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In discussing European witch hunts, John Demos examines common threads as well as variations that span not only continents but a sixteen-hundred year period between 150 and 1750. Given such a range, those accused of witchcraft are, of course, a varied lot. Womanhood, social and legal ruin, persecution and death unite them. But there is at least one other thing. Certain “attributes of the accused,” says Demos, can be described “simply and categorically.” Chiefly this: “[M]ost were drawn from well below the ‘middling ranks’ in the traditional social hierarchy” and “Most were poor, many quite wretchedly so.”1

Likewise, in examining 17th-century Britain, Joseph Klaits finds accusers “nearly always more prosperous than the accused, though both were at the lower end of the social scale.” Nor was it always the “dirt poor” being accused. In Essex, for example, Klaits notes “Almost half the husbands of witches accused . . . were laborers, whereas among their accusers the more prosperous yeoman class formed the largest single category.” While “beggars” were commonly accused in European trials, we find in Britain

most of the accused witches did not come from among the dispossessed or from the servant class. They usually had a house and a yard, were tenant farmers or wage-earners. At the bottom of settled society but definitely within it[,] . . . it was the moderately poor person, the borderline case . . . against whom her fellow villager was most likely to bring a denunciation for witchcraft.2

To the discussion of the economic positions of the accused, Klaits adds an important element: while “the great majority of those charged with witchcraft were poor”–whether “lower-class women” or the “beggar”–more importantly, the fact of their being poor meant they were, to use Klaits’ word, “powerless.”3

Considering the context of legal proceedings, I suggest another word is more literal, if not better suited: defenseless.

While it was possible in colonial New England–however rare–for persons of means to be accused of witchcraft, “not everyone was equally vulnerable to trial, conviction and execution.”4 In fact, in examining the economic background of New England’s accused, Carol F. Karlsen shows a direct correlation between the wealth of the accused and the probability that they would avoid conviction, or avoid a trial altogether. According to Karlsen, unless women were single or widowed (and therefore more vulnerable),

accused women from wealthy families–families with estates valued at more than £500–could be fairly confident that the accusations would be ignored by the authorities. . . . Married women from moderately well-off families–families with estates valued between roughly £200 and £500–did not always escape prosecution so easily, but neither do they seem, as a group, to have been as vulnerable as their less prosperous counterparts. . . . [W]omen in families with estates worth less than £200 seem significantly overrepresented among convicted witches [emphasis in original].5

Perhaps most telling, this pattern, says Karlsen, “suggests that economic position was a more important factor to judges . . . than to the community as a whole in its role as accuser” [emphasis mine].6

When the accused are not defenseless, the mechanism of the witch trial cannot hold. In looking again at the German witch panics, Klaits notes they most often came to a standstill “when high-born members of society were implicated.”7 If a witch hunt didn’t shut down at once, says Robert Rapley, then

an accusation against one of the leading members of the community would receive short shrift. It would be discounted as at least unreliable, having come from a member of the common classes, and probably would be dismissed without serious consideration. Even if it received a hearing, serious investigation would follow before such an accusation was given credence.8

Likewise, in Salem, Massachusetts, the mechanism of the with hunt did not run smoothly for long. “Not all of those named by the afflicted were brought to trial. . . . [T]he higher-ups were not arrested,” notes Klaits. “A fact duly noted” he writes, “by those who remained skeptical of the proceedings,” and who likely could not help but notice “the lieutenant governor[,] who acted as chief justice in the witch cases, refrained from moving against people at the apex of society.9

Karlsen sees this pattern throughout 17th-century New England. “It appears to have been the status of the accused,” says Karlsen, “that disturbed colonial leaders, causing them to doubt accusations brought by the populace. . . . As long as accusations were being directed against women . . . with few economic resources and some taint of disrepute[,] few people registered discomfort about their fates.”10

To be sure, wealth was not the only guarantee of legal protection. That most accused witches were women is hardly news–nor is the rock of misogyny upon which their devout persecutors built their cases. Of three-hundred and forty-two persons accused of witchcraft in New England between1620 and 1725, seventy-eight percent were female.11 “Official caution” likely was not “aroused,” however, until those officials became aware of “the increasing proportion of men appearing in New England courts as witches. . . .”12 Once the executions began in Salem, for example, the “unusual stature” of certain persons among the accused “generated serious opposition, even among the clergy and magistrates.”

Salem authorities’ original approach was a simple one: “ignoring accusations against the well-to-do . . . [or] allowing, if not encouraging, them to escape.” But as the trials and executions mounted in number, this approach became “an acute embarrassment.”13

Then it became personal:

By the time Governor Phips suspended the trials, most ministers and magistrates probably agreed with him “that the Devill had taken upon him the name and shape of severall persons who were doubtless innocent.” One of those innocents whose shape had recently appeared to [accusers] was the governor’s own wife, Lady Mary Phips.14


1 Demos, John. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. New York, NY: Viking/Penguin, 2008. 43

2 Klaits, Joseph. Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 1985. 90

3 Klaits, 3

4 Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York, NY: Vintage, 1989. 46

5 Karlsen, 80

6 Karlsen, 80

7 Klaits, 171. Not to say this was always the case. Among the tiny states in the early 17th century in what is now Germany, Bamberg and Wurzburg were notable exceptions. While the trials did taper off, following the two years in which “elites” began to be accused, they were a profitable couple years for prince-bishops, when “all the property of an executed witch was forfeit to the bishop’s treasury, and the families of the accused, moreover, had to pay extensive fees for the incarceration and execution of their loved ones.” (Rapley, 13).

8 Rapley, 12

9 Klaits, 122

10 Karlsen, 27

11 What Karlsen discovered, however, and what had eluded other historians–certainly not that most accused witches were female–was that, among the accused, women without husbands or brothers or sons were more likely to be tried, convicted, and executed. Colonial New England’s inheritance laws were, like all laws at the time, patriarchal. In its simplest terms, women could inherit land, but it was theirs only until a man took control of it. Land inherited by a widow (legally a third of her husband’s estate) was, upon her death, passed to her male heirs. Land inherited by daughters was land over which they had no power but to give the land to a husband. In between male heirs or husbands, women who possessed land were something of an aberration, deviating from the expected, male-centered power structure. These women, Karlsen found, were particularly ripe for allegations of witchcraft: “women from families without male heirs made up 64 percent of the females prosecuted, 76 percent of those who were found guilty, and 89 percent of those who were executed.”(102)

Demos touches on these elements as well, in describing “patterns” found in witchcraft accusations against early modern European:

A good many would be widowed during or after [their] middle years, and thus left in an impoverished situation. . . . At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, a smaller subgroup–the widows of well-to-do men–might suddenly assume independent control of property, in direct contrast to prevailing norms. either way, such women might become targets of of resent and suspicion. And either way, they lacked the protective influence afforded by male next-of-kin.(43)

12 Karlsen, 28

13 Karlsen, 40

14 Karlsen, 41