Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen




The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen is an exploration of the witch-related hysteria that manifested itself in seventeenth century colonial New England. In this book, the author examines and analyses witchcraft related accusations, trials and executions. A heavy emphasis is placed upon gender as well as other commonalities in the various groups involved in the events that the author examines.

The Salem Witch Trials are very famous, and many people have only heard of them. This book looks at witchcraft-related hysteria throughout the region and period. It turns out that the events that occurred in and around Salem were essentially the last of the witch trials and in some ways atypical of other incidents.

To understand what Karlsen is analyzing, it is important to differentiate between three levels of these phenomena. First, there were accusations of witchcraft aimed at individuals. This kind of accusation was fairly common and often not taken seriously. Next, when an accusation was taken seriously, there was involvement by the legal system of the colonies. This official action did not always result in a conviction or even a full-blown trial.  When there was a trial, it often ended in acquittal. Finally, there were those cases that actually resulted in a conviction. These convictions often led to execution of the supposed witch, usually by hanging.

Karlsen uses a combination of statistics and historical accounts to drill down and analyze the kind of persons who became the targets as well as the kind of persons who became accusers. Furthermore, people who made accusations of witchcraft can be broken down into two distinct categories. Some accusers claimed that they were possessed and being tormented by the devil or by witches, while others did not claim possession.  Karlsen examines each of these groups separately and in depth.

The author’s research and conclusions seem convincing and plausible. She uses data that seems valid to back up her contentions. With that, I wish that my college statistic classes were still fresh in my mind so that I could better evaluate the validity of the many statistics presented.

The author identifies the factors that led people to being the target of accusations. As noted above, being accused was very different from being convicted. Thus, Karlsen tries to identify what factors led to actual trials and convictions. She also identifies factors that led people to be an accuser. She finds that the two groups of accusers consisted of very different types of people. The author finds all sorts of patterns and draws some logical conclusions based upon these trends. This book is a treasure trove of valuable information on this subject. Many different angles and directions related to these events are explored. As I often do, I will focus on only one of several interesting trends highlighted in this work.


Karlsen shows that the people who were actually convicted, as opposed to just being accused, of being witches were overwhelmingly women over 40 years of age. Furthermore, when men or younger women were targeted, it was usually because of their relationships with older women who themselves were accused of practicing witchcraft.

Karlsen also found certain patterns other than gender and age. Significantly, most of these women had no close living male relatives. The author argues that there were two reasons for this. First, when a woman who was accused of witchcraft had a husband or a brother, the male relative could advocate for her in court. He could also initiate slander lawsuits against the accusers. The women who were alone were not able to effectively defend themselves in this way.

Karlsen also found something else. She explains that the system of inheritance in New England,  as it was in much of Europe, was designed to ensure that only men inherited and controlled money and property. Even widows of wealthy men typically were only allowed to control a portion of their husband’s estate on a temporary basis. There were loopholes in the system, however. If a woman had no close male relatives, or if her deceased husband or father has arranged a will aimed at providing her with property, the woman could thus gain control of said property. The author finds that the majority of women who were executed for witchcraft had indeed gained, or were set to gain, control of money or property. For the reasons stated above, this was fairly uncommon in seventeenth century New England,

Karlsen writes,

“No matter how deeply entrenched the principle of male inheritance, no matter how carefully written the laws that protected it, it was impossible to insure that all families had male offspring. The women who stood to benefit from these demographic “accidents” account for most of New England’s female witches”

The author builds a strong case that, among other factors, the majority of women who were executed for witchcraft represented a threat to the system where wealth was transmitted from male to male. These were women who had control, or were to set control wealth in a society where usually only men possessed such capital.

Karlsen explores a lot of other issues. Many pages are devoted to the roles and views of women in Puritan society and how they influenced views in witchcraft. There was a great disparity in power between men and women. In many areas, women were expected to show submission to men. However, it might surprise some to know that Puritan leadership was engaged in a decades long campaign to extoll what they saw as the virtues and piety of some women. Karlsen incorporates all these factors into a coherent picture of events.

