Richard Godbeer, the author of Escaping Salem: The other witch hunt of 1692 specializes in colonial and revolutionary, emphasizing on gender studies, religious cultures and history of sexuality. This book is of non-fiction, history, witchcraft genre written using historical documents. The Salem witch hunt is among the most unpopular occurrences in the early America history. Although it was among the most infamous events, it was the only such episode to take place in New England that year. This book of Escaping Salem reorganizes the other witch hunt that took place in Stamford, Connecticut. It is one of the most helpful books which take the students on a revealing journey into the psychological and mental journey of the early America history.
In his book, Godbeer narrates of a seventeen-year-old maidservant, drawing on an eyewitness testimony. He tells of Katerine Branch from Westcot family who begins succumbing to fits of the sort of bewitchment as the Salem trials are starting to get underway. At the time of these strange visions, Katherine wails of pain and fright. Godbeer narrates of how she would also fall into trances, collapse on the ground, and cry out loud in pain, contort and be stiff as a board. Kate started making claims of spectral visions of witches in either animal or human form afflicting her. Her attempt to find an explanation, whether natural or supernatural why strange things are happening to her, becomes a gradual process. Although it is a slow process, Kate later claims to identify two of these witches who inflict pain and disturb her. The identification process stretched over the summer months. A special court of Oyer and Convener is convened where five women are formally accused. The author states that the sixth that was likely to be accused had fled to relatives in New York City and therefore out of reach in the courts.
Godbeer tells us that of the five women accused, three were almost immediately set free after a review of the evidence. Kate, therefore, accuses Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Compo of bewitching her. Initially, the jury could not reach a verdict and. Therefore, the case was referred to Connecticut General Assembly for further instructions. This was for the court to review the case once more and reach a decision. There was weighing cautious, and careful weighing of the evidence, and thus is why ministers from all over Connecticut were always consulted. After a critical analysis of the evidence, Clawson is found not guilty and released, but Desborough is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Although the Jury made their decision, the question is left to the audience. According to Godbeer, most of the villagers believed that the afflicted villages were bewitched. Questions were how could the court of law be sure that the mentioned particular suspects had committed the crimes? Furthermore, the crimes are invisible. They stated that there was insufficient to convict someone of murder. As anyone can argue out, the claims laid out by the civilians are undoubtedly true and reasonable. It is for these reasons that the court receives a lot of protest and attacks. Prior to coming up with the decision to sentence Dorough to death, governor of the Massachusetts becomes worried about the news of his own wife being mentioned among the suspects, and he thinks of dropping and suspending the trials.
The reader could, therefore, argue and ask, were Katherines pain due to natural or supernatural causes? Was she probably faking the symptoms? Since the information of being bewitched came from demons who might well be lying, why believe the specific accusations she claimed? Godbeer refers to this as a typical trial. According to Godbeer Kate was an orphan from a poor background, with no dowry, facing poor chances f even marrying. She was the typical woman who the New Englanders imagined witches would want to recruit. Her torments were meant to drive her to serve the devil. The household that one could imagine witchcraft was taking place was Wescot. According to Godbeer, one of Wescots daughters had suffered fits but eventually disappeared after a short while. Although there were explanations of witchcraft, a midwife had initially been summoned to explain the fits. She concluded that fits could be a result of natural malady and can be treated with natural remedies. When Katherines visions intensify, people become more convinced that witchcraft existed. There are some who do not believe in witchcraft and maintain skepticism that Katherine was dissembling or naturally afflicted.
In this book, suspicion of witchcraft turns into an accusation against specifically alleged witches. One event after the other occurs following a typical course. To be specific, old women with a reputation for being cantankerous were highly targeted. All these women accused of witchcraft had been involved in some kind of dispute with the Wescot family, and Katherine most probably knew or had heard about it. They also had a reputation of being suspected witches that had been there way back, but the accusations had not been made formal or official. Godbeer looks at the attitude portrayed by the magistrates towards the afflicted parties and summarizes it to be a polar reversal of each other. Whereas afflicted girls were considered to be unimpeachable witnesses and encouraged to testify, Kate was treated with extreme skepticism.
