The Devil at work in the dark woods

Miranda Seymour reads a disturbing account of the consequences of Puritan hysteria in 1692; A Delusion of Satan: the Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18
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The Independent Culture
A delusion of Satan" was the phrase by which Ann Putnam, in 1706, tried to explain away the madness which took place in Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692 and which led to the hanging of 19 innocent people. Ann, as the ringleader of the girls whose alarmingly persuasive fits and visions led to the destruction of their enclosed society, had a deal of explaining to do.

Nothing which happened in Salem Village could equal the dreadfulness of the persecution of witches in Europe during the17th century. (Two boys in southern Germany were compelled to watch their mother being burned while her severed breasts were used to gag their cries.) In England, the worst of the witch-hunting was over by the 1670s. But Salem was part of a new and fearful puritanical society which invoked the death penalty for blasphemy and even for rebellious behaviour among children. In a village surrounded by dark woods from which, in recent history, the Indians had emerged to massacre householders and destroy their homes, the devil could be discovered in a sideways glance or an idle curse. If a cow died or a child sickened, it was assumed that the devil had been at work.

The Crucible, Arthur Miller's version of the Salem witch-hunt, created a love story of sorts by focusing on prosperous John Proctor, the tavern-keeper, his accused wife and Abigail Williams, the serving-girl who lived with them and who was in love with her employer. The true story was, in some respects, worse. Abigail, an 11-year-old, was the niece of Salem's minister, Samuel Parris. It was in his house that the visions and fits began and the first and most determined persecutor of the "witches'' was the minister himself.

The trouble began in late January, 1692. By February, the minister's Caribbean servant, Tituba, had saved herself from prison by giving an imaginative account of her own witchcraft. (One of the cruellest ironies of the witch trials was that those who confessed went free.)By March, Ann Putnam had become the leader of the "afflicted'' girls, privileged to see witches wherever they looked. Her parents reinforced Ann's claims. The Putnams, as all historians of the trials have observed, were a family who seem to have had a private vendetta to do with ancient grudges and the coveting of their neighbours' property. The discovery of witches allowed them to deploy their venom with enthusiasm.

Perhaps the darkest moment in Salem Village's history was the day in March 1692 on which Rebecca Nurse, a respected, slightly deaf grandmother, was sent to prison together with Dorcas Good, a child of four, whose mother had already been arrested. Separated from her mother, Dorcas was chained to a wall, in darkness, for eight months. Francis Hill suggests that the "afflicted" girls may have been revenging themselves unconsciously on their freer, younger siblings. She reminds us of James Bulger, the child murdered by two young boys in Liverpool. The evil that came to the surface so horrifyingly in Salem is, she argues, part of the human condition.

Hill has made a careful study of the depositions and trial accounts still preserved in the Essex County archives. She uses them to point to some of the more glaring loopholes and miscarriages of justice in that horrifying summer. Why did nobody question how a "specter'' could be so busily malevolent when the accused was either quietly at home or already imprisoned? Why did the girls escape suspicion when they named as witches people who were already long dead and whose names could only have been overheard in adult conversation? Why was it that, when an "afflicted'' girl was ignored or given a thrashing, she stopped having fits? How could ministers, judges, even the governor himself have been so easily fooled by the hysterical imaginings of a pack of power-mad children?

It is, perhaps, most troubling of all to note that when people of wealth or high position were accused, they were allowed to escape. The families of the victims, meanwhile, paid dearly for having produced a witch. They were expected to bear the costs of prison lodging, of reprieves and even - the final insult - the expense of recovering the body for burial. The witches themselves went to a lingering death on Gallows Hill knowing that, as excommunicants, they were destined for Hell. Their families had the poor consolation in 1710 of seeing the convictions reversed, wherever a plea had been made. Not every "witch" had a family to plead for her.

Marion Starkey, in 1949, published a poignant, semi-fictional account of the trials. Her version, while vividly setting the trials against a richly-evoked background, was inaccurate and careless. Two historians, Boyer and Nissenbaum, published a thoughtful analysis in 1977, for the specialist reader. Frances Hill combines impressive research with a readable style and an ability to relate the events of 300 years ago to the larger question of mass hysteria and the shocking results it can produce when credulity prevails. This is an engrossing book, and a disturbing one.