A Fever in Salem

A Fever in Salem

by Laurie Winn Carlson

This new interpretation of the New England Witch Trials offers an innovative, well-grounded explanation of witchcraft's link to organic illness. While most historians have concentrated on the accused, Laurie Winn Carlson focuses on the afflicted. Systematically comparing the symptoms recorded in colonial diaries and court records to those of the encephalitis


This new interpretation of the New England Witch Trials offers an innovative, well-grounded explanation of witchcraft's link to organic illness. While most historians have concentrated on the accused, Laurie Winn Carlson focuses on the afflicted. Systematically comparing the symptoms recorded in colonial diaries and court records to those of the encephalitis epidemic in the early twentieth century, she argues convincingly that the victims suffered from the same disease. A unique blend of historical epidemiology and sociology. —Katrina L. Kelner, Science. Meticulously researched...the author marshalls her arguments with clarity and persuasive force. —New Yorker

Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times
Carlson turns to tackle a phenomenon that has engrossed and frightened generations.
— Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Atlantic Monthly
Ms. Carlson writes well, at times, even humorously.
— Phoebe-Lou Adams
New Yorker
Meticulously researched...marshals her arguments with clarity and persuasive force.
— John Banville
Providence Journal
Provocative, informative, and dramatic...packed with epidemiological evidence and studded with convincing figures and maps.
— Nan Sumner-Mack
The Seattle Times
Carlson turns to tackle a phenomenon that has engrossed and frightened generations.
— Barbara Lloyd McMichael
The New Yorker
Meticulously researched...marshals her arguments with clarity and persuasive force.
— John Banville
The A-List
A fascinating, refreshing reassessment of one of the most bizarre episodes in American history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Members of nearly every major school of historical analysis have taken a crack at explaining the Salem witch trials, from Freudian scholars (who posit mass hysteria) to Marxists (class conflict over property), from feminists (hatred of women) to more ecologically minded historians (a hallucinogenic ergot fungus on grain). In this innovative new study, an independent scholar focuses on the physical symptoms of "possession"--convulsions, hallucinations, distorted language, paralysis--which are precisely congruent with those of encephalitis lethargica. Carlson (On Sidesaddles to Heaven) supports her case with an impressive array of sources, including legal records of the trials, accounts of Puritan religious and medical beliefs, histories of witchcraft and of mental illness, scientific studies of plagues and Oliver Sacks's Awakenings (which dealt with the victims of the encephalitis epidemic of 1916-30). She never "explains" the event in its entirety, leaving open the possibility of further analysis of the public, religious and legal response to these phenomena. Discussing other possible historical and cultural ramifications of encephalitis symptoms, Carlson provocatively suggests that the disease may have inspired the Sleeping Beauty folk tale and been at the root of some Christian mystical experiences. While her use of radical psychiatrist Thomas Szasz's work to analyze cross-cultural "epidemics of mental illness" and her superficial reading of feminist analyses are not up to the high standard of the rest of the book, her theory, though ultimately impossible to prove, is persuasive. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Hundreds of books have offered Freudian, sociological, or gender-based "definitive" interpretations of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Some see the trials as an example of society's hostility toward the old, the renegade, or the foreigner. Others view Salem's 20 executed citizens as martyrs to "the burning times," when Christians tried to stamp out any remnants of ancient nature religions. Carlson, an independent scholar, offers a fascinating and far less value-laden theory. She believes that encephalitis lethargica, the viral "sleeping sickness" that caused an epidemic in the 1920s, was responsible. Salem's many wetlands and its location on a migratory flyway provided ideal conditions for the transmission of insect-born viruses. Symptoms include hallucinations, convulsions, and marks on the skin that may resemble the bites many alleged victims reported. "Bewitched" livestock might have been the result of a coexistent animal version of the illness. Carlson's compelling narrative begs for assessment by medical experts. A valuable purchase for libraries seeking more than a basic summary of the witch trials.--Kathy Arsenault, Univ. of South Florida, St. Petersburg Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-Carlson examines the behavior and physical symptoms that led to accusations of witchcraft and subsequently to trials, imprisonment, and executions. Using various sources including diaries and court records, the author compares reports of the symptoms of the citizens and livestock of the 17th century with those described by victims afflicted with encephalitis lethargica during the early 20th century. Her discussion, which includes such things as convulsions, hallucinations, and paralysis, is fascinating and it is easy to see how what couldn't be explained within the limits of medical knowledge at the time took on a life of its own. Particularly useful features include a chronology that compares patterns of disease in the Colonies and Europe and a statistical appendix. The medical terms might prove difficult for all but the most advanced student but those willing to persevere would certainly find much about which to think. The author's intent was to stimulate readers to look at history and the present in different ways, and she has certainly achieved this goal.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Carlson combines historical and scientific research to offer an explanation for the hysteria in the late 17th century at Salem and other places in New England. Rather than focusing on the accused, she looks at the people who were afflicted with hallucinations, convulsions, psychosis, and often death, then seeks a possible physical cause for the symptoms. She finds a close fit in reports of the encephalitic epidemic in the early 20th century, and presents epidemiological and other evidence to add support. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Carlson, an independent scholar (and author of the children's book Boss of the Plains, 1998, etc.), theorizes that the victims of what was supposed at the time to be witchcraft in Salem (and other witch hunts) were suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a disease first brought to wide public attention in Oliver Sacks's Awakenings. Carlson first reviews the witch craze in late 17th-century New England. She proceeds with a lengthy description of the symptoms reported by witnesses—and this is most compelling. From many primary historical documents, Carlson has selected some arresting details, e.g., clippings of the hair of a victim were fried and tossed on the floor; the next person to enter the house, so these folks believed, was responsible for the bewitchment. After examining the public response to the Salem crisis, and after a superficial look at the connection between mental illness and the persecution of witches ("Mental illness has been around a long time," she says without irony), she arrives at her principal (and longest) chapter, "The Forgotten Epidemic." Here she shows that the symptoms in Salem are similar to those reported during outbreaks of the mysterious encephalitis lethargica, a disease that, she asserts, may be spread by mosquitos, ticks, or even lice from migrating birds. She does an admirable job of pointing out the inadequacies of other explanations for the witchcraft phenomenon and of demonstrating the congruity of bewitchment and encephalitis symptoms, but as she herself admits, no one knows what causes the disease, and "much research must be done." Weakening her book is a weird afterword which suggests that there may be actual cases of "demonic possession"and that those who do not so acknowledge are "arrogant as well as ignorant." Carlson is convinced she has unearthed a Rosetta stone that explains what our ancestors thought was witchcraft, but until medical researchers can identify the cause of encephalitis lethargica, her thesis, though intriguing, remains speculative. (5 maps, not seen)

