Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers.
The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem.
When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”