There is also a lot here about those who made accusations against witches. It is interesting that the accusers who did not claim possession were mostly men. The accusers who claimed that they were possessed were mostly young women and girls.

Potential readers should be aware that the prose of this book is little on the dry side. Karlsen writes in an academic style that readers of modern history books may find a little dull. In addition, there are a lot of statistics and numbers and discussions of those statistics and numbers included in the text. To her credit, Karlsen provides extensive data to back up her contentions.

This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand the history of witchcraft-related accusations in America. It is also valuable for anyone who wants to know more about the role of women and gender in Puritan society. With that, it is not a riveting account of the witchcraft trials. Karlsen is a careful and fair historian who sheds important light on these issues. Thus, I recommend this to anyone already interested in these topics.



37 comments:

Stefanie said...

Nicely reviewed! This is a really good book, isn't it? I had an interested in the witch craze period that swept Europe for a while and read this one too for comparison. Salem happened so late and for so many different reasons than the European mania, but both had everything to do with women and power.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stefanie. What was interesting, according to this book, was that even compared to the earlier Witch Hunts in New England, Salem was very different.

Jillian said...

I really appreciate you highlighting this topic. I think it seems pretty relevant even today. If you haven't read it yet, you might enjoy Arthur Miller's The Crucible. :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Parts of this book sounds like I would really want to read it. I do wonder about the motives though. Did most of the accusers stand to gain monetarily from the accused? If not what other motives were there for accusing these women as witches?

I personally believe in mob hysteria and wonder if that could have been a motive.

As you know, I also believe in a Spiritual world and believe as St. Paul said:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Ephesians 6:12

Thanks for a great review, as usual Brian and have a wonderful weekend!

Suko said...

This work does sound interesting. As mentioned before, I haven't studied this topic much, so I appreciate your posts. The ideas you present here regarding inheritance and control of money and property seem quite plausible. Excellent commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As I recall Karlson found that in a minority of cases, the accusers stood to gain monetarily.

I agree that mob hysteria played a part. I think that Karlson set out to show who the mob focused on and why.

Though I am not a believer in spiritual basis for evil, I think one very positive achievement of the modern world is that we do not persecute people for engaging in it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jillian. Undoubtedly lessons learned form studying Witch accusations apply today.

The Crucible was such a great play.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sukp. I learned a lot by reading these books.

Ahsan Ali said...

i found this review really interesting though not familiar with the books but does remind me some women i observed in life who beard LOT ! and respond with hysterical behavior which was powerful enough to revolutionize their lives in different way ,a way which placed them in a position that could not be shaken or challeng .

i like your topics as i have great interest in woman's psychology and her hidden powers she can explore and apply when feel stuck among crawling walls towards her

baili said...

sorry Brain i posted comment above by using my son's id mistakenly Ahsan!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Bailli and thanks for the good word.

James said...

This sounds like an interesting book. I was not aware of the connection between inheritance and the witch trials. What, if any, was the impact of the young girls who claimed to be possessed, particularly in Salem; and what made Salem different? Does the author discuss the relationship between the phenomenon in New England and the witch trials in Europe & England?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The book does not go into the European connection much.

Salem was different in that a there was a lot of wealthy and powerful people persecuted. The fate of the accusers was explored. Girls who were the accusers had a short period of notoriety but almost all faded into obscurity.

Kate Scott said...

This sounds like a fascinating book! I've read other books on the Salem Witch Trials, but I've never read anything about the inheritance laws and how that may have contributed to the demographics of the accused or the fact that accusers who were female acted "possessed" (whether they purposefully acted that way or actually believed themselves to be so) while the male accusers did not. This one is definitely going on my TBR list!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate. this book was a treasure trove of interesting information.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

Detailed and very well written review. It's a fascinating topic the Salem Witch Trials. Karlson's insights into who was most often accused of witchcraft, older woman living on their own with a certain amount of financial independence rings true. Good idea to do as you have done, pick a historical topic and read several books on the same subject. You get different perspectives and you end up really knowing the historical period better than if you had read just one book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - For all the reasons that you have mentioned, reading a bunch of topics on a particular topic is the way to go.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I didn't know about the relationship between the so-called "witches" and money. It does make sense, I mean in those times to be over a certain age, unmarried and without male relatives...it probably did not conform to the rules and women like that were seen as a threat (to other women's husbands probably).
I have watched Salem (I may have mentioned it before), a series based on the famous witch trials. I recommend it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - It is striking how money and economics are related to so many things.

