Sunday, 8 March 2009

Witch Hunt

Having mentioned Witch Hunt a couple of times now, I thought I ought to actually show the book as it is no longer in print (though you can probably pick it up on Amazon for pennies). Witch Hunt was the last book I did with Anne Clark when she was at Hodder and it is a book of which I am very proud. The reading public was a little slower to see its quality, sadly.

The book tells the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692, when a group of girls claimed they were being tormented by witches living secretly in their communities. Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather had encouraged their flock to believe that they were uniquely blessed by God and that all their enemies - whether it be pirates, disease, the weather, the indigenous people or witches - were all agents of Satan. They had no doubt about their own goodness - the Goodmen called their womenfolk Goodwife (Goody for short). But being called Goody Good still didn't stop Sarah Good being hanged as a witch, and eighteen of her neighbours suffered the same fate.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible famously deals with these events, but Miller is more interested in the themes and what they say about his own times - particularly the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee and America's 1950s witch-hunter, Joe McCarthy. Miller conflates characters, misses out important players and events and just plain makes things up. It is a powerful play - and one that is just as relevant today - but it is a shame that people think they know this story because they have seen The Crucible. The truth - as is so often the case - is more complex and more fascinating.

One of the things that I discovered that most intrigued me was the link between Salem and the Hopkins inspired witch craze in England fifty years before. Both were obsessed by the idea of a contract between Satan and his supposed followers, the witches. Both showed that confessions extracted under torture are worthless - most were retracted as soon as it became clear the victims were going to die anyway (a lesson that keeps being forgotten time and time again).

And this link is not accidental. A casual look at the place names in Massachusetts shows where the settlers came from: many were East Anglians. One of the victims - Rebecca Nurse - was from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Her own father had been a minister and had called in Matthew Hopkins and his accomplice, John Stearne to 'discover' sixteen witches. Their shadow stretches all the way to New England.

In 1706 Ann Putnam, one of the ringleaders of the 'afflicted girls' apologised for what she said had been 'a delusion of Satan'. This 'delusion' had involved seeing spectral visions of her tormentors, one of whom she swore had 'tortured her most grievously'. Dorcus Good was four years old at the time, but was still arrested and imprisoned. She never fully recovered from the experience.

If you are interested in the subject I recommend that you forget all you think you know and visit the fantastic online archive provided by Virginia University. Archives don't get much more moving than this.

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