Escaping Salem

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Richard Godbeer’s book entitled “Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692” reflects and examines in depth a period in American history when the second Salem Witch Trials occurred in Stamford, Connecticut. In his narrative, Godbeer provides a concise and captivating flow of events that illustrate the hysteric and the stereotypic nature of the early New Englanders.[1]

Godbeer’s “Escaping Salem” provides a true story aimed at revealing the historical records of a lesser-known second set of witch trials that occurred in the year 1962 in Stamford, Connecticut, after the occurrence of the more-famous Salem witch trials in the same year. Part of Godbeer’s aim of writing the book was to undermine the commonly or universally-held perception at the time that New Englanders were irrational and feverish witch hunters. Godbeer believed that such a notion was atypical and was purely based on the mass panic about the Salem trials.[2]

            Additionally, Godbeer wrote “Escaping Salem” to engage people of New England who have fallen under the spell or influence of witchcraft’s history. In his narrative, Richard Godbeer explains his riveting story of how ordinary women and men in New England struggled to make sense of the terrors and wonders during work sessions in their Connecticut village. Godbeer also wrote “Escaping Salem” as a lively and thoughtful way of retelling a forgotten case of witchcraft in early New England.[3]

Godbeer’s book has a strong storyline that is properly balanced with shrewd commentary on the context and background, which opens up a wide view of the life of the early New England at ground level. Moreover, Godbeer wrote “Escaping Salem” to show or illustrate a balance of concerns and interests that significantly differ from the boundlessly hyped (but slightly atypical) image of the “Salem witch-craze” in the same year (1692).[4]

Godbeer’s Contribution to Our Collective Memory about Puritan New England and Witchcraft

            Godbeer’s narrative reminds the readers and Americans of the witch trials that occurred in Salem, Stamford, Connecticut in 1692. Through Godbeer’s narrative, the 1692’s Salem witch trials are generally understood to be isolated and unique European superstitions’ flare-up that got introduced in America by a section of the settlers.[5]

Godbeer’s story also creates the notion that witchcraft was a core component of the Puritan New England society from the very beginning and that it played a broad range of complex roles. Although the belief in witchcraft was a common practice among the American colonies, Godbeer’s narrative reveals that formal trials and subsequent executions only occurred in the New England’s Puritan communities, the northern section of the present-day United States.[6] Also, through Godbeer’s narrative, it becomes clear that the Puritans had a specific or unique sense of their assignment or mission in America. That is because they initially belonged to the Protestant groups in England that were strongly opposed to various practices undertaken by the Church of England between 1566 and 1625.[7]

The Puritans, according to Godbeer, opposed the use of religious icons (such as statues and pictures), instrumental music, written prayers, and various worship elements. Therefore, it creates a collective understanding that the Puritan New Englanders had a reputation as overly pious and troublesome people with intense belief in superstitions regarding witchcraft and women’s inferiority.[8]

            Additionally, Godbeer’s narrative creates a collective understanding that although most witchcraft accusations in Puritan New England originated from tensions between neighbors, Puritan New Englanders capitalized on such allegations as a cynical trick to get rid of their opponents or enemies. According to Godbeer, most of the Puritan New Englanders who accused their colleagues or neighbors of witchcraft strongly believed that they were as guilty as accused.[9] Moreover, given the rate of interpersonal contact among the Puritan communities, an individual’s suspicion about his or her neighbor often spread quickly from one household to another, thereby encouraging other people to interpret their calamities as the outcome or result of witchcraft.[10]

Godbeer’s story also creates a common understanding that witchcraft allegations among the Puritan New Englanders brought together three critical, premodern cultural components or aspects, which include the inability to control or explain misfortunes (such as illness); a heavily personal nature of human socialization; and a strongly entrenched belief in supernatural powers that could be used to cause disaster or harm.[11]

            Also, from Godbeer’s narrative, there is a common understanding that the supernatural and the mysterious members of the Puritan New England converged with what Godbeer term as “things most personal and tangible,” and witchcraft accusations emerged along the stratum of their convergence. In other words, Godbeer creates a shared understanding that once Puritan New Englanders got convinced that a particular person had bewitched them, they had the liberty and right to raise a formal complaint and subsequently commence a criminal prosecution process. It is also evident from Godbeer’s “Escaping Salem” that witchcraft allegations in Puritan New England got handled or heard by secular courts, as opposed to ecclesiastical inquisition courts that performed witch trials in certain European countries.[12]

