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A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials [Paperback]

Laurie Winn Carlson


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21 Aug 2000
In the late winter and early spring of 1692, residents of Salem Village, Massachusetts, began to suffer from strange physical and mental maladies. The randomness of the victims, and unusual symptoms that were seldom duplicated, led residents to suspect an otherworldly menace. Their suspicions and fears eventually prompted the infamous Salem Witch Trials. While most historians have concentrated their efforts on the accused, Laurie Winn Carlson, A Fever in Salem focuses on the afflicted. What were the characteristics of a typical victim? Why did the symptoms occur when and where they did? What natural explanation could be given for symptoms that included hallucinations, convulsions, and psychosis, often resulting in death? Ms. Carlson offers an innovative, well-grounded explanation of witchcraft's link to organic illness. Systematically comparing the symptoms recorded in colonial diaries and court records to those of the encephalitis epidemic in the early twentieth century, she argues convincingly that the victims suffered from the same disease, and she offers persuasive evidence for organic explanations of other witchcraft victims throughout New England as well as in Europe. A Fever in Salem is a provocative reinterpretation of one of America's strangest moments, and a refreshing departure from widely accepted Freudian explanations of witchcraft persecution.

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Carlson turns to tackle a phenomenon that has engrossed and frightened generations. -- Barbara Lloyd McMichael The Seattle Times A fascinating, refreshing reassessment of one of the most bizarre episodes in American history. The A-List What an intriguing hypothesis! -- Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague This book will send historians and epidemiologists scurrying back to the drawing board. -- Katrina L. Kelner, Editor, Science Magazine Ms. Carlson writes well, at times, even humorously. -- Phoebe-Lou Adams Atlantic Monthly Meticulously researched...marshals her arguments with clarity and persuasive force. -- John Banville The New Yorker Provocative, informative, and dramatic...packed with epidemiological evidence and studded with convincing figures and maps. -- Nan Sumner-Mack Providence Journal A medical mystery that will intrigue both the epidemiologist-historian detectives and the lay reader. -- Robert S. Desowitz, Professor of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina and author of Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?

About the Author

Laurie Winn Carlson has written frequently on the history of the West, including Cattle: An Informal Social History; Seduced by the West; Sidesaddles to Heaven; and Boss of the Plains. She lives in Cheney, Washington.

