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Salem Possessed

Salem Possessed

The Social Origins of Witchcraft

Paul Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum

ISBN 9780674785267

Publication date: 01/01/1976

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Tormented girls writhing in agony, stern judges meting out harsh verdicts, nineteen bodies swinging on Gallows Hill.

The stark immediacy of what happened in 1692 has obscured the complex web of human passion, individual and organized, which had been growing for more than a generation before the witch trials. Salem Possessed explores the lives of the men and women who helped spin that web and who in the end found themselves entangled in it.

From rich and varied sources—many previously neglected or unknown—Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum give us a picture of the events of 1692 more intricate and more fascinating than any other in the already massive literature on Salem. “Salem Possessed,” wrote Robin Briggs in The Times Literary Supplement, “reinterprets a world-famous episode so completely and convincingly that virtually all the previous treatments can be consigned to the historical lumber-room.”

Not simply a dramatic and isolated event, the Salem outbreak has wider implications for our understanding of developments central to the American experience: the breakup of Puritanism, the pressures of land and population in New England towns, the problems besetting farmer and householder, the shifting role of the church, and the powerful impact of commercial capitalism.


  • An illuminating and imaginative interpretation…of the social and moral state of Salem village in 1692. Provides an admirable illustration of the general rule that, in Old and New England alike, much of the best sociological history of the twentieth century has only been made possible by the antiquarian and genealogical interests of the nineteenth… This sensitive, intelligent, and well-written book will certainly revive interest in the terrible happenings at Salem.

    —Keith Thomas, New York Review of Books


  • Paul Boyer was Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  • Stephen Nissenbaum is a cultural historian.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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