Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker is a comprehensive account and analysis of the 
Salem Witch Trials. This book is a solid history book that goes beyond a simple chronicle of events. It examines the causes and results of this important historical event. To this end, the author explores the relevant history, religious aspects, psychology, sociology, legal aspects, and other facets of this subject.

Baker devotes one comprehensive chapter to a summery of the actual persecutions. The balance of this work delves deeper into the accusers, the accused, the judges, as well as all of the above - mentioned topics.

If anyone is not familiar with the basic events, in 1692 Massachusetts, several teenaged and adolescent girls began to exhibit bizarre behavior that included seizure like episodes and complaints of strange pains. The girls, prompted and egged on by adults, began to accuse numerous members of the community of witchcraft. As people were arrested and tried, they were often forced or pressured into confessions that implicated others. As the circle of accusations widened, scores of people were implicated.

The usual suspects, eccentric and elderly women were caught in the web of accusations. But what made these events somewhat unusual is that respected people with strong ties to the community were also enmeshed. The accused included both men and women, prominent members of society and clergy.

Twenty people were executed, others died in prison as a result of brutal treatment, many others were convicted or accused but not executed, a few escaped and fled Massachusetts.

Baker tries to be a balanced historian. He is surprisingly non - judgmental. He does not bash Puritanism or the people responsible for the accusations or trials. In fact, he tries to paint a picture of why a citizen of Massachusetts might feel that they society were besieged by forces threatening their families, neighbors and communities.  At the same time, he presents, in detail, the arguments of those who have been highly critical of the key players. On this issue I found that he goes a little too far. Though clearly not his intention, some of his explanations come off as apology  for what in the end, was persecution and murder. 

Baker explores multiple issues in some depth goes and goes off in numerous directions. Thus summarizing his many points is difficult. One of several issues that are of interest to me is  the argument that the aftermath of the trials and executions led to a reckoning and was turning point in history.  From the end of the trials onward, there was a general feeling in the colony that something had gone terribly wrong and that innocent people had been executed. As early as late 1692 books were published excoriating the trials and those responsible for them. Dissent rose up both inside and outside the Puritan movement. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges who sentenced the convicted to hang, came to repent of his role in the matter. He publicly apologized and lived his remaining life in a state of guilt attempting to atone for his role in the trials.

The reaction to these events permanently ended the hysteria surrounding Witchcraft in America. Baker writes,

"No American court would ever again execute a witch after 1692, and witchcraft prosecutions came to an abrupt halt in New England.”

In the months and years following the trials, the government of Massachusetts came under increasingly under criticism. Collectively the concerns raised about the trials changed people’s views of their leadership and helped bring an end to the Puritan theocracy. 

Furthermore the Massachusetts government, led by Governor William Phips, attempted an unsuccessful cover up of events. The ensuring backlash turned out to be an important step in the establishment of basic liberties. Baker ties some of this agitation to trends that would eventually cumulate in the American Revolution. He writes,

“Phips may have ended the witch trials, but in the process he helped to start America down the long road to revolution and independence.”

Though he ended the trials, Phips also was instrumental in starting them. He was eventually pressured out of office for his role in them.

When Thomas Maule, a Massachusetts Quaker, wrote a book attacking the trials on moral, religious and legal grounds, the local government attempted to prosecute him on the same courtroom that the witch trials were held in.

He was eventually found not guilty. Baker writes,

“The case was a landmark victory for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. The fact that a jury consisting largely of Puritans would do this in Salem, against the clear wishes of the judges, also shows that the tide of popular opinion had turned against the verdicts in the witch trials.”  

Baker explores many other fascinating aspects of these events. For instance, years of bad weather in the region had led to major crop failures that caused great economic stress. The author argues that similar witch - hunts throughout the world often accompanied by similar economic duress.

Massachusetts was also a society at war. A brutal conflict was raging between the colonists and the French and their Native American allies.  War veterans and war refugees played important roles in this history. Baker argues that fear and societal stress generated by the struggle also played a part.

There are many books on this topic. Some are general such as this work, others look more closely at particular aspects of events. I originally had planned to read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches. However, many sources, both formal and informal who read that book, indicated that there were better accounts of these events, including this book.  This is a big and interesting topic. Thus I might soon read one or two more books on these events.

This work is a wide-ranging analysis and account of this dark time in American history. Baker is an excellent and unbiased historian. His is also a good writer and his analysis of events and motivations is reasoned and insightful. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject.


*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

I had planned to read Schiff's book. I appreciate knowing this one may be a better source on the topic.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian,

This sounds like a very interesting book. It is too bad that one episode that happened in on area has colored the reputation of the Puritans when most Puritans were not involved in the witch trials and contributed so much to our society, such as founding many of our Ivy League Universities.

