History 332

New England Communities:  Witchcraft as a community phenomenon



  • 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,  Salem Witchcraft Papers, volumes 1-3. Note:  sample the transcripts from any of the volumes.
  • Bernard Rosenthal, ed., Records of the Salem Witch-hunt (2009).  Note:  sample the records.  Reserve book

Further readings:

  • David D. Hall, “A World of Wonders: The Mentality of the Supernatural in 17th-century New England,” in Seventeenth Century New England, Colonial Society of Massachusetts (Boston, 1984), 239-274. 
  • Cotton Mather, “A Brand Pluck’d out of the Burning” (1692), in Nancy Cott, Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (1972, 1986), 65-69. 


Witchcraft accusations constituted a complex phenomenon within a community—a reaction and response to a variety of fears, anxieties, and uncertainties that were imbedded in the community. The long-term and continuing popular and scholarly interest in the phenomenon, and especially its explosive reach in Salem in 1692, has led to studies that explore the Salem episode from a variety of perspectives. While no single account can address all of the pieces that constitute “the whole story,” taken together, these studies contribute to a fuller picture.

Boyer and Nissenbaum’s 1974 community study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the “social origins” of witchcraft by locating the events of 1692 in the community of Salem, and in particular in the section known as Salem Village.

  • How do Boyer and Nissenbaum structure their study of the Salem witchcraft hysteria as a community phenomenon? Why did they choose that particular organization?
  • What is their thesis? Where do they state it?
  • How do their sources shape the questions that they ask and the analysis that they present? What assumptions underlie their questions and the development of their analysis?
  • What does their study reveal about the “community” of Salem Village in the years leading up to the outbreak of witchcraft? (Note: look for a complex answer to this question, for the many factors which, in combination, led to and then fed the hysteria.)
  • If their account uncovers many of the necessary causes (that, without which, an event or occurrence cannot happen), do those add up to a sufficient cause? What questions and connections does their study leave unanswered or incomplete?  Does their community study, with its emphasis on factionalism, fully explain:  why Salem?  why the tensions in Salem Village manifested themselves in witchcraft accusations?  why the outbreak revolved around those particular accusers and accused?  why 1692?

Transcripts: Salem Witchcraft Papers:

  • What do you find most intriguing, surprising, disturbing about the testimonies and cases from the court transcripts?
  • What evidence did accusers present against the accused? How did the court treat the accused and the accusers? How did the participants articulate their beliefs and assumptions about witchcraft?

Hall, “A World of Wonders”:

  • How did seventeenth-century New Englanders understand the supernatural? How did their world view play into the scenario in Salem?