Captives of Their Imagination: Salem in 1692

By Balee, Susan | The Hudson Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Captives of Their Imagination: Salem in 1692


Balee, Susan, The Hudson Review


EVEN WITHOUT THE WITCHES, Massachusetts in 1692 was a pretty scary place. Its northern reaches (Maine, nowadays) could hardly stay settled, for the Indians of the region contested the colonists' right to the land. The First and Second Indian Wars (1675-1678 and 1688-1699) devastated the settlements "to the Eastward" (the region along the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire). Colonists, if they were lucky, lost only their homes, livestock, and property, and succeeded in fleeing with their families to the stability of interior towns like Salem, or Boston.

Unlucky colonists were killed, and often brutally. Northern tribes, enraged by the double-dealing of English fur traders, the proselytizing of Christian missionaries, and the constant encroachment of settlers onto their cornfields and hunting grounds, retaliated by burning settlers in their homes, or hacking them to death with axes. The Indians found torture served a dual purpose, and some settlers endured dismemberment before death, or being spitted and roasted like pigs, all in view of and for the edification of the survivors the Indians took captive (valuable property insofar as they might later be ransomed by the Bay Colony government or their relatives).

Other historians have touched on the Indian wars as the backdrop of the period in which the witchcraft accusations flew thick and fast, followed by trials and hangings, but not until Mary Beth Norton1 has a scholar focused on the particular confluence of these two events, with the frontier warfare a catalyst of the witch hunting frenzy. Norton argues convincingly that this mixture precipitated the witchcraft crisis that overwhelmed Salem in 1692.

Refugees from those wars and captives later released had plenty to say about their experiences on the frontier, most of it horrific but infused with a deep belief in God and a terrified acquiescence in his mysterious purposes. Captivity narratives, such as that of Mary Rowlandson,2 who was held captive for eleven weeks in 1676, sound like a pilgrim's progress through hell. Her book also happened to be the bestselling piece of American literature of the era, reinforcing both the Puritan faith in God and the Puritan loathing of the "diabolical" Indians.

However, despite the cultural power of Rowlandson's narrative in its own time, Norton buries it in a footnote. Too bad, because Sovereignity is not only a lively and eminently quotable text, but it reinforces Norton's thesis-that many of Salem's citizens had firsthand experience of war on the frontier combined with a terror of "devils" (Indians and also Satan's minions, for the two became conflated in many colonists' minds), and that these two ingredients, once mixed, produced a volatile brew indeed.

Nevertheless, even without Rowlandson's literary help, In the Devil's Snare reshapes our understanding of this portion of American history. Norton's thesis is compelling and her supporting evidence is overwhelming. Alas, one wishes the book were better written. In the course of describing every piece of evidence that supports her thesis-that is to say, interrogation after interrogation of the accused witches that barely differ in their description and outcome-the book grows repetitive indeed.

A good scholar must provide all of her evidence, but a good writer subordinates what is redundant, and therefore dull, and highlights what is most important and engaging. Thus, a lively nonfiction narrative follows the arc that readers find most satisfying, that of the traditional novel: initial conflict, rising action, climax, denouement, and a thought-provoking conclusion. In a well-crafted narrative, not all events, not all characters, can be equal. Had Norton relegated about half of her evidence to the appendix and artfully shaped the rest, this book might have become a bestseller. Instead, it will probably endure on syllabi in graduate-level American history courses, a book that the culturally literate will refer to at dinner parties without ever having read. …

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