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Amazon.com: 2.8 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Salem Witch Hunt was not that simple 26 Nov 1999
By K. Fischer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the harsh winter months of 1692 several young girls in Salem Village began to experience violent physical seizures. The community responded with unsuccessful prayer and fasting. A local physician soon diagnosed that the presence of evil, not physical illness, was responsible for these inexplicable fits. In the next seven months nineteen accused witches were hanged in Salem. Another, Giles Corey, was pressed to death. Two more of the alleged witches died while being held in jail. In the expansive annals of American History this incident at Salem can appear relatively insignificant. It has nevertheless generated an enormous amount of interest, and a large body of historiographic literature. The terms Salem, witch-hunt, and witch trials, have literally become a part of our regular vocabulary. Relative to this interest in the Salem phenomenon the historian John Demos noted that popular interest in the subject of Salem is so "badly out of proportion to its actual historical significance," that "perhaps the sane course for the future would be silence." Laurie Winn Carlson has obviously not taken Demos' advice. Her new work, A Fever in Salem, is the most recent addition to this enormous body of work. Unfortunately her work, while creative and unique, does not make any meaningful contribution to the aforementioned rich body of literature. Taking a page from Linnda Caporael's previous attempt to identify a physical pathology as a cause for the Salem phenomenon, Ms. Carlson presents a theory that the witch trials were the result of an epidemic of tick-borne encephalitis lethargica at Salem. Ms. Caporael, in the early 1970's, created somewhat of a stir by proposing that a fungus ("wheat ergot"), was growing on the rye grain grown in Salem Village. When consumed, this fungus resulted in the onset of hallucinations similar to those associated with the ingestion of LSD. And therefore this infected rye grain was responsible for the hallucinations and seizures experienced by the young girls. Now comes Laurie Winn Carlson, attempting to identify another culprit. In support of her thesis Ms. Carlson explained how the symptoms experienced by the young girls in Salem (hallucinations, hyperactivity, uncontrollable bodily movements, and partial paralysis) were similar to those associated with the "hyperkinetic" form of the disease. Unfortunately, there is little else to justify her conclusion. In the course of this work Ms. Carlson does acknowledge the more conventional historical analyses relative to the Salem events. Previously, historians identified a number of economic, social, and psychological factors, intersecting at a unique time and place in history, resulting in an individual and community hysteria at Salem. As those works indicate, Salem was a community in crisis. The leading institution was a repressive Puritan Church incorporating a submissive role for females and a genuine belief in the presence of Satan. In addition, Salem experienced economic division associated with the introduction of mercantile capitalism into an agrarian society. Such economic factionalism resulting in tension characterized by heightened competition and inevitable jealousy. Add to this an ongoing threat of Indian violence, and it becomes clear why Salem was a community ripe for the tragic events of 1692. Even in the face of such an expansive body of historiography, Carlson maintains her thesis. Carlson's refusal to accept the validity of such previous work appears based on her own apparently unwavering need to identify a specific explanation for the physical symptoms experienced by the girls. Laurie Winn Carlson's A Fever in Salem simply fails to make a valuable contribution to the body of Salem historiography. The author's attempt to reduce a complex phenomenon to some isolated tick bites is untenable. Even if the original accusing girls were afflicted with encephalitis lethargica, that does not explain the community-wide contagion of hysteria that Salem subsequently experienced. Indeed, as was the previous case with the wheat ergot theory, a hypothesis based on an epidemic of tick-borne encephalitis cannot eliminate the myriad factors that, taken as a whole, caused the Salem witch-hunt. Reading A Fever in Salem will hopefully pique the reader's interest in learning more about the Salem incident. Should that be the case, there is a wealth of fine historical literature, including the work of John Demos, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Carol Karlsen, Elizabeth Reis and Peter Hoffer, among others, available to educate and enlighten the curious.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed 29 Mar 2002
By Terence Henderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
While she has a compelling argument, one based on sensationalism, her thesis fails to illustrate why the hysteria found in Salem did not occur in other communities that were afflicted with same microbiological phenomena. This monograph makes many assumptions and more often than not her arguments seem predetermined. The amatuer reader will enjoy her writing, but academic historians will be disappointed.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Weighed in the Balance and Found Wanting 25 Mar 2006
By Ivan Linderman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The author's hypothesis is simple enough: The frightening "fits" of accusers during the 1692 Salem witchcraft crisis were caused by an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, a neurological disorder popularized in Oliver Sacks' 1973 book Awakenings. (A film version starring Robin Williams and Robert De Nero was released in 1990.)

As a former cell biologist, I'm well-disposed to considering microorganisms and disease as the moving force of history. (See Hans Zinsser's classic, Rats, Lice, and History: being a study in biography, which, after twelve preliminary chapters indispensable for the preparation of the lay reader, deals with the life history of typhus fever.) In this case however, the author fails to make the case.

There were a few things that prejudiced me against this book: publication by a small house (Ivan R. Dee); description of the author as an "independent scholar," somehow implying other scholars aren't; a noticeable disdain for the entire field of psychology; and, inclusion of material that is at best tangential, at worst, irrelevant. For example, there is an afterword titled Satanic Possession and Christian Beliefs outlining how to differentiate between mental illness and demonic possession. The mere possibility that there is any reality to demonic possession is antithetical to the author's hypothesis. Chapter Seven, Alternate Outcomes, recounts experiences in New Hampshire a half century after the Salem witchcraft crisis to predict how the Salem crisis might have gone. A much better example would have been the similar crisis in Stamford Connecticut that was concurrent with that in Salem. (See Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem: the other witch hunt of 1692.)

Encephalitis lethargica is a rare neurological disorder that appeared at about the same time as the 1918 influenza pandemic. Unlike influenza which is caused by a virus, the definitive cause of encephalitis lethargica is unknown. It might even be an immunological consequence of influenza. It's symptoms are varied and vague: high fever, headache, double vision, delayed physical and mental response, lethargy, coma (in acute cases), abnormal eye movements, upper body weakness, muscular pains, tremors, neck rigidity, and behavioral changes including psychosis. (See National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.)