Product Details

Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Witch Craze in Seventeenth-century New England

* * *

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

—Shakespeare (1564-1616), Hamlet

John Hale, a pastor in Beverly, Massachusetts, a town just north of Salem, in 1702 wrote an overview of the events related to the witch craze in New England. He resided in the area and knew many of the Salem Village residents, as several of them had attended his church in Beverly before the village established its own church. Satan had raised much trouble, Hale observed, "the beginning of which was very small, and looked on at first as an ordinary case." From the first one or two persons examined for suspected witchcraft, the problem expanded until "a multitude of other persons both in this and other Neighbour Towns, were Accused, Examined, Imprisoned, and came to their Trials, at Salem, the County Town, where about Twenty of them Suffered as Witches; and many others in danger of the same Tragical End: and still the number of the Accused increased unto many Scores." Many of the accused, Hale pointed out, were persons of "unquestionable Credit, never under any grounds of suspicion of that or any other Scandalous Evil."

    Not everyone was comfortable with the events as they unfolded: "this brought a general Consternation upon allsorts of People, doubting what would be the issue of such a dreadful Judgment of God upon the Country." Their fears subsided when the accusations diminished in the autumn of 1692. Still, bitterness and fear lingered: "it left in the minds of men a sad remembrance of that sorrowful time; and a Doubt whether some Innocent Persons might not Suffer, and some guilty Persons Escape." Twenty had been hanged and dozens of others released only after confessing to witchcraft. Perhaps, Hale wrote, there had been many mistakes made by the judges and juries in their zeal to punish sin. He reasoned with hindsight that the "Laws, Customs, and Principles used by the Judges and Juries in the Trials of Witches in England," which the colonists had used as "patterns" in New England, may have been "insufficient and unsafe." At the time, witchcraft was a capital crime in every one of the New England colonies, just as it was in England.

