History 246 Reading Guide

Religious Confrontation (continued) and Social Conflict:  The Salem Witchcraft Episode

  • Carol F. Karlsen, Ch. 3:  “The Economic Basis of Witchcraft,” from Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987), 77-83, skim 83-102, 102-16; footnotes 304-317.  (e-reserve)
  • Mary Beth Norton, “George Burroughs and the Girls from Casco:  The Maine Roots of Salem Witchcraft,” Maine History 40.4 (Winter 2001-2002), 259-277.  (e-reserve)

Further reading:

  • Nancy F. Cott, ed., “Mercy Short, Bewitched” [Cotton Mather, “A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning” (1692)]; “Susanna Martin, on Trial for Witchcraft” [“The Tryal of Susanna Martin, at the Court of Oyer and Terminer” (1692)], Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (1986), 65-73. 


  • Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692., 3 volumes. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library,  Volume 1,  Volume 2,  Volume 3.

In sixteenth-century Europe, between 500,000 and 1,500,000 people were executed for witchcraft. Seventy-five to eighty percent of the accused and convicted were women. Although women had been accused of witchcraft in New England prior to 1690, accusations reached an extraordinary peak in 1692-3 with the hysteria in Salem Village:  141 individuals were indicted and 20 were executed.

This episode has long engaged the interests of colonial historians who have tried to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable. Scholars of women’s history have produced some of the most intriguing studies during the last generation, directing their attention to the significance of this episode for understanding women’s place in late-seventeenth-century New England society.

Carol Karlsen focuses her attention on the women accused of witchcraft in New England during the seventeenth century. She provides a complex answer to the question: which women were most vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft in early New England?

  • According to Karlsen, how did the economic position of accused witches in New England compare and contrast with the usual profile of witches in England and Europe?
  • What aberrations in the customary practices of inheritance made particular women vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft? What situations and circumstances compounded that vulnerability?
  • What does the evidence that Karlsen presents, both about women’s economic situations and the witchcraft trials, suggest about the kinds of disturbances in late seventeenth century Salem and New England that produced this crisis? Was the witchcraft crisis a religious phenomenon? an economic phenomenon? a community phenomenon? a gender phenomenon?

Mary Beth Norton argues that some of the roots of the witchcraft crisis trace back the Indian wars on the Maine frontier. She focuses her attention on four Maine residents: the Reverend George Burroughs (the former minister in Salem, who moved to the Maine frontier in 1683, and who was accused, convicted, and hanged for witchcraft in Salem in 1692); and on three young women who fled the frontier during the wars and were among his accusers in Salem.

Burroughs was among the minority of men who were accused and convicted of witchcraft. His accusers on the other hand matched the profile of many of the “victims” of witchcraft.

  • What connection does Norton draw between the northeastern frontier in Maine and the evolution of witchcraft accusations in Maine? What does she emphasize about the experiences of the “girls from Casco” and Rev. George Burroughs?
  • Why were their accusations (either directly or indirectly) so significant for the witchcraft outbreak in Salem?
  • What were the gendered dimensions of witchcraft that Norton emphasizes? What do the experiences (and the accusations) of the three young women suggest about women’s place in late seventeenth-century New England?