The Salem witch trials have long been recognised as a salient point in American history, and over the last 50 years have been the subject of numerous books, several of which have been reviewed in Magonia.
Baker’s book takes a broader picture than many, placing the trials firmly in the context of the internal and external conflicts affecting the Massachusetts Colony. They occurred in revolutionary times, in which the governor appointed by King James II had been overthrown in the first American revolution, and the new official governor was still on his way. The Calvinist Congregational Church was under threat from both new generations that wanted a more relaxed religion and demands for greater religious pluralism. To cap it all there was the external war with their French and their Catholic Wabanaki allies, a war in which both sides practiced ethnic cleansing.
These grand tensions add to the stresses of local village life, and may well have contributed to the conversion disorders which afflicted the young woman and girls who became the witch accusers.
Baker not only looks at the relationships between the accusers and the accused, but, more perhaps uniquely into the often close family relationships between the judges, relationships that he sees as causing them to prejudge the issue. It is the combination of the political, theological and personal which generations the “perfect storm” of witchcraft accusations and, what had been very rare in the colony before that time, guilty verdicts and executions. The witches become scapegoats for all sorts of ills.
Baker argues we must see the trials in the context of the times, when witchcraft was regarded as real and threatening as terrorism does to us. They are warnings also of how societies under pressure and fear can turn in on themselves and start to devour their own members. -- Peter Rogerson.