In the past, the word Salem has always been somewhat synonymous with the infamous witch trials. Thanks to works such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, many people find it hard not to envision a community torn apart by chaos, even though Miller’s play was not so much about the witch trials but instead a commentary on the rampant McCarthyism going on at the time he wrote it. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, however, see a very different picture when the Salem witch trials are mentioned. Rather than overlook the “ordinary” people living in the towns in which they write about (in the case of Salem Possessed, the town of Salem, Massachusetts), they instead take the instance of the witch trials of 1692 and springboard from them into a detailed inquisition into the entire history of the small village of Salem; or, in their own words, Boyer and Nissenbaum have “exploited the focal events of 1692 somewhat as a stranger might make use of a lightning flash in the night: better to observe the contours of the landscape which it chances to illuminate” (xii). That is to say, the authors strive to show how the witch trials were not simply a completely spontaneous event, but rather a long, horrible process by which individuals were singled out, tried, and executed in order to vent emotions of hostility towards change. The way in which the authors go about this, however, is in a somewhat difficult to comprehend style that goes back and forth between the years, forcing one to rethink all the facts thus far each time a new chapter is introduced. In addition, the authors tend to focus mostly on the social and economic aspects of witchcraft, with little to nothing as far as further explanation of the actions of the women accused.
In the year 1692, the small farming village of Salem, Massachusetts saw a social phenomenon that would propel the village into the history books: the calamity that was witchcraft. The witch trials were initiated whenever three young girls, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam were caught performing fortune telling rituals in the woods, trying to gather information on what type of man would be best for them. Soon thereafter, the girls began experiencing hysterical fits, prompting Betty Parris’s father, Reverend Samuel Parris, to call in the authorities to confirm the cause of the girls’ symptoms. ...
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...rought into the case would treat it as though it were a completely rational occurrence. But then again, this is perhaps more of a fault of my own than of the authors.
In the end, Salem Possessed did indeed leave me with more of an understanding of the events that took place in Salem Village, even though that understanding did seem a little shallow, as I felt it only focused on one aspect of the whole. But regardless of my unpleasant viewpoint on said novel, Mr.’s Boyer and Nissenbaum have done an admirable thing by taking the Salem witch trials and examining them by today’s standards. By going strictly from church records and personal accounts, the authors have brought a whole new light to what was once percieved as a purely tyrannical act of prejudice against seemingly random people, letting the public know that it was in fact a calculated attack on many ‘radical’ individuals. And, while the book did occasionally fall short on offering a complete picture of the events, it was still a fairly succinct guide to the economic factors involved with the village of Salem and its “fifteen minutes”, as it were, and as such would be reccommended to history buffs around the world.
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