Historian Malcolm Gaskill’s account of a colonial town in New England embroilled in spiritual panic 40 years before the Salem witch trials is evocative, haunting and revelatory
Malcolm Gaskill’s powerfully evocative account of a witch scare in 17th century New England begins much like a horror story. A labourer called Jonathan Taylor gets into bed with his pregnant wife after a hard day, then realises that three black snakes with yellow stripes are slithering towards him. One sinks its fangs into his forehead and breathes the word “death” in a voice that seems familiar before everything snaps back to normal.
For a modern reader, this sounds like an obvious case of a fever dream. On a remote Massachusetts plantation 370 years ago, however, almost everyone felt certain that such events had a much more sinister explanation. Before long, the town of Springfield was gripped by a spiritual panic that demanded at least one public victim to quell its rage.
Gaskill is an emeritus professor at the University of East Anglia and already the author of several books on witchcraft. This one, however, is a little less academic and a little more novelistic. He describes The Ruin of All Witches as a “micro-history”, using one specific episode to teach broader lessons about superstition, mental illness and human cruelty.
“The birth of Springfield, like the colonisation of America as a whole, belonged to an age of transition between medieval and modern ways of seeing the world,” he writes. “Magic shading into science, tradition displaced by innovation, communities eroded by a more strident individualism.”
The setting itself was a perfect breeding ground for such conflicts. Springfield contained fewer than 50 households, trying to make a living from agriculture while keeping an eye out for wild animals and the Native Americans they called “Indians”.
The English Puritans who founded it could only offer an existence “dominated by piety and toil”, but this still looked attractive to many people back home in a country where King Charles I’s crackdown on religious freedoms had provoked civil war. Mary Parsons was willing to take the gamble. A Welsh childminder in her 30s whose abusive husband had abandoned her for refusing to become a Catholic, she still dreamed about remarrying and having babies of her own.
In Springfield she met someone who seemed like a suitable partner — Hugh Parsons, a taciturn bricklayer with a red waistcoat and a clay pipe almost permanently clenched between his teeth. Sadly, the marriage went sour after Mary gave birth to a daughter. She apparently suffered from a severe form of post-natal depression that made her prone to flights of fancy. Her husband, meanwhile, began to antagonise neighbours with his rude manners and constant anger.
Unfortunately for both Mary and Hugh, their marital problems coincided with a series of mysterious events around the plantation. Cows’ milk turned a strange colour, food went missing, children died suddenly and people began seeing ghostly apparitions. Springfielders increasingly felt that someone or something was out to get them — and as the author explains: “Envy was the emotion of the witch, personified as a cave-dwelling hag, pale and thin, squinting and black-toothed, [quoting philosopher Francis Bacon] ‘never rejoicing but in others’ harms’.,
To reveal much more would be unfair, since Gaskill’s narrative carefully builds up the suspense by drip-feeding us important developments. Suffice to say that this is a grimly compelling morality tale with more than one unexpected twist. It has a supporting cast of vivid characters such as Springfield’s founder William Pynchon (an ancestor of the novelist Thomas Pynchon), who investigated the hysteria but was then put on trial himself in Boston for writing a book that preached religious tolerance.
Gaskill’s story is much less famous than the 1692-3 Salem witch trials, which Arthur Miller used as an allegory for McCarthyism in his classic 1953 play The Crucible. The parallels with today’s social media age are not hard to spot either. Scenes that feature creeping paranoia, public shaming and mob rule will spark a shudder of recognition, but Gaskill unlike Miller is not interested in making moral judgments. If you genuinely believed yourself to be “part of a cosmic scheme of angels and demons”, he points out, then the Springfielders’ behaviour was undeniably brutal but also completely rational.
Gaskill’s impressively wide range of sources include letters, diaries, sermons, pamphlets and court records. Most importantly, he creates an immersive atmosphere by describing in raw, visceral detail how these people actually lived. Here, for example, is his depiction of what a transatlantic voyage in the 1640s involved: “Mary’s nights were spent in the low-ceilinged hold, which was crammed with baggage, hammocks and canvas drapes for a little privacy. Strangers were pressed together in uncomfortable intimacy and had to endure the pitching, yawing and rolling of the ship; the snoring, bickering and weeping of its passengers; the reek of unwashed bodies, damp blankets and fetid bilges.”
Just occasionally, Gaskill stretches his imagination a little too far. “Mary would lie awake watching Hugh twist and murmur beside her,” he writes at one point. She may well have done, but the strictly historical-minded reader is entitled to ask: how do you know?
The epilogue finds Gaskill visiting the scene of his story in what is now western New England’s largest city. Standing outside a power-tool store where the Parson homestead once stood, he writes, “I could sense Hugh and Mary edging from the shadows, insisting that I couldn’t possibly know who they were.” He is being much too hard on himself. The Ruin of All Witches is an outstanding achievement, haunting, revelatory and superbly written — a strong contender for the best history book of 2021.
History: The Ruin of All Witches by Malcolm Gaskill
Allen Lane, 336 pages, hardcover €28; e-book £9.99