I really want to catch Salem.

Maria Behar said...

As usual, another OUTSTANDING review, Brian!

There has always been a connection between the persecution of witches and the patriarchy. This goes all the way back to the Old Testament, which, unfortunately, includes many mysoginistic passages. Here are some sections from Proverbs 7. I am quoting from the NASB version (New American Standard Bible). By the way, the small letters included in this text are links to footnotes.

You can find this text at the following link:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+7&version=NASB

These are verses 7-13:

"For at the window of my house
I looked out through my lattice,
7
And I saw among the [e]naive,
And discerned among the [f]youths
A young man lacking [g]sense,
8
Passing through the street near her corner;
And he [h]takes the way to her house,
9
In the twilight, in the [i]evening,
In the [j]middle of the night and in the darkness.
10
And behold, a woman comes to meet him,
Dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart.
11
She is boisterous and rebellious,
Her feet do not remain at home;
12
She is now in the streets, now in the squares,
And lurks by every corner.
13
So she seizes him and kisses him...."

In the following verses, the young man in question is portrayed as a "victim" of her snares:

"Suddenly he follows her
As an ox goes to the slaughter,
Or as [p]one in fetters to the discipline of a fool,
23
Until an arrow pierces through his liver;
As a bird hastens to the snare,
So he does not know that it will cost him his life."

And here is the final admonition, from the young man's father, to him and his brothers:

"Now therefore, my sons, listen to me,
And pay attention to the words of my mouth.
25
Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways,
Do not stray into her paths.
26
For many are the [q]victims she has cast down,
And numerous are all her slain.
27
Her house is the way to Sheol,
Descending to the chambers of death."

(To be continued, as this will be a pretty lengthy comment, lol.)



Maria Behar said...

(Continued from my previous comment)

The Biblical text I quoted in my previous comment is very interesting in that it plainly shows patriarchal attitudes toward women, common in the Jewish culture of the time. Such attitudes, unfortunately, also became part and parcel of other male-dominated cultures, down to our own times.

The view of women expressed here is one of "Woman as Evil Temptress". The man is absolved of all guilt, and is merely a "pawn" in her skillfully-woven web of seduction.

A key point here: the whole basis of the patriarchy is FEAR. It's fear of WOMEN. The patriarchy sees Woman as intrinsically evil, as a threat and a challenge to its power. The quoted text is very illustrative of this; the woman is depicted as "boisterous and rebellious", and "her feet do not remain at home". She is "now in the streets, now in the squares". This means, of course, that in the Jewish culture of the time, ANY woman who moved about freely in public was INSTANTLY suspect. No, she had to accompanied by a male escort AT ALL TIMES. She could not be independent. Even in our modern times, a woman cannot move about freely after dark. If she's not taken for "a harlot", then she is vulnerable to sexual predators, because, of course, she is "fair game", is she not?

Also notice the phrase "and lurks by every corner". No, a woman moving about freely in public cannot POSSIBLY be up to ANY good!! Stay away from her, my son! The implication is clear -- she will control you, she will lead you into evil. You will be an unwitting (although not unwilling) "victim". After all, a man is not responsible for controlling his own sexual desire. It's WOMEN who tempt them. This is the whole basis of the total covering up of the female body in Muslim cultures. If a woman goes around without such covering, again, she is "fair game".

With such a skewed vision of women, it's hardly surprising that women in Salem who had no male relatives, and were independently wealthy, were highly suspect. Given that Puritans were very much literal interpreters of Biblical texts, it was not that much of a stretch for them to suspect independent women of consorting with the Devil himself. As you have pointed out in your excellent review, the author of this book states that such women were a threat to male dominance.

(To be continued....)

Maria Behar said...

(Continued from my previous comment.)

