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Fear, faith, and witches in old New England

The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft & Conflict in Early New England
By Emerson W. Baker
Palgrave, 244 pp., illustrated $24.95

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall
By Eve LaPlante
HarperOne, 352 pp., illustrated $25.95

Not to put ideas into any trick-or-treater's head, but after the squads of ghosts and fairy princesses have made their Halloween rounds at midweek, there's apt to be some trickster stuff - smashing of pumpkins, smearing of windshields, and the like. But, hopefully, no lithobolia.

That was the name, taken from a Greek ritual, given to the mysterious stone-throwing incidents that wracked the community of Great Island, now New Castle, at the mouth of New Hampshire's Piscataqua River in the summer of 1682. There were accusations of witchcraft - and many of the same cultural and political factors that would be present in the Salem witchcraft crisis that lay 10 years in the future.

The Great Island case clearly deserves the attention it has now been given by Emerson W. Baker, a historian at Salem State College, in his compelling account "The Devil of Great Island." On the night of June 11, 1682, George Walton, a tavern keeper, was walking home when he said he was barraged with stones hurled by unseen assailants. The stoning continued after he ran into the tavern - and would continue, on and off, until finally ending in the late summer. Walton swiftly accused Hannah Jones, an elderly widow with whom he was involved in a property-line dispute, of using witchcraft against him.

But as Baker explores the issues percolating at Great Island, he notes that Walton was a "quarrelsome" man whose tavern was a gathering place for people whose religions and politics - Quaker and Anglican, and Royalist - differed from the neighbors'. Significantly, the attacks began just as Richard Chamberlain, a member of the colony's Royalist faction, began living at the tavern. Years later, he would write an account of the stone-throwing incidents, "Lithobolia, or, the Stone-Throwing Devil," which reads much like a modern-day police report.

Chamberlain was convinced the attacks were the work of witchcraft. But with all the evidence in hand, Baker argues that the complaints against Walton, Chamberlain, and their associates "were so common that a great many locals may have thrown stones . . . At the very least, there must have been a conspiracy of silence among Walton's enemies, for many of them had to have witnessed the attacks."

The fear of witchcraft shows its presence in a culture that gave itself over to hysteria a few years later. The Salem witch crisis brought such matters to a head, because of the large number of accusations and the trials that led to the execution of 20 men and women.

A key figure in the Salem crisis, Samuel Sewall, receives a sympathetic and richly detailed account in "Salem Witch Judge" by Eve LaPlante, a descendent of his. LaPlante rightly focuses on Sewall's role at Salem and his decision to repent his actions five years after the trials over which he presided. During the annual day of fasting and prayer at Boston's Third Church (now the Old South Meeting House), he stood silently while the minister told the congregation that Sewall "desires to take the blame and shame of it."

Readers familiar with the Salem story will find particular interest in LaPlante's account of Sewall's home life in Boston and Newbury, and especially his musical interests. A number of Sewall's psalm-settings are included (with the music) in the book. Discussing singing Psalm 27 at a gathering of ministers, Sewall wrote that "I set Windsor Tune and burst into tears that I could scarce continue singing."

Today, Baker writes in his book, "we recognize the 1692 outbreak as a major event in American history." But "when it began to unfold," he writes, it would probably have been viewed as the successor to unsettling events at Great Island, Berwick in Maine, and Hartford in the intervening years - years, it could be said, when the supernatural was all too natural.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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