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“Escaping Salem” Book by Richard Godbeer

Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 was first published in 2005 by the Oxford University Press with a total count of two hundred pages. As a historian, Godbeer gives a contextual and descriptive account of a much lesser known series of witch trials that occurred in Stamford in 1692. They are largely overshadowed by the famous Salem witch trials that occurred in the same time period, but Godbeer ascertains that these trials were of equal importance. The historian notes the strict social and gender norms of the time play the same vital role in the ways in which these trials unfolded across Puritan communities in New England throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The book follows the stories of Goody Clawson and Disborough closely, as after the two were reported as witches by a Kate Branch, many residents of Stamrford and Compo were excited to give their own accounts of their witchcraft. Much of their motivation to do so were driven by their belief that the women were unfair barterers, that they caused sudden illnesses and deaths within their families and livestock.

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The book contemplates many thematic topics throughout its narrative. First, the theme of womanhood, witchcraft, and the subversion of gender standards are analyzed. Godbeer brings examples of how women who did not perform in ways that were considered normal or standard (151). In turn, they were punished by accusations and allegations of crimes that someone else had committed or for misfortunes of which origins were uncertain.

Second, the theme of law, fear, and control are also prevalent. Godbeer argues that the ways in which Purtian societies tried to measure and define things or events that could not be seen was a distinct proponent of their vulnerability within a new setting (161). They had difficulty settling into a completely new world in which life and nature were unpredictable. This gave many Puritans the chance to legislate and punish unknowable or non-existent crimes as an assurance of control over their environment.

Third, Godbeer explores the theme of real life threats and spiritual beliefs and explanations. During their settlement in the 1600s, the residents of towns such as Stmaford attributed every event that had occurred to God or the Devil, making them as real as everything around them to the Puritans. This created a system in which good or bad actions had allegiances to either deities and created a system of certainty that was used to measure any and all occurrences in the town.

Richard Godbeer’s thesis states that it is common for humans to demonize others without recognizing their own human susceptibility and frailty (169). The work exposes that Godbeer is biased and empathetic towards the situation of the accused women. However, this does not retract value from the book as Godbeer’s recollection of the events opposes those of the Puritan society but does not dismiss it and explains it in great detail. It allows for the Puritan view to be analyzed fairly and in accordance to the context and time period during which it was popular. Additionally, Godbeer insight in gender inequalities and politics allows for newer perspectives that would not have been considered at the time.

Overall, the book has increased my knowledge of not only religious and gender histories, but the conditions which change the ways in which humans react to new settings and the unknown. The book is also able to shed light on a historical event that is overshadowed by a similar but disproportionately famous event, which I think more people should know about. As such, I would recommend this book, especially to readers that are interested in the history of the human relationship with mysterious hardships.

Work Cited

Godbeer, Richard. Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692. Oxford University Press, 2005.

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