on 1 January 1999
The Salem Witch trials, possibly one of the most analyzed and anomolous events in American history, are documented with basic accuracy in Hoffer's book. However, in an attempt to say something new about such an overdone subject, Hoffer fills his book with references to supposed neo-witch trials (the satanic craze surrounding heavy metal in the 1980's), makes references to popular culture, and even pulls in the godawful, ridiculous wheat ergot theory. In addition, the cover is absolutlely eye-hurting horrid. If you are forced to write a paper on this book, as I was, and must look at it for several weeks, I would sugggest a very good pair of sunglasses.
For sixteen months between January 1692 and May 1693 people in Salem and neighbouring towns in colonial Massachusetts, "lived in imminent fear of witches and their master, the Devil. Hundreds were accused..... nineteen men and women were executed and one pressed to death. Neighbour turned against neighbour, children informed on parents and ministers cast out members of their congregations. When the crisis was over.....its survivors tried to make amends for their rush to judgement." Ever since, the Salem Witch trials have been used to castigate religious extremism and apply caution to false accusations and ensure that due process of law is properly observed.
Hoffer points out that the Salem experience was not an extension of European witchcraft trials but an isolated incident. He also mentions that the 1741 New York Slave Conspiracy displayed similar characteristics of false accusations, false confessions, mass arrests leading to far more executions. Like Salem, the events took place during a period of social unease, economic decline and fears of outside interference. The various child abuse cases of the last twenty years were encouraged by many, otherwise rational - and certainly non-religious people - who identified satanic practices where none existed. In all cases moral panic led to a suspension of reason and the stereotyping of those who "did not fit in."
The problem for Massachusetts was that its original purpose as a "plantation for religion" had been overtaken by "a plantation for trade". The piety and commitment of the original settlers had been supplanted by a mixture of later immigrants, pressure on land and a straightforward struggle for power and influence. In addition, Puritan beliefs created problems for adolescent girls, confining them to subordinate roles and believing them, like Eve, to be more susceptible to the wiles of the unseen forces of the invisible world. Then - as in a 1994 case in Chicago - young girls' imaginations and deviousness led to false accusations. The difference was that in 1994 adults took care to examine the accusations closely rather than presume guilt. Although, Hoffer speculates that child abuse (in its broadest sense) might have occurred his thesis is unconvincing. What is clear, however, is that the outward Christian forms of Puritanism were combined with forms of pagan folk tales which perverted the course of justice and this was aided by the activities of prejudicial adults.
The trials came to an end because of the disquiet of some ministers who recognised that "good men and women languished in dungeons". This section of the educated elite argued "that satisfactory proof of witchcraft was almost impossible to obtain." They were concerned that convictions were being based on assumption and without proof of causation. The respected minister Increase Mather went on record in opposition to the use of spectral evidence in direct opposition his egotistical son's suggestion that it could be used in accusation. The Governor, William Phips, reprieved those awaiting execution and within five months had discharged all the others. Hoffer suggests one of Phips's motives was to curb the political ambitions of the Chief Magistrate, William Stoughton, who had not only allowed spectral evidence but denied the accused defence council. Ultimately, the convictions were overturned (in some instances post mortem) and admissions made by the accusers that they had been misled by the devil. Rather like Maradonna blaming the hand of God in 1986.
Although the Salem Witchcraft Trials involved a form of enthusiasm it should be noted that such enthusiasm was characteristic of a minority. That minority, as with modern child abuse cases, was often directed by those who had prejudged issues in accordance with their own status or interests. People saw what they wanted to see. Those who protested against the activities of witchfinders such as Richard Bernard and Robert Filmer were ignored by in favour of popular rather than reasoned argument. Hoffa's identification of certain traits which have been repeated in modern society should lead to the conclusion that the anti-witch movement was not just a religious matter but a social, psychological and political one.
Hoffa's book should be read by anyone interested in the subject. The comparison with later and modern times is worth expanding upon. While he denies inventing things he admits to speculating. Unfortunately, at times, he also allows his words to read like a novel rather than an historical narrative. Of interest to academics but too detailed to sustain the interest of the general reader. Four stars for quality of research rather than for the way it is written.
on 3 November 1996
Peter Hoffer examines the roots of the witch hunt in Salem by actually telling the narrative of the the witch Tituba. He writes of slavery, family relationships and social relationships giving a fresh outlook to how the Salem witch hunt came to be. Students who would like to understand the Salem witch craft and are looking for an accurate book full of quotes dates and footnotes, yet at the same time not at all boring, should read "The Devil's Disciples". This book seems like a story being told and the reader really gets a feel of what it was like to be living at those times and what the people's mentality was like. You'll know the facts--but better yet, you'll feel the facts after you've read this book.