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The Devil in Massachusetts: A Book Review

Updated on October 28, 2014

Since the end of the Salem witch trials, hundreds of books have been written portraying the event. A cynic might assume all of these books that have been written are dry historical documents with little life or creativity. But Marion Starkey’s book would prove the cynic wrong. Born in the very state where the witchcraft trials first began, Marion Starkey presents a historical narrative intermingled with a modern view of psychology. In her narrative she uses psychological reconstruction to present the moods and fits of the afflicted girls as products of a harsh Calvinist upbringing which led them to lash out in bizarre hysterics, meaning they were “no more seriously possessed than a pack of bobby-soxers on the loose.”(42)

The Devil in Massachusetts recalls the accounts of the Salem Witch Trials beginning with young Betty Parris’s first decline into a strange sickness and ending with the final restitutions dealt to the families of the condemned. Behind each person cried out upon, secret manipulations by those who might benefit from the favorable situation is explored. For example, Ann Putnam is continually described as a by-product of her mother’s vengeful spite, which has shaped Ann to strategically accuse those believed by her mother to have been responsible for terrible occurrences in her own life. The book fills the gaps the court records leave empty by developing reasons behind the actions of the afflicted, the accused, and the honorable judges. Her book covers each examination and trial, all while emphasizing how the girls grew more and more physically and mentally distorted with their own lies. Nearing the end, she attempts to give a more positive aspect to The Devil in Massachusetts with Salem’s forgiveness towards Ann Putnam and new minister who helps heal the detached town.


Devil in Massachusetts, The: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witc
Devil in Massachusetts, The: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witc

The Devil in Massachusetts. By Marion L. Starkey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950. 310 pages.

 

Psychological Aspect

Using psychological research based upon the works of Freud and his studies, Starkey attempts to make the text clear by filling in the gaps between historical records with psychological probabilities. A natural psychological need for free will and acknowledgment in the afflicted girls created a constant strain on their attempt to live in an unnatural adult world that gave no outlet for childhood pleasure. Emotionally repressed and forced to endure the “rigors of a Calvinist childhood,”(3) they longed for recognition and freedom. When devilish pleasures entered their forbidden world, they were torn between guilt and fulfilled cravings, which increased the psychological odds that a crisis was about to occur. Calvinist religion imprisoned them leaving no legitimate outlet for young incarcerated spirits, the girls found compensation in a type of emotional orgy. These physical fits, whatever they might have been, developed into pure childlike pleasure which changed young girls into conniving accusers.

Author Marion L Starkey with Cat
Author Marion L Starkey with Cat

Development & Alterations

In general format Starkey’s narrative of the development and alterations of the Salem Witch Trials is very different from other historical documents. Starkey takes a well-traveled route of simple court documents and essays and through a complex and well-written narrative revitalizes Salem once again. In her writing, she emphasizes telling the story of Salem while making psychological interpretations which allow for psychological reconstruction. Though written beautifully, Starkey’s psychological reconstruction, however well researched it might be, is overshadowed by an environment of emotional thought.

Portrayals of each thought are often nothing more than an educated hypothesis on her individual belief about each personality described. In the book she often transposes historical assumptions, which she calls psychological reconstruction, about the players in the Salem trials. To draw one example from The Devil in Massachusetts, Starkey paints Tituba, the slave of the Parris home, to be a matron and loving figure, emphasizing that she views Betty Parris as her own child, “the half-savage slave loved to cuddle the child in her own snuggery by the fire, stroke her fair hair and murmur to her old tales and nonsense rhymes” (30). Starkey makes a point to describe Tituba as being rudimentary and low, yet appearing that she still enjoys the same freedom to love as if she were an eligible part of the Parris family. Perhaps this could be explained by Starkey herself, having been born in a time period when many of the horrors of slavery were still being overlooked, she may have assumed her own reconstruction correct.

Final Thoughts

Simply put, Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts is a well-written piece of historical literature on the events that unfolded amidst the Salem Witch Trials. Her list of both primary and secondary sources is impressive. The carefully and well-written book gives a priceless opportunity to feel the emotions that may have occupied the thoughts and minds of Salem occupants in 1692. However, the final effect is marred by her psychological reconstruction and maneuvering of the character’s motives to create a livelier storyline. Despite her liberties the pains she took to produce such an interpretation allows Starkey to render her subject in a more personal way than any of her predecessors.

Interested in the Salem Witch Trials?

These books will give insight into the infamous Salem Witch Hunts and the theories behind them.
These books will give insight into the infamous Salem Witch Hunts and the theories behind them.

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    • Rchrdsnc profile image

      Carl Richardson 3 years ago from Midwest USA

      I think there must be an innate psychological mechanism that compels people to punish the innocent. The more they protest, the more fun it is -- today the same as yesterday.