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Essay on The Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton: Analysis of the Role of the Salem Witch Trials

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In the Devil’s Snare, written by Mary Beth Norton, is a book reexamining the events taking place that possibly affected the outcome of the Salem Witch Trials. Mary Beth Norton is an award winning historian and a professor at Cornell University (Mary Beth Norton). Opposing all other historians, she looks at many events from all perspectives, giving the readers a fresh and persuasive argument. The Salem Witch trials was a mass hysteria, beginning with three young children, which lead to the conviction and death of twenty different people accused of witchcraft, while dozens more suffered the social consequences of accusations against them. Many people went to jail and were outcasted by their neighbors, until an abrupt ending to the trials and accusations. Most people have heard of the Salem Witch Trials, and everyone who has is fascinated because everyone wants to know one thing. What caused the trials to take place? Mary Beth Norton gives new evaluations and points of view to try to answer this question, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the witchcraft crisis of 1692 can only be fully comprehended when in the context of nearly two decades of conflict between Native Americans and New England setters, as well as religious and cultural customs, and erroneous scientific beliefs (12). Norton re-examins the event with more focus on the context of the events prior, to conclude why the Salem witch trials were unique when compared to other witch trials around the same time and place.

Mary Beth Norton begins the book by determining how Salem town came to be. There were many incidents involving Native American with English setters who lived farther North in Maine. Many families who lived there for a couple generations were forced to leave after major warfare with the Natives. What was called the First and Second Indian War by many of the settlers ( Norton 11) involved entire communities being destroyed causing most settlers to abandon their homes and possessions to seek safety in another settlement. Unfortunately for them, there was a following war in quick succession. The new settlements were yet again abandoned and the settlers now found themselves in Salem, a couple years before the Witch Trials in a fragile state after the tragic and traumatic experiences of war (Norton 98). Certain traditions that the Wabanaki and many stereotypes held by the settlers had caused them to believe that Native Americans were Devil worshipers (Norton 59) . Cave described these stereotypes as being naked and wild savages with little concern for the human life. Human sacrifices were held with men and children and drinking the blood of others as well as eating their flesh (Cave 15). Although much of this was not true, many settlers believed it was and through the Puritan lens could only be described as Devil worshipping (Cave 16).

A few days after January 15, 1692, Abigail Williams became sick with her cousin Betty following soon after. Both were distempered causing the family to believe that this was no ordinary sickness. A physician, Dr. Griggs, diagnosed both of the girls as being “under and evil hand” (Norton 19), and the neighbors quickly excepted the diagnosis as bewitchment. One thing the author notes that makes this trial case different than others in New England at the time was the pre-existing fear following the Indian wars. The fierce attacks from the Native Americans emptied much of the Northern Frontier and left many settlers scarred and in fear- including some of the people making witchcraft accusations. The first person to be accused of bewitchment and witchcraft in Salem Town was Tituba, the family slave and Native American. Around Mid-February is when Tituba, although no legal steps could yet be taken against her because the girls were not of age to testify in court. (Norton 21) Between the days of February 25 and February 28, the girls accused two more people of witchcraft and torment, Sarah Osbourne and Sarah Good. (Norton 22) An interesting note Norton adds in is that while all three of these women looked the part of a stereotypical witch, they also each had reputations in the neighborhood. Tituba was a Native American, so witchcraft was automatically attributed to her native religion. Sarah Osbourne remarried to an indentured servant after the death of her first husband and was involved in land disputes with her father in law. Sarah Good was divorced twice and fell into poverty after coming from a wealthy family (Norton 22,23) Each of the women were known to the neighbors, so it is definitive that the young accusers had heard the names in conversation before.

On March 12, Ann Jr. accuses Martha Corey of witchcraft, one week later Abigail claims Rebecca Nurse, and later in the same month Elizabeth Procter is accused (Linder “Chronology of Events”). By March 23 Dorcas Good, a four year old girl, was arrested on suspicions of witchcraft. Rather than rebut Dorcas Good’s arrest, many people lived in fear during the trials that if a little girl could be a witch that anyone sitting next to them could be as well. The situation begins to change in early April, as there are a couple events that diverge from the recent trends. The first man to be accused of witchcraft in Salem Town is accused on April 11, John Proctor by his servant Mary Warren. This is a turning point in the Salem witch trials because after John Proctor’s accusation Mary Warren then admitted to lying about her sufferings and accused the other girls of lying (Linder “Chronology of Events”). Besides John Proctor not believing Mary Warren, this is the first point at which the accusers are believed to be lying.

While each of these incidents were going on, there was another war being waged between the settlers and the Native Americans, King Williams War from 1688 to 1697 (Norton 93). Just a single week after the first accusation of witchcraft, in York, a group of Wabanaki fighters banded together and killed around fifty people but captured about one hundred more. Many of the people involved in the trials, be it accusations, judges, or jury, were familiar with the scenes of war and had seen it first hand. The descriptions from those afflicted seemed to be quite similar to the descriptions from the witnesses of torture and death during the first war. The witnesses that survived these attacks were mentally and physically affected traumatized; the fear of the devil perverting their sense of reality. The devil was often called the “black man” by the accusers, a common name for Native Americans (Norton 35).

