Storm and the devil: Book review

stormI like reading historical books when the narrative flows and the information is new and intriguing. I really liked A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker, a professor at Salem State College.

I’ve read some about the Salem witch trials but this book was from another angle. We get a look into the widespread problems faced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony including the cold summers that hindered food production, illness, fear of raids by the natives, and fighting over land holdings from small to large tracts including the concern of wars.

Baker notes that science can’t solve all the mysteries of the past but concludes that conversion disorder, psychological trauma, and sleep paralysis played a role; ergot poisoning, the paranormal, or real demons did not.

I am now aware of the troubles with Reverend Samuel Parris in the town and can imagine how the tension in the community was so thick that one would have trouble breathing there. Because of the turmoil with the colony’s charter, legal conflicts went unresolved and festered. The economic, social, political, and spiritual factionalism that existed certainly led to the unique situation in Salem.

Baker goes into the history of the people involved and winds the threads together so that we see a tinderbox of trouble ready to catch on fire. Simple explanations of “why Salem?” fall short. But it was clear that Puritanism was under threat, capitalism was a growing trend, and the community was unstable. It did not take much to convince people that the town was under siege by Satan.

My favorite part was learning about lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon. This sparked a new interest for me in the poltergeist- and Bigfoot-related activity of rock assaults. The lithobolia incident mentioned was not in Salem but in Great Island, New Hampshire ten years prior. Thankfully, Baker wrote an entire book about this event which I picked up right after finishing Storm called The Devil of Great Island.

devilofgreatisland200In this book, we can see community factors in common between Salem and Great Island, both of which had increased tension and crushing factionalism. The situations were very similar – bitter disputes about the formation of a new parish, religious tension, outsiders, and difficulty resolving political and economic disputes.

Devil is loaded with historical context. It reminds us that it was unpleasant to be unlucky with your inheritance or societal position, or a woman in these early colonial times. A “monstrous” birth could get you accused of cavorting with the devil.

Baker shows us that the lithobolia incidents that occurred in New England had strong human motivation behind them when there was little recourse to punish a social enemy. You pelted their house with rocks, making trouble, or destroyed their fences, and then perhaps accused each other of being a witch or wizard. Sound unfun.

In Storm, Baker concludes by examining the aftermath of Salem that surprisingly still bubbles with trouble to this day. Salem struggled with their history like a “Scarlet Letter” but then the majority choose to embrace the wild aspect and now Salem is a tourist trap, especially at Halloween (no significance to the history). It’s all very sobering and sad that things turned out the way they did and many important lessons were forgotten (and reappeared in the Satanic Panic and modern cases of conversion disorder centuries later).

Great Island, now New Castle, did not capitalize on their famous demon attack of 1682. Curiously, stone throwing (outside and inside a house) was a hallmark of poltergeist activity up until a few decades ago, although, some similar cases still occur. Bigfoot is also described as throwing stones. Curious indeed. Stone throwing remains an act of aggression and defiance. There are “demons” involved for sure, but your characterization of them will vary. What’s going on? Each case may have unique secrets of their own at the core.

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