The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way"

The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way"

The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way"

The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: "We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way"


Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, nineteen people were hanged for practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. One person was pressed to death, and over 150 others were jailed, where still others died. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials is a history of that event. It provides a much needed synthesis of the most recent scholarship on the subject, places the trials into the context of the Great European Witch-Hunt, and relates the events of 1692 to witch-hunting throughout seventeenth century New England.

This complex and difficult subject is covered in a uniquely accessible manner that captures all the drama that surrounded the Salem witch trials. From beginning to end, the reader is carried along by the author¢e(tm)s powerful narration and mastery of the subject. While covering the subject in impressive detail, Bryan Le Beau maintains a broad perspective on events, and wherever possible, lets the historical characters speak for themselves. Le Beau highlights the decisions made by individuals responsible for the trials that helped turn what might have been a minor event into a crisis that has held the imagination of students of American history.


Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, 19 people were hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. One man was pressed to death, and over 150 others from 24 towns and villages went to jail, where at least 4 adults and one infant died and some remained until the following May. Compared to other witchhunts in the Western world, it was a minor affair, or as one historian has put it, “a small incident in the history of a great superstition.” It was the largest of its kind in the British colonies of North America, however, and it has never lost its grip on either the popular or scholarly imagination.

Historians often protest that too much time has been spent and too many pages have been written on the Salem witch trials, but they nevertheless continue to fill library shelves with books on the subject and to engage in sometimes heated debate over its causes. And there is no indication that any of this is likely to end soon. Nor should it, as the Salem witch trials remain one of the most interesting, indeed dramatic, as well as meaningful, episodes in history. Still, we wonder how such a tragic event could have ever occurred.

It is impossible to review all of the answers historians have offered to this question. The most persuasive have pointed to the economic, political, social, and religious turmoil into which New England was plunged at the end of the seventeenth century; to New Englanders’ beliefs that the turmoil from which they suffered had resulted from their fall from grace as God’s chosen people, thereby making them vulnerable to a “conspiracy of witches and the Devil;” to the mistreatment of the Salem village youngsters who first fell victim to some form of psychic, if not spiritual, affliction, promoting uncontrollable fear on the part of some and fraud on the part of others; to the Court’s inappropriate use of evidence in hearings for the accused against which there was hardly any defense; to inordinate pressure brought to bear upon the accused to confess and name their accomplices in order to escape almost certain execution; and, finally, to the failure of authorities to act earlier and more decisively when serious questions were raised regarding the conduct of the Court. These explanations are central to this book.

As far as it is possible in any single volume, this book provides a synthesis of the major schools of thought on the Salem witch trials. It goes to considerable length to place the events of 1692 into historical context, both of seventeenthcentury New England and of the Great European Witch-hunt, which lasted some three centuries. Without such context, when viewed in isolation, the events of 1692 are impossible to understand. It employs a narrative format, which is intended to make the subject more accessible to the reader, to recapture some of the drama that has held people spellbound for so long, and to suggest yet another way of looking at the event. As Larry Gragg has reminded us, to fully appreciate what happened in 1692, we must “explore the particular decisions made by the individuals involved and their consequences.” When . . .

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