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Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of…

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974)

by Paul S. Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum (Author)

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Everybody knows about the Salem witch trials – if for no other reason than their constant use as a metaphor for everything from the McCarthy hearings to the War on Terrorism. However, that knowledge generally starts and stops with the trials and hangings. The authors of Salem Possessed, using a prodigious amount of research on obscure original sources (church records, land titles, wills, etc.) plausibly contend that the witch trials were the culmination of years of controversy and infighting in Salem Village, most of which had nothing to do with witches.

First off, the authors set the background by pointing out that the trials were held in Salem Village, not Salem Town. If you’re not from the eastern US, you should note that “town” is a political subdivision smaller than a county, which may or may not be associated with a particular conglomeration of buildings. As it happened, most of the population of Salem Town lived in the built up zone, but most of the actual town area was rural farmland. This dichotomy was the original cause of conflict. The rural farmers lived some distance from the town center (up to 20 miles), yet were supposed to pay town taxes, appear in town when it was their turn to participate in the watch, and attend church in town.

Authors Boyer and Nissenbaum go into detail over the difference between attending church – in 17th century New England, everybody attended church – and being a member of a church. Church membership was supposedly limited to a fraction of the community. I had never heard of this distinction before, but it figures in the subsequent history. (Annoyingly, Boyer and Nissenbaum don’t specify what someone had to do to become a church member).

The residents of Salem Village (once again, there’s just a scatter of farm buildings, with a slight concentration along the Ipswich Road) wanted their own church, so they wouldn’t have to trudge all the way to Salem Town (technically, this was to be a “meetinghouse” rather than a “church”). However, only church members could “call” a minister, and almost all the church members lived in Salem Town and had no particular interest in losing the tax revenue from Salem Village (a good chunk of the taxes went to pay the minister’s salary, and if Salem Village had their own minister they wouldn’t be paying that part of the taxes to Salem town any more). As a result, in 1672 the inhabitants of Salem Village petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony to allow a vote by all the inhabitants on a minister, rather than just the church members. And the General Court granted the request. This set up Salem Village as a unique political entity; with a small degree of independence from Salem Town, but without political institutions – the only power the village had was to elect a five-member Committee, and the only power the Committee had was to collect the minister tax. Nevertheless, the village tended to treat the Committee as if it was a governing body, and the Committee tended to act that way. And, in the American tradition, the village immediately split into two contending political parties; those who supported the current minister (first James Bayley (1672-1679), then George Burroughs (1680-1683), then Deodat Lawson (1684-1688), then Samuel Parris (1689-1697)) and those who opposed him.

Samuel Parris, then, was the village minister when Satan showed up in 1692. Everybody probably knows the witchcraft part of the story; three preadolescent girls (one of them Parris’s daughter and another his niece) undertook an apparently innocent attempt to predict their future husbands by observing the shape of an egg white dropped in a bowl of water. One of the girls was frightened when her egg white looked like a coffin. Shortly afterwards, the girls began exhibiting “strange” behavior; disordered speech, random motions, and “fits”. This is what got Parris into trouble; what he should have done was call in the legal authorities – witchcraft was a civil crime, not a religious one. What he did instead was hold prayer meetings and give sermons. This gave ammunition to his opponents, who began arresting and jailing suspected witches themselves. (Many previous commentaries have cast Parris as some sort of evil inquisitor, while in fact he was clearly very reluctant to let matters go to the civil authorities. However, once the trials started he participated). Matters were further complicated because at the time Massachusetts Bay Colony had no legal government; the previous Royal Governor had been deposed in the aftermath of The Glorious Revolution and no new one had been appointed. Thus the accused witches (including a four year old girl) were held without trial until it could be done legally.

There were six accused witches in jail by the end of March, 22 more in April, and 39 more in May (interesting numbers considering the Salem Village population was just over 200). In June the new Royal Governor arrived and trials and executions began. Apparently the witches were not impressed and accusations continued until the authorities no longer bothered to keep track of them. In total, 19 people died; one in prison, one by pressing to death for refusal to plead, and the remainder by hanging (nobody was burned at the stake, despite numerous movies to the contrary). One of the fatalities was George Burroughs, the former minister who hadn’t lived in the village for 9 years (he was serving as a minister in Maine). However, after testimony that he had done wizardly feats while in the village (“picking up a heavy gun using only his finger thrust in the barrel”) and had appeared as a specter to some of the afflicted girls in Salem Village while his physical body was in Maine, he was arrested, brought back to Salem, tried, and hanged.