Like Linnda Caporeal (Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?) , Carlson tries to shoehorn symptoms like "abnormal eye movements" and "psychoses" into a physical cause. A great deal of her argument is comparing experiences reported by accusers and their observers against possible symptoms for encephalitis lethargica. In many cases, commitment to "proving" her hypothesis ignores obvious, more mundane explanations. For example, descriptions of symptoms like "some suffered only a mild affliction, perhaps a heavy weight on their chests and legs while in bed, which left them momentarily paralyzed," or "people felt sudden weights on their chests at night so that they could not breathe ... complained about weight on their chests while in bed at night, an inability to speak," are well-known descriptions of the common experience called "sleep paralysis." They do not require special explanation.

The author is sometimes overreaching, if not plain wrong. For example, page 46 states:

[Midwives] were present in Salem and in colonial settlements, but there are no references to individuals or their families seeking them out for assistance in combating an epidemic. .... Some women who were tried as witches had performed as midwives, but they were not tried for any offense connected with their vocation.

Both Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare, and Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem report midwives did indeed serve as a kind of "nurse practitioner:"

Women like [midwife] Sarah Bates emerged as experts from those communities of mutual care, their skills endorsed by the experience and gratitude of their neighbors rather than university degrees or formal apprenticeship. Goody Bates had a finely honed instinct for discerning what ailed a sick neighbor and was widely respected for her abilities.

But what's missing from A Fever in Salem is epidemiology. This is most evident in the "touch test" used to "prove" an accused was indeed a witch. An accuser would fall into a fit - and usually faint - at the mere sight of an accused witch. If the accuser revived at the touch of the accused, it "proved" the accused was a witch. Biological epidemics are not so easily turned on and off.

In some ways, A Fever in Salem is an example of cognitive dissonance. The author continually tries to extend her hypothesis, and thereby add validity, but at each step the exercise backfires. For example, a map reprinted from Robin Briggs' Witches & Neighbors: the social and cultural context of European witchcraft, shows areas of heavy, moderate, or light "persecution or important witch-hunts." Not surprisingly, dark centers spread into moderate, then lighter areas. Two pages after, a different map, with a four-fold change in scale, shows bird migration patterns. The author's conclusion?

... we see how closely they match up. Birds migrating from sub-equatorial western Africa fly directly over these areas as they head north each spring ... Migratory birds may have brought disease from western Africa to Europe, where a virus in their blood was extracted by arboviral mosquitoes who then fed on peasants and villagers.

Not only do they not match up closely (to my eyes), eight pages later Carlson suggests the vector might have been ticks.

In all, weighed in the balance, and found wanting. I would not recommend this book.
10 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating and innovative look at witchcraft 3 Dec 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Winn Carlson has found the facts behind Salem's horror but others may not like that. The witchcraft "industry" is alive and well in academia, where people have embraced the girlish hysteria stuff for decades. Time to rid those poor girls of their Freudian explanations. Thanks to Winn Carlson, the women are no longer seen as acting out or trying to get attention. The bird migration routes seem logical, and match up with the recent epidemic of encephalitis in New York City. This book is a must for someone who wants to look at history in a new way. Who knows how many other historical events can be explained scientifically by disease?
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Under-researched, lacking effort by the writer 23 July 2002
By H. Quinn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Laurie Carlson had a theory about Salem and supported it using an ambivalence for fact that you might experience gossiping with friends over a beer at Chili's. What a disappointment because it could have been interesting. Where do I start?
[1] All her research was done using books written in the 20th century. She is (sadly) unknowingly swayed by the biases of those 20th century authors. She wrongly accepts their judgements as fact, which annoyed me immensely. [2] She accepts outlandish courtroom pranks as genuine physical ailments. Why? Even by her own description, the 'fever' that was present in the colony subscribed to far more uncontrollable symptoms than repeating the words of the accused 'in chorus'. [3] She would have benefitted from reading documents from the period. Her understanding of the period is academic and lacks any genuine understanding of the events that unfolded. [4] The sentence that finally made me stop reading? "The first arrivals at Plymouth had been delighted to discover that the Indian population had already been wiped out by an epidemic... [any 3rd grader can tell you there were Indians in Plymouth]" an epidemic which she credits to the French in Nova Scotia, despite the fact that Europeans had been fishing the waters up and down the coastline for years and had even established outposts along the coast long before the puritans arrived in Plymouth. Sigh. [5] Please don't read this book.
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