I published this book review 2014 in the Salem Chronicle Wicked Local Salem, MA
REVIEW: Family relations focus of new book on Salem Witch Trials
Emerson “Tad” Baker offers a fresh perspective on the 1692 Salem witch hysteria in his new book “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.” Baker is creating a buzz and the book is No. 1 on the Barnes & Noble list of hot Colonial reads. What tempest of dark forces brewed in Salem Village? Baker asserts it was a culmination of climatic events just waiting to unleash its fury. When you mix a small pox epidemic, crop failure, Native raids, frontier wars, a government upheaval, Puritan oppression along with three decades of bad blood squalls, you have a perfect storm.
According to Baker, these combined threats convinced Puritan authorities that God had frozen them out. By 1692 the chilly atmosphere in Salem was more like a medieval wasteland than a New Jerusalem. The elitist ice den pressed for more frigid conditions hoping to purge evil, but as Baker will show it ended their icy reign.
What makes Baker’s story stand out from the “crowded field” of other scholars is his focus on family relations. Although past authors have dismissed the significance of genealogical research, Baker asserts it is essential. It helps the reader understand the human behavior of the Colonial clans, as well as the actions of the courts. It also outlines the Puritan mindset.
As noted by the editor, Baker will “awaken your primal emotions with the personal accounts.” He probes deep into psyches exposing raw emotions such as fear and jealousy, which helped trigger the hysteria. He also addresses the patterns of friction and tension in the society of the time.
Peg Plummer, a Mayflower descendant, loved the “added complexity of the family connections of the accused, accusers and judges.” Plummer says her interest in genealogy made her “appreciate Baker’s detailing of the close-knit group of the judges and admits it must have been hard to disagree with a colleague if he’s also your brother-in-law, fellow merchant and Governor’s counselor.”
The pedigree profile Baker outlines on each judge will show a collective force of opportunist merchants and ministers entering into strategic marriages. Baker divulges their methods of ferreting out devilish dissenters and provocateur parishioners before and during the trials.
Rev. George Burroughs would be trapped in the turbulence even after a geographical relocation. Was this Harvard-educated minister really contaminating his congregation with Satan’s black arts? Or, was he, like John Alden, possessed by the spirits of the open frontier? Alden was accused of bewitching soldiers and being in league with the enemy pagan natives.
Baker defines the “perfect witch” as one who had problematic histories due to political, religious and military conflicts. They were “part of Satan’s grand collation bent on destroying Puritan Massachusetts.”
Baker demonstrates how festering feuds among relations, neighbors and court officials would play a part in the witchhunt. The Bradbury line had a long history of strife with those on the bench and pulpit. Additionally, there were Quakers in Mary’s line, and her husband had shown public sympathy toward the sect as a court official.
Rebecca Nurse stood charges for tormenting a neighbor who was trying to settle a score and also came suspicion for having harbored Quaker children.
Many of the accused would be targeted for Quaker associations. In fact, Baker offers many accounts to show how victims fingered for witchery had relations who suffered the Quaker persecutions. The judges who ordered the gallows executions are the sons of the judges who whipped and branded Quakers.
Jason Starbuck Morley, a direct descendant of Quaker Thomas Maul, was pleased with Baker’s coverage of the Quaker ties to the witch trials. Morley says the book “is an outstanding new addition to the trove of scholarship on the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Hysteria and by far the best account he has read on the subject.”
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, author of the Nutfield Genealogy blog also has several ancestral ties and notes: “As a genealogist, this is fascinating stuff and Baker succeeds in telling the “whole story with all flesh on the bones.” Rojo further adds, “While most of the other accounts just focus on one or two angles of the story, Baker really covers it all — before, during, and after.”
Despite the fact the actual court records were not released to the public until 1979, Baker presents several examples of how “Witch City Salem” is very much alive in memory. His work will offer each “throbbing heart” in the experience and readers will appreciate why generations of their descendants like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson “have dedicated to the proposition it must never happen again.”