Only a handful of books published on the Salem witch hunts have become standard textbooks in classrooms and popular among the reading public. These influential books, published between 1974 and 2002, are “exemplary histories that have greatly augmented the world’s knowledge of witch hunting in 17th century America,” according to Tony Fels, associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco. However, in looking for underlying causes of the witch hunts, Fels claims these writers lost sight of the real victims—the accused witches.
Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt is not a history book, Fels explains. Its purpose is to describe author biases and how they chose data to emphasize their storylines, while justifying myriad causes of the accusers.
Literally the study of historical writing, “historiography” emphasizes not the events of the past and their causes—the standard subject matter of the discipline of history—but rather how historians construct their narratives and explanations of these events. —Tony Fels
As counterpoint, Fels begins with Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949). In spite of its Freudian analysis and out-of-fashion sexism, Starkey highlights the heroism of the men and women who were martyred for their religious beliefs or for standing up for truth. (She tells a good story, but for me, Starkey relies too much on Charles W. Upham’s 1867 History of Salem Witchcraft with its caricatures and imaginations disguised as truth.)
Fels interweaves many other witch-hunt books into his narrative, but centers on the themes of socioeconomic imbalances, village factionalism, social solidarity, deviant behavior, gender oppression, and racial politics as found in these four scholarly works:
- Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1974)
- Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Putnam Demos (1982)
- The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen (1987)
- In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton (2002)
As students of the 1960s and 1970s, Fels claims these “New Left” authors are attracted to the marginality and psychological factors of the afflicted accusers, who they see as the rebels of 1692. The accusers’ motives stem from their own victimization, or from the dead cows and sickly children the accused witches leave behind.
Switching Sides emphasizes that accused witches were innocent targets of injustice in an out-of-balance world. If we read all four books together, we understand multifaceted reasons behind the witch hunts—but skirt around what Fels believes are the underlying causes, of Puritanism and communal scapegoating. By reviewing these classic texts, Fels also incorporates newer research to update the Salem story.
Well worth reading, especially if you’re familiar with the books mentioned.