refugees—including the main accusers of witches—had fled to communities like Salem. Meanwhile the colony’s leaders, defensive about their own failure to protect the frontier, pondered how God’s people could be suffering at the hands of savages. Struck by the similarities between what the refugees had witnessed and what the…

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