(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For secular Americans of the twenty-first century, everything about the witchcraft outbreak of 1692 appears extremely bizarre. Within a period of five months, at least 144 persons (38 of them men) were prosecuted as witches, 54 persons confessed to practicing demoniac witchcraft, 14 women and 5 men were hanged, another man was pressed to death by heavy stones, and 3 women and 1 man, along with several infants, died while in jail. Rather than taking place in the Dark Ages, the trials were contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution, when educated persons of Europe and America were familiar with the writings of scientists such as Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The men who conducted the trials were the elite of colonial Massachusetts. They were intelligent persons with reputations of stability and sobriety. Rather than being a poor backwater, seventeenth century Massachusetts had one of the most educated and prosperous populations to be found anywhere in the world.

Convictions of witchcraft in colonial America were usually impossible without the confessions of impressionable young girls and unstable adults who claimed to see “specters,” or ghostly apparitions, of alleged witches tormenting and murdering people as well as consorting with animals and birds. While spectral evidence was essential to most convictions, it was augmented by instances of strange growths on a body, places where the skin was insensitive to pin pricks, unusual strength assumed to indicate demoniac assistance, and the inability to repeat the Lord’s Prayer without a mistake. Although the judges and prosecutors preferred to have confessions as proof of guilt, they did not seem to understand the significance of the fact that these accused who claimed innocence were usually condemned to death, while those who confessed to witchcraft were rarely prosecuted and never executed.

With the large and growing literature about the 1692 events, historians will immediately ask whether there is any good reason for yet another book. In the Devil’s Snare does indeed make a number of valuable contributions. Norton, assisted by several student assistants, has conducted meticulous research in the original sources. As a result, her book clarifies a number of factual details, especially about the accusers and confessors, and it frequently includes perceptive observations that are not available elsewhere. The book’s eighty-six pages of notes, moreover, provide a useful guide in locating interesting statements made by the various people involved, and the notes also include succinct and thoughtful comments on the interpretations made by other historians.

The most important contribution of the book is its interpretative thesis: that the violent fighting on the Maine frontier was a major causative factor in producing the witchcraft crisis. When Norton began work on her book, she expected to base her interpretation on a feminist reinterpretation of gender relations. While pursuing her research, however, she writes that she became intrigued that so many of the accusers and accused were from the northern frontier, the location of brutal fighting during both King Philip’s War of 1675-1678 (then called the First Indian War) and King William’s War of 1689-1699 (called the Second Indian War). Some of the participants had fled Maine during the first war and then returned just in time for the second war, during which flourishing communities were destroyed and numerous families were wiped out. In late January, 1692, just one week after the first instances of witchcraft symptoms in Salem village, a large force of Wabanaki Indians had attacked the town of York, Maine, killing almost fifty settlers and capturing another hundred.

Such experiences, no doubt, were extremely traumatic to the participants, especially to vulnerable women and children who had no real control over their destinies. It appears significant that the descriptions of demoniac torment often sounded similar to the descriptions of bodily tortures and suffering during the two Indian wars. It is also interesting that the accusers referred to Satan as a “dark man,” which was a contemporary way of referring to an Indian. Norton discovered that at least ten of the accusers and confessors and twenty-three of the accused had family or personal ties to the embattled frontier region. As Norton became convinced that this was more than...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)