To show the dubiousness of the trial Godbeer examines Magistrate Jonathan Sellecks notes to determine the extent of guilt of someone exhibiting a look of what can be termed as witchcraft. The evidence in the trial was weak creating a challenge to the judges and the women accused if found guilty faced death sentence. Godbeer, therefore, uses he records of the trial to come up and create a narrative that brings the readers attention to what happened, not very far from Salem but with a different result. He talks of Magistrate Jonathan Selleck, who was increasingly becoming worried about the dangers facing Stamford. Jonathan was regarded as one of the foremost residents of Stamford as he and his younger brother had moved there in 1660. They were also wealthy compared to the living standards of the people around. It is for this reason that the town gave them the authority to ferry cargos back and forth.
Jonathan with his status, from marrying a rich mans daughter to being a militia officer, elected representative of the governors council to become a magistrate; he was one of the most powerful men in Salem together with his brother. Although he was faced with a financial blow, he was still a key player in the local affairs and had close connections to almost all strong families countywide. He claimed to want to protect the city with his life together with his old friends who watched the city grow to what it is today. With a witch scare from Hartford, Jonathan realized what kind of danger the town was into. He knew how hard it was going to be proving an invisible crime in the court of law. Religious doctrines and legal code allowed accusations of witchcraft, but the court officials were never impressed by the evidence and the supporters.
With the naming of the suspects by Kate, the jury was terrified. This is because the public was on the look out to see they could handle the situation. Magistrates work was tough, complicated and disagreement arose among residents on the subject of Katherine. Residents even visited the resident where Katherine was to see the intensity of her torments. Godbeer Is not convinced about the judgment used to sentence Desborough to death as more evidence needed to be given before sentencing her to death. Villagers agree with the ruling, others disagree, they are angry and frustrated by the ruling, but the final decision has already been made.
Through Godbeers narrative, we can actually feel as if we were there when all this was happening. We are engaged with the different views of the villagers towards Kate- some trusted I her thoughts that she was truly tormented by witchcraft while others thought she was faking and making it all up. When it comes to trial, a lot of records is missing and what remains are the records of Magistrate Selleck. From the previous trials as stated in the notes, witchcraft was tried and did not count as evidence. It shows a clear break from the hunting of witches and trials at Salem, which is interesting to read.
Godbeer explains how he used the trial evidence to build his narrative, where he offered as inside perspective of the craft of historians. According to Godbeer, the most interesting points of this book are three. The first point is about Katherine Branch afflictions. Her affliction was not contagious unlike with the other girls who had similar fits in Salem. Although the daughter of Kates employer had had such fits earlier on, no one joined Kate in her suffering. The other point is that Magistrates in Connecticut had different rules than the ones in Massachusetts. They did not allow spectral evidence; anything that the afflicted person has seen or heard in one of their convulsions. They also required two reliable witnesses and a clear focus on the Covenant with the Satan/Devil as an offense worthy to be prosecuted. The last point is the attitude shown by the magistrates towards the affected parties. The affected girls were to be encouraged to perform at the trials, but they were treated with absolute skepticism.
In conclusion, this book is very useful for shedding light on the moments at and various ways that Salem fell into what can be referred to as hysteria. As the book comes to an end, Godbeer reminds us that theses witch hunts are not are not as far in the past, as we would want to believe. The overall importance of this event is informing the many people that chaos and lawlessness were not the norms when a woman was accused of witchcraft. Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 is an important and highly recommended book in terms of its value to the reader to attain a sense of what society was actually like in Americas early colonial period.
Godbeer, R. (2005). Escaping Salem: The other witch hunt of 1692. New York [u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press.
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