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The Ruin of All Witches:
Life and Death in the New World

by malcolm gaskill
knopf, 336 pages, $30

Stories of early modern English witchcraft can often give readers a sense of claustrophobia. Historically, accusations of witchery were made in close-knit communities—epiphenomena, perhaps, of the collective psychology of the village, which excludes outsiders and marginalizes dissent (perhaps it is even the same kind of psychology that, in today’s rural England, still results in bitter and litigious boundary disputes between neighbors). Add religious fervor and powerful supernatural beliefs to the mix, and it is not hard to see how the pressure cooker boiled over so often in seventeenth-century England, and the darkest and most damaging of all allegations burst out—“Witch!”

But seventeenth-century England was a transatlantic nation, and the English a people who spanned two continents. The community of the early modern English village was transposed to the vast and untamed New World, populated largely by the most enthusiastic religious adherents. To the claustrophobia of the village was added the terrifying emptiness of the wilderness that lurked beyond the homesteads—as well as aching fears engendered by subsistence farming thousands of miles from home, where the failure of the land or of the farmer’s skill meant death. According to Malcolm Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches, early English North America was a perfect storm of horror, its colonists haunted by “nightmares of echoing isolation and heart-thumping panic.”

Gaskill is the leading scholar of the seventeenth-century English witch hunts, and his book about Matthew Hopkins’s hunt, Witchfinders (2005), is the standard work on the subject. Gaskill first turned his attention to America with Between Two Worlds, an unflinching portrayal of the brutal reality of life in England’s earliest American colonies. In The Ruin of All Witches, Gaskill combines the two themes—witchcraft and colonial America—in a micro-historical study of the Springfield witchcraft panic of 1651 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While the Salem witch trials of 1692 are well-known, the earlier events in Springfield have hitherto attracted little attention. However, the New England of 1651 was a very different place from 1690s Massachusetts; it was a much rawer, more frightening place, inhabited by first-generation settlers haunted by the most basic challenges of survival.

While American historiography has sometimes envisioned the seventeenth-century colonists in teleological terms as the predecessors of the founding fathers and modern America, Gaskill is adamant that the English New World of the 1600s was English. The American colonies had yet to develop a distinctive regional (still less national) identity, and thus their inhabitants were profoundly alienated from their surroundings. If there was anything that gave the colonists an identity (apart from their Englishness) and allowed them to make sense of being where they were, it was the religious conviction that they were escaping the Egyptian captivity of the Church of England and, like the ancient Hebrews, settling a new Promised Land. 

Yet it was a land that often failed to live up to its promise, and the search for a godly community had a dark side. “Beneath the surface of most settlements . . . coursed dark currents of wrath”; accusations of witchcraft were one way of settling scores. Godly strivings sat uneasily with the colonists’ cutthroat competition for land—sublimated, as it were, within a fragile ideal of a harmonious and devout community of settlers. Gaskill paints a picture of turmoil: the social turmoil of an expanding colonial town; the religious unrest of a Puritan community divided against itself by different interpretations of Scripture; and the intellectual and doctrinal ferment in which the governor of the town, William Pynchon, immersed himself. Springfield represented the westernmost edge of a European world in transition from medieval certainties to a much more uncertain world of exploration and experiment. 

In all of this, Gaskill argues, the role of witchcraft was to provide a scapegoat—a personification, as it were, of all the forces of uncertainty and chaos. The witch was (in most cases) a “froward” woman who subverted or inverted good social and familial order. Hemmed in by indigenous communities, the colonists lived in fear of tales of people carried off by Native Americans, “stories that drifted like spores into nightmares, seeding neuroses of demonic predation.” But although fear of the “Indians” and their alien spirituality was a factor in New World fears of witchcraft, Gaskill argues that anxiety about witches emerged in English North America in the 1640s primarily because the New England colonies had reached a critical mass that bred the same kind of social conflicts as the Old World. At the same time, the English Civil War, which echoed as a confusing conflict in a distant homeland, had “unleashed strange energies.” Fear of witchcraft was a transatlantic phenomenon.

While old England’s major witch hunt took place between 1645 and 1647, the first indication that the panic was spreading to the New World came in 1648, with the conviction and execution of a Charlestown woman, Margaret Jones, on Boston Common. The panic spread north up the Connecticut Valley, and when it reached Springfield it took a particularly shocking form. A wife, Mary Parsons, accused her own husband, Hugh Parsons; the fear of witchcraft was not only pulling apart communities, but also families. To add a further complication, and further anxiety for the citizens of Springfield, Governor Pynchon was expressing views on the atonement that departed from Calvinist orthodoxy.

Popular understandings of belief in witchcraft often paint early modern people as credulous and ignorant, their brains addled by religion; the implication is that of course such people could be expected to believe in witches. But the reality, as Gaskill shows, was more disturbing. Yes, the seventeenth-century framework for understanding the world was different from our own; but these people possessed the same critical faculties as we do. They were just as capable of caution and skepticism, and most of the time witchcraft “seemed ethereal and dubious.” Yet in a modern world when all certainties were overturned—in an age where a king could be executed as a traitor and chaos reigned both back home in England as well as in the American wilderness beyond the colony’s fragile civilization—doubt and fear chipped away at people’s better instincts. As Gaskill puts it, “As life grew stranger, people became more open to strange ideas.”

The Ruin of All Witches is an immersive and at times harrowing narrative that transcends  history to become a book about what human beings are capable of doing to one another—not just human beings in one place and at one time, but anywhere. Gaskill ultimately concludes that the specter of witchcraft arose both from the chaos of an age of new uncertainties and from the cognitive dissonance of colonists ideologically committed to a religion of moral purity yet also pitted against one another in a ruthless struggle for material gain and advancement. The Ruin of All Witches discomfortingly confronts us with ourselves, and the dark turn that any community’s collective psychology can take under the relentless pressures of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. 

Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist. 

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