Saturday, July 23, 2016
The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials
Rating: 3 Stars
It utterly baffles me that these events ever even occurred. And not just in Salem, but across the Massachusetts colony, at the time, and even across Europe as well at various times (James VI/I was kind of obsessed with witches). The text does show its age, particularly through the word choice of the author, but I still enjoyed the read for the most part. It is not without its flaws of course, and the prose could be quite irritating at times, but it was still interesting and provided a solid overview of the events as they occurred,
Reading the events clearly laid out by Starkey will help any reader navigate the supposed complexity of the situation. Myself personally, I don't see it as being terribly complex - these nasty, bored little girls found being the center of attention quite exhilarating and over time were basically addicted to it. But of course, I am applying by own 21st century analysis to a 17th century problem. This is one of the main flaws with the book, as the back cover states the author, "...takes dialogue from actual trial records but applies modern psychiatric knowledge to the witchcraft hysteria." As I mentioned above, the text 'shows its age', as it was published in 1949. So, basically, I am reading a book in 2016, through the lens of a 1949 writer, about events that occurred in 1692. It is easy to see there will be some disconnect. As I said in another recent review of Henry VIII and his supposed Kell Positive/McLeod's diagnosis, it is all but impossible to give a modern diagnosis to a historical person/people/event, and all it fact. While Starkey does not go so far as to actually call it fact, the application is there for the reader to decide if it makes sense. To me, it does not - at least not completely. The author mentions on more than one occasion something to the effect that many of these girls were of marry-able ages, but were not yet married and thus had no real purpose in life yet. The basic connection she seems to be making eventually seems is that these girls accused older women in their village because they were jealous that they themselves were not yet married and having sex. Perhaps I am misreading? Or reading too much into it? But that is how it comes across and to me that is entirely absurd to assume. It is almost impossible to apply modern thinking to historical events as I have said, and yet that seems to happen frequently.
Despite what I perceive as a flaw, the book is not without merit. As for providing a solid foundation for the events that occurred, the book does a wonderful job. One must just keep in mind the publishing date. The author made fantastic use of the sources available to her (there seems to be some confusion from some readers whether the author is male or female - Marion Lena Starkey was female. The back of the book even uses 'her' when referring to the author, so why the confusion?) There is a decent section about notes afterward and a selected biography, which in itself still used a fair number of sources. I always seem to have a problem judging a book by its notes and sources and I am really trying not to do so, but it is important to know where information has come from. I want to know that the author is not just making up random nonsense and trying to pass it off as fact. I especially approve of the use of sources contemporary to to the person or event being discussed, and you can't get much better than verbatim copies of the Salem Witchcraft papers, available at various archives, historical societies and libraries in Boston and NYC.
In reading, time and again it was frustrating to me that the magistrates could not see how absurd this whole debacle was. These girls were the reason so many innocent lives were lost. I say 'innocent' as a reference to the crime of which they are accused - witchcraft. That does not necessarily mean that all of the people found guilty were perfect, wonderful people (though by all accounts most were decent folks), but whatever undesirable characteristics they may have possessed certainly did not qualify them for hanging.
I learned a bit as well that I did not know before. One such example - I did not realize that it took so long for the trials to actually begin, from the time that the first person was accused of being a witch. I suppose it should not seem strange, given the state of the judicial system today, but one would have thought the trials would have moved along more quickly, given the perceived severity of what was going on. I also learned there was a lone 'afflicted boy' who was part of this mess but he rarely testified. It was interesting that "the detection of witches was apparently women's work" (page 195).
Overall I would recommend this one for anyone interested in the trials, but be aware of the age of the book.