Contrary to the popular myth of inquisitorial religious persecution, it was two of the prominent religious figures in Massachusetts Bay Colony – Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather – that finally slowed down and stopped the trials and executions, mostly by casting doubt on the reliability of evidence. I was especially surprised by Cotton Mather, since he’s always been cast as one of the villains in the whole episode (see the Stephen Vincent Benét poem). The author’s yeoman work on available documentary evidence suggests what was actually going on. Most of the accused – and there are maps showing where everybody lived – were not neighbors of their accusers but lived at some distance; people’s immediate neighbors tended to defend them in court rather than accuse them. Interestingly, this seems to conflict with another of the authors’ claims – that people tended to accuse those toward whom they had behaved in an un-neighborly fashion – for example, those that the had refused to lend equipment.

Not the world’s easiest read; the text tends to jump around chronologically depending on what point the authors are making – but interesting from a historical debunking standpoint. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 18, 2017 |
Read for graduate Historiography. Honestly, the Salem Witch Trials have never been of historical or academic interest to me; I was surprised to enjoy this as much as I did. Well-researched and lively. ( )
1 vote 9inchsnails | Mar 7, 2016 |
This is a book based on the Salem Witch trials and the causes that lead up to the murdering of innocent people. This book doesn’t cover one specific cause for the witch trials but there are a few family characters that possess the ability to monopolize on the allegations. Salem was separated into two parts, the town and the village, each part having a family that dominated financially. The Putnam’s and the Porters. At this time in history you needed approval to create a church, which the pastor was Parrish. He was a questionable man with many different agendas. He created a divide between the church and town/village. The Putnam’s were pro-Parrish meaning they wanted the church to break off and be the primary source of religion in the area (Puritan belief) the Porters were anti-Parrish meaning they wanted the man exiled from town. There was a petition going around to approve the church to be a Puritan belief, if you were anti-Parrish you were more likely going to be accused of witchcraft practices or affiliation to someone that practices. If you were pro-Parrish like the Putnam’s you were never going to be alleged to explain your actions. The Putnam’s being men of means had a lot of town men and women enemies because of their drive to wealth. If you got in their way and stated against Parrish you were more likely to be executed for your misjudgments. There are many reasons as to why the outbreak of alleged witchcraft took place but this book paints you a picture of the past to explain the relevance of these members of the town.

Personal Reaction
This is an education book about the past allegations of witchcraft practices. This writer as a way of painting a graphic and specific site to indicate the actions that took place in the 17th century. There is a good majority of people whose ancestry came from the Salem area that experienced those heinous times. I

Classroom Extension
1. Do an ancestral tree to see if anyone in the class’ family had someone who was directly affected by or present during that time.
2. You could have them do a short book report on the material coved in the books. This book is for older students so having a book report would be influential in writing papers and getting formats down.
  haleycurry1 | Oct 15, 2015 |
An impressive book. Unlike most accounts of the trials, this takes social and political factors into consideration when explaining possible causes for the dramatic and tragic turn of events. ( )
2 vote aliform | Feb 3, 2014 |
I have to say, I feel like I was gypped in my high school education.

Okay, so that goes without saying, really, I mean...it was a Florida public school and the fact that I made out with any kind of basic knowledge of anything should be a credit to the individual teachers, as well as my own passion for learning (since, if either I or my teachers had gone by the recommended curriculum of the day, I would have never made it back out of Florida). But still, I feel like I was gypped.

In my high school (which was, and still is, an arts magnet school), the theatre kids had English and Theatre classes back to back so as to keep certain lessons and certain projects in tandem and consistent. As a result, sometimes the lines between fact and literary fiction would get a little blurred. And it's not as if our 11th grade American History teacher did anything to help that. I've said this before - some of those teachers didn't know anything outside of the basic curriculum, so we got screwed.

Anyway, in our theatre-oriented English class we read a ton of New England drama/poetry (in preparation for our annual trip) and we read The Crucible by Arthur Miller (which takes the facts of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, runs them through a rinse cycle, and lays them out flat to dry into a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings). (Prior to that, I had read Kathryn Lasky's Beyond the Burning Time which explores a lot of the themes that are historically established in Boyer and Nissenbaum's history, but I had read it as summer reading prior to freshman year of high school so there was a test on it, but it was never discussed). That same year, we took the annual bus ride up to the north east, visited Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Salem, Mass.

Even modern day Salem seems to be in on the trickery. They have the name, so they have the fame - even though Salem Village (where the drama really took place) eventually became Danvers, Mass with just a little bit of overlap into Salem Town. And in the spirit of capitalizing on their witch-themed merchandise and ghost tours, they don't really tell you any different. They don't mention that most of the turmoil leading up to the accusations came from a split in the community - half wanting to maintain their membership in Salem Town and explore their commercial options, half wanting to segregate themselves and become independent of the very town that now hosts explosions of tourism every Halloween season.

Don't get me wrong - I love Salem. I've been back since that high school trip, and I've loved every second of it. I've done the ghost tours, I've shopped the mystical shops, I love the atmosphere that town has in October. But I feel like knowing what I SHOULD have known then, I'm disappointed. I'm excited to go again having all of this information and revisiting my experiential opinion of the place, but I wish I had had the real history, before.

Boyer and Nissenbaum have done their research. The book may be a few decades old, but with a topic that's now over 300 years old, a few decades doesn't make a lot of difference. Their exploration into the financial logistics of Salem Village's situation in the 17th century is a little boring at times, but their explanation of the divisions within the community between the Putnams and the Porters, on the side for or against Rev. Parris, and between Village and Town is remarkable. Sometimes I have to kick myself to remind me that people actually kept personal records in the 1600s and they had some of the same problems we have today (and not wholly plebeian, as I so often mistakenly think).

The facts are good, but on that same token, Boyer and Nissenbaum seem to lay aside any concerns from the religious standpoint. In the 17th century, with religion being the way it was, witchcraft was a scientific plausibility. Forget the social aspect of it - the idea of a witch/wizard/devil appearing in specter form to a victim was a rational concept! It wasn't JUST the socioeconomic situation that drove these trials to the head that they reached, it was the belief that such things could truly be.

Today, you need a video camera and a television or a projector with a screen to accomplish what the "afflicted" claimed they saw in 1692. Throw in the pinching and tormenting, and you just need to actually be present, screw technology. But that seems to be left out of Boyer and Nissenbaum's scope of understanding. They leave out half of the psychological impetus and that, to me, makes it an incomplete narrative. Seems to me, if you're going to lay a claim of understanding of the "social origins" of anything, it shouldn't just be the monetary end of that understanding.

Lauren Cartelli
www.theliterarygothamite.com ( )
1 vote laurscartelli | May 24, 2010 |
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Boyer, Paul S.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nissenbaum, StephenAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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It began in obscurity, with cautious experiments in fortune telling.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
The stark immediacy of what happened in 1692 has obscured the complex web of human passion which had been growing for more than a generation before building toward the climactic witch trials. Salem Possessed explores the lives of the men and women who helped spin that web and who in the end found themselves entangled in it.
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Tormented girls writhing in agony, stern judges meting out harsh verdicts, nineteen bodies swinging on Gallows Hill. The stark immediacy of what happened in 1692 has obscured the complex web of human passion, individual and organized, which had been growing for more than a generation before the witch trials. Salem Possessed explores the lives of the men and women who helped spin that web and who in the end found themselves entangled in it. From rich and varied sources--many previously neglected or unknown--Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum give us a picture of the events of 1692 more intricate and more fascinating than any other in the already massive literature on Salem. "Salem Possessed," wrote Robin Briggs in The Times Literary Supplement, "reinterprets a world-famous episode so completely and convincingly that virtually all the previous treatments can be consigned to the historical lumber-room." Not simply a dramatic and isolated event, the Salem outbreak has wider implications for our understanding of developments central to the American experience: the breakup of Puritanism, the pressures of land and population in New England towns, the problems besetting farmer and householder, the shifting role of the church, and the powerful impact of commercial capitalism.… (more)

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