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An earlier time of terrorism in America

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 Mary Beth Norton, Alfred A. Knopf: 432 pp., $30 The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, Marilynne K. Roach, Cooper Square Press: 688 pp., $35

October 27, 2002|Marc Aronson | Marc Aronson is the author of "Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado" and a forthcoming book on the Salem witch trials to be published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Every history has its touchstone moments, events that seem to define something essential about the broader narrative and that writers return to every generation or so, seeking to create a "history for our time." For Americans, the trials for witchcraft that took place in Salem, Mass., in 1692 and resulted in 20 people being executed are one such moment.

Each era has had its Salem, from the archetypically 1950s vision of McCarthyite oppression and sexual repression in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" to the perfectly 1960s argument of Chadwick Hansen's "Witchcraft at Salem" that there were real witches in Salem, to Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's 1974 vision of family feuds and power politics in "Salem Possessed," to Carol Karlsen's 1987 feminist account of the beliefs that led Puritans to see "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman," to Bernard Rosenthal's relentlessly skeptical "Salem Story," which, in 1992, exposed the accretion of myths that had come to surround the actual records of the trials. Mary Beth Norton's "In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692" not only gives us the freshest, and most detailed account of that compelling crisis that we have had in a decade, but it is a hopeful indication that American historiography has moved past the ruinous culture wars of the 1980s and '90s.

Norton is a professor of history at Cornell who was an early advocate of studying women's history. Her interest led her to pay more attention than anyone before her to the accusers in the Salem trials, most of whom were girls, teenagers, or young women. By the standards of the day, they should have been given the least credence in a public hearing. Why, then, did the rules change in Salem? Norton researched the accusers' family history and found a startling common thread. Ten of them had strong ties to a section of what is now Maine that was the epicenter of violent clashes between the New Englanders and the Wabanacki people. Many of the accusers had personally experienced scenes of horrifying death and destruction.

The accusers were not the only ones whose behavior in Salem can be traced to the Indian wars in the north. While other diligent writers about Salem, such as Marilynne K. Roach in her new, valuable and thoroughly researched day-by-day chronicle of "The Salem Witch Trials," have discussed the Indian wars and related them to the trials, Norton uncovered previously unexamined records of these conflicts. Her close study of these sources -- as well as a host of monographs, dissertations, and articles tracking the Wabanacki view of these events -- reveals a sequence of bloody attacks, repeated English failures and constant rumors of betrayal by high officials.

New Englanders felt an ever-rising sense of fear as the enemy, the most horrifyingly physical enemy possible -- angry Indians apparently armed by traitors at home and egged on by French Catholics -- seemed ever more potent. When young women in Salem began to show disturbing, though not all that uncommon, signs of diabolical affliction, New England felt it was being attacked on a second front. The demonic enemies (often described as resembling Indians) and the physical ones (often seen to be agents of the devil) were part of the same assault. As we have seen in the past year, a nation under attack feels justified in meting out harsh justice.

After detailing the setbacks the New Englanders experienced in Maine, Norton links these debacles directly to the judges in the trials. If you know this history already, you see this story unfolding early and have the delicious thrill of anticipating the grand conclusion she will draw. If you do not, her final chapter, "New Witch-Land," can read like the end of an Agatha Christie novel. All of the suspects are assembled in the guise of august judges, and then Norton reminds us of the failures in deaths, lost battles, fumbled opportunities each left behind in Maine.

In a colony that felt it was being judged by God, the leaders who could most expect to have themselves called to account were in a position to shift blame, to agree that Satan was present in the form of witches, not botched military campaigns, and they eagerly did so.

This insight is not a complete explanation of the trials. Norton is diligent and evenhanded in showing that, like almost everyone in New England, the judges believed in witches, that they correctly applied English law as they understood it. Nineteen were hanged; one was pressed to death by stones for refusing to make a plea -- normal legal practice at the time -- and perhaps five, including two infants, died in prison. Still, Norton has supplied a completely novel way of explaining their behavior. It is this conceptual leap that distinguishes Norton's book from Roach's useful, rigorous and historiographically current reference work.

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