Escaping Salem Summary

Richard Godbeer

Escaping Salem

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Escaping Salem Summary

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Histories, tales, and legends of the Salem Witch Trials have for generations preserved the notoriety of that dark period of American history. What is not as well documented is that Salem, Massachusetts, was not the only region in which such activities were taking place. In his solidly researched 2005 nonfiction text, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, Richard Godbeer explains that Andover, Massachusetts, for example, when compared to Salem, has a greater number of documented accusations against supposed witches. Central to his text, he looks into trials that occurred in Stamford, Connecticut in 1692.

The focus of Godbeer’s work is Kate Branch, a household servant of the Wescot family. One day, seventeen-year-old Kate is sent by her mistress, Abigail Wescot, to gather herbs—an ordinary task. A little while later, she returns crying, breathing heavily, and holding her chest as she falls to the floor, as if having some sort of fit. Abigail’s first thought is not of a possible satanic possession, but rather that the servant girl, whom she has never thought highly of, is trying to shirk her responsibilities. Several hours pass and the girl is still in the same state on the floor. Abigail’s husband, Daniel, returns home and sees what has transpired. Since the town of Stamford does not have its own doctor, Daniel sends for the town’s midwife to examine Kate. Finding no obvious physical cause for Kate’s behavior, the midwife recommends that Abigail and Daniel burn a bird’s feathers under Kate’s nose to help her. When this effects no change, the midwife moves on to her next step in “treating” the girl.

The midwife decides that it is necessary to bleed the unexplained illness out of Kate. Kate is put in her bed and the midwife begins to make a cut in her foot. This awakens Kate from the state she has been in and she says that she will not allow this. The midwife convinces her that it will be a simple procedure; Kate goes along with it. Shortly, Kate holds onto her blanket, yells, and laughs. The midwife is suspicious about what is going on with Kate. Daniel is confused about what might be happening. He is aware that Kate’s mother was an epileptic and thinks that might be what is happening to Kate. He also considers the possibility of a possession, and wonders as well if she might be perpetrating some sort of hoax. Further adding to the uncertainty is the fact that a few years before Kate’s “illness,” Daniel and Abigail’s daughter, Joanna, had suffered from some sort of attacks, including severe pain, and had said that at night, a spirit would come to her. She was sent away for a time and upon returning, did not talk of the spirit any longer. It is learned later in the text that Abigail had experienced some type of bewitchment while in childbirth.

Once the bleeding has taken place, Daniel and Abigail watch Kate for several days. Kate talks of how cats have told her they plan to kill her and that at times they turn into women. One night, she sits up in her bed and yells out, “Witch!” and talks of a hand reaching for her in the darkness. Salem’s pastor, the Reverend John Bishop is summoned, and after seeing Kate, he says that her behavior indicates that she is certainly being influenced by witches. Instances of being thrown out of bed, levitation, and developing unusual marks on her body occur, and Kate says that the Devil, often in different forms, visits her and says he will not stop doing these things to her until she agrees to become a witch. Kate identifies witches, the first of whom is Goody Clawson with whom Abigail and Daniel have been on bad terms for many years. The fits that Joanna experienced began at the same time the rift between Clawson and the Wescots started. Kate identifies two more townswomen as witches as well. One of them is a handicapped woman whose reputation in the town has not been one that gave other people any reason for concern. The other one is Mercy Holbridge whom Daniel once testified against in court and who still harbors a grudge against him. Kate mentions more names and the investigation into her continues to move forward.

The inquiry and the trials that followed it are covered in the book. The stereotyping that was pervasive in New England and which led to hasty trials and verdicts is exemplified. What was happening to Kate is not clearly known. What does become clear is that “ordinary” citizens believed that witches existed and posed a real threat, but that proving the guilt of someone accused of witchcraft was a high stakes proposition.