Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692

Synopsis

Few events in American history are as well remembered as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. But there was another witch hunt that year, in Stamford, Connecticut, that has never been examined in depth. Now Richard Godbeer describes this "other witch hunt" in a concise, fascinating narrative that illuminates the colonial world and shatters the stereotype of early New Englanders as quick to accuse and condemn. That stereotype originates with Salem, which was in many ways unlike other outbreaks of witch-hunting in the region. Drawing on eye-witness testimony, Godbeer tells the story of Kate Branch, a seventeen-year-old afflicted by strange visions and given to blood-chilling wails of pain and fright. Branch accused several women of bewitching her, two of whom were put on trial for witchcraft. The book takes us inside the courtroom--and inside the minds of the surprisingly skeptical Stamford townfolk. Was the pain and screaming due to natural causes, or to supernatural causes? Was Branch simply faking the symptoms? And if she was bewitched, why believe her specific accusations, since her information came from demons who might well be lying? For the judges, Godbeer shows, the trial was a legal thicket. All agreed that witches posed a real and serious threat, but proving witchcraft (an invisible crime) in court was another matter. The court in Salem had become mired in controversy over its use of dubious evidence. In an intriguing passage, Godbeer examines Magistrate Jonathan Selleck's notes on how to determine the guilt of someone accused of witchcraft--an illuminating look at what constituted proof of witchcraft at the time. The stakes were high--if found guilty, the two accused women would be hanged. In the afterword, Godbeer explains how he used the trial evidence to build his narrative, an inside look at the historian's craft that enhances this wonderful account of life in colonial New England.

Excerpt

In matters of witchcraft, the outbreak at Salem village is the Jupiter of the solar system. It has attracted more notice in the popular press—and even among scholars—than any other such episode in American history. Yet the sheer magnitude of the outbreak, with its multiple trials, attendant hysteria, and wide geographical spread, has created a kind of gravitational distortion that has colored our broader notions of witchcraft. Although Salem was not typical of most outbreaks in colonial New England, it remains, by default, the archetype through which most Americans understand, or misunderstand, the subject.

Yet Salem was not the only community to serve up a witch hunt in 1692. Farther south, another incident roiled the area around Stamford and Fairfield, Connecticut, without producing an equally lasting notoriety. As Richard Godbeer demonstrates in the engrossing narrative presented here, in many ways the Stamford controversy reveals more about the anguish and ambiguities of witchcraft than do the more frequently examined tumults at Salem. Godbeer has drawn upon a rich trove of court transcripts and depositions to recreate the events arising out of . . .

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