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The story of the Salem witchcraft trials is well known, from both
historical accounts and dramatic retellings, such as Arthur
Miller's play The Crucible. Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton
now offers a significant reinterpretation of the events that (by
her count) led to legal action against at least 144 people, 54
confessions of witchcraft, 19 hangings, and one "pressing to
death ... by heavy stones." Norton's contribution is to
contextualize what happened. She studies not just Salem itself,
but all of Essex County and northern New England, because so many
of the people involved in the witchcraft crisis didn't live in
Salem proper. She also says these grim events must be understood
in relation to King William's War, which the early Americans
called the Second Indian War. This frontier conflict and the
religious interpretations thrust upon it created the conditions
for what happened in Salem and the surrounding region, which,
says Norton, would not have occurred in the war's absence. As
might be expected, her narrative does not proceed along
traditional lines. It is driven more by the academic imperative
to break scholarly ground than by the urge to tell a harrowing
story. For readers interested in knowing what really happened at
Salem, though, In the Devil's Snare may be the best source.
--John J. Miller