This book seems to be more balanced, although as you said, we can never justify horrible things, it also helps to be as informed as possible to the events.

Great review!

Fred said...


Perhaps we should send this book to the White House and to members of a certain political party--as we seem to be entering a new period of witch-hunting.

It certainly demonstrates the oft repeated cliche that the only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.

CyberKitten said...

I picked up a copy of 'The Witches' by Stacy Schiff a few weeks ago. Salem is certainly the lesson that keeps on giving isn't it? A lesson, indeed, for all times and all cultures more the pity....!

Suko said...

Thoughtful commentary, Brian Joseph! This sounds like a very interesting book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed The Puritans contributed positive things. History is so complicated and movements and groups tend have done both positive as well as negative things.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - I have not read Schiff's book. If I had more time I would read it. I loved her Cleopatra and A Great Improvisation. Many people thought that The Witches came up short though.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred.

Hopefully we will not see witch hunts to this degree repeated in our time. We do have a tendency for folks to be anti - science as well as to scapegoat others for their problems. These are bad signs.

I think that the causes behind Salem were different from the typical religious or ethnic persecutions. I am doing more reading on this and related subjects so I will be posting more on this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Cyberkitten - I am of two minds about this. It is so discouraging when we see humanity not learning lessons or not learning them fast enough.

On the other hand I still think we have and hopefully will continue to make progress. It is painfully slow however.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. It is an interesting book and an interesting subject.

Fred said...


The specific causes may differ, but the underlying theme is the same: the fear of the Other, which could be fear of the unknown (witchcraft), political beliefs communists), or religious beliefs (Islam), all of which are seen as alien and therefore dangerous or deadly.

It's an inability to accept those who are different in some way.

James said...

This sounds like an interesting and informative book. If you are interested in other books about this topic I recommend The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey. I have read this book more than once because it is both well-written and a great work of history. She focuses on the girls especially and lays out the facts based on the records of the investigators and judges. It was a complex and brutal event.

baili said...

after reading your very interesting post i googled about the events of 1692 as i was not familiar of them.
learned about the witchcraft and accusing of girls and 200 more people .
i need to read it more as i found it quite interesting revelation from history

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for the recommendation. That one looks worth reading. have already begun to read several books in the subject.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili -The Witch Trials have become part of American Mythology. Folks seem fascinated by these events here. It is such an interesting and tragic event.

Caroline said...

I'm glad for the refrehser of the history. I knew bits of it but forgot the meanwhile.
It's an interesting story of mass hysteria. I think I'be got one or two YA novels on the topic. It has always interested me.

Kate Scott said...

About a year-and-a-half ago I was doing a little digging into my family history and discovered that Thomas Danforth was my direct ancestor. I knew parts of my family have lived in Massachusetts for a very long time but it was a little bit disconcerting to find out there is such a notorious figure in the family tree (though, perhaps not quite as horrible as he is portrayed in the play). Since then, I've been wanting to read more about the trials and life in Puritan New England in general. To that end, this book has been on my TBR list for quite a while. I read The Witches last year and I agree that there must be better accounts. I think it did a great job of immersing the reader in the atmosphere of 17th century Salem but it felt a bit disjointed. Still, it was very interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- This topic always seems to fascinate so many.

When I was looking for books on this, I noticed that there was a lot of fiction out there.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - That is very interesting family history. I think that it is likely that we all have ancestors who did very questionable things.

A lot of reviews of The Witches called it disjointed or disorganized. This is too bad as I loved Shifs A Magnificent Improvision as well As Cleopatra.

Kate Scott said...

I suspect you're right–especially for people who have European ancestry. So much colonialism ugliness.

I'm glad you hear you enjoyed Cleopatra. I've been debating whether to keep that on my TBR list after my experience with The Witches. Guess I have my answer!

The Reader's Tales said...

I had already heard about this sad event, but thanks to you, I now know the story from A to Z. It reminds me of what happened in Switzerland, in Diablerets. In short, I like so much your book review that I've added it to my To-Be-Read List.
You really review great book, Brian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks The Reader's Tales.

This was truly a tragic event.

I am currently reading Witch Hunts in the Western World by Brian Pavlac. I believe that this book covers some of what went on in Switzerland.

thecuecard said...

It's a fascinating topic. I'm reminded of the play by Arthur Miller of The Crucible that I read a couple of times. I didn't realize that immediate criticism of the trials was forthcoming in 1692; I wish this had stemmed the tide of the executions earlier! nice review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan.

The Crucible has had such an impact on public perceptions of this event. It id tragic that rational thinking did not stop this. At least this was the last incident of this type in North America.

Gently Mad said...

I know I have already commented but lately I couldn't help comparing what happened back then with what is currently going on on campuses like Berkley, Yale and Harvard where certain groups of students seem to be on a witch hunt to oust or block any one who does not conform to their particular ideologies.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Many folks are comparing what you are talking about to the witch hunts.

Multiple Speakers being chased away from Universities have gotten a lot of publicity lately. But what seems closer to the witch hunts are cases where students have turned on other students and professors for opinions that violate the new orthodoxy.

There are so many examples of this. A high profile case occurred with husband and wife professors Erica and Nicolas Christakis at Yale. What in my opinion was a moderate, reasoned Email relating to Halloween costumes led to the professors being hounded out of their jobs. Some of what the Christakis were subjected to can only be described as harassment and intimidation. I have attached a link below with details. There are many more examples of this sort of stuff.

Of course parallels between this sort of stuff and the witch are limited. This latest phenomenon is directed at people because of their ideology. Generally this is not true of people accused of witchcraft (there were some exceptions). We should also be careful about equating this horrible stuff to the murder and torture that arose from the witch hunts.

I am doing more read on witch hunting and I will have more to say in some upcoming posts.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian, I did see that video of- I can only call it a mob, screaming at that poor man. I thought it insane that they kept demanding an apology from the professor.

The one girl was especially disturbing when she started swearing at the man and insisting that "university was not about intellectual space, it was about a home."

The young people demanding to feel "safe" make those campuses look very unsafe.

I think that it is ultimately going to cost those Universities as they lose credibility.

You're right that no one is being killed or tortured, although people are being intimidated and harassed.

The Anti-Fas are very scary and their tactics remind me of KrystalNacht.

Hopefully, people will wake up and things will take a turn.

HKatz said...

This sounds like a great exploration, looking at the topic from different angles. I'm especially interested in the frame of mind people got into when they accused neighbors of witchcraft.

A few years ago I visited Salem, and there's a somber memorial to the victims (and a lot of touristy stuff all around it... especially in October).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - That video was difficult to watch. The Anti-Fas are indeed Left Wing Authoritarians.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - So much of it was neighbor accusing neighbor. They seem do do so for reasons of greed, politics and social differences.

It is really good that there is a somber memorial at Salem. The "spooky" touristy stuff makes me a bit uncomfortable in light of what happened. The book does talk about modern day Salem and the tourist industry.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT commentary as usual, Brian!

I will most likely never read this book, or any others related to this topic. The Salem witch trials are too reminiscent of the brutality of the Inquisition. However, this proves at least one thing: no group, whether religious or merely ideological, can point fingers and say, "We don't do that sort of thing." The Inquisition was perpetrated by the Catholic Church, while the Salem witch trials were perpetrated by Puritans, who obviously were not Catholics. Both were horrible. Of course, the Inquisition was much worse, in that more people were executed.

The Catholic Church also perpetrated other persecutions, such as that against the Cathars, who were a heretical Christian sect. They were totally wiped out.

It's a very sad component of human nature that certain groups actually use violence and intimidation in order to attempt to COMPEL others to see things their way, as well as to judge them for their differing religious and/or ideological views. And it's highly disturbing, as well as ironic, when this is done by Christian groups, when the founder of Christianity was -- and is -- the very model of non-violence.

Unfortunately, it's events such as these that serve to turn people off religion and God completely. I guess I need to read the Pinker book you recommend so often, so as to feel a bit better.... And perhaps I'll throw in a couple of classic "Star Trek" episodes. That show was always optimistic about the future of the human race. On the other hand, Bible predictions state that things will get worse before they get better. But Hope remains ever present in the human soul!

Thanks for your thoughts! Hope you have a WONDERFUL week!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

This is indeed a disturbing subject. I am reading more books on witch trials that I will be posting on soon. The brutality was sickening.

I like connection that you made between Pinker and Star Trek. In a way both had similar messages. That is humanity has gotten better and will likely continue to do so.

Four hundred years ago, the brutality displayed in Salem was more or less universal. Today there bis still plenty of it, but there is a lot less almost everywhere one looks.

JaneGS said...

This topic is endlessly fascinating, and I like the balanced approach, even though I agree that apologizing for murder crosses a line, understanding the context of the event is critical.

Excellent review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. It is such an interesting topic that I will be posting commentary on at least two more books on the topic.

The Bookworm said...

This is an interesting topic and it sounds like the author did a good job with it. It reminds me of the movie The Crucible which was very good.
Great post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. The Crucible was so famous. I think that it is the primary source for many people when it comes to The Salem Witch Hunts.