August 26, 2004


I've got to start taking the five year old with me on my Borders excursions more often. Today he plucked from the shelves a book I'd been interested in for some time but never run across -- Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem, which, contra Amazon, is back in print, issued by George Braziller in a handsome little volume that retails for $12.95. The five year old was attracted by the cover illustration, showing a trio of witches receiving images from the devil, but I was more interested in its contents. Hansen's interesting thesis, which I outlined in that earlier post, runs as follows:

The traditional interpretation of what happened at Salem is as much the product of casual journalism and imaginative literature as it is of historical scholarship. It might be summarized as follows: (1) no witchcraft was practiced in Massachusetts; (2) the behavior of the "afflicted" persons, including their convulsive fits, was fraudulent and designed chiefly to call attention to themselves; (3) the afflicted persons were inspired, stimulated, and encouraged by the clergy (especially Cotton Mather), who used the fear of witchcraft as a means of bolstering their flagging power in the community; (4) the clergy whipped the general populace into a state of "mass hysteria" with their sermons and writings on witchcraft; (5) the only significant opposition to the proceedings at Salem came from the merchant class, specifically from Thomas Brattle and Robert Calef; and (6) the executions were unique in Western civilization, and therefore monstrous, and attributable to some narrowness or fanaticism or repressiveness peculiar to Puritans.

Yet the facts are quite contrary to these common assumptions. To begin with, witchcraft actually did exist and was widely practiced in seventeenth-century New England, as it was in Europe at that time (and still is, for that matter, among the unlearned majority of mankind). It worked then as it works now in witchcraft societies like those of the West Indies, through psychogenic rather than occult means, commonly producing hysterical symptoms as a result of the victim's fear, and sometimes, when fear was succeeded by a profound sense of hopelessness, even producing death.

The behavior of the afflicted persons was not fraudulent but pathological. They were hysterics, and in the clinical rather than the popular sense of that term. These people were not merely overexcited; they were mentally ill. Furthermore, they were ill long before any clergyman got to them.

The general populace did reach that state of public excitement inaccurately called "mass hysteria," but this was due to the popular fear of witchcraft rather than to the preachings of the clergy. The public excitement continued well after the leadership, both clerical and secular, had called a halt to the witchcraft proceedings. In fact the clergy were, from beginning to end, the chief opponents of the events at Salem. In particular, Cotton Mather was anything but the wild-eyed fanatic of tradition. Throughout most of the proceedings he was a model of restraint and caution, and at one point he went further than any of his colleagues dared to go in proposing a method to protect the innocent.

The writings of Brattle and Calef came too late to have any significant influence on the course of events in Massachusetts.

Finally, the executions at Salem were by no means unique. Belief in witchcraft was quite as common among seventeenth-century Anglicans, Quakers, Lutherans, and Catholics as it was among Puritans. Executions for witchcraft reached their height in Western civilization during the seventeenth century and continued in Europe until the end of the following century, more than a hundred years after the outbreak of Salem.

I'm looking forward to reading it the rest.

I also picked up an incredibly cool album that my dad had when I was a kid -- it always seemed that the songs and the mysterious world of adulthood were somehow inextricably entwined -- The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Red Hot and Cool. Cool, sophisticated, understated -- it's sort of the perfect music to have on in the background as you discuss the tax advantages of merging, through matrimony, with a going concern in a bright red dress. Somehow, the record cover, which I also remember well, was another thing altogether:


The photo always seemed to be the antithesis of the record. The woman in red -- who the liner notes explains is Suzy Parker, at the time one of the "most photographed women in the world" -- is supposedly "offering a come-hither look to the smiling leader at the piano while an out-of-focus Desmond soloed." I don't know -- the come hither look is hard to project from behind closed eyelids, which may either be a result of the smoke from the cigarette she's holding in her right hand or the too many vodka gimlets she's drunk that also led her to trip over the piano on her way to the bathroom. Then there's Brubeck, whose goofy smile makes him look like he's happy to have any female collapse on his piano in the off chance she might be drunk enough to like him but not too drunk to be able stay awake until his set is over.

The music, of course, is as great as I remember it -- don't judge the album by its cover.

Posted by Ideofact at August 26, 2004 11:28 PM

The quotes on witchcraft (and the Salem witch trials) are intriguing.

I remember running across a unexpected reference to witchcraft, in a biography of astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

If my memory server me correctly, one of the troublesome parts of his life centered around his mother being accused of witchcraft. The evidence was all circumstantial (widow, lived alone, spent a lot of time gathering herbs...), but the public perception of witchcraft was such that the charge was serious, and hard to refute.

I don't recall Kepler's mother being executed, but the explanation in the biography was that many witches were executed in Europe during that century.

And, somehow Salem's witch-trials are the most widely remembered...

Also, I am amused by your little boy finding the book. I can recall at least one book that I was led to by a splashy cover; I quickly discovered that the book had quite profound thinking buried in its pages.

Posted by: steve h at August 31, 2004 09:27 PM

Funny thing is, the cover isn't all that splashy (although I can see why he prefered it to the Brubeck album cover...)

Posted by: Bill at August 31, 2004 11:24 PM