Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe

Novelist Katherine Howe's interest in editing The Penguin Book of Witches is similar to my interest in reading it. Her short bio in the book states that she is descended from three of the accused Salem witches. It does not say which three. I am descended from Susannah Martin who denied her guilt and tried to defend herself by ridiculing the proceedings. Being dismissive of her charges on the witness stand while teenage girls in the courtroom moaned and claimed to see a shadowy figure whispering in Martin's ear did not succeed. She was hung as a witch.

Documents relating to the Salem Witch Trials make up the central part of The Penguin Book of Witches. In this section of the book, most of the documents are transcripts from the trials. Howe provides an introduction to each, telling how the prosecution has again and again expanded its mandate to rid the area around Salem of witches. My ancestor gets slightly more than three pages.

The first 121 pages of the book set the stage for the Salem trials by recounting the development of laws and court procedures for convicting and executing witches. Howe introduces important British and colonial documents, some of which are legal depositions and others essays from important authors, including King James I and Reverend Samuel Willard. Readers learn how the severity of punishment increased over time, peaking in Salem in 1692. Some of the early documents are pretty dense reading, unlike the dramatic documents in the Salem section. Thankfully, Howe's explanatory paragraphs highlight key points.

The final section of documents illustrates how the fear and belief in witches declined dramatically within several decades after the Salem Trials, from which many New Englanders quickly tried to distance themselves.

Since it is the season for students coming to the library with American history assignments, this is a good time to add this updated title to public library collections.

Howe, Katherine, ed. The Penguin Book of Witches. Penguin Books, 2014. 294p. ISBN 9780143106180.

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