Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Q&A with Emerson W. Baker

Emerson W. Baker is the author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. He is a professor of history at Salem State University and the author of many other works on the history and archaeology of early New England, including The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England. You can follow his daily tweets on the Salem trials and early New England at @EmersonWBaker.  

Q: You note that “there is only one Witch City.” Why did the witch trials in Salem take on such historical importance?

A: The Salem witch trials led to the end of Puritanism as a force in early New England. They signaled the beginning of the transition from Puritan communalism to Yankee independence. At the end of the witch trials, the government issued a publication ban, to suppress the growing opposition to the proceedings that had resulted in the deaths of 25 innocent people.

This ban, which would last three years, was the first large-scale government cover-up in American history. Ironically, this action guaranteed that people would never forget the trials. It also marks the beginning of Americans’ distrust of their government.

Q: In the book, you describe several factors that gave rise to the witch trials. What was the religious situation in Salem in 1692, and how did it connect to the other issues leading to the crisis?

A: The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded in the late 1620s by Puritans who left England to establish a place of spiritual perfection, where they would live in harmony under the special covenant they believed they had with God.

However, by the time of the witch trials, many people believed Puritanism was in serious decline. They feared the colony was straying from its religious mission, and that residents were becoming too worldly. Fewer people became church members. The colony also faced a series of economic, military and political challenges, which were taken as signs of God’s anger.

So, in 1690 the legislature (which included most of the future witchcraft judges) passed a law calling for colony-wide moral reformation, telling people to get back to worship on the Sabbath and cease their sinful ways. It appeared that God had set Satan loose in Massachusetts, as a way to test the colony and its faith.  So, it was all too easy in 1692 for people to believe they saw Satan and the witches who were his minions as the source of their troubles.

Most historians – myself included – too often focus on the social and cultural aspects of witchcraft, and overlook the religious aspects of the crime. However, witch hunts almost always took place in areas feeling religious tensions. You can see this in Salem by the pattern of accusations. I discovered that five ministers, four ministers’ wives, and numerous other members of ministers’ families were either formally accused or informally cried out up on for witchcraft in 1692.     

Q: You write, “Indeed, as the key accusers were girls and young women who lacked legal status, there would have been no trials unless charges had been pressed by the male heads of the families of the afflicted.” How did gender roles of the period affect the events of 1692?

A: Witchcraft is a gendered crime. In Salem, 76 percent of the people accused of witchcraft were women. And, since witchcraft was believed to pass through families, many of the men who were accused were relatives of those women. This figure is pretty much in line with outbreaks of witchcraft in other times and places. Europe and her colonies were patriarchal places in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Women were considered the “weaker vessel” – inferior to men. As such they were believed to be far more susceptible to Satan’s temptations, including his sexual advances. Given this atmosphere, many women had such an inferiority complex that when they were cried out upon for witchcraft, they actually convinced themselves that the accusation must be right – that they were witches but did not even realize it.

In Salem, 55 people (mostly women) confessed to witchcraft, implicating not only themselves but also accusing others. It was through these confessions that the Salem witch trials quickly grew to be by far the largest witch hunt in American history.  

Q: What are some of the greatest misperceptions about the Salem witch trials, and what particularly surprised you as you researched this book?

A: The misperceptions about Salem are legion. People think the witches were burned at the stake, but in England and America witchcraft was a civil crime, so the convicted were hanged.

Many of the popular misunderstandings surround the many theories that attempt to explain the witch hunt. The afflicted in Salem were not suffering from ergot poisoning. Yes, some types of ergot poisoning can produce hallucinations, but that type of ergot will also cause people to die – after their limbs blacken, shrivel and fall off. Nothing like this is noted in 1692, and most of the afflicted girls led long lives.

Others believe that people accused their neighbors of witchcraft to get their real estate. However, in 1692 only the personal possessions of an accused felon could be seized, and ownership reverted to the colony – not the accusers.  

I think I was most surprised to learn about the ongoing efforts by victims’ families and survivors to have their innocency restored, and to receive compensation from the colony for wrongful death and suffering. These families regularly petitioned the government for more than 50 years after the trials, and the Massachusetts legislature regularly debated the matter. It was the persistence of these efforts that helped to insure that the Salem witch trials and its victims would never be forgotten.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trained as an historical archaeologist as well as an historian, and I’ve spent many years excavating early colonial sites and studying the objects and daily lives of early New Englanders. So my next book is going to be a history of the region in the 17th century, based on its material culture. My dream would be to write a worthy successor to James Deetz’s 1977 classic In Small Things Forgotten: AnArchaeology of Early American Life.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We owe it to the many victims who refused to compromise their beliefs to learn their story, for it provides valuable lessons and an important legacy for us. 

Today we find ourselves with similar problems to those in 1692. Malevolent witches were real then, and terrorists are all too real now. The goal for both is the complete destruction our society – of everything we hold dear. How does society protect itself from a near-invisible threat? Especially when the efforts to defeat that threat endanger the very beliefs and freedoms we hope to protect?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Interesting interview! I'm puzzling over what Dr. Baker meant by a "civil crime." He can't be referring to the civil law system of continental Europe. And I'm unfamilar with the term in the English/American common law system. Perhaps he means a capital crime? Could you ask him?

  2. In Continental Europe, witchcraft was considered a religious crime, so it was tried by religious courts (sometimes inquisitions). Essentially it was treated as heresy, which is why the guilty were burned at the stake – as heretics. In England and her colonies, Witchcraft was a civil crime – that is a crime against state, not against church. Hence, it was tried by the same system of courts that deal with other criminal offenses.