My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Books about the Salem Witch Trials are legion, and continue to fascinate. Now historian and author Marilynne Roach has taken a new approach by studying and presenting the cases of three of the accused and three of their accusers. It opens with
introductions, based upon the limited documentation available, of Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Mary English, all accused of witchcraft, and Ann Putnam Sr., Tituba, and Mary Warren, who were heavily involved in making accusations. The detail that the author has compiled helps to make these women seem real.
The second section is an account, month by month, of the hearings and trials, with comprehensive and often verbatim descriptions of the testimony of all involved. Initially, this is fascinating, but as the trials grind on, much of the information involves the dramatic “fits” of the girls supposed to have been bewitched, and their reactions to the suspects. Necessarily, many other individuals, in addition to the eponymous six, enter into the action. Soon these accounts become monotonous in their astonishing similarity, prompting the reader to wonder how the distinguished and “learned” judges allowed themselves to be taken in for eight months. More interesting are the vignettes in which the author imagines what the six might have been thinking at the various steps along the way to the convictions and deaths. Tales of how relatives worked to exonerate their women, coupled with depictions of the hangings, are heartbreaking.
The book’s final section deals with the aftermath, when colonial authorities put a stop to the proceedings, shocked at how many were being accused (over 200 men and women) and executed. Once they stopped the admission of spectral evidence, the wind was taken out of the sails of the entire hysterical happening. A complete listing of documentary evidence, with volumes and page numbers, is provided for each chapter. A series of schematic maps is also included.
Although it does lag in sections, Six Women of Salem is well worth reading for students, historians, and anyone interested in the terrible year of 1692 and the witchcraft phenomenon in its American particulars.