- The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America
Gretchen A. Adams’s The Specter of Salem seeks to provide a full account not of the Salem witchcraft trials themselves, but of their place in the cultural memory of succeeding generations of Americans. Adams begins with a competent summary of current scholarship on the trials, drawn in large part from Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York, 2002). After this, although there are brief discussions of the memory of the witch trials in the colonial era and the twentieth century, the focus of the book is, as the subtitle indicates, on the nineteenth century, from the early republic period to the aftermath of the Civil War.
Adams devotes most of her chapter on the early republic to examining the discussions of the witch trials in early nineteenth-century textbooks. Most textbooks were written by New Englanders and were eager to describe the founders of New England as morally superior to those of the South. Such authors were forced to confront what had happened at Salem, but they often noted that England had executed witches as well and nearly always argued that the executions were merely a blot on an otherwise excellent Puritan record. (“Why did our forefathers believe in [witchcraft]?—They received their notions from England.”  was the catechism-like call and response in one such textbook.) This interpretation soon gave way to more thoroughly unfavorable ones.
Adams shows that the mental picture antebellum Americans had of [End Page 621] the typical participant in the Salem witch trials depicted him (rarely her) not so much as the implacable persecutor and witch hunter but rather as the fanatic who had been driven to acts of cruelty in this particular case, but whose madness could take other forms as well. Thus, new and unusual religious movements such as the Mormons or Spiritualists were often linked with the Salem “fanatics,” whereas the counterargument that those who persecuted or objected to these groups were heirs of the witch executers, which might seem more intuitive to a twenty-first–century audience, was made more rarely, although not never. This is an excellent observation on Adams’s part, and she thoroughly backs it with evidence.
Adams demonstrates that the familiar but inaccurate notion that those in Salem convicted of witchcraft were burned rather than hanged largely originated with, and was certainly popularized by, the rhetoric of antebellum southerners who saw the Puritans as not only the biological ancestors but the spiritual precursors of New England abolitionists. The image of burning seems to have been chosen because it was associated with Continental, often Catholic, practices rather than the comparatively humane hanging actually done in England and New England. (It would have been interesting if Adams had pursued the handful of quotations she mentions in passing in which the Puritans were accused of “witch drowning,” another European practice not actually done at Salem, and even more strongly associated with European superstition due to the belief that the guilty floated and the innocent sank.) These southerners saw both witch burning and abolitionism as expressions of the fanatical New England character. Their role in creating the popular image of the Puritan witch burner is certainly worth bringing to the fore, and Adams does so skillfully.
Adams also does an excellent job tracing the history of the images of the “Puritan” and the “Pilgrim” in American cultural memory. She argues persuasively that in antebellum textbooks, the Pilgrims were portrayed as the forerunners of the Puritans and not too different from them. After the war, textbook authors shifted their focus away from the Puritans and began to hold up the Pilgrims instead as alternative heroes through whom New Englanders were able to repudiate the Salem executions yet continue to take pride in their ancestry. (Of course, not all New Englanders could actually trace back their ancestry to the Pilgrims. Was one author’s seemingly...