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The bewitching of America

  • (M. RYDER / Tribune Media Services)


On Halloween, the Salem, Mass., city tourism industry goes into overdrive. “Come to Salem and B-Prepared-2-B-Scared! It’s Halloween City!” runs one current slogan.

It is a time of harmless fun for many, but the reason Salem is a center of the Halloween industry is, of course, due to tragic events more than three centuries ago. It was in nearby Salem Village (now Danvers), that in 1692 accusations of witchcraft led to the execution of 19 people, with four other accused witches perishing in jail. Within a few decades Salem had become a byword for intolerance, bigotry and credulity.

Over and over again in the 19th century educators, politicians, historians and novelists portrayed it as a full stop in America’s colonial past. “Remember Salem! Never Again!" became a motto of the country’s promoters of enlightenment and progress.

Today, Salem still looms large in America’s historical memory, thanks in part to its place in the curriculum of many schools. It is an episode ripe for illustrating the lessons to be learned from history. American children are far more exposed to the story of 17th-century witch persecution than their counterparts in Europe. This is commendable. Yet the focus on Salem over the centuries is also deeply problematic, for it overshadows America’s much more complex and recent history of witch persecution.

The fear of witches that fueled the Salem trials was no aberration, no popular “panic” or wave of “hysteria,” but a deep, pervasive response to dealing with misfortune in a precarious everyday world. The trials may have originated with the malicious attention-seeking of two young girls, but it was the accumulated misfortunes of the community that generated the search for those responsible.

Two centuries on from Salem and many Americans were still living in an essentially similar social, cultural, economic, and religious environment. The vicissitudes of life on the edge were all too real, and so was the fear of witchcraft as an explanation for misfortune and envy. Over the last three centuries, thousands of Americans, mostly women, have been abused for being suspected witches. Hundreds of court cases arose from accusations of witchcraft. Most startling of all, it is clear now that we know of more people murdered as witches in America after 1692 than were legally executed before that date.

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