- Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692
Historians of witchcraft and of early America know the long shadow cast by the Salem witch hunt of 1692. They also know what distortions and [End Page 88] misperceptions that shadow can bring. The number of those accused of witchcraft in Salem, and the numbers executed for this crime, surpass the totals for the rest of New England across the entire seventeenth century. The trials were, therefore, an enormous abnormality. Yet precisely because they generated the majority of witchcraft cases in colonial America, and because Salem has attained such cachet in popular culture, the trials continue to attract an enormous amount of scholarly attention. One can count almost (not quite) on one hand the number of books dealing with New England witchcraft that have not focused exclusively on Salem (Godbeer's own earlier The Devil's Dominion being among them). So great is the marketing force of the name that even this book about a separate, far more contained, and far more typical witch trial contains "Salem" in its title.
The particulars of the hunt that Godbeer escapes Salem to explore are these. In June, 1692, as the Salem trials were starting to get underway, far to the south in Stamford, Connecticut, a seventeen-year-old maidservant of the Wescot family, Katherine Branch, began succumbing to fits of the sort that could indicate bewitchment. She would fall into trances, cry out, collapse on the ground, contort, or go stiff as a board. She eventually began claiming to see spectral visions of witches in either human or animal form, who would afflict her. Gradually she identified at least some of these witches. This process stretched over the summer months. Only in September was a special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened. Five women were formally accused. A sixth, who would likely have been accused as well, had fled to relatives in New York State, and thus out of the reach of the Connecticut courts. Of the five, three were almost immediately set free on a preliminary review of the evidence against them. Only Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Compo, near Fairfield, were held for full trial. Initially the jury could not reach a verdict, so the case was referred to the Connecticut General Assembly for its instructions, which were, simply, that the original court should review the case again and reach a decision. Ministers from around Connecticut were also consulted, and they generally urged caution and the careful weighing of evidence. Finally at the end of October, judgments were handed down—Clawson was found not guilt, but Disborough was sentenced to death. Her supporters, however, quickly appealed on her behalf, and some six months later the General Assembly finally acquitted her as well.
Godbeer is right to call this a typical trial. Branch was an impoverished orphan who, with no dowry, faced poor chances of ever marrying. She was exactly the sort of young woman whom New Englanders could imagine witches would want to recruit (the torments of her bewitchment were meant to drive her into the service of the devil). The Wescot household was a [End Page 89] place one could imagine bewitchment taking place. Years earlier, one of the Wescots' daughters had suffered fits, but these had passed after a few weeks. Nevertheless, although witchcraft was a possible explanation for what seemed to be occurring to Katherine, other explanations were possible as well. The Wescots initially summoned a midwife who judged that the fits were probably the result of a natural malady and should be treated with natural remedies. Only after these proved ineffective, and Katherine's visions intensified, did more and more people become convinced witchcraft was involved. Still, some maintained skepticism throughout the process, believing Katherine was either naturally afflicted, or that she was dissembling.
As suspicion of witchcraft turned to accusations against specific alleged witches, events continued to follow a typical course. Old women, generally with a reputation for cantankerousness, were targeted. These women each had been involved in...