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Review of P.Boyer's and S.Nissenbaum's Book 'Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft'

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If you have ever watched the movie ‘Hocus Pocus’, you are familiar with the “Sanderson Sisters”, and a little Village called Salem. In the movie, directors make the impression that three sisters enjoy summoning young children to their little hut in the middle of nowhere just to take their lives for the benefit of theirs. If it wasn’t for this book, that’s exactly what I would still be thinking. The Salem Witch Trials have been mythicized over the years into something that it was not. There have been many books written about this event, but most authors were more interested in telling the reader what they wanted to hear, and not facts, or how this even started. The authors of this book are Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. They are professors of the University of Massachusetts. This is the right field an author should possess for a book like this. This version is more intelligent, and well written than other books before it.

In the book ‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’, the author strives to discover what caused the upsurge of horrendous events that happened in Salem Village and does this by scrutinizing the history and social lives of Salem Village and its residents. There are many sources used but the few that stuck out the most to me were the use of published and nonpublished evidence. The arrest, charges, critics, and in the end the Witch Trials, all led up to the truth. The organization of the book is somewhat unique. In the preface, the story of why the book was written is explained. The two authors, who as previously mentioned are also professors, were offering a class at the college they worked at called ‘New Approaches to the Study of History’. The Salem Witch Trials was the topic chosen. While they researched material trying to get a jumpstart on the book, they found tons of unpublished documents that had never been used in books before. They decided to use these sources in their book, I mean who wouldn’t? In the next section of the book, the reader is briefly drug through the Witch Trial occurrence. The true chapters of the book center on untangling the mystery of why the Witch Trials took so long to be solved and what aroused such an incidence to happen in the Salem Village. I expected this book to work in chronological order. Meaning I thought I would read about the background of the Witch Trials and then learn all the details about it, but it was the exact opposite. I feel as if the author/s did this to hook my attention. I will say they succeeded at that. This book was easy to understand, and the narration leaves you wondering what happens next. The maps and charts were all in the right places. For example, at the beginning of the book helped a bunch. Knowing that the author/s used nothing short of a statement that could or could not be proven. Each topic discussed brought a new outlook upon the witch trials.

In New England of 1691, young people were being led away (mainly young girls) to meet in small gatherings to discuss the future. Little sorcery was detected, but by February of 1692 the grownups of Salem struggled to put into words what was going on with their children: “odd postures, foolish, ridiculous speeches, distempers, fits”. The local Reverend, Samuel Parris the father, and uncle of the first two afflicted girls were the first to take inactivate. Parris called in William Griggs the local physician to try and get answers. Even he was at a loss to understand the behavior of the two girls and warned Parris that he was afraid they were experiencing an “Evil Hand”. Those who suffered from witchcraft were not diseased, they were victims of crime. Authorities scanned through residents of Salem and judged them based on social status and reputation. Three women that held a bold description of a “misfit” or an “outcast” were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Good was more of a needy type individual. She was always begging for food, shillings, and a place to stay. Osborne was not poor, although she was confined to her bed and household, and Tituba was a former slave. These descriptions would seem to be the perfect suspect, but soon after these arrest wealthy retailers, the governor's wife, and “known” names of England joined the strange women. Ministers and religion also played a big role. There was no church, no ministers, and no meetinghouse. Families were expected to travel for religious satisfaction. Since the Witch Trials had taken such a huge toll on the people of Salem, they stood to build a church and get a preacher in the village. They believed it would help decrease the use of witchcraft soon and keep all evil away. Little did they know, the prayers, sermons, and devotionals would not stop the outburst of executions and trials.

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‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’ includes geographical maps and charts. Accusations and executions formed a sturdy geographical pattern. Charts kept up with patterns to see if they could find anything. A pattern emerged from this exercise, showing that neighborhood disagreements played a minor role in generating witchcraft accusations. What's crazier than the fact that the pattern matching up is that the accusers, which were the afflicted girls didn’t even know the ones they were held accountable for the things that happened. So, in most of the cases here the plaintiffs and the defendant did not know each other. The ones defending the suspect were more than likely neighbors who corresponded with the subject quite often. Since it had not been put to an end yet, ministers believed that is was better for so-called witches to escape than for one innocent person to suffer. It was also then decided that an individual would need to have plenty of proof to convict a witch.

Apart from the Witch Trails themselves, Salem Village was on a mission for identification. Salem Town overruled Salem Village. With this being the deal, the people of Salem Village thought it was unfair for them to still be expected to do things that weren't needed. Salem Village had the reputation of all the locals being related to one another. The unfairness produced conflict between both areas. The dreadful events that would occur later would follow Salem from then on.

There was nothing that I could find throughout the book to make it any better than it already was. As I said before these two authors were perfect for the making of this book. It was a great example of the social history of Salem Town, Salem Village, and of course The Salem Witch Trials. Their expertise in this field of historical matter. The information collected was intense and original. These two characteristics of the reading is a majority of the reason the thesis statement is supported so well. Everything revolved around the torturing social issues Salem had. Following the social issues was the Witch Trials. Patterns of “witches” being accused geographically and personally. The reach out of a community and religion rose to the downfall of the Witch Trials and the populations taking of the trials for a long duration of time in the 16th century. I recommend this book to anyone considering reading it. Since the author/s gives such valid points, you will have a whole new perspective about Salem Village.

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Review of P.Boyer’s and S.Nissenbaum’s Book ‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“Review of P.Boyer’s and S.Nissenbaum’s Book ‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
Review of P.Boyer’s and S.Nissenbaum’s Book ‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Feb. 2024].
Review of P.Boyer’s and S.Nissenbaum’s Book ‘Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Feb 24]. Available from:
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