Witchcraft in America is not a history of the practice of witchcraft. In fact, scholars have found no documented evidence of magic being performed by witches in America. Rather, this is a story about fear. European settlers who immigrated to the colonies in the early seventeenth century brought with them superstitions and beliefs, including the irrational fear of witches, that had accumulated over the course of many centuries in their home countries. As they set out across the Atlantic Ocean, witch-hunt hysteria was raging in Europe. After the colonists reached the shores of North America, they encountered an untamed wilderness where they struggled daily to survive the hardships of clearing the land and building communities. At this time science was a new and emerging field, and even well-educated people did not understand their world. Relying solely upon religion to show them the way in life, they were deeply afraid of forces that could not be explained as the will of God.
This was especially true of the Puritans, who had arrived in New England with a special mission to establish a perfect society. They believed that any adversity—epidemics,
drought, crop failures, social unrest, political turmoil—was God's way of punishing them for their sins. Thus they feared God, and they came to fear one another, as existence in the New World became increasingly more difficult. Soon they were convinced that their problems would be solved if they rid themselves of witches, who were working in league with the devil to prevent the fulfillment of a harmonious community. Puritan officials in Salem, Massachusetts, held formal trials and executed nineteen innocent people for practicing witchcraft. The Salem trials left such an indelible mark on history that the term "witch-hunt" has entered the American vocabulary to describe the seeking out and hounding of people with unpopular or unconventional beliefs. Yet executions of suspected witches, all of them innocent, had taken place in New England before the Salem trials, and witchcraft superstitions lingered into the nineteenth century long after the executions had ended. Many of these same superstitions were revived, though in a different form, with the rise of Neo-Paganism in the 1970s. Witchcraft in America traces this story, from Europe in ancient times to modern America near the turn of the twenty-first century.
Witchcraft in America offers a complete view of witchcraft using three separate formats-overview essays, primary source documents, and biographies. The six overview essays focus on such topics as witch-hunts in Puritan New England and the rebirth of Neo-Paganism in the twentieth century. The primary source section includes thirteen excerpts from documents such as Malleus Maleficarum, the book that started the European witch hunts; and "The Apology of Samuel Sewall," the public apology by a judge for his role in the Salem witch trials. Ten biographical essays highlight prominent figures related to the Salem witch trials, including Bridget Bishop, the first person hanged as a result of the Salem witch trials, and the woman believed to have planted the seed of hysteria in the Salem community, Carib slave Tituba. The book also has a timeline of events, a page of sources for further reading and research, and a section of research and activity ideas. There are more than 50 black-and-white photographs to enhance the text. Entries contain sidebars of information that further highlight the subject matter, and help define the context for some of the events and people discussed, as well as definitions for hard to understand words. The volume concludes with a subject index, so students can easily find the people, places, and events discussed throughout Witchcraft in America.
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