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An important factor that must be taken into account according to the author was the time the trials were taking place in relevance to technology. The New World had not had the experience of the Scientific Revolution including the discovery of bacteria and pathogens. To many of these people the invisible world of spirits was just as real as the visible. The little explanation for fits and sicknesses experienced by those accusing others (Norton 19) could only be understood by the works of demons and Satan operating at once with the mortal world. But even when compared to other witch trials in New England, the witch trials in Salem remain unique. The vast number of accusers and others who played parts in the trials as well as the large pool of victims show the abundance of hysteria. Those who accused others were put in a sort of spot light by the community, given a chance to voice their opinion in a society that denies women, children, and servants power. During the short period of the trials, these people became very powerful, and society became “topsy-turvy” (Norton 10).

September 22 is the last day that anyone is executed for witchcraft during these trials and October 29 is the day that any further arrests are prohibited by Governor Phipps (Lindor “Chronology of Events”). As the witchcraft hysteria began suddenly, support of the trials disappeared just as suddenly. Within a couple of weeks the trials were over, and there was only a single accuser who went back into the town of Salem. Society reclaimed it’s gender defined roles and everyone returned to their normal lives. In many other cases of trials, witchcraft accusations was baggage someone carried for the remainder of their lives. Those who survived the trials in 1711 were restored their rights and good names by the colony and granted 600 pounds in restoration. There are many documents missing in the accounts of the trials, believed by Norton to be a purposeful removal of certain people out of a distasteful ad humiliating history some did not want to be associated with (13). Although the accusers can be considered at fault for the deaths of the innocent, those who confessed to witchcraft should also be held accountable for those deaths for allowing the accusations to take root by their false admissions of guilt.

Throughout the book, Norton uses many sources both primary and secondary. She used numerous amounts of primary sources, and was able to get direct quotes from people at the trials on nearly every subject. The book was filled with primary sources, which helped to validify her thesis. I believe that one of the most important primary sources used in the book was the account from Sarah Osbourne, in the diary of Cotton Mather, that she was “frightened in her sleep” (Norton 27) by a Native American all black who pinched her neck and pulled her by her hair. This sets up a lot of comparisons through the rest of the trials and helps readers to understand how a lot of the settlers equated Native Americans with demons and Satan. An account like this would be familiar to anyone who had heard of the testimonies from the war, and goes to show how future accusations could be inspired from the recent war.

This book was truly unique compared to books written by other historians. The author’s use of sources, particularly primary sources, was profound and filled up 90 pages for her citations. Her sources, in my opinion, were used extremely well to help build her argument. Having many sources allowed her to provide evidence in nearly every paragraph of the book, and this helps to validate her thesis. When studying the witch trials, many historians do not take the time to look at the context that the witch trials are going on in, and end up leaving out many important details like the previously mentioned comparison between the accusations and war testimony (Norton 27). The author proved her thesis that without the background knowledge of the trials, the trials can not be truly understood by us today. As well as proving the author’s thesis, the context of the trials gave the book a story-like feel rather than a historical analysis and made it enjoyable to read. Her argument was easy to follow and the storyline was very clear. The only fault of the book was the author’s bias. Mary Beth Norton is an older professor researching at Cornell University. She has no first hand experience in the world and culture that the settlers from 1692 lived in. This book is written through a twentieth century lens, and although she does not look at the accusers as crazy for making accusations of witchcraft (something you would be assumed crazy for if you did that when this book was written) there is an undertone of questioning about the common sense of these people. The storyline is set up in a way that makes these settlers seem crazy. An example of this can be seen when Norton explains that Tituba is accused of witchcraft, but no legal steps can be taken against her because the girls are too young (21). In the next following pages, Ann Jr. one of the girls too young to testify in court accuses two more women of witchcraft, and these women end up going to court. There was not much of an explanation for this because someone today would not be able to understand for certain what people then were thinking. There was just more of an accounting of the events which was one of the biases Norton has in this book.

The Salem Witch Trials were an iconic even in our Nations history that mystifies many people and historians today. Providing the context of the First and Second Indian Wars as well as scientific development and culture help to provide an idea of why and how the trials ended with the deaths of nineteen people. With the use of many primary and secondary sources, Norton is able to recount a well verified and well accurate account to the Salem Witch Trials in hopes of understanding what truly happened.

Works Cited

  1. Cave, Alfred A. New England Puritan Misperceptions of Native American Shamanism. Vol. 67, Pi Gamma Mu, 1992.
  2. Linder, Douglas. Chronology of Events Relating to the Salem Witchcraft Trial of 1692,
  3. Linder, Douglas. “The Witch Craft Trials in Salem: A Commentary.” UMKC School of Law,
  4. “Mary Beth Norton.” Cornell Research, 10 July 2019,
  5. Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devils Snare: the Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. Vintage Books, 2003.

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