Mary Beth Norton: Salem Witchcraft Trials

Historians in the News

C.K.Wolfson, in the Vineyard Gazette:

Two days before people crowded into the Pease House in Edgartown to hear historian Mary Beth Norton discuss In The Devil's Snare (Alfred A. Knopf, $30), her new, much acclaimed book about the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials, the author relaxed with a visitor in her contemporary West Tisbury home.

A distant relative of convicted witch Mistress Mary Bradbury, the Cornell University professor traces her own ancestry to the 1600s in Salisbury. Smiling broadly, she said,"There were many times when I worked on this book that I wanted to summon up the ghosts of my own ancestors to ask them about the events because they lived through it." She laughed and added,"And I really wish that, just for 10 minutes, I could have communed with my genes."

A Vineyard summer resident since the mid-1970s, Ms. Norton did much of the work on In The Devil's Snare at a folding card table on her screened porch. A lively and articulate speaker, she describes Island summers of writing in the morning, afternoons at Lambert's Cove Beach and evenings with a close group of"academic, summer-crowd friends," an informal group she refers to as the"Uppity-Up Academic Women's Group," who regularly meet for dinner.

But her attention lately has been focused on the results of 15 months of writing."One of the things I wanted to accomplish in the book was to tell the story of Salem as it would have been experienced at the time," she said. It was a topic she had contemplated for about 20 years,"ever since I read a book that showed me how different the Salem episode was from other witchcraft episodes in 17th-century New England," she said, adding,"Because the 17th century was a pre-Enlightenment period and before the scientific revolution, many things were not understood. All kinds of events could not be explained by what people knew, so witchcraft became a kind of default explanation."

Further fueling her interest was the central role women played in the events."If you think about it," she said,"it's the most important public event in American history before the rise of the women's suffrage movement in the 19th century in which women played the central role."

Ms. Norton, a practiced researcher (her 1996 Pulitzer-nominated book, Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, is based on legal records), spent almost five years in this country and abroad investigating the witchcraft trials.

"I am the only person who has ever worked on the Salem Witchcraft crisis who read 8,000 other 17th-century court cases first," she said."And I think that gave me an insight into the dynamics of what went on in the courtrooms and an understanding of the unspoken subtext behind a lot of the questions and the interrogations. It gave me a different way of reading the records and enabled me to put them together in a different way."

Her research exposed the role of Sir William Phipps, the governor of the colony, who lied about his complicity."The research I did in London at the public record office was very important for me," she said,"in recognizing the importance of the Indian War because letters that came to the colonial office in London included not just official reports but excerpts from letters written by private individuals in Massachusetts to friends in London, one of the ways to get information about the colonies."...

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