Chadwick Hansen. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, INC., 1969. 252pp.
Many people believe that the witch-hunt of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, was based upon mere delusions of a few frightened teenage girls. Despite the popular viewpoint of many other historians, Chadwick Hansen’s book, Witchcraft at Salem, offers a generally discarded point of view. He uses exhausted research and well-written material to argue that the events of 1692 were true signs of witchcraft. Hansen proves this thesis by elaborate descriptions of the girls who were afflicted and by extensive trial evidence.
In many historical writings the girls that were afflicted by the witches were usually branded as liars, who were afraid of the repercussion of taking part in the craft. Hansen, however, takes the stand that the girls were, for the most part, believable. The convulsive fits were so grotesque that eyewitnesses agreed that it was impossible for the girls to be acting (1). The girls were believed above all others because the courts could not bear the thought that the fits and loss of memory, appetite, hearing, sight, and speech were false. Hansen goes on to describe the torment that the girls faced. They felt themselves pinched and bitten, and often there were actual marks upon the skin (1). Hansen’s ability to describe to the girl’s afflictions in such detail lends the reader to believe that actual witches caused the torture of the girls. For markings to appear upon the skin of the girls, where nothing physically had touched their skin, Hansen concludes that it could only be a result of supernatural beings.
Hansen’s well-researched trial evidence is a very convincing argument. He presents the reader with numerous cases and the process each went through. There were two cases unparticular as to which Hansen writes about explicitly. He writes of a maidservant, Tituba, and of a woman of the community, Dorcas Good. Both Tituba and Dorcas Good admitted to being involved in the art of witchcraft. Hansen uses these confessions and other numerous convictions for his basis that there was witchcraft in Salem. Fifty-two people were indicted for witchcraft, for which many of them were accused due to spectral evidence (205). Hansen relies greatly on spectral evidence as a basis for conviction, because for the majority of the time that was generally (if not only) all the evidence the court had to decide upon.
The extensive sources Hansen cited for the foundation of his theory are historical writings. Many of the works he cited dated back to the late 1600’s and early 1700’s; however there are some that were as recent as the 1960’s. There is a wide variety of material, with over 175 sources cited. Hansen went to great lengths to ensure that the material was accurate. He took a year off from teaching at Pennsylvania State University, and traveled to the Massachusetts area to work with more desirable information. His sources were well documented and extensively researched.
There were witches in Salem, however there were not a significant number. Some of the girls were acting out of fear of the consequence of their actions in the craft. He has provided much evidence on many different trials but failed to point out a significant number of confessed witches. His weighty reliance on spectral evidence, as support to the convictions of the accused women, is a serious misjudgment. Furthermore spectral evidence was later viewed as an unreliable source due to the Devil’s ability to impersonate anyone. The witch trials were an important event in Puritan society; however, it is hard to believe that among such a small number of people, there were a significant number who practiced witchcraft. Furthermore, medical knowledge of seizures and their cause was little known at this time. This avenue of thought would have enlightened known physical actions of the women. Lastly the Puritan religion was a strict religion with some fanatic beliefs which can cause people to manifest ideas in their thinking. Hansen’s work on the trials proves that a few people practiced witchcraft, however, that could not have true of fifty-two people