The back cover of the edition of The Devil in Massachusetts I read stated that Ms. Starkey “applies modern psychiatric knowledge to the witchcraft hysteria” which plagued Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Although Starkey’s work is obviously well-researched and is historically authentic, it is neither an enquiry nor a psychological evaluation with new insights into the mass panic caused by several seriously disturbed young girls. She poses question after question to the reader yet puts none of her own conclusions or hypotheses to any of them.
The Devil in Massachusetts is elegantly written based on Starkey’s research of actual trial transcripts, historical records and publications of the time. However her penchant for asking questions, double negatives and placing subordinate clauses at the beginning of sentences does cause the reader to double-back much of the time to re-read passages to understand her message.
The absence of any meaningful dissertation on the population may be a moot point in this post 9/11 world, whatever conclusions could be drawn in Starkey’s 1949 publication. Still it would be interesting to know what caused several young girls, ages eight to eighteen, to suddenly fall into convulsing fits and claim they were being tortured by invisible imps. They ‘cried out’ members of the community, mostly women, as their tormentors.
Arrests were issued and carried out with frequency to bring the accused before magistrates who firmly believe in the existence of witches. More disturbing than the girls made-up hysterics was the courts’ complete buy-in of the ‘spectral evidence’, unseen witches and wizards observed ONLY by the afflicted girls. And they weren’t the only ones. Families of the accused disowned their relatives at the mere thought of being related to a witch, even if the woman had never shown any behavior remotely reminiscent of witchcraft. Others stood by their loved ones, bringing countless witnesses to testify on their behalf. Cooler minds did not prevail as the shrieks and howlings of pre-teen girls gave precedence over more knowledgeable and sane people.
Other towns in the Salem area such as Andover and Ipswich encountered similar episodes but by now sanity began to take hold and these cases were dismissed as quickly as they began.
The self-important Massachusetts preacher Cotton Mathers got caught up in the hysteria as well and through his own reticence and culpability, failed to rescue a man whom he concluded to be innocent. In later years, he managed to attach his name to saving the souls of condemned pirates, a crime with more tangible and concrete evidence against the accused.
Despite the lack of any new insights on the Salem witch trials, The Devil in Massachusetts is a great glimpse into the mass confusion, terror and murder in pre-colonial New England. It does cause one to recall the old adage about history repeating itself, but if Starkey did not enlighten us onto the psychological reasoning behind the panic, are we repeating it now? The days of hunting witches to hang them or burn them at the stakes are over. But what about our current ‘witch hunts’ against persons of difference race, religion or sexual orientation?
I guess the answer to the first question is ‘yes’.