The Ruin of All Witches

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From The Wall Street Journal:

In February 1651, a stream of townspeople in Springfield, Mass., filed into the home of magistrate William Pynchon to report unsettling occurrences. A pudding of offal and oats had spoiled for no reason. A woman experienced agonizing pain shortly before childbirth. A piece of salt beef tongue vanished; a missing set of knives reappeared. Pynchon duly recorded these events in a book of testimony that ran to dozens of pages.

We are fortunate that historian Malcolm Gaskill immersed himself in this remarkable and, until now, largely neglected document. Archived at the New York Public Library, it grounds his enthralling book on a 17th-century witch hunt that, in the author’s deft hands, fascinates as much as the more notorious one that gripped Salem decades later.

A brief note at the end of “The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World” elucidates Mr. Gaskill’s method: painstakingly reconstructing events as they took place to capture the experiences of those involved without using the wisdom of hindsight to explain what was “really” happening. We may know that the early settlers of Springfield lived during the fraught transition from the medieval to the modern world: They, of course, had no such awareness. “Objective ‘reality’ must sometimes be played down to point up the subjective quality of experience,” writes Mr. Gaskill, a scholar of the history of witchcraft and an emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia. “Only by taking the strange on its own terms can we understand ourselves in time.”

Before things get really strange, however, Mr. Gaskill sets the scene with a vivid description of daily life in Springfield. The Puritan settlement was founded in 1636 by Pynchon, a wealthy speculator and fur trader who ruled over the small population, in the author’s words, “like a lord of the manor from the Old World.” Springfield’s inhabitants, mostly English and Welsh migrants of low social status, were busy with labor and chores from dawn to dusk six days a week, with Sundays spent in worship. Pynchon distributed property for homes and farms he had “bought” from the Agawam Indians, and he set each household’s tax rate. He also owned the town’s general store; residents were given credit and repaid their debts in labor or shares of their crops. For men and women alike, writes the author, it was an existence of “piety and toil.”

It was also a breeding ground for bitterness and envy, in no small part because of the difficulty of getting ahead. Colonists were forced to rely upon their Native American trading partners yet feared them; turf conflicts abounded with Dutch settlers and with nearby English settlements. But “even more immediate,” the author writes, “were the resentments and recriminations felt toward neighbors with whom they lived cheek by jowl. Distance bred distrust, for sure; but familiarity and proximity nurtured paranoia and spite.” In Mr. Gaskill’s moody telling, the city on a hill doesn’t sound so shining.

Population increase and bad weather heightened competition for resources. And throughout this atmospheric account, with its creeping sense of dread, most of the weather is bad, from “breathtakingly” and “astonishingly” cold winters that killed livestock to “stifling” summers that withered crops. Amid a deteriorating economic situation, one Hugh Parsons became the target of his neighbors’ suspicions. The town’s brickmaker, he had arrived in Springfield in 1645, marrying Mary Lewis later that year. He was a taciturn man who occasionally became belligerent. He had acrimonious relationships with many of his neighbors, and before long his marriage was troubled too.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal