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Haunted history

NortonMary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History and author of “In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692,” discussed the grim realities of the Salem witch trials on public radio’s Academic Minute.

When I teach undergraduates about the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692, they’re always surprised that so many men were accused and convicted of witchcraft during that terrible year.

According to incomplete surviving records, about 145 people were formally charged with being witches in 1692; of those, approximately one-quarter were men. Nineteen people were hanged and a 20th executed by being crushed to death by heavy stones. Of those 20, six were men. Thus a higher proportion of accused men than women was executed in 1692. 

Traditionally, the male relatives of reputed female witches could be accused, because it was believed that witches conveyed their diabolic knowledge to associates and family members. Still, one remarkable fact about 1692 is that about half the men charged with witchcraft had no such association with female witches. Instead, some were prominent figures – a minister, a militia officer, a wealthy ship captain, a merchant among them. What tied these men together was that all had some association with the Wabanaki Indians who, in conjunction with the French, were then attacking New England settlements. These often inexplicable witch-hunts, then, had a wartime context.

Similarly, the famous so-called “witch hunt” led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others in the 1950s was tied to the concurrent cold war. Fearful Americans charged that some of their number were in league with a dangerous enemy. In the 1950s, that enemy was the Communist Soviet Union; in the 1690s, it was the French and Indians. Historians now see the parallels between these events. Yet history does not entirely repeat itself. Although no one today thinks that those accused of being witches in league with the devil were actually attacking New England in 1692, evidence does suggest that some Soviet spies were indeed actively working against America in the 1940s and 1950s.

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