Witchcraft in American History

WitchcraftJust in time for Halloween, the Brooklyn Law School Library has added to its collection A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (Pivotal Moments in American History) by Emerson W. Baker (Call #KFM2478.8.W5 B35 2015). The author, a professor of history at Salem State University and former dean of its graduate school, retells the familiar yet puzzling and misunderstood story of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 when 156 residents of Essex, Middlesex and Suffolk Counties were formally accused of practicing witchcraft, a capital crime. 113 were imprisoned. 20 persons were put to death and at least 5 died in prisons in Boston, Cambridge, Ipswich and Salem. Baker shows how the court functioned in terms of legal process when putting alleged witches on trial and he discusses the pressure put on the accused to confess, perhaps because this would help condone the court’s actions and attitudes. He notes that of the 28 put on trial before judges and jury, 28 were found guilty. The author’s dissection of events is original and persuasive, not least because the importance of political circumstance, legal expediency and personal relationships seems obvious once it is pointed out. Baker reminds us that witchcraft was above all a religious crime, which took on terrifying significance at a time of extreme danger in New England’s history. But his analysis of Salem’s causal roots and painfully enduring ramifications does more than just demystify the trials: it illustrates universal truths about human emotions and their place in modern society.

The table of contents of the 416 page book lists an Introduction: An Old Valuables Chest; Chapter One: Satan’s Storm; Chapter Two: The City upon a Hill; Chapter Three: Drawing Battle Lines in Salem Village; Chapter Four: The Afflicted; Chapter Five: The Accused; Chapter Six: The Judges; Chapter Seven: An Inextinguishable Flame; Chapter Eight: Salem End; Chapter Nine: Witch City? It also includes 16 illustrations: maps and photographs drawn and taken by the author. The Appendices list those persons accused of practicing witchcraft (a contribution from fellow Salem Trials scholar, Margo Burns). There has been serious recent scholarship resulting in significant and accurate findings in this field, particularly since the Tercentenary. In copious notes the author generously pays tribute to those who have come before. This landmark investigation into Salem Witchcraft so skillfully weaves its facts throughout that it reads like an absorbing novel. Emerson Baker’s book provides welcome clarity to complicated events during a specific time in our colonial past. This book represents a major contribution to understanding the Salem Witch Hunt.