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