    The ideology of witchcraft had evolved from beginnings as an ancient fertility cult. It was modified in the sixteenth century when agrarian peasant societies assimilated a variety of popular beliefs into an increasingly diabolical witchcraft culture. As earlier folk beliefs changed, benevolent witches were replaced by evil entities. Since the Enlightenment, scholars have rarely been interested in the afflicted but rather in the witches and their confessions, and they have concentrated on the barbarity and irrationality of the prosecutions for witchcraft. Yet few studies until the late nineteenth century connected witches' confessions to hallucinatory drugs or pathological states, particularly hysteria. In the mid-twentieth century a revival of interest in witchcraft prompted a new flood of interpretations of witch trials.

    Because outbreaks of witchcraft were centered in rural agrarian communities, in both the North American colonies and in western Europe, settings where collective cooperation was imperative for survival, these communities were vulnerable in a way that more densely settled urban areas were not. Stresses related to warfare, both the Thirty Years' War in Europe and the French and Indian Wars of New England in the latter 1600s, have also been thought to have played a part in the appearance of witches. In small communities where residents relied on one another, everyone's fate was intertwined, and if someone within the community—a friend or neighbor—had the ability and motive to cause affliction and death, the horror was intensified. Whom could one trust?

    Historically witches are not the giggly Samanthas of 1960s television shows or the cartoonish characters we see in today's Halloween decor. Through the centuries witchcraft has meant horror and violence, torture and execution of innocents, and an unresolved fear of the unknown. In seventeenth-century New England villages those fears were not unfounded: chubby "thriving" babies were in the throes of heart-rending convulsions; suddenly blinded farmers were unable to work (in an era with no social safety net); precious, well-behaved children were suddenly uncontrollable; and nearly everyone knew someone who had gone mad from a "distemper" and died inexplicably. These losses were harsh reality, but what made them more difficult to accept was the absence of explanation for the "afflictions." Without one, the reason came to be evil in the form of the Devil. A lurking, sinister, unexplainable presence had to be to blame. And how could anyone know exactly where or how Satan might appear? One's neighbor, spouse, parent—anyone might be culpable. Fear ran rampant through New England, and in 1692 events moved quickly beyond anyone's control.

    Besides John Hale, many other disgusted and disapproving residents of the Salem region knew too well that the witch-hunts, trials, and executions had gone too far. Looking back at the events after the crisis period, people were more likely to regret the brutal treatment and hangings. But only months earlier, a different atmosphere had permeated New England towns and villages. A fierce, implacable foe appeared to have been loose, and the residents seemed helpless to understand or end the rampant incidents.

    Salem's witch trials are etched in American history almost as folklore; yet the persecution of witches in America extended over time, from the 1640s to 1692, and geographically beyond Salem to include surrounding New England towns. During this period something unexplainable and distinct from known illness caused people and domestic animals to behave strangely. This unseen force caused people to fall into fits, feel pains in their arms and legs like biting and pricking, bark like dogs, grovel on the ground like hogs, and even turn suicidal. Psychotic hallucinations were frightening enough, but when an individual's eyes twisted to the side, and arms and legs stiffened in awkward postures for hours, or blood wept from marks on the skin that clearly looked like bites, everyone knew that something was terribly wrong. Even the colonists' animals were struck with unusual symptoms and sudden death at the same time the villagers were suffering.

    In reaction to these behaviors, the community first turned to its educated leaders: physicians and ministers. Medical practitioners—"doctors of physick"—tried various remedies but could offer no explanation beyond that the afflictions were "otherworldly." Ministers were called in to determine a spiritual course of action, which included communal prayers and fasting.

    In a community based on law, the Puritans turned next to their court system to resolve the situation. Hearings, held publicly and recorded, brought everyone involved into the public eye. Accused witches were questioned; afflicted persons were brought forward to tell who caused their pain; family members testified about those who might wish to harm them or others. Magistrates listened, questioned, and dismissed or convicted. One by one, those individuals found guilty of causing the problems—guilty of the crime of witchcraft—were hanged by the neck.

    But executions did not still the outbreak of complaints. Throughout the summer of 1692, more and more people came forward to accuse and testify against others. In Salem the hanging of witches began to resemble human sacrifices to an angry god who would not halt the fits, convulsions, and terror. Twenty accused witches were executed, and four died in prison that summer. By October more than a hundred still lingered in jail, but by then the siege was over. In the last weeks of October, as a hard frost hit New England gardens and ice etched the rims of ponds, a group of ministers led by Increase Mather petitioned Massachusetts Governor Phipps to close the court. By the spring of 1693 all the accused had been released; the Salem witch trials were over. It was the last of the New England witch-hunts; the horror and strife seemed to end as quickly as it had begun.

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