Facebook Twitter

4 novels shed light on witch-hunt hysteria

SHARE 4 novels shed light on witch-hunt hysteria

This summer I'm following my own recommendation: reading about the history and setting of a place before visiting it on vacation. I'm going to Salem, Mass., and being fascinated with the witch trials of 1692, I've reread "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare; "A Break with Charity" by Ann Rinaldi; and Shirley Jackson's "The Witchcraft of Salem Village."

The recently published "The Minister's Daughter" by Julie Hearne whetted my appetite and lent further insight into witchcraft and the persons suspected of being "possessed."

All four novels are fictionalized history set during the time of the trials.

From the very beginning of Christianity devoted members believed that an adversary tempted the weak in faith by demons entering a human body. These were often simple poor persons who might have exhibited a special feature or talent; for example, a woman skilled in herbal medicines. They may have been accused because of birthmarks or other physical deformities. Unexpected phenomena were blamed on these "witches" such as the sickness of an animal, a family death, fires, storms, crop failure or insect infestation.

Scholars have devoted much study to learning about witchcraft. Sometimes it was believed demonic persons banded together as "armies" or covens while others were singled out independently. They might be found to be a witch based on their inability to swim, recite the Lord's Prayer backward or perform an act of physical balance. Others met with accusations from gossip or indictments from friends, neighbors and family members simply because they appeared or acted "differently."

What is known for a fact is that by the end of the 18th century more than 2 million people had been tried and executed for witchcraft. The 1604 "demonization" laws in England were carried by the Puritans to the New World. The social breach between poor villagers and wealthy landowners accelerated the witch hunts of 1692. Twenty men and women were hanged or crushed to death during the Salem Village trials, which were fueled by deep religious and political feuds. More executions are recorded throughout other New England villages.

Though suspicions of witchcraft began to wane soon after the horrendous executions of 1692, the trials continued for a dozen more years in England and for as long as a hundred years in some parts of Europe.

In 1957, the Massachusetts Commonwealth cleared the names of everyone who had been accused in the witchcraft trials in 1692. Five of the victims were publicly and officially exonerated from any committed crime in 2001.

E-mail: marilou.sorensen@worldnet.att.net