It is widely believed that the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692 was the final chapter in the history of American witchcraft. After Salem, witch-hunting, trials, and executions evaporated, replaced by Enlightenment assumptions of toleration and progress. But how true is this story? In some ways, it is certainly accurate. Salem was the last witch-hunt in American history, and trials for witchcraft virtually disappeared in the early eighteenth century. After 1692, witchcraft trials lost the endorsement of the state. Once officials refused to sanction accusations in Salem and elsewhere, witch trials ceased.
But the story of witchcraft in America is more complicated. Social historians have properly located witchcraft beliefs not only in theology but also as part of a broader, popular world of magic and the occult. Many ordinary people thought they were victims, not of the Devil’s disciples, but of harmful magic practiced by malicious neighbors. Belief in witchcraft and the occult, whether inspired by religious or magical notions, outlived 1692.
This alternative understanding of witchcraft forms the basis of Owen Davies’s examination of witchcraft after Salem, America Bewitched. Davies contends that after 1692, “witches remained a real and terrible threat” in America, particularly to African Americans and Native Americans, immigrants, and those living in more remote areas (p. 3). Davies claims that witches “were integral to the cultural fabric of America” and that in the more than three hundred years since 1692, “thousands of Americans, Native, European, and African, were persecuted, abused, and murdered as witches” (pp. 21, 226).
To make his case for the persistence of witchcraft, Davies researched legal records, newspapers, folklore sources, and census and other archival material to document witchcraft incidents across the continent. The resulting evidence is laid out topically rather than chronologically. Among the subjects surveyed are the persistence of [End Page 285] magical beliefs, such as healing and amulets; the complex and shifting legal status of witchcraft as it disappeared as a punishable crime, but continued as an aspect of fraud, slander, and defamation; the different types of witches, such as stereotypical outsiders and participants in personal conflicts; witchcraft practices, such as the use of image magic; rituals used to identify and deal with witches, whether by counter magic or by violence; and the efforts by doctors, educators, clergy, and police to suppress witchcraft beliefs. The book closes with a discussion of recent changes in the standing of witchcraft in American life. Since the 1960s, assaults against suspected witches have largely disappeared, and with the emergence of Wicca and of popular entertainment depictions of witches as nonthreatening, attractive, and comical (the TV series Bewitched, for example), the concept of witchcraft has become considerably more positive than its traditional historical meaning.
Readers willing to follow Davies’s sometimes disjointed and digressive discussions will be rewarded with an array of information relating to American witchcraft and occult practices, be it hex signs or mesmerism. His book serves as a useful reminder of the persistence of occult thinking in the patch-quilt of ethnic, racial, and immigrant diversity that constitutes American society. Yet, despite its hyperbole about the prevalence of witchcraft, the book neglects to sufficiently distinguish between witchcraft belief and actual practice, or between witchcraft incidents and those just involving magic and the occult. Furthermore, these post-Salem incidents were relegated primarily to groups outside the cultural mainstream and were not countenanced by authorities. This is not so much witchcraft as witchcraft “lite.” [End Page 286]
Richard B. Latner is professor emeritus of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has published essays about Salem and is the author of the website “The Salem Witchcraft Site.”