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The Salem Witchcraft Trials

A Legal History

Peter Charles Hoffer

160 pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-0859-1, $12.95

Chosen by the American Library Association's University Press Books Committee for the "Best of the Best from the University Presses" list, July 1999.

Book Cover ImageIn late seventeenth-century New England, the eternal battle between God and Satan was brought into the courtroom. Between January 1692 and May 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, neighbors turned against neighbors and children against parents with accusations of witchcraft, and nineteen people were hanged for having made pacts with the devil.

Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian long familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials, now reexamines this notorious episode in American history and presents many of its legal details in correct perspective for the first time. He tells the real story of how religious beliefs, superstitions, clan disputes, and Anglo-American law and custom created an epidemic of accusations that resulted in the investigation of nearly two hundred colonists and, for many, the ordeal of trail and incarceration. He also examines life during this crisis period of New England history--a time beset by Indian wars, disease, severe weather, and challenges to Puritan hegemony--to show how an atmosphere of paranoia contributed to this outbreak of persecution.

Hoffer examines every aspect of this history, from accusations to grand jury investigations to the conduct of the trials themselves. He shows how rights we take for granted today--such as rules of evidence and a defendant's right to legal counsel--did not exist in colonial times, and he demonstrates how these cases relate to current instances of children accusing adults of abuse.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials, a concise history written expressly for students and general readers, contains much new material not found in the author's earlier work. It sheds important light on the period and shows that our horror of these infamous proceedings must be tempered with sympathy for a people who gave in to panic in the face of a harsh and desolate existence.

"This book provides perhaps the best one-volume introduction to an episode that has challenged historians for centuries. It provides not only a lucid and engrossing narrative but also satisfying explanations that seamlessly interweave the best of modern scholarship."--David Thomas Konig, editor of Devising Liberty: Preserving and Creating Freedom in the New American Republic

"Hoffer writes with a rare lucidity and vividness, and with a rare compassion as well. He makes the actors in this perplexing drama as comprehensible as they are ever likely to be."--Michael Zuckerman, author of Almost Chosen People and Peaceable Kingdoms

PETER CHARLES HOFFER is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia and coeditor of the series Landmark Law Cases and American Society. Among his other books are The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime, and Colonial Law, The Law’s Conscience: Constitutionalism in America, and Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History, coauthored with N. E. H. Hull.

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