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In Richard Godbeer’s historical novel, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, the author discusses the famous Salem Witch Trials and their effect on New England during this time period. Richard Godbeer explains to his readers the social and judicial differences throughout New England starting in Salem, Massachusetts and ending in Stamford, Connecticut. He teaches the reader to not judge this time period by what happened in Salem, but rather to open the readers’ eyes to the thinking and social pressures of the time.
In Godbeer’s eyes, the stories of the Salem Witch Trials did not represent the thinking, attitudes, and judgment towards people in the whole New England territory. The author uses stories of the people, processes of the government, and the witchcraft of the so-called “witches.” He begins by telling a story of an innocent little girl, a ploy meant to grab the reader’s attention and to create interest for the rest of the book. Though Godbeer’s scheme works, he also shows the human side of the citizens and their ability to be mistaken. Godbeer’s position of the witch trials in Stamford during the sixteenth century is that society presents itself in a more respectful manner as opposed to the trials in Salem. However, his social sense is skewed because society reflects the same behaviors as those in Salem. The difference is one man.
William Jones is the person that should be credited for keeping control of the witch situation in Stamford. He controls government policies helping him retain order and give a fair trial to all involved. William Jones calms the people by giving the people a trial to accuse women of witchcraft while allowing the accused the right to defend them and he enforces the law and policies required for a trial. The novel begins with a story about a young girl, named Katherine Branch, who is very ill. Kate was a servant for the Wescots, an upper-level class family who have taken Kate in at the death of her parents. Kate becomes what many believe is possessed due to the witchcraft. Many different people try to help Kate as she deals with her fits. Religious leaders come to try and cast out the demons, midwifes come to care for her health, and neighbors take turns watching and helping the Wescot family watch over Kate. During specific episodes that she faces, she reveals to others the specific women who had cast her into the state. Godbeer states that, “Kate named five women who specters she conversed with that night: Elizabeth Clawson, Mercy Disborough, Goody Miller, the little girl, and her mother.” These women including the little girl, Hannah Harvey; her mother, Mary Harvey; as well as her grandmother, Mary Staples, and many more that were mentioned, all had previous witchcraft rumors spread about them throughout Stamford.
The stereotypes and judgments made about these types of women reflect the town’s action towards them. Godbeer uses this social behavior to represent the thinking of this time period. He describes the usual way of dealing with these types of situations. After Kate names her attackers, stories begin to arise about other signs seen by people of their witchcraft. These stories do not produce with them any evidence; however the tales begin to spread causing hostility toward the accused women. These accusations eventually lead to Daniel Wescot’s movement to the court justice system. Hannah and Mary Harvey, Mary Staples, Elizabeth Clawson, Mercy Disborough, and Goody Miller are all acquitted for their charges. Godbeer explains, “These acquittals doubtless pleased the accused and their supporters, but others were horrified.” The victory for the defendants proved to show social injustice to the people of Stamford. This causes more problems between those who are protecting and those who are hurting. This distinction is thought to be a spiritual conflict between the beliefs of Christians. Godbeer again shows the culture of Christian community, which is why witchcraft is an important problem during this time. As Godbeer later explains, “Elizabeth Seager’s and Katherine Harrison’s survival dealt a heavy blow to public trust in the legal system and its willingness to protect settlers from witches.” This lack of “trust” in the government made keeping the peace a difficult task.
However, one man is able to contain order. Godbeer presents his data about the trial through the viewpoint of the judge, William Jones. Jones runs the government’s court in a fair and lawful system. He first researches other witch trials and composes structure for his future witch trial. Godbeer is impressed by Jones’ philosophy of, “…two sets of requirements: one for arresting and examining someone suspected of witchcraft, the other for convicting and hanging an indicted witch.” After these regulations are in place, then Jones begins to create criteria for guilty and not-guilty verdicts. He creates grounds for which the accused had to qualify for in order to be detained or questioned in court. These standards make the prosecutors present some sort of evidence or reasonable cause. This is another example of the thought process that William Jones had in order to prevent a disaster like Salem.
Due to the fact that this case investigates witchcraft, there is no hard evidence to support any claims of someone practicing witchcraft. With this dilemma placed before the magistrates, the jury is forced to make its decision based on the witness accounts of what happened. These accounts, especially dealing with witchcraft, are difficult to find the truth. After Mercy Disborough is found guilty of witchcraft and Goody Clawson is found not guilty, Stamford stands in amazement. With the hearings in Salem, the belief that anyone accused of witchcraft would be found guilty is on the minds of the people of Stamford. The lack of evidence bothered Jones and even made him question his jury about their decisions. Though Jones does not believe that the verdict is correct, he does believe that the verdict was fair. Jones did not show favoritism to either side. William Jones cares for the accused witches as human beings and tries to refuse the stereotypes and misunderstandings of the Stamford people. At the same time, he does want to protect the people of Stamford from any threat. The just trial hits a problem when Diborough is awaiting her death penalty. A petition is signed to overturn the verdict because of a jury substitution. Mercy Diborough is eventually released due to a technicality in the jury system.
The way that Godbeer describes the long process of the trial, shows his dedication in giving the reader everything to make an informed opinion on the trial. To Godbeer’s fault, he does not compare the different judgment philosophies. He does, however, show Jones’ fairness to all parties, which contrasts Salem’s courts. Godbeer attempts to prove to the reader that society is the difference between the happenings in Salem and the happenings in Stamford. Godbeer overlooks the true difference between the situations, one man. William Jones creates a sense of fairness and civil actions to solve the problem placed in front of him.
Godbeer’s style sparks interest in the reader, but it also reveals many details that create an unrealistic portrait to today’s society. He does organize his research chronologically and methodically, which makes it become an intriguing novel to all readers. Godbeer does a fair job in providing some evidence for his position. The problem is that he is trying to prove society’s attitudes by inferring what is said and how Stamford would react to every new development. This stance is difficult to prove much like the testimonies of those who accuse of witchcraft. If one man can be the difference, then William Jones is the difference in this historical novel, written by Richard Godbeer. If someone wrote a story about your life, would you be the one to make a difference in society?
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