Skip to main content

ICTMN Halloween Classic: Were Salem’s Male Witches Victims of Politics?

The epidemic of witchcraft hysteria which broke out in Salem, Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century was as virulent as the scourge of smallpox that had decimated the Indigenous Peoples of “New England” several decades earlier. Although reams have been written about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the veil of time has further obscured what was never a very clear story to start off with. But a professor of history at Cornell University has uncovered an intriguing connection between the Salem Witch Trials and the Wabanaki Indians, which adds a political twist to the intersection of genocide, race and colonialism that underlies the events in that small isolated settler, and forms the backdrop of the American experiment. Dr. Mary Beth Norton, Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University and author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, shines a new light on the bizarre outbreak of Puritan paranoia that culminated in people hanged, burned or crushed to death by stones.

During her research Norton discovered the curious circumstance that – statistically – the Salem witchcraft crisis was more dangerous for men accused of witchcraft than it was for women. Although records from the period are incomplete, around 145 people are known to have been formally charged with being witches in 1692, Norton said in an Academic Minute on NPR October 27. About one-quarter or 36 of them were men. “Nineteen people were hanged and a 20th was executed by being crushed to death by heavy stones. Of those 20, six were men. Thus a higher proportion of accused men than women were executed in 1692,” Norton said. “Traditionally, the male relatives of reputed female witches could be accused, because it was believed that witches conveyed their diabolic knowledge to associates and family members. Still, one remarkable fact about 1692 is that about half the men charged with witchcraft had no such association with female witches. Instead, some were prominent figures a minister, a militia officer, a wealthy ship captain, a merchant among them. What tied these men together was that all had some association with the Wabanaki Indians who, in conjunction with the French, were then attacking New England settlements. These often inexplicable witch-hunts, then, had a wartime context."

The stage was set for continuing hostilities between the English Puritans and the Indigenous Peoples following the King Philip’s War of 1675-1678 between the English settler colonists and the Wampanoag Indians whose lands were increasingly encroached upon. In the years leading up to the 1692 witch hysteria, King William’s War (1689-1698) – also known as the first French and Indian War -- was under way. The Wabanaki Indians, many of whom had been converted to Christianity by French Jesuits, were allied with the French.

“What I argue in the book is that there are what I call the usual suspects, who are the kind of older quarrelsome women who are commonly accused of being witches, and then there are unusual suspects, and basically other scholars who have looked at the Salem witchcraft had no explanation for why these guys were accused. Either they didn’t talk about them at all or they said they were symbolic figures, but they didn’t say what they were symbols of,” Norton said. The English at the time felt under dual assault from the visible world of the French and Indians and from the invisible world of the witches, Norton said. “And when a young girl from Maine confessed to being a witch and confessed to having been recruited by the devil outside her home in Maine in 1688 just when the French and Indian War began, that’s when they make the connection between the war in the visible world and the war in the invisible world,” Norton said. Neither members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod nor the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine knew of any tribal connection with the Salem Witch Trials.

“I don’t remember any of our history mentioning that. I’m 89 years old and if I can’t remember or don’t know anything about it, I don’t think anybody else would. It was so long ago and a lot of that stuff is lost anyway,” Mashpee Traditional Chief Vernon Lopez said. James Neptune, director of the Penobscot Indian Nation Museum, said no stories have been handed down about the Salem Witch Trials. “What I’ve heard are, well, just the things I’ve read and what people have told me – that originally a lot of the stuff began up here in Maine and that’s just about as far as I can go. I have nothing concrete to base it on, just what people said – that it’s not so much to do with witchcraft but with the first instances of people being healed,” Neptune said. “No stories have come down. I wish they had.”

Norton said she found no evidence in her research into the events of 1692 that involved healing, but since the English believed that Indians were devil worshippers “occult healing” or healing that couldn’t be explained would be attributed to devil worship. But all the English men who were executed were accused of having Wabanaki connections, she said. “They were accused of things like trading with the Indians. One guy was of French birth from the Isle of Jersey and he was French-speaking so he was thought of being in league with the Indians who were, of course, in league with the French. Another guy was a militia captain whose men were soundly defeated more than once by the Indians and he could be seen as in league with the Indians because his men died under his command and he betrayed them to the Indians.

Most importantly of all was the minister George Burroughs, who managed to escape from two Indian attacks in the town in Maine where he was living,” Norton said. Burroughs’ execution caused much discomfort in Salem. Several of his accusers identified him as the ringleader of the witches. One accuser claimed he had bewitched soldiers during a failed military campaign against the Wabanaki in 1688-89. Norton argues in her book that the large number of accusations against Burroughs and his connection to the war is essential to understanding the Salem trials.

She says the judges’ enthusiasm in prosecuting the accused “witches” was largely due to their desire to shift the "blame for their own inadequate defense of the frontier." Many of the judges, Norton points out, played lead roles in a war effort that had been notably unsuccessful. “The book is really about how New England was losing the war, desperately, and it’s about how New Englanders were badly mismanaging the war and how the Wabanaki were winning, and the English basically came up with this witchcraft explanation of why they were losing the war. This is a war that the Wabanaki won and that’s not widely known. I certainly didn’t realize it till I started doing this research myself,” Norton said. “I think it’s the unknown story of the Salem Witches Trials.”