The Devil Discovered Essay

            One should ask why the belief or at least the interest in magic and witchcraft seems to be especially strong in certain periods and to be the subject of skepticism or ridicule at other times.  Scholars have suggested that a society is more likely to turn to supernatural explanations in an especially troubled times and to charge unpopular or deviant members of the society with witchcraft when it needs scapegoats.  For many years, this was the fundamental historical explanation of the Salem witchcraft episode that staggered Massachusetts in 1692.  Enders A. Robinson’s book “The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft, 1692” has reexamined Salem witchcraft and has developed another explanation.  Robinson suggests that socio-economic conflict, the troubles that the colony had recently experienced and a lack of enlightenment all contributed to the hysteria.  The author gave a concise and balanced summary of the whole episode.  Giving the reader a very colorful and detailed map of what happened in Salem Massachusetts in 1692.

            By September 22, 1692, the Salem judges had tried 27 suspects, one-third of them church members; all had denied being witches.  All 27 had been sentenced to death and of this number 19 had been hanged and 1 pressed to death.  A man bewitching a dog barely escaped with his life, but the dog presumably possessed by the devil was killed.  None of the 50 who confessed that they were witches had been executed; 100 persons accused of being witches were in jail awaiting trial; and an additional 200 had been accused but had not yet been imprisoned.  Two judges had resigned from the court of oyer and terminer to protest the course the proceedings have taken.  In the book it discussed how even during the trials at Salem, doubts had been expressed by one of the judges and by some clergymen regarding the guilt of some of the condemned.  Not that they doubted the existence of the Devil and of witchcraft: their reservations extended only to the kinds of evidence held admissible by the court.  Yet the feeling gained ground that New England lay under heavy indictment of having shed innocent blood.

            The book describes what was truly remarkable about Salem witchcraft and that was that it occurred so late in the history of an ancient superstition.  Far from playing a leading part in the mania, the Puritans did not enter upon the stage until the final act and that is why they became so conspicuous: because most of the others had already played out their terrible parts and had left the scene.  The author discusses that in Puritan New England, the outbreak of witchcraft occurred in a social context characterized by instability, clerical power, tension and fear.  The decade 1680-1690 had seen the loss of the Massachusetts charter, the establishment of the despotic Dominion of New England, the revolution of 1688-1689, and an abortive expedition against Quebec.  The great fear abroad in the land was the fear of crypto-Roman Catholics in high places who where believed to be plotting the overthrow of the Protestant religion.  It is significant that the witch hunt was preceded by a hunt for Roman Catholics.  To a marked degree, Salem witchcraft was a continuation of the anti-Roman Catholic agitation.  Puritans would have been hard pressed to tell which of the two, Roman Catholics or witches, was more malefic.

            In Salem village, now Danvers, Massachusetts, the anxiety and apprehension felt by all people of the colony were aggravated by dissension between the pastor and his congregation, by educational backwardness, petty squabbles among the villagers over land, animals and crops, and by the presence of Tituba, a slave woman of mixed black and Indian ancestry whose mind was filled with the primitive lore of her people.  Tituba, the author explains, was a slave in the household of the Reverend Samuel Parris, who had come to Salem Village in 1689, and who, like his predecessors had quarreled with his parishioners over his salary.  The Reverend Mr. Parris’s family consisted of his wife, his daughter and his niece.  Tituba regaled these highly impressionable adolescents with tales of the occult. These girls began having regular encounters with the supernatural that fed this discontent and it wasn’t long before accusations of witchcraft began.  In May 1692, at the advice of the clergy, Governor Phips appointed a special court of oyer and terminer in which those accused of witchcraft could be tried.

            This court composed of merchants, public officials and doctors.  Most of the members were college graduates.  There was not a lawyer among them, but this circumstance was not deemed as important.  College graduates were deemed sufficiently learned in the law to qualify as judges, and in any event, the problem of ridding the country of witches was thought to transcend the skill of any mere lawyer.  The trials had a three month delay between the first accusations and the first trial.  During this interval, the bodies of the accused were carefully examined for evidence of witchery such as, extra teats or warts and moles.  After this the accused were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer, if they were possessed by Satan then they would not be able to recite the prayer correctly without problems.  Those who failed to clear themselves of suspicion were indicted and bound over for trial without legal counsel.  They were to conduct their own defense, which was no easy task in view of the fact that the judges and jurors, who were church members, were inclined to regard them as guilty until proved innocent

            Robinson’s book supports the theory involving highly placed conspirators in the political and religious leadership of Salem, as well as in Boston that formed the socio-economic tensions.  But the author does not focus on the theory, but rather on the people.  The book is alive with vivid descriptions of individuals bursting with emotions, scheming and of hidden agendas.  The only downfall of the book is the very lengthy descriptions of alliances and extended family ties that can get a little overwhelming and confusing.  But this book should appeal to scholars as well as the general reader who may wish to learn and be entertained without the boring trial accounts or gory details.

Reference:

Robinson, E.A. (1991).  The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft, 1692.  Prospect           Heights, Illinois: Waveland.