On Books: The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials

Starkey, Marion L., The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc: New York, 1949.

I wrote a report on the Salem Witchcraft Trials when I was in the seventh grade. Most of what I remember about it was having to deliver it orally to the class off of those stupid 3×5 cards, from which I read it essentially verbatim. Not only because I was incapable of spontaneous speech, but also so I would have something to look at besides the eyes of my classmates. This worked pretty well except that my hair kept falling into my face and I had to keep tucking it back behind my ears so I could see. I don’t think I would even have recollected that part of it except that all the kids made fun of me afterwards for playing with my hair during my speech. Strange the things children find amusing…

Anyway, being a native of Massachusetts, I was perhaps more drawn to this particular subject than I otherwise might have been, particularly since Salem was a mere two hours away from my hometown and we actually visited the Salem Witch Museum on a school field trip during my formative years. A skeptic even at twelve, I was impressed most by the illogic of the proceedings, in particular the torture devices by which “confessions” were sometimes obtained. But I can’t say I had a fair recollection of the actual historical events until I recently read Ms. Starkey’s fascinating and very well-written study of the subject.

Ms. Starkey, by her own description, decided to approach the Trials from a psychoanalytic standpoint, Freudian analyses of human behavior being tremendously popular in her day. Her theory is that the teen-aged girls who were essentially in charge of accusing the witches were suffering from hysteria brought about by the repressive nature of the Puritan society in which they lived. (She doesn’t go so far as to term it sexual repression, which perhaps would have been too delicate a matter to address in American non-fiction in 1949, but it’s implied.) Whether faked or not, the fits into which the girls dissolved, repeatedly and often, under the claimed tortures of invisible witches, did accomplish the objective of placing the girls squarely in the center of attention in the community. It’s certainly plausible that the people of three centuries ago suffered just as much from the illness of “look-at-me-itis” (as I like to call it) as the humans of today.

Now as you’re reading through Ms. Starkey’s history, it becomes apparent that the witchcraft hysteria that so rapidly engulfed the community did not really come about because the people were overly superstitious or inclined to belief in demons and witches. Rather, it arose because they were naïve. By and large, they simply could not believe that the stories the accusing girls told could be anything less than true. And if you have that kind of faith in the stories of children, then the idea of putting another citizen to death on the basis of spectral evidence alone doesn’t seem quite so outlandish.       

Of course, had there not been an underlying belief in witchcraft to begin with, no reasonably rational person could have overlooked the wildly evident illogic of the proceedings. For example, one of the most surefire means by which the allegations were proved true took place during the examinations themselves. The accused witch would be brought into the presence of the accusers, at which point they would cry out in pain, claiming that the “specter” of Goody So-and-So was pinching them mercilessly. Now, really. Why would any witch with even less than half a brain send her specter to attack innocent children right in the midst of her own trial, knowing that this would be taken as evidence of her guilt? And if these witches truly had the power to use their “specters” to do evil while their physical bodies went about business as usual, then what was the point of locking them up? And as time went on, the quantity of accusations and the quality of the persons accused both increased greatly, to the point where witchcraft of such magnitude would have been logistically impossible to have carried on unnoticed in such a small community.

There were those who made arguments along these lines right from the very start; one patriarch even “cured” a girl of her visions by simply threatening her with a lashing, and suggested that the same punishment be applied to the other accusers as a means of ending the witchcraft threat. And the community at large did, of course, in time, come to see the light of truth through the veil of hysteria and lies, but not before twenty innocent people were hanged for sins they did not commit.

Not even the most faithful of God-fearing folk believe any longer that the Devil possessed the old-time villagers of Salem and turned them into witches and wizards. But, if you believe in that kind of thing, you could conceivably make the argument that the Devil was, indeed, in Massachusetts in 1692. Not the Devil who hosts Black Sabbaths, acquires the souls of young girls by forcing them to sign their names in a book of his legions, and accompanies his servants in the forms of familiars like black cats and snakes, but the Devil who works his evil in underhanded ways: by entering the hearts of good, worthy citizens and turning them horribly and pitilessly against one another.  

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