Although I am not totally familiar with the Bible, I know that there are no passages in which WOMEN are advised to beware of the wiles of men. And men do indeed have wiles. It is thus evident that the Bible -- especially the Old Testament -- is heavily misogynistic in tone.

When one investigates the New Testament, one immediately sees a marked difference between Jesus's treatment of women, and that espoused in the Old Testament. This difference is pretty much manifested by Jesus Himself, however. Peter and Paul still adhered to the Old Testament's patriarchal attitudes.

It's very unfortunate that the attitude taken by Jesus was not the one that survived in the later development of Christianity. Instead, the old patriarchal attitude still prevailed. And thus, again, the persecution of witches, whether in Europe or the New World, is not surprising. Thankfully, such persecutions are no longer carried out! This is indeed progress. Just because someone else believes differently from us is no reason to execute them, unless, of course, it can be proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that those beliefs have led to harmful actions toward others. Obviously, this was not the case with these witchcraft persecutions, as no solid evidence of harm to others was ever produced, as far as I know.

Thanks for another thought-provoking post!! <3 :)


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.


Karlson presents strong evidence that the purpose of The Witch Trials was to keep women in their place and to perpetuate male supremacy. I also agree that the Old Testament’s philosophy perpetuated the oppression of women. You are also correct about Christianity. As a movement and as a force in the world, it completely deviated from the actual philosophy espoused in The New Testament. It also became a force aimed at oppressing women among other things. You raise a good point about fear, it is a major component intertwined with all this.

It is indeed fortunate that these persecutions are not carried out anymore. Though we have a long ways to go, I believe that the institutions of both religion and government have slowly gotten better over time.

Thanks for the great comment.

The Reader's Tales said...

Wonderful review, Brian. This sounds like a very captivating read. I have always been fascinated with this topic, but have read little about. Your insightful review is the proof of my ignorance in that matter. I noted the name of this book which is a treasure in the subject (as well as the previous one you reviewed last month). I wish you a good week.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks The Reader's Tales. This is a fascinating and important topic. I found that reading multiple books on the subject enlightening.

Tim Davis said...

What a fascinating review and discussion. I come away from it all thinking more and more about the good, bad, and ugly uses of Christianity and the Bible in the witch-hunting hysteria. (For an interesting sidebar, consider the etymological roots and evolved meanings of the word "hysteria" for a gendered perspective on the issue! I invite you and others will pursue the implications of that thread.) Your review and the discussion sends me on a quest: the good, bad, and ugly uses of Christianity and the Bible at other moments in the last 2000 years. Fascinating stuff!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tim. I love the way that you phrased the issue.

The word "Hysteria" does indeed remind us just how men looked down upon women.

So many books, so little time said...

I used to love fiction and non fiction witch related books when I was a kid, think I will take a wee note of this one. Thanks Brian.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy- Lately I have been reading a series of non fiction books on the subject. Fascinating stuff.

thecuecard said...

Oh good another witchcraft book! Maybe this one has more gender analysis of the phenomena than the others you have reviewed. I find it most interesting that the ones who were accused or executed were the ones who had gained property or were about to. No wonder then! But it wasn't the men exactly who were threatened -- it was the girls & other women who were mostly the accusers. Yikes. It was a Catfight.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - This book has much gender analysis. Many of the accusers were women, but many were also men. This book digs deeply into all that.

Lory said...

That is a fascinating point about women and property. I've not read much about the witch trials since high school, so it would behoove me to find out more. This would be the first book I turn to if and when I have a chance to do that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - This is a very informative book that I think that you would get a lot out of. Reading three books on the subject lately has also been very enlightening.

HKatz said...

These are interesting analyses, and I like how even though I may not read these books (not because they aren't good but because there's so many books to read...) I've learned a lot from your posts.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - These were veery enlightening books.

JaneGS said...

Fascinating subject and the books sounds thoughtful and balanced. I agree with the general idea that witchcraft accusations are a form of misogyny, a way to deal with strong women. Glad there are books like this to shed light on this topic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I am glad that I read this book as it dug into the gender issue more then the other two books that I recently read on witchcraft persecutions.