I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.
Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.
What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.
It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.