Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, By Richard Godbeer, Oxford University Press, 177 pp., illustrated, $20
Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory, Edited by Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Northeastern University Press,, 348 pp., illustrated, $28.95
There's no escaping Salem, and its place in the American consciousness -- and certainly not this week in the run-up to Halloween, when children in peaked black hats tapping at the front door will bring reminders of the witch crisis of 1692.
Salem State College professors Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz try, in their wide-ranging collection of essays about Salem, ''to move beyond the conventional . . . and reflect on the many ways that a place can be imagined and reinterpreted" -- as architectural mecca, 18th-century enterprise zone and 19th-century global city, and as Nathaniel Hawthorne's ''creation," among others. But they acknowledge that ''few communities . . . have the power of place conferred on Salem by the enshrining events of 1692."
In the years between 1638 and 1697, few of the more settled areas of southern New England escaped witch hunts. Salem, which at the time included numerous surrounding communities, of course stands alone, with 144 men and women swept up in the crisis, and 20 of them executed, as calculated by Mary Beth Norton in her 2002 book, ''In the Devil's Snare."
John Putnam Demos, in his 1982 book ''Entertaining Satan," identifies another 140 (14 of them executed) who were ensnared in earlier Massachusetts witch hunts, and in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire -- six of them in Stamford and Fairfield, Conn., in the same months as the Salem crisis was unfolding. But if Stamford did not escape a witch hunt, it did avoid a Salem-like crisis. In his closely focused study, historian Richard Godbeer explores the reasons why it did not become another Salem. And since Godbeer, a professor at the University of Miami, is dealing with a smaller canvas -- one accuser, five accused -- ''Escaping Salem" helps to understand the Salem crisis.
The accuser in Stamford was Kate Branch, a 17-year-old servant in the home of Daniel Wescot, a representative in the colonial assembly, and his wife, Abigail. Branch had been having seizures and crying out for several weeks in April when she issued accusations against three older women -- two of whom the Wescots had quarreled with in the past.
Branch's accusations resembled those in Salem. But the response was different. Stamford residents, Godbeer writes, ''were anything but hasty in concluding that witchcraft was causing [Branch's] fits." Although overland communication was difficult, Stamford had a good harbor, and ''merchants and seamen that sailed into the harbor [would have carried] news of the outside world." And while he does not supply a source, Godbeer writes that by the time the Stamford trials began in September, the magistrates were aware of events in Salem and ''were committed to a careful and cautious sifting" of the testimony.
A panel of ministers advised the judges that the physical evidence on examination of the two women by midwives ''ought not to be allowed as evidence against them without the approbation of some able physicians." They also did not find Branch a credible witness and said that ''her affliction, being something strange, well deserves a further inquiry." After a jury trial, one of the women was found not guilty. The second was found guilty, but after objections were raised about the composition of the grand jury that indicted her, was acquitted by the Connecticut general assembly.
As for Branch, Godbeer writes, she ''simply fades into oblivion." Godbeer finds the Stamford tale ''a useful corrective to the Salem story." While ''the cast of characters involved in the Salem drama can so easily become caricatured as credulous and even hysterical . . . the townsfolk in Stamford were for the most part more restrained and skeptical."
And while noting that Stamford, like virtually all New England communities in the 17th century, was a frontier town, Salem had witnessed ''a renewal of Indian attacks" on its northern frontier. Indeed, as Norton has determined, 10 of the Salem accusers and 23 of the accused had personal or family ties to the frontier areas recently attacked by Indians.
Frances Hill notes in her essay in the Morrison-Schultz collection that Salem institutions such as the Peabody-Essex Museum and the National Park Service's Visitors Center have distanced themselves from the witch crisis.
But there is no avoiding Arthur Miller, who used the Salem crisis as an enduring exploration of political persecution in his play ''The Crucible." And as Godbeer says, the Salem witch crisis ''has the dubious distinction of being one of the few occurrences from the colonial period with which most modern Americans are familiar."