Satan and Salem

The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692

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Benjamin C. Ray
  • Charlottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , May
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Benjamin C. Ray, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, presents an insightful, comprehensive, and superbly written account of the factors that contributed to the birth, rapid development, and scale of the Salem witch trials. The book opens with an introduction giving a brief overview of the events leading up the witch-hunt (the Second Indian War, political uncertainty, church member versus non-church member dynamics); mentions the key figures involved (such as Tituba, Thomas Putnam, and Samuel Parris); elements unique to the Salem trials (claims of Satanic involvement, courtroom irregularities); and discusses pertinent scholarly research (works of Paul Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum, Mary Beth Norton). This serves both to concisely refresh details for the returning scholar, and provides a sturdy foundation for those new to the subject.

The text presents a narrative of how, not simply why, the Salem witch hunt came to pass. Ray allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions based on their own interpretation of the evidence he presents and discusses. He takes time to dispel common misconceptions, such as the long-held belief that Tituba’s propensity for fortune-telling led to the initial accusations of witchcraft, whereas, in fact, there is no evidence in the primary sources to support this claim (6). Ray takes the time to highlight examples of irregularities in court proceedings, such as allowing all of the accusers to be present together in the courtroom, that undoubtedly contributed to escalated claims and unfair trials (72). He also alerts the reader, where appropriate, of the norms of English law as it would have applied at the time, and how this impacted certain facts of the trials (for example stays of execution in the case of sick or pregnant defendants, since English law forbade the execution of such individuals) (125).

Rather than taking a simple chronological approach and attempting to discuss every detail in the order that the events happened, Ray organizes his text thematically, devoting specific chapters to the magistrates involved in the case (chapter 4), events that unfolded in nearby Andover (chapter 7), the confessions (chapter 8), as well as key individuals such as George Burroughs (chapter 9), Samuel Parris (chapters 1 and 10), and Thomas Putnam (chapter 6). There are thirteen chapters in all, presumably intentionally so, a nice touch to make it a “witch’s dozen.”

The first ten chapters are devoted to the development of events leading up to and occurring during the trials. Ray shifts to events in the aftermath of the trials at chapter 11, which looks at the apologies that came from individuals involved in the accusations (such as Ann Putnam, Jr.), as well as reactions, culpability, and restitution from the church and government in the years following the end of the trials. Ray points out that it took some time for compensation to be forthcoming, with some of those affected never being fully compensated for their losses of goods and property, which were often illegally confiscated (175). The last five of the accused did not have their names cleared until 2001; the government has never officially accepted fault for its involvement (178).

Chapter 12 provides the reader with a detailed description of the geography of Salem and wider Essex County. This allows the reader to put into perspective the way in which accusations spread throughout the area, where accusers and the accused lived in relation to one another, and the topography and accessibility of Gallows Hill where the executions took place. The final chapter examines issues of race and gender. Among other issues it discusses the reasons why Tituba, described exclusively as Indian in primary sources, is later referred to variably as being of mixed Indian and African heritage or completely African by the time of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. Ray also addresses questions regarding the large number of females involved in the trials compared to the few males involved and also disparities concerning their sentences. The content in chapter 13 deserves further research and could conceivably comprise a book of its own.

Thoroughly researched, the book helpfully directs the reader to the original court records and associated primary source documents throughout via endnotes, which will prove immensely useful to any scholar. Citations are included for records in Bernard Rosenthal’s 2009 edited volume Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (Cambridge University Press, 2013), which ought to be considered a companion text, as well as the online Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive. The Archive allows the reader to easily access the primary sources at the same time that they read the book; it also includes interactive maps that are referenced in chapter 12 of the text, allowing the reader to see the chronological and geographical spread of accusations.

The book is written in such a way that it will likely appeal to the lay reader with a passing interest in the Salem witch trials, as well as to students and scholars involved in research. The short chapters are ideal for use in classroom discussion, especially since they are written in such a way to allow them to be read independently from each other, making one or more chapters suitable for reading assignments without the need to assign the entire text; this could be particularly helpful for undergraduate survey classes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philippa Juliet Meek is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Denver and the Illiff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin C. Ray is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the Director of the award-winning Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and an associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt.



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