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Demystifying Witchcraft in Portsmouth and Salem


Just think “terrorist”

Brewster all but ridicules those who take the stories literally. Even in the 1830s, he points out; intelligent Portsmouth citizens had cast aside such beliefs. The man who claimed he was seduced by witches and hag-ridden, Brewster explains, was also seen drinking heavily at a Portsmouth tavern late that same night. And when superstitious locals shivered over invisible specters who knocked on their doors, Brewster offers a scientific explanation. The knocker was activated by a thin string pulled by young pranksters hiding in the bushes, he says. Boys will be boys.

Brewster was bothered towards the end of his life by the rise of Spiritualism and Mesmerism that offered scientific explanations for ghostly and supernatural events. “It is science now,” he scoffs, “it was witchcraft then.” The Age of Enlightenment, he implies, might be giving way again to superstition.

“It [spiritualism] really starts again in the wake of the Civil War when everyone is trying to connect to their lost loved ones,” Baker says. The revival of superstition seems to be on the rise again as evidenced by the modern fascination with all things paranormal, from vampire films and TV ghost hunters to the boom in Halloween tourism.

But, hopefully, Baker says, there is a difference. When we’re talking about witches in the 17th century, it’s not superstition; it’s the accepted belief system of the day.

“If you’re living in Portsmouth in the 1650s or Salem in 1692, you know witches are real,” Baker says. “You know they can kill you. They don’t even have to be in your town. They could be 50 or 100 miles away and still strike you dead, or cause all kinds of harm to you and your family or your livestock, ruin your lives, sink ships at sea, you name it.”

How does 17th century New England stop this? They have to get rid of the witches, Baker says. “But if we don’t know who they are, how can we do that?”

The early residents of the Piscataqua faced harsh weather, darkness, wild animals, Native Americans, sickness, and mystifying events – not to mention the very real existence of witches and the devil. If you swap the word “terrorist” for “witch,” Baker says, modern Americans can begin to understand the problem our ancestors faced. We have not advanced so far as we may think.

“People today think we’re so sophisticated,” Baker says, “and we don’t believe in superstition. Well – do you believe in terrorists? Yes? Well, have you ever met a terrorist? Have you ever been harmed by a terrorist? What do they look like?”

It’s even more scary, Baker points out, if the terrorists look just like you, and might be sitting right next to you in church