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Salem Possessed: a Critical Review

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Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum have compiled evidence to support their thesis that the Salem Witch Trials are hardly a sporadic event, but instead was an intensified verion of the struggle of the early settlers to acclimate themselves to the new way of life in the Americas. The authors have presented multiple sources of information to show that the social issues and personal relationships in this Massachusetts region had a large impact on the community and the events that brought about the Salem Witch trials.

The authors state that the Salem Witch Trails are often viewed as an isolated event, without also looking at the tension between opposing groups that occupied the area at the time. The first important point made by the authors was the struggle between Salem Town and Salem Village. At this time in history Salem Town was one of the major ports in Massachusetts and had a growing population of immigrants because of this. The inhabitants of this region expanded their hold on the lands North West of Salem town. These lands became known as Salem Village. In society at this time property ownership was passed down through the family by the way of the sons.

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The first men who owned land in Salem Village eventually passed the land down to their sons, which meant the Village grew in occupants quickly as these sons would marry and start families of their own. The members of Salem Village had been paying taxes, working town guard shifts and involving themselves in town matters that generally had no effect on their lives in Salem Village. Once the population in the Village has risen to enough occupants they felt it was only right to establish town meeting place and a Church to become their own established community. Salem Town did not agree; the town still relied on the occupants of Salem Village to supply their harvests, pay taxes and contribute to the town’s ever-growing needs. The struggle of the villagers was fueled by passion, but also disparity. The sons of the original land owners were having children of their own, and there was not enough land to be split between the new generation. This threatened the lively hood of the families because these lands were used to farm as their main source of income. With towns surrounding Salem the prospect of outward expansion was bleak and the diminishing availability of land was a source of intense stress for the farmers.

The commercial business men of Salem Town and the farmers of Salem Village were often found on opposing sides of political, social and economic issues in the area. The second point made was the struggle the community experienced in respect to the Minister for the Church of Salem Village. The Village members were working hard to establish a church of their own that was within reasonable distance to their homes, this would further distance the Village from Salem Town. The villagers had formally requested a minister by the name of Samuel Parris to take the office of Minister but failed to hear a response. The villagers then appointed and sent two more committees to negotiate the position.

Finally, Parris responded with a counter-offer, that the committee eagerly accepted and assured Parris the town and its inhabitants would honor. As word of the new demands spread through the community opposition and resentment began to grow. Eventually a session was held to negotiate the terms of the new Ministers compensation, which included more townspeople than the committees that initially negotiated with him. The agreements reached in this session were not recorded in The Village Book of Record until a month later, and without Parris present. It later came to light that the terms Parris thought had been defined were left vague or completely ignored in this record of the event. Eventually these terms began going unfulfilled, at first by individuals but eventually by “a matter of Village policy”. These desperate times drove Parris to desperate measures, which caused him to lose the respect of many community members. The Church records from this time were helpful in deciphering which individuals were associated with the Church and which community members were no associated with it.

These Church records were also helpful in shedding a light on the religious contribution to the Salem Witch Trials. Upon Parris’ arrival he offered a hopeful future for the village being united by a church and putting away their differences. Parris quickly realized that this hopeful future was not on the horizon for Salem Village. Once this realization set in Parris began preaching of subversion and deceit. He went on to connect these things with evil, even citing bible stories that connected wrongdoings to the devil and witches. Tensions in the community continued to rise with the help of its minister. Once there were accusations of witchcraft in the village Parris used the prospect of witchery as evidence of the growing power of Satan to bring the people of the community back together under the church. The last point made by the Authors is that there was a family feud in the community that had been going on for generations. The families of John Putnam and John Porter were both very prosperous families. Both men had settled early in the area that would eventually become Salem Village and each had 5 sons to whom their lands would be split between upon their deaths. Each of the Porter and Putnam sons, along with the men who married the daughters of each family, were generally well-off and prosperous in their ventures.

The Porter family held lands on the Salem Town side of Salem Village, which meant they had easy access to the town and John Porter utilized his geographical location to expand his economic activities for beyond that of farming. The Putnam family lands were located further to the west and included large tracts in the North Western portion of Salem Village, they continued expanding its lands in that direction. The Putman family had inadvertently condemned themselves to farming on diminishing lands as the family grew each generation.

The Putnam family lands being so far away from Salem Town center did not offer them much in the way of commercial ventures like the Porter family men were expanding on. Thomas Putman Sr. remarried after his first wife, Ann, who bore him 8 children, 2 of which were boys, passed away. Thomas had one child with his new wife, Mary, who they named Joseph. Upon Thomas senior’s death he left most of this property to the new wife, Mary, and the new son, Joseph, because his older sons had already established their farms on portions of his and that were given to them. Joseph Putnam became one of the richest men in the village at the age of 18. The eldest sons were not happy with the distribution of property and they put forth effort to probate the will but eventually failed in their endeavor. Two years later Joseph Putnam married Elizabeth Porter. With this marriage Joseph secured an alliance with the only family in town that was more influential or wealthy that that of the Putnam family.

The oldest Putnam brothers had a difficult time accepting this marriage. The family of Thomas Putnam had been experiencing what seemed like unexplainable hardships over the years with no apparent culprit. At this time the “Afflicted Girls’ began crying witch, all three of these girls lived under the roof of Thoman Putnam Jr. Thomas Juniors wife then began complaining of afflictions and from this point forward more witches continued being accused. The oldest Putnam brothers re-established their case for wrong doing when Josephs mother, Mary, passed away and cut them short in her will. Their claim this time was that Mary and Joseph had been irresponsible with his father’s estate and money for several years. Eventually Mary’s mental condition before her death would come into question but once again their attempts failed, this time thanks to Joseph Putnam’s ties to the Porter family. This book did a great job at examining the social issues and personal relationships of the time that contributed to the Salem Witch Trials.

The authors offered a multitude of evidence from Village and Church record books as well as property ownership and tax records to support the thesis that there were more factors at play during the Salem Witch Trials than generally noted when discussing the events of that time. I enjoyed reading this book because of the deep social web of relationships and human nature that is discussed within it. The authors offered many charts and graphs to help the reader visualize the property ownership locations, where the accusers and the witches lived, the back stories of both the Porter and Putnam families, the life of Samuel Parris, and support their claim of opposing factions in the area contributing to the ferocity of the trials.

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