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 Politics
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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.

About the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer, Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia, is coeditor (with N.E.H. Hull) of the Landmark Law Cases and American Society series. He is the author of Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, Law and People in Colonial America, and other books on legal history.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series