Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Devil in Massachusetts

Title: The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials
Author: Marion L. Starkey
Year: 1949
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Rating: 2

Today, we put the utmost faith in justice. We hope that the men responsible for any crime will be brought to justice; we decide before a trial is over who is guilty, and are borderline angry if the accused is acquitted. We watch thousands of hours of police shows, we are obsessed with stories of the CIA and FBI hunts, and who can help but admire Sherlock Holmes' deep dedication to finding the source of wrong in the world.
Yet, justice can sometimes be this dark, terrifying thing. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, justice took on the face of a superstitious population hunting for something which did not truly exist, and found it in innocent people to salve its own conscience. That is the deep power of justice-- when imperfect people are the ones implementing it, can it truly be considered pure justice?
With cold logic and three centuries of insight, Marion L. Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts sets this blemish in American history against a starkly (pun, anyone?) white background, forcing us to look it in the eye for the first time and consider the humanity of the situation beyond just the facts. Told in a narrative format, she puts us inside the community which inverted on itself in 1692.
The books begins by introducing us to those infamous little girls, Abigail and Betty, who began the panic in little Salem Village. We all know the story, but seeing it firsthand (more or less) brings a greater understanding or impact to what happened all those years ago. As the girls play with the dark arts in the minister's kitchen, readers can almost hear the clock ticking to the day of reckoning.
We watch the girls accuse soul after soul, and the general confusion and moral arm race unfold across the community. For the first time, Starkey points out to us the social and legal connotations of these events, and we wonder more and more how an emerging world could allow something like this to happen eight years before the 18th century began. Not quite a hundred years later, this same state would be in the grip of the American Revolution, full of the ideas of human rights and freedom.
Strange to know that the Salem Witch Trials were a rather small event compared to the enormous witch trials and hangings in Europe at the time. Only twenty witches in total were executed, but we remember the event today like it was the greatest tragedy of that part of history; the more studious can even recite the names of those killed, while the hundreds killed in Europe lie in anonymity. Starkey explores this question: why is this event then so significant?
Obviously, as this book was written 64 years ago, the language is a bit dated. Some of the spellings and turns of phrase can evoke letters that your grandparents wrote, but taking the age into account, Starkey has written a response to history remarkably clearly and concisely. At a mere 270 pages, this is not a long read, and the crunch of information we receive makes it flow much faster than expected.
One of the most notable things about this book is its meticulous research. Obviously, documents from an obscure village in Massachusetts in 1692 are not a dime a dozen, nor are they a light weekend read. Many of the spellings vary greatly (thank budding Germanic English for that one) and others were destroyed to cover up the affair. Starkey has winnowed to the bottom of all the paperwork and brushed together the scrapings of what was real, and applied it to the world as it lived and breathed at the time. Down to the description of John Procter's face and Sarah Good's tobacco habit, she has provided us with enough information to lead us down the factual road, but fill our hands with the feelings of humanity along the way.
The Devil in Massachusetts makes history tangible. It may not take the most comprehensive look at what the trials mean, nor does it add anything exceptional to what happened, but it gives us a more complete picture of what we know.
Because this book is so old and it is more commonly a textbook than recreational reading (you know you're a nerd when you read books like this in your spare time), it's not available on the Kindle, but you can get it in paperback from Amazon for $10.66. I bet a decent library might have a copy as well, so I'd try there first. If it's not there, look in your library network, because this is definitely worth a read for any budding student of history.

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