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The Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and "Young Goodman Brown"

The Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and "Young Goodman Brown"

Material prepared by:

Joseph R. Modugno,Department of English,
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA

The Black Man of the Forest with His Familiar
The Black Man of the Forest with His Familiar (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

In "Young Goodman Brown," one of Hawthorne's most admired and critically discussed stories, he probes the psychology of Puritan Salem's witchcraft frenzy to offer insights into the moral complexity of human nature. A dark, penetrating tale, as "deep as Dante," according to Herman Melville, "Young Goodman Brown" reveals Hawthorne at his best--skillful writer of symbolic allegory and astute interpreter of Puritan history.

Nancy Bunge comments on Hawthorne's knowledge and use of Salem history in Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction:

[Hawthorne] did not write out of ignorant fantasies about the Puritans. "Young Goodman Brown" not only presents the issue of the Salem witch trials, but a number of its characters have the names of Salem residents charged with witchcraft, and its major action takes place in the noisy pasture of the period designated as a witches' gathering place. (historical documents of the witchcraft trials)

Hawthorne does not simply provide a record of the time, he uses history to examine issues of community and individualism explaining both the madness in Salem and much subsequent madness (11). (courtesy of Twayne Publishers, New York, 1993.)

It's not surprising that Hawthorne was drawn to the witchcraft episode. His family history gave him a personal connection to the tragic events of 1692. In The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne Margaret B. Moore points out:

    As for Hawthorne's ties with the persecution of the witches, they too [like his ties with the persecution of Quakers] are based partly on his paternal ancestors, in particular on John Hathorne (1641-1717), the third son of Major William and Anna Hathorne and an important merchant in Salem. . . . John Hathorne was also the famous "witch judge" blamed by many, such as Charles Upham, for playing a major role in the witchcraft trials in Salem and Salem Village in 1692. According to his descendant [Nathaniel], John Hathorne "inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground [view one; view two] must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust" (37-38). (courtesy of University of Missouri Press, 1998)

His ancestors' zealous attacks against Quakers, Indians, and accused "witches" were both a source of interest and of conflict for Hawthorne, who so often explored this history and his connection to it in his writings. In "Young Goodman Brown" he powerfully weaves family facts into the plot and theme of his story and, as Edward Wagenknecht points out, "is perfectly clear-cut on witchcraft, as perhaps he had to be to purge himself in his own mind of the sins of his ancestors. In his stories the Salem outburst was a `terrible delusion,' a `universal madness,' in which `innocent persons' `died wrongfully' " (175). (from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Man and Writer, Oxford University Press, 1961)

Ultimately, as Michael J. Colacurcio states, the story offers a profound interpretation of the "persecuting spirit" and of late seventeenth-century Puritanism itself:

    In "Young Goodman Brown" an entire habit of the Puritan mind is on trial, the protagonist its unwitting yet not quite unwilling victim. . . . [Hawthorne] recognizes the finality of the problem [presented] there: the difficulty of detecting a witch is distressingly similar to the radically Puritan problem of discovering a saint. They stand or fall together. . . ."Young Goodman Brown" shows us that witchcraft "ended" the Puritan world. Its logic of evidence could not stand the Devil's own test of faith (286, 312). (from The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales, 1984, courtesy of Dr. Michael J. Colacurcio)

Hawthorne and Witchcraft: The Historical Context

In seventeenth-century New England, most people shared a strong belief in witchcraft, and in the "Wonders of the Invisible World," Cotton Mather recorded the hellish workings of witches and the Devil against the Puritan experiment.

The origins of the belief in witchcraft and "specters" went back to Europe, where, by some estimates, five hundred thousand people were executed for witchcraft between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to the Salem outbreak of 1692, almost three hundred people had been accused of witchcraft in New England; more than thirty had been hanged ("witches" were not burned in England or the American colonies).

The flair up of accusations in 1692, beginning at Salem Village (now Danvers) , spread to many other communities in Essex County, Massachusetts and was the worst and most dramatic episode of witch hunting in colonial America. When it was over, twenty people had been executed-nineteen hanged and one, Giles Corey, pressed to death. More than a hundred people had been jailed, and several died during their imprisonment.

Both men and women were accused, imprisoned, and executed for witchcraft prior to and during the Salem hysteria. In colonial New England, however, almost all accused "witches" were older women, who tended to be independent and nonconfomist. An interesting study from this perspective is Carol F. Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (W.W. Norton, 1987).

Generally, historians have seen the Salem witchcraft hysteria as significant because it was the last time in American history that accusations of witchcraft would lead to execution. The episode and its aftermath also marked the end of Puritan authority in New England and, with dawning rationalism, the belief in devils striking out from some "invisible world."

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