In the past, the word Salem has always been somewhat synonymous with the infamous witch trials. Thanks to works such as Arthur Miller?s ?The Crucible?, many people find it hard not to envision a community torn apart by chaos, even though Miller?s play was not so much about the witch trials but instead a commentary on the rampant McCarthyism going on at the time he wrote it. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, however, see a very different picture when the Salem witch trials are mentioned. Rather than overlook the ?ordinary? people living in the towns in which they write about (in the case of Salem Possessed, the town of Salem, Massachusetts), they instead take the instance of the witch trials of 1692 and springboard from them into a detailed inquisition into the entire history of the small village of Salem; or, in their own words, Boyer and Nissenbaum have ?exploited the focal events of 1692 somewhat as a stranger might make use of a lightning flash in the night: better to observe the contours of the landscape which it chances to illuminate? (xii). That is to say, the authors strive to show how the witch trials were not simply a completely spontaneous event, but rather a long, horrible process by which individuals were singled out, tried, and executed in order to vent emotions of hostility towards change. The way in which the authors go about this, however, is in a somewhat difficult to comprehend style that goes back and forth between the years, forcing one to rethink all the facts thus far each time a new chapter is introduced. In addition, the authors tend to focus mostly on the social and economic aspects of witchcraft, with little to nothing as far as further explanation of the actions of the women accused.
In the year 1692, the small farming village of Salem, Massachusetts saw a social phenomenon that would propel the village into the history books: the calamity that was witchcraft. The witch trials were initiated whenever three young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam were caught performing fortune telling rituals in the woods, trying to gather information on what type of man would be best for them. Soon thereafter, the girls began experiencing hysterical fits, prompting Betty Parris?s father, Reverend Samuel Parris, to call in the authorities to confirm the cause of the girls? symptoms. The authorities, of course, immediately suggested witchcraft as the cause of the village?s problems, which was followed by a psuedo-outbreak of witchcraft-like afflictions throughout the village. Scores of accusations of witchcraft followed, and soon the jails became full to the brink of overflowing. At the start of June, 1692, the first trial was held, resulting in a death sentence. By the second trial, a system had been worked out that allowed five women to be tried in a single day, resulting in five death sentences. By the summer?s end, nearly twenty people had been put to death; by the year?s end, Governor William Phips, in an attempt to end the hysteria and fade the event into obscurity, both pardoned the remaining prisoners and dissolve the court that the trials took place in. Phips was perhaps hoping to distill any public interest in the trials by acting as if it had been just one big misunderstanding; this, of course, was a completely ineffective gesture.
That is where the public?s knowledge of the Salem witch trials generally comes to an end. Boyer and Nissenbaum, however, have taken the liberty to tediously search through countless church archives, including tax assessments, community votes, and lists of loyal officials, allowing them to organize a more complete record of the events that occurred up to and during 1692. In 1672, Salem Village was created as an offshoot of Salem Town, simply because the farmers were tired of making the trek to and from the city center and wished to set up their own parish. Both Salem Town and some Salem Villagers still attended the same church, but either side was somewhat hesitant to converse with the other one. These Villagers were considered outcasts and later became many of the targets in the witch trials.
Another topic of discussion was how the village?s economical status was one of the causes of the witch trials; namely, that the appearance of ?witches? coincided primarily with those areas in which property conflicts had arisen. One example of such a case is the feud between the Porters and the Putnams. While the Putnams feel that the Porters are crowding them out, they are unable to confront the Porters directly, as the Porters are a somewhat prominent family around the area. Rather, many people connected with the Porter clan are targeted in 1692, as many in-laws and friends of the family are arrested and hanged.
The main point that Boyer and Nissenbaum are trying to make is that many of Salem?s problems take root in the economic revolution that New England in its entirety was making in moving towards becoming a mercantilistic society. Salem Town in itself became a major target, simply because it was slowly but surely transforming into a prosperous urban center. The witch trials, then, were the perfect opportunity for the Villagers to get rid of the ?outsiders? who they felt were methodically pushing them farther and farther down the social ladder. Keeping this in mind, it is no shock that many of those that were in various stages of prosperity were also those that were accused of witchcraft.
Prior to reading Salem Possessed, my only real knowledge of the Salem witch trials came from Arthur Miller?s aforementioned play, ?The Crucible?. To be truly honest, I wish I had kept it as such. While ?The Crucible? was a work of fiction, not to mention that it was, among other things, a mirror of current happenings at the time it was written, it also had a definite narrative structure. Salem Possessed, however, tends to leap around from point to point like Quentin Tarantino on speed, forcing one to review the facts he or she already knows in order to make any sort of connection between any one chapter and the remainder of the book. In truth, a chronological order in a book of this magnitude would be somewhat difficult to follow as well, but some overall resemblance of continuity would have been nicer than the story from several different points of view.
I?d suppose that my main problem with the book is perhaps a superficial one. I?ve always been mystified by the bizarre events of the Salem witch trials, and to have them explained to me is like learning how David Copperfield managed to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. True, it seems a shallow reason for disliking the book, but based on others? opinions of Salem Possessed, it seems that I am not the only one disappointed in the lack of any explanation of witchcraft. Perhaps I did not scrutinize the book?s contents as carefully as I should have, but nowhere did I find a satisfying explanation for why the accused witches would twitch, or why any outsiders brought into the case would treat it as though it were a completely rational occurrence. But then again, this is perhaps more of a fault of my own than of the authors.
In the end, Salem Possessed did indeed leave me with more of an understanding of the events that took place in Salem Village, even though that understanding did seem a little shallow, as I felt it only focused on one aspect of the whole. But regardless of my unpleasant viewpoint on said novel, Mr.?s Boyer and Nissenbaum have done an admirable thing by taking the Salem witch trials and examining them by today?s standards. By going strictly from church records and personal accounts, the authors have brought a whole new light to what was once percieved as a purely tyrannical act of prejudice against seemingly random people, letting the public know that it was in fact a calculated attack on many ?radical? individuals. And, while the book did occasionally fall short on offering a complete picture of the events, it was still a fairly succinct guide to the economic factors involved with the village of Salem and its ?fifteen minutes?, as it were, and as such would be reccommended to history buffs around the world.