            Godbeer’s narrative also informs Americans and other readers that the provisions of the Puritan New England's legislation against witchcraft got inspired by religious principle and the death penalty got justified by scriptural reference. However, the process of trying those accused of witchcraft was a responsibility of secular officials.[13]

Godbeer’s narrative also creates a collective memory that the Puritan New England magistrates were ready to imprison and execute charged witches. However, like in the process of dealing with Puritan prosecutions in other capital offenses, the Puritan New England courts could not convict or execute the accused witches, unless the provided evidence met rigorous proof standards. In other words, conviction of the accused witches could only occur through voluntary confession or submission of evidence by two independent witnesses demonstrating the accused’s guilt.[14]

What Kate’s fits, and the Wescott’s efforts to help her, reveal about the role of community in the Puritan life

            One of the things that Kate’s fits, and the Wescott’s efforts to help her, reveal about the role of community in Puritan life is that members of the Puritan community gave one another emotional support as they went through various life tragedies and challenges. The Puritan faith to which most colonists belonged taught or held that being a responsible or good neighbor had both its practical and spiritual dimensions. Therefore, members of the Puritan communities believed that they had to support and keep watch over one another, as well as advice each other in situations when they appeared to be in danger of allowing sinful urges to take control of them.[15]

The Puritan faith also taught them to have trust that they would keep a close eye on one another, regardless of the situation. Kate’s fits, and the Wescott’s efforts to help her, also reveal that the Puritan community had the spirit of mutual reliance, which compelled them to work together as one people by entertaining one another in brotherly affection.[16]

            From Godbeer’s “Escaping Salem” narrative, Kate’s fits, and the Wescott’s efforts to help her, further reveal that the Puritan community members were willing to abridge themselves of their superfluities or their accompaniments for the delivery or provision of others' needs or necessities. In other words, the Puritans collectively upheld common commerce in all gentleness, meekness, liberality, and patience. Besides, they remained delighted in one another and got actively involved in finding solutions to one another's challenges.[17] Kate’s fits, and the Wescott’s efforts to help her also indicate that members of the Puritan community mourned together, rejoiced together, as well as labored and suffered together. It also shows that the Puritans always had their community and commission in their work and that they considered their community as consisting of members of one body. They, therefore, maintained the spirit of unity in the bond of love and peace.[18]

What the Trial of Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough Tell Us about 17th-Century Colonial Jurisprudence

            One of the things that the trial of Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough reveal about the Seventeenth-century colonial Jurisprudence is that most testimony or evidence presented in the courtrooms during witch trials proved unpersuasive or weak. As evident from Godbeer’s “Escaping Salem” narrative, learned ministers and magistrates in Puritan New England dismissed evidence relating to strange accidents describing them as uncertain and slender grounds for conviction and prosecution.[19]

Moreover, the trial of Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough shows that the 17th-century colonial jurisprudence did not recognize spiritual testimony as evidence for conviction or trial. For instance, despite clergymen's condemnation of defensive magic by describing it as ‘going to the Satan to find Satan' and warning the court that the Devil was a malevolent liar, the magistrates did not get encouraged to convict those accused of witchcraft based on such spiritual depositions.[20]

            The trial of Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough also tell us that the colonial legal system of the 17th century allowed judges to conclude that prophecy and other supernatural practices proved conspiracy between the Devil and the accused witch, and therefore, the judges could not convict or prosecute the accused, unless the implicating evidence explicitly mentioned the Devil. Thus, the trial of Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough shows that the 17th-century colonial Jurisprudence had significant challenges in handling invisible crimes that involved conspiracy with supernatural agents.[21] The courts could not treat witnesses' impressions and personal experiences as reliable and robust evidence to warrant conviction and prosecution of the accused. In fact, according to Godbeer, the Puritan New England magistrates found sufficient evidence to validate or justify conviction in a quarter of the presented witchcraft cases.[22]


Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 15.


Ibid, 18.


Ibid, 20.

[4] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 22.


Ibid, 27.


Ibid, 32.


Ibid, 39.

[8] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 44.


Ibid, 49.


Ibid, 54.


Ibid, 58.

[12] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 63.


Ibid, 67.


Ibid, 71.

[15] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 74.


Ibid, 76.


Ibid, 76.


Ibid, 79.

[19] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 82.


Ibid, 84.


Ibid, 85.

[22] Godbeer, Richard. 2004. Escaping Salem. New York: Oxford University Press, 89.

November 24, 2023


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