Devil in the Shape of a Woman:
Witchcraft in Colonial New England

Book Review
‘Tis the season of witches in October. As a lover of history, I decided to revisit an episode in early U.S. history when women (and some men and children) were tried, convicted and hanged for being in league with the devil in late 17th century New England.

Professor Emerita of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, author Carol F. Karslen, writes, “The fascination with witchcraft is perhaps especially pronounced in the United States, where its most dramatic episode took place too late, and among too educated a populace, for us to dismiss it as mere ‘superstition.’” The New England witch of the late 1600s was human, but she had superhuman powers that enabled her to perform maleficium, meaning she could cause harm to others, be they human or animal, by supernatural methods.

Women who were single or widowed and who were over the age of sixty were in danger of accusations of practicing witchcraft. Another general theme that Karlsen teases out of the records is that women who stood to inherit property were more likely to be among the accused practitioners of maleficium. Women as property owners defied an age-old English custom that was carried to the North American English colonies of males as property owners. Women who could potentially disrupt this practice created disorder.

Karlsen has painstakingly worked through all kinds of public records to piece together many of the stories of women who were accused, tried and hanged for witchcraft. She looks at the sermons of local ministers in the region, like those of Increase Mather, who explained the possessed women’s conditions as the result of the biblical first seduction of Eve. Mather concluded, “[P]erhaps for this reason one Sex may suffer more Troubles of some kinds from the Invisible World than the other, as well as for that reason for which the Old Serpent made where he did his first Address.”

Women who were different or nonconformist in any way in the colonial New England villages of the Puritans could find themselves running afoul of neighbors, elders, husbands, local youngsters, ministers and parishioners who cast a wary eye toward everyone. One had to always stay alert for signs of evil and report to the doctor and the minister those who were afflicted. Karlsen has recovered the stories of the women caught up in the hysteria. Women were either godly or witches. The scary, frightening and horrific need not require a costume, makeup, or chilling sound effects. It is located in the real world and set forth in this revealing, unnerving historical analysis.

Patricia Furnish is bookseller at Malaprop’s Bookstore

Written by Patricia Furnish