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The name Salem or any mention of the Salem witch trials almost always turns heads, and usually this sudden attention is not due to a reputable history. Most people think of the Salem witch trials and begin to picture an out of control environment. Such a connotation results from a number of sources, a popular one being Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible, which was later adapted into a movie. The play and movie, both dramatically enticing pieces of work, are only somewhat historically accurate, lacking the substance needed in order to truly comprehend why or how such devastating events like the witch trials could occur. With so many mythicized events and perspectives, it can be challenging to find a source that distinguishes fact from fiction. Consequently, it is refreshing to find a book that depicts the Salem witch trials in way that is accurate and not dramatized. Most importantly, a historical outlook is needed to precisely portray the witch trials; and that is where Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft stands out from the rest.
Rather than focusing on the obvious, Boyer and Nissenbaum corroborate the witchcraft hysteria by providing extensive research about the social, economic, and political events that led up to the hysteria. Their book, which is not organized in a chronological fashion, starts off with a chapter that is named “1692: Some New Perspectives, setting up an uncommon view and meticulous tone for the rest of the book. Detail after detail, the authors analyze the witchcraft hysteria in a historically rigorous manner that effectively elucidates everything that happened in Salem in 1692. And while all the minute details and countless names discussed in the book can be overwhelming to some, any person who is genuinely intrigued by Salem before, during, and after the frenzy can gain a deep understanding of the events.
Before digging into Salem’s past, the authors offer a quick preface of the work that explains what motivated them to write the book. A college course that they took led them to do research about Salem resulted in Boyer and Nissenbaum’s finding of many unpublished documentations. After this, the two writers go on to question past research (or lack thereof) of Salem and how skewed some of it seemed to be. Boyer and Nissenbaum then go on to describe their desire to use these newfound documents in a way that will help clarify just how such an ordinary town like Salem could have had such an extraordinary thing happen to it. With the unique start to such a scholarly work that is unique itself, Boyer and Nissenbaum successfully lure readers from the get-go.
These unexplored documents give Boyer and Nissenbaum yet another unique aspect to rely on in order to bestow an argument that focuses on the background of the witch trials rather than the trials themselves. With maps, church records, and demographic data, the authors evaluate parts of Salem that are typically unthought-of when one thinks about the town. Geographically, Boyer and Nissenbaum notice an intriguing trend in where the accusers, accused witches, and defenders lived throughout the village. Most of accused and defenders lived in the eastern section of the village while a majority of the accusers lived in the western part. Suddenly, something as trivial as geography becomes a factor that must be evaluated. This newfound pattern forces the writers take into account the social background of the village. With one map, Boyer and Nissenbaum receive two new angles, geography and social factors in Salem, to examine. These new insights serve as two very convincing resources for Boyer and Nissenbaum offer a fresh approach to uncovering the history of Salem. Further research of the village revealed the complex and deep-rooted relationship of two prominent families in the town– the Porters and the Putnams. Two leading families in the social atmosphere of 1692 Salem arrange for some exceptional tension throughout the village. While they were once amicable, the two families become more and more separated throughout time. Thomas Putnam’s jealousy of his younger brother Joseph, who marries a Porter, gets the best of him and chaos ensues between the Putnams and Porters. Boyer and Nissenbaum realize the great significance that these two families have on the whole village and intensely focus on the dynamics of the relationship that very well could have been a major factor in the origins of the witchcraft hysteria. Such internal disputes that many readers can relate to from their own experiences, although these experiences are most likely not on such a large and destructive scale. Furthermore, historical evidence like that of the familial dispute offer an even more convincing indication as to how the hysteria built up so immensely and quickly. What limits this evidence from completely convincing the audience is a lack of knowledge of how people from areas other than Salem got involved. Boyer and Nissenbaum’s primary focus lays in the clash that occurred between two families that were central to Salem and not the surrounding towns in Massachusetts Bay. While the Porter-Putnam story can be a possible origin to the witchcraft hysteria, it lacks a solid explanation for how this hysteria spread so vastly throughout the state of Massachusetts.
Pieces of evidence given by the writers that were especially intriguing were the church records about wealth and church membership. Charts three and four in the book take a look at the amount of villagers who were pro-Parris, church members, and how much taxes they were paying. Upon review, the data illustrate a trend in which many poor villagers who were not church members supported Parris, a man who many believe is one main cause in the witch trials. Parris was also often supported by the Putnam family, who tended to be the ones accusing others of witchcraft. Parris and his followers played a pivotal role in the escalation of accusations and trials throughout Salem. Many readers already know this. But few have seen the tax lists and church records that Boyer and Nissenbaum include in their book. Once again, Boyer and Nissenbaum offer some new insights. Being able to see these lists gives the audience the ability to see for themselves the captivating but apprehensive evidence that can very well be a major reason that the witch trials spread like wildfire.
One of the main differences between this book and many other books about the Salem witch trials that simply go for the dramatic effect is that Boyer and Nissenbaum’s analysis brings up aspects that have rarely been thought of before. The communal effects, the geography of the village, the political factors, the demographics, etc. Each seem like an insignificant piece of information that is unlikely to result in such a massive hysteria; but when put together, the evidence is striking. Boyer and Nissenbaum leave the audience with no choice but to think that maybe the witchcraft itself did not have a huge impact at all and that maybe the people of Salem, with all of their conflicts and beliefs, had the biggest impact on the quick forming accusations. While there are some questions still left unanswered (like how people in places other than Salem ended up contributing to the chaos), the writers nonetheless provide an appealing argument. Unlike the books, novels, and plays that focus primarily on the accused witches and the drama that they bring to the town, this book takes a purely historical approach and dives into the ways that Salem itself led to its own downfall. Instead of thinking about the ways that the accused witches impacted themselves, Boyer and Nissenbaum take a look at the adults and how the adults interpreted the strange episodes that were occurring to their friends and family members. From start to finish, Boyer and Nissenbaum depict the witchcraft hysteria in a way that is not over-dramatic. They provide evidence that forces readers to picture a Salem that is not as dramatic or as out of control as it is usually illustrated. They give a new perspective of Salem.
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