Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chronology and Collective Violence in 1692

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chronology and Collective Violence in 1692

Article excerpt

As the only example of a mass witch hunt in American history, Salem witchcraft exerts a continuing fascination to both scholarly and professional audiences. Its yearlong pursuit of the devil across the New England landscape resulted in twenty executions and more than one hundred and fifty victims. Its scope so vastly exceeds its nearest competitor, the Hartford incident of the early 1660s, that it constitutes a social phenomenon different in both degree and kind. The havoc it wrecked continues to shock human sensibilities. (1)

An outpouring of scholarship has illuminated many aspects of this event, but it has not resulted in a consensus about what happened in 1692. Rather, a variety of interpretations vie for attention, most of them, happily, not incompatible with others. In the world of Salem scholarship, arguments do not close off discussion so much as add explanatory ingredients to the mix. In recent years, scholars have variously emphasized intra-community group conflict, religious tension, demographic competition, failures of leadership, gender concerns, psychological relationships, and frontier Indian clashes as central to the Salem outbreak. But the pursuit of Salem's elusive meaning continues. (2)

One potential source of new insight is to closely examine Salem witchcraft's chronological and geographic dimensions. Most narratives dramatically recount the events of 1692 as a constantly accelerating, relentless, and intense upheaval that brought widespread political, social, and economic disruption to New England. They frequently employ tropes of "panic," "contagion," "epidemic," and "hysteria" to portray a society out of control. (3) But a close-up, micro analysis of where and when accusations erupted during that year provides a different, more complex perspective that tempers the pervasive concept of Salem as bedlam. At the community level, accusations progressed as a sequence of limited, brief, and targeted flare-ups that exhibited features of collective violence and retained elements of traditional witchcraft incidents that were a regular feature of seventeenth-century England and New England. Such a micro investigation not only provides new understandings of the dynamics of the witch hunt's expansion but also the process by which it came to an end. (4)

Historians have not entirely neglected considerations of time and space. In revealing shared concerns over Indian conflict, Mary Beth Norton, for example, traces the episode "daily and weekly," and significantly expands her focus beyond Salem Village, placing the witchcraft crisis "in the broader context of Essex County and northern New England." Then, too, Marilynne K. Roach's recent detailed investigation provides as close to a day-by-day narrative of the entire Salem episode as the sources will permit. But scholarship has primarily focused on Salem Village and Town, where the outbreak began and where the trials were held. (5) As a result, we know significantly less about the full range of events in 1692, particularly the way in which accusations spread widely from community to community. (6)

In order to assess the chronological and geographic scope of Salem witchcraft, it is necessary to identify the residence and the date of accusation of its many victims. Compiling such a list poses a number of problems. Legal documents do not exist for everyone who was accused of witchcraft, and the case records that exist are often incomplete. For example, some people were named as suspects in testimony but apparently were never formally charged. Estimates therefore vary as to the number of people accused of witchcraft in 1692. (7)

Information about the residence of accused witches can also be problematic. A tew victims lived on the boundary between communities. Sarah Davis, for example, was located by an official "Betwixt Wenham and Ipswich." (8) Moreover, some of those formally associated with one community were actually living in a different community at the time of their arrest. …

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