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The Devil and John Putnam Demos: Witchcraft In New England

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983
Entertaining Satan; Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. By John Putnam Demos. Oxford. $25.00.

For almost three centuries, witchcraft in New England has been associated in the popular mind with the justly infamous episodes in and around Salem in 1692—93, when Puritan society, as most accounts would have it, finally was overwhelmed by the guilt and paranoia that never lay far beneath its surface. To understand witchcraft in early America was to attempt to unravel the tangled skein of accusations and confessions in that community, a task so brilliantly essayed, for example, by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in their Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974), But students of early American history and culture too often have ignored the fact that Satan’s rampage in Salem was only the most memorable example of an inescapable fact—that witchcraft was, as John Putnam Demos puts it in his provocative study, “part of the regular business of life in premodern times.” To focus so exclusively on Salem is to ignore the manifold evidence that a belief in witchcraft was an important—indeed, as Demos argues, even a necessary—component of the Puritans’ social experience. That witchcraft was “part of the belief system, the value structure, the predominant psychology” of the New England Puritans should come as no surprise, particularly in light of the scholarship of Keith Thomas and other historians who have examined the substrata of English Puritan experience; but, as in the case of our understanding of the effect of radical Puritan ideology on the development of New England, historians of American Puritanism have been slow to apply their lessons. Focusing on the 93 recorded episodes of witchcraft in New England, outside of Salem, during the 17th century, Demos greatly expands our knowledge of those individuals who practiced maleficium and in the process demonstrates how greatly our appreciation of early New England culture can be enriched by an attempt to synthesize the work of demographers, psychohistorians, anthropologists, and others whose work hitherto has remained too much in the purview of members of their own disciplines. Entertaining Satan thus emerges as a truly synthetic study of an important problem in early American culture, a volume whose only methodological peer to date is Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia (1982).

Demos organizes his book around four major areas of study: biography, psychology, sociology, and history—the “four points of one scholar’s compass,” as he puts it—and in each section moves from particular incidents to a more general understanding of his subject. The three chapters in “Biography,” for example, include detailed life histories of two purported witches as well as a more wide-ranging chapter which serves as a group portrait of all New Englanders charged with the crime, an assessment, that is, of common patterns of behavior, character, and personality development. Part II, “Psychology,” centers on the accusers and victims, in particular on their common preoccupations and motives in daring to accuse individuals of witchcraft. Part III, “Sociology,” relates witchcraft to the structures of group life in New England and explores how a belief in witchcraft served as an integral part of social experience, sharpening boundaries and reinforcing values in communities riven by different kinds of social tension. Part IV, “History,” offers community case histories in which the events of witchcraft are linked to other parts of the community’s social development. All four sections combine to offer a stunning depiction of the intersection of character and culture in 17th-century New England.

First, what of the common characteristics of the witches themselves? Most often they were lower-class women (in recorded cases women outnumber men 4:1) in what we now call “midlife”—in their forties and fifties. Conflict with peers, neighbors, and social institutions ran through their lives as a common thread, and their domestic experience, both as children and spouses, often was unsettled. Their crimes, not surprisingly, were linked to power, more specifically, to theft—of property, of another’s health, competence, or will, and, in extreme cases, of another’s very self. Demos links such maleficium to the witches’ own sense of their increasing powerlessness as they reached the age of menopause: it should come as no surprise, he tells us, that often the victims of their aggression were infants and youths who implicitly reminded them of their progressive loss of procreative power, and that in many cases the witches had few or no children themselves. Then, too, the accused were more likely than not to have practiced folk medicine or midwifery, a fact that in the popular mind associated them with “cunning folk” who foretold the future or helped to recover stolen or lost property—in short, with practioners of white magic. Demos admits that his prosopography is one to which there always were exceptions, but it is no accident that his findings dovetail with those of historians of English and Continental witchcraft. If the frightening crime was to be discovered, it would likely be in people who shared these particular characteristics.

Part II, “Psychology,” is the most speculative section and is likely to elicit the most discussion. Beginning with close readings of the cases of Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, Massachusetts, and Elizabeth Morse of Newbury, Demos moves outward to discuss what in the New Englanders’ experience made them turn to the explanation of witchcraft—in short, what events, understood psychologically, made them believe in it. Focusing on witchcraft as a public drama in which accusers and accused, ministers and bystanders, all had their social roles, Demos concludes that witchcraft offered a way of understanding or coping with the hitherto inexplicable suffering, injury, loss, and fear that marked the colonists’ lives. Thus, to name witchcraft opened certain avenues of response—through the legal system, for example, or through the rituals of prayer and ministerial exhortation—to remedy the evil. For an individual or community to locate witchcraft, then, allowed a degree of control over the hand that fate had dealt and as such served an important psychological function.

