Lit Review

Literature Review:  Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693)

In 1692 and 1693, the Salem Massachusetts’s courts put local residents on trials for witchcraft, leading to many executions.  During this era in Colonial New England, gender was an influence on the accusations of these trials, where the focus was on women due to their natural connection with witchcraft and the Devil.  Secondary sources written by historians that involve the insight on the relationship between women and the Salem society during this time can be split into three themes: defining what it was like to be a woman during this era, how gender was represented in this era, and the class structure of society.  Within these issues, arise several subthemes such as personality characteristics, societal biases, and socio-economic statuses.  These secondary sources offer a perspective of what it was like to be a woman in this era and how gender influenced the accusations and executions of these trials.  These women were insiders, local residents, to the Salem community, yet these women were being accused unexpectedly due to their threatening presence and behavior.

Scholars discuss women in the Colonial world during the seventeenth century as being easily suppressed and dominated, while being closely linked to criminal activity such as witchcraft.  Scholar, Carol Karlsen, discusses in her book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, published in 1989, that there was a “special association of this crime [witchcraft] with women and womanhood.”[1]  Karlsen lays the foundation of women being linked to the darker, satanic side in New England.  In Colonial New England, women were thought of as having a natural connection to crime and witchcraft since they were already assumed as having this mischievous personality trait.  Because of this, society already had a shared assumption that these women would conduct foolish actions, such as leading witchcraft.  She further emphasizes the idea of the threatening presence of these witches to society by writing that the “witches threatened their neighbors’ well-being.”[2]  These women were considered a growing threat to society due to their abnormal behavior, and therefore, the Salem society decided that these women needed to be eliminated before their witchcraft influence spread throughout society.  Mary Beth Norton further emphasizes the notion of what it was like to be a woman in Colonial New England, while discussing the spread of witchcraft in her book In the Devil’s Snare, published in 2002.  Norton discusses the spread of witchcraft that targeted Indians and the French, then later towards women.  Due to the violent fighting among the Indians and the French, Norton notes how the violence led to witchcraft emerging.  Once witchcraft emerged, the focus shifted on how women were socially linked to being associated with more criminal and devious actions.  Norton lists out three perspectives, stated by Reverend Mr. Bernard during this time, that support the idea of women being linked to evil through the eyes of society.[3]  The first perspective is that women were “more credulous” and “more malicious” when they were dissatisfied compared to men. [4]   Secondly, Norton notes how society decided that since women tend to be more talkative, naturally, they would not be able to keep their witchcraft to themselves.[5]  Therefore, these women would teach their children or servants.[6]  Lastly, Norton describes how society depicted women as commanding; therefore, the Devil would be more likely to recruit them as witches.[7]  She describes that society’s perspective perceived women as naturally being closely linked to the darker, satanic personality characteristics when compared to men.

With the connection to gender, scholars mainly focus on the theme of the relationship between the women accused as witches and religion, specifically relations with the Devil.  These scholars use the society’s perspective of women being darker as an influence for the religious aspect of these Salem Witch Trials.  Historians start to see gender emerging with the association of witchcraft in scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, written in 1982, discussing the gender expectations and roles in 17th century New England.  Ulrich discusses the typical housewife, her duties, her limitations, while also noting the lifestyle of the male.  Ulrich notes how women “were physically and sexually vulnerable, easily aroused, quick to succumb to flattery,” and were expected to give their body to a man.[8]  If not, these women were labeled a “whore.”[9]  Whereas for men, male supremacy was the focus and men would not allow women to threaten it.[10]  Ulrich links directly with both scholars Elizabeth Reis and Marilyn J. Westerkamp.  Reis and Westerkamp used this idea of women being socially vulnerable and associated it with evil.  In Elizabeth Reis’s book Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, published in 1997, Reis dives into the cultural construction of gender in the early America’s and how that led to the association of women being linked to the Devil.  Reis describes how society perceived women as being weaker and allowing the Devil to easily reach into these women’s souls.[11]    Reis notes the vulnerability expected of women during this era and how due to their natural societal submission, these women were easily overcome by evil.  Furthermore, Reis describes how the Puritans during the seventeenth century perceived “women’s bodies and souls” as corresponding to “their otherworldly belief in Satan’s powers,” again reinforcing the idea of the close relationship scholars note about women and the Devil.[12]  Reis reinforces the notion that these accusations were made in order to save the Salem society from evil, but these accusations were gendered.  Marilyn J. Westerkamp further emphasizes Reis’s point by describing in her book Women and Religion in Early America: 1600-1850, published in 1999, the societal view of women being naturally receptive to demons.  Westerkamp’s literature dates from 1600-1850, which is out of the reach of the Salem Witch Trials, but Westerkamp has important societal views of women during this era which relates to Reis and Ulrich.  Westerkamp notes how women were viewed as having no guidance; therefore, these women were searching for the attention of Satan.[13]  Westerkamp explains that the society perceived these women as longing for attention, but the society decided that the attention these women were wanting was from Satan himself.  Furthermore, Westerkamp connects this relationship with women and the Devil by tying it to political aspects of society during this era – noting the political implications of the relationship between women and the Devil.  She explains how when women were placed in powerful positions during this era, many male leaders found it hard to believe that women achieved this powerful position by themselves.[14]  Therefore, these male leaders believed that these women used Satan, and that the presence of Satan was around.[15]  Westerkamp was the only scholar that mentioned the political threat of women in power and how it related to the satanic side.  Even though it was quickly mentioned, it is still essential in understanding the society in Salem Massachusetts.

The last theme scholars focus on is the relationship of these women being accused as witches and their socio-economic status.  As discussed in Karlsen’s book, women accused during this era in Salem were “moderately poor” – not the poorest women, but not wealthy.[16]  Karlsen notes that women of higher classes did not have to worry about being prosecuted because of their social status.[17]  Further noted by Karlsen, most of the witches during this time period “were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons.”[18]  She discusses that during this time, the Salem society had rules about transferring wealth from one generation to another.[19]  These social rules created an economic and political atmosphere on relation to inheritances.  Karlsen’s book was the only source that discussed the socio-economic status of women and how that related to the Salem Witch Trials.  Historians need to consider how class could hinder the trials.  Most of these inheritances would never make it into the hands of a woman, and when it did, it was suspected that the woman was a witch for being able to gain the inheritance.

Most scholars focused on the relationship between the social construction of gender within the Colonial New England societies and how that affected the accusations of women during the Salem Witch Trials.  The construction of gender, specifically the focus on women, heavily dominated the literature about the Salem Witch Trials.   All scholars, at some point within their literature, targeted the notion of women being easily succumb to the Devil and witchcraft.  Not one scholar mentioned men being easily available for witchcraft or evil.  Masculinity, as a whole, was not mentioned often.  When it was, it was used by scholars to illustrate the gender roles of society.  Men were both the accusers and the accused, and their viewpoint could have offered historians a bigger picture of the social dynamic in Salem Massachusetts during the seventeenth century.  Having the male perspective would have been beneficial to this research instead of solely focusing on the women’s perspective, specifically the accused women.  Overall, secondary sources focus on the societal notion of women being linked to witchcraft and how that association influenced the outcome of the Salem Witch Trials and the dynamic of the Colonial New England society.

 

 

[1] Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, 1st Vintage Books ed.. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 3.

[2] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 5.

[3] Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, 1st ed.. (New York: Alfred AKnopf, 2002), 23.

[4] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[5] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[6] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[7] Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 32.

[8] Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, 1st ed.. (New York, N.Y.: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1982), 97.

[9] Ulrich, Good Wives, 97.

[10] Ulrich, Good Wives, 47.

[11] Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 93.

[12] Reis, Damned Women, 95.

[13] Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions, Christianity and Society in the Modern World (London ; New York: Routledge, 1999), 71.

[14] Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 71.

[15] Westerkamp, Women and Religion in Early America, 71.

[16] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 79.

[17] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 79.

[18] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 117.

[19] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 80.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. 1st Vintage Books ed.. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. 1st ed.. New York: Alfred AKnopf, 2002.

Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Ulrich, Laurel. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, L650-1750. 1st ed.. New York, N.Y.: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1982.

Westerkamp, Marilyn J. Women and Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions. Christianity and Society in the Modern World. London ; New York: Routledge, 1999.