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,
“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.