Further, the author’s group portrait of the victims indicates that, as with the accused themselves, the issue of power was at the center of their problems. Women in midlife who became more outwardly assertive as their roles as mothers diminished, men in young adulthood who sought autonomy but often were forced to remain within their families until land could be distributed to them, girls in adolescence who wished to challenge the authority of older women and who in their eagerness for attention became rank exhibitionists: these most often were the accusers. Demos buttresses this analysis with lengthy footnotes to such 20th-century students of psychology as Heinz Kohut, Paul Chodoif, and Melanie Klein—he has, for example, a fascinating section in which he compares the symptoms evidenced by teenage girls who claimed to be under the spell of witches to the strikingly similar ones of 20th-century adolescents who suffer from anorexia nervosa— and concludes that in 17th-century New England many men and women, for all the purported toughness a faith in Calvinism required, were profoundly vulnerable at the core of the self. Their inability to function confidently as freestanding individuals was epitomized in their fear of witchcraft. But, equally important, to condemn someone for this crime also allowed them to exorcise their own inner demons, that is, to control their own desires to intrude, encroach, dominate, and attack as they sought to compensate for their insecurities. Witchcraft, psychologically understood, represented both the victims’ fear of powerlessness as well as their sinful desire for power; it served, then, as a means to stabilize their conflicted personalities.

The last two sections are, each in its way, equally provocative and illustrate the author’s ability to synthesize and apply the findings of other historians of colonial America to his subject. In “Sociology,” for example, through analyses of witchcraft epsiodes in Easthampton, on Long Island, and Springfield, Massachusetts, Demos discusses witchcraft in relation to the hierarchical and corporate nature of 17th-century communities, and concludes that though the history of witchcraft indeed was different in each town in which it occurred, it was most likely to be found when there was excessive social tension that could not be relieved through normal institutional means. Noting that except in the aftermath of the Salem trials there were no recantations for participation in witchcraft accusations, Demos argues that in most cases witchcraft served as a conservative, cohesive force that controlled conflict between cooperative, communal values and excessive individualism; it did no less than strengthen the bonds of community when they were under attack. Further, viewing witchcraft in light of other events that threatened New England communities, he finds that while these episodes often were associated with periods of intense stress or conflict—from an Indian war, say, or a drought, or controversy over theological matters—more often than not they followed immediately after such particularly traumatic incidents. He speculates that at such times the people were left with a painful hangover of guilt or inner tension that subsequently was relieved through the ritual discernment of witches. Again, the lesson is that there were very ascertainable reasons why witchcraft occurred in one place at one time and not in others; it was a function of a complex set of historical circumstances that differed for each community.

Entertaining Satan goes far toward achieving its author’s goal of merging history as science with history as art, but it does even more. First and most important, it is a study— Charles Hambrick-Stowe’s The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (1982) is another—that dramatically corrects our perception of the New England Puritans. By turning us away from our preoccupation with Salem, Demos makes us see that witchcraft in New England, as elsewhere, is not to be associated simply with hysteria; for by studying witchcraft as one studies infant mortality rates or patterns of land distribution the student of colonial history can learn much about the warp and woof of the colonists’ lives.

Then, too, Demos makes clear that the serious historian now ignores at his own peril such allied disciplines as anthropology and psychology. The study of early America has arrived at a truly interdisciplinary stage; and as we realize that the Puritans indeed were human beings like we are, we must apply the varied sciences of man in our attempts to know them better. Finally, Demos teaches us that as our rehabilitation of the Puritans becomes more complete (in good measure because of the subtlety and honesty of books like this one) we are going to be in for some rude awakenings. Though Entertaining Satan is blessedly unpolemical, it takes a real effort of will, for example, not to see our own lives mirrored in the colonists’. We, too, have our fears and insecurity, our own psychological disorientation, our own critical moment in history. And, depending on one’s politics, we too have our own scapegoats and witches: Third World peoples, the welfare poor, nuclear disarmament activists, the military establishment. Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, Entertaining Satan thus is, as odd as it may seem, indeed a book for our times.


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