The Salem Witchcraft Trials
A Legal History
Peter Charles Hoffer
In late seventeenth-century New England, the eternal battle between God and Satan was brought into the courtroom. Between January 1692 and May 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, neighbors turned against neighbors and children against parents with accusations of witchcraft, and nineteen people were hanged for having made pacts with the devil.
Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian long familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials, now reexamines this notorious episode in American history and presents many of its legal details in correct perspective for the first time. He tells the real story of how religious beliefs, superstitions, clan disputes, and Anglo-American law and custom created an epidemic of accusations that resulted in the investigation of nearly two hundred colonists and, for many, the ordeal of trail and incarceration. He also examines life during this crisis period of New England history—a time beset by Indian wars, disease, severe weather, and challenges to Puritan hegemony—to show how an atmosphere of paranoia contributed to this outbreak of persecution.
“Hoffer’s analysis sheds important light on early American law. ”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“Useful and compelling.”
—Review of PoliticsSee all reviews...
“Hoffer enhances his presentation with a good eye for specific turning points in the Salem crisis, and that attentiveness lends support for his emphasis on the importance of human agency.”
—William and Mary Quarterly
“Present[ed] well and in a manner easily grasped by the general reader.”
“This book provides perhaps the best one-volume introduction to an episode that has challenged historians for centuries. It provides not only a lucid and engrossing narrative but also satisfying explanations that seamlessly interweave the best of modern scholarship.”
—David Thomas Konig, editor of Devising Liberty: Preserving and Creating Freedom in the New American Republic
“Hoffer writes with a rare lucidity and vividness, and with a rare compassion as well. He makes the actors in this perplexing drama as comprehensible as they are ever likely to be.”
—Michael Zuckerman, author of Almost Chosen People and Peaceable KingdomsSee fewer reviews...
Hoffer examines every aspect of this history, from accusations to grand jury investigations to the conduct of the trials themselves. He shows how rights we take for granted today—such as rules of evidence and a defendant's right to legal counsel—did not exist in colonial times, and he demonstrates how these cases relate to current instances of children accusing adults of abuse.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials, a concise history written expressly for students and general readers, contains much new material not found in the author's earlier work. It sheds important light on the period and shows that our horror of these infamous proceedings must be tempered with sympathy for a people who gave in to panic in the face of a harsh and desolate existence.