[Review] A Storm of Witchcraft written by Emerson Baker

A storm of witchcraft

Title: A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience
Author: Emerson Baker
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date of Publication: 6 October 2014
Number of Pages: 400

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: Beginning in January 1692, Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. Villagers–mainly young women–suffered from unseen torments that caused them to writhe, shriek, and contort their bodies, complaining of pins stuck into their flesh and of being haunted by specters. Believing that they suffered from assaults by an invisible spirit, the community began a hunt to track down those responsible for the demonic work. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history.

Emerson Baker, Professor of History and archaeological historian, has produced an anthropological work that delves into the human nature of the Salem witch trials. The text produced is ethnographic in nature because he focuses on the people, the way they interacted, their loyalties, and the various, conflicting forces exacting their toll on the settlements of the Massachusetts region. Baker takes the topic beyond the supernatural, beyond the ergot poisoning and into a psychological problem known now as “conversion disorder”. This is a new phenomenon to me and while it makes sense at one level, it lacks conviction when considered on a global scale. However, when considered as a partner to depression and anxiety, conversion disorder does take on a new face. I do not want to focus on this though.

A Storm of Witchcraft is not an easy book to read. Baker gives you the names and dates of the trials and expects you to keep up. Some parts were so dense it was almost impossible to get through. Other parts were fantastically interesting and could easily be called ‘light bulb’ moments.

It has taken me a long time to read this book. I won’t say it was a pleasure but it was certainly interesting. For anyone who is interested in the witch trials but only wants an easy to read taster, this book is not for you. Baker writes for an academic audience and is not afraid of intimidating (in a good way) his reader. I’m very glad I convinced myself to finish.


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