October 5, 2012

What Was Really Behind the Salem Witch Trials?

In preparation for my next book, I have been doing a fair amount of research. The main topic I've been focusing on is witchcraft, since the book will touch on that quite a bit. Naturally when anyone in America thinks about witchcraft, their thoughts quickly turn to Salem and the witch trials that are so famously associated with there. It's a tragic part of our country's history that I and so many others learned about in school.

Even though I already knew about the trials (or so I thought) I started digging into information about them. What I found was that so much of what I learned about the Salem Witch Trials was either inaccurate, incomplete or blatantly false. It shouldn't be a surprise to me, though, since in college I learned that much of what I was taught about World War I was bull.

What have I learned about Salem's Witch Trials? First off, that most of the trials didn't take place in Salem, but instead were held in other areas of Massachusetts. I had been taught that only women were implicated as witches, but learned from my research that quite a few men were as well. I had also been taught that the trials lasted years, when in fact they only went on for several months before those who had not been put to death were pardoned and released.

The most fascinating thing I've learned about the trials comes from a book called In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton. In the book Norton points out that the two wars between the British colonists and the French with their Native American allies fueled much of the furor over the witch trials in Massachusetts. The horrors of both wars (the first one we never, ever studied about in school) were much worse than I was ever lead to believe. The Puritans already saw the Native Americans as devilish, but these experiences took it to another level. Many of the accused in the trials were accused of performing ceremonies that were similar or identical to the Native Americans' practices. In a way, for many people, putting to death these supposed witches was helping them feel like they had exacted revenge on the Native Americans who so brutally murdered friends and family members. I'm sure there are those who argue against Norton's theory, but she does an excellent job of contextualizing the Salem Witch Trials and showing how the current political climate was ripe for the only known mass killing of accused witches in what is now the United States.

This is why I love writing: researching heavily on subjects I don't know that much about it just a fascinating thing for me. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I will need to give myself a cutoff date on the research, otherwise this could go on for years and the spectacular book I'm going to write would never happen.   


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Backlash against Native Americans? I didn't know that fueled the trials either.

Steven said...

Alex, it's an intriguing theory. She does present other factors that played into the perfect storm scenario (such as extensive backgrounds on the relationships/connections between the different people involved in the trials). The book is a heavy read--I noticed people on Goodreads complaining it wasn't "entertaining" enough--but it would provide years of study material for anyone who wants to know more about the Salem Witch Trials.