Some­thing wicked

Transat­lantic hys­te­ria in the wake of the English Civil War – and im­ported de­mono­log­i­cal texts – prompted a colo­nial purge of ‘witches’

Fortean Times - - Reviews - Richard S Ross III Mal­colm Gaskill

The Salem witchcraft panic of 1692 is the most in­fa­mous episode of early mod­ern witch-hunt­ing, im­mor­talised as a para­ble of para­noia in Arthur Miller’s The

Cru­cible. Yet his­tor­i­cally Salem was an aber­ra­tion. Other Amer­i­can pros­e­cu­tions were scarce, scat­tered and fre­quently un­suc­cess­ful. Yet be­tween the late 1640s and early 1660s there was a deadly flurry in the Con­necti­cut Val­ley, the sub­ject of Richard S Ross’s rich and read­able book.

There were just 11 tri­als – hardly a ‘witch hunt’, but strange, none­the­less, given the lack of cases be­fore or af­ter. Ross ar­gues that the col­li­sion of so­cial anx­i­eties and po­larised re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal ideas was desta­bil­is­ing. The neigh­bour-hat­ing, dev­il­fear­ing mood in the town­ship of Wind­sor in part in­volved sim­ple West Coun­try folk shun­ning lah-di-dah Lon­don­ers. In 1647 Wind­sor’s an­nual mor­tal­ity rate of four or five shot up to 27, prob­a­bly due to a flu epi­demic. The fam­ily of the pu­ri­tan min­is­ter, who had railed against the Devil, was hit par­tic­u­larly hard. The ev­i­dence of witch­ery be­gan to stack up. The fi­nal in­gre­di­ent was fear of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and the trauma and para­noia of eth­nic war in New Eng­land in the mid-1630s and mid-1640s. Im­ages of ma­raud­ing In­di­ans con­verged with im­ages of demons and witches in colo­nial night­mares. Ross com­pares the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age with mod­ern PTSD.

Con­necti­cut’s set­tlers were also un­set­tled by the English Civil War and the at­mos­phere of a ‘world turned up­side down’ af­ter 1642. Ross sug­gests that the same re­lax­ation of Crown and Church con­trol that made pos­si­ble Matthew Hop­kins’s East Anglian witch-hunt prompted Amer­i­can colonists to purge di­a­bolism. The book’s orig­i­nal­ity lies in this English di­men­sion, which Ross han­dles well. Fortean in­ter­est lies in his pic­ture of mount­ing transat­lantic hys­te­ria, helped along by le­gal and de­mono­log­i­cal texts ex­ported to for­eign plan­ta­tions. The au­thor­i­ties in Bos­ton and Hart­ford watched sus­pects in case they were vis­ited by di­a­bolic fa­mil­iars, and searched their bod­ies for teats where these imps suck­led blood. These tech­niques were Eng­land’s gift to Amer­ica. Ross also delves into the back­sto­ries of his char­ac­ters, which helps us to make sense of their con­flicts and predica­ments.

Although Ross’s de­scrip­tion of New Eng­land so­ci­ety is su­perb, his com­men­tary on the mother­land is not al­ways con­vinc­ing. I’m not sure there was a “con­scious ef­fort on the part of the English gov­ern­ment to sup­press witchcraft tri­als” in the 1630s; bet­ter to say that royal in­dif­fer­ence meant tri­als were not en­cour­aged. Nor did the Civil War over­come a “gen­eral level of skep­ti­cism” about witchcraft, or cre­ate “an un­ten­able psy­cho­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tion for many”. Hop­kins was hor­ri­ble, but his fal­ter­ing cam­paign only be­came a ‘reign of ter­ror’ when Vin­cent Price got stuck into the role.

But the book’s real prob­lem is that the ev­i­den­tial link be­tween a febrile at­mos­phere and witch-hunt­ing is, like the con­tem­po­rary ev­i­dence for witchcraft it­self, rather cir­cum­stan­tial. Per­haps folk at Wind­sor did re­mem­ber the bizarre trial of witches in Som­er­set in 1626 – spir­its were re­ported to have had a con­ver­sa­tion in­side the vic­tim’s body – but then again, maybe they didn’t. Witches left no smok­ing guns in the early mod­ern court­room or in the his­to­rian’s study.

There are a few quib­bles. Ross’s archival re­search and sec­ondary read­ing are ex­cel­lent, but good schol­ar­ship is un­der­mined by slop­pi­ness (for which the pub­lish­ers must share in the blame). The witchfinder John Stearne be­comes Thomas Stearne, John Rivet is John River, and the Rev John Gaule turns into a Gaul. John God­bold, judge at the Suf­folk witch-trial of 1645, is in­tro­duced as Gold­bot then comes back as Gold­bold. The cor­rect form, God­bold (some­times God­bolt), ap­pears in the in­dex. A check of a con­tem­po­rary text (a book by Wind­sor’s min­is­ter) re­veals mis­quo­ta­tion.

Over­all, this is a valu­able ad­di­tion to the vast his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture re­lat­ing to witchcraft. Ross is open-minded to this story be­ing an English one played out in Amer­ica, rather than an in­trin­si­cally Amer­i­can af­fair. And he never talks down to his sub­jects, how­ever pe­cu­liar their be­liefs. Fi­nally, there is some­thing touch­ing about the town of Wind­sor pass­ing a res­o­lu­tion to re­store the rep­u­ta­tions of the two ‘witches’ it had ex­e­cuted, even if only in Fe­bru­ary this year. Bet­ter late than never.

A well-re­searched and well­writ­ten ac­count of a for­got­ten witch-hunt, strong in de­scrib­ing a ris­ing sense of transat­lantic panic, oc­ca­sion­ally un­con­vinc­ing.

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