Mary Beth Norton: Historian speaks about Salem witch trials

Historians in the News

Twenty people executed. Nineteen hanged and one pressed to death by stones.

Historian Mary Beth Norton knew the outcome of the Salem witchcraft crisis and trials of 1692, but she didn't buy the story of how it all came about.

Her inquiry would result in a prize-winning book called "In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692." On Thursday, University of Tennessee students heard Norton's take on the subject during a lecture called "Salem Witchcraft: Myth and Reality."

She told students the "standard brief narrative" about the cause of the trials, one she tested and eventually debunked in her 2003 book. Allegedly the crisis began this way:

In the winter of 1691-92, a group of young girls and teenagers, bored with life in the rural village of Salem, Mass., began experimenting with fortunetelling, perhaps even with voodoo or black magic, under the leadership of a black slave owned by a local minister. Out of that, accusations of witchcraft arose and the hysteria spread into a witchhunt.

Digging through Cornell University's Witchcraft Collection, Norton found many of the accused were not from Salem. The accused were not all women, or even young women. About a quarter of the accused were men, and some of them were prominent men.

She looked at the region as a whole, which hadn't been done before, she said. Using that approach, Norton would find a link between the Indian Wars on the Maine frontier in the 1660s and the witchcraft crisis. She decided to write a "dual narrative of war and witchcraft because the two things were totally intertwined."

"I realized that so many of the people whose names I was familiar with from the trial records were actually from Maine," she said. "They were playing out conflicts that had started, in many cases, from years earlier on the Maine frontier."...

"I don't think the northern wars caused the witchcraft crisis, but the crisis would not have occurred if the wars had been averted. Because the wars created the climate of fear that allowed the expansion of the crisis beyond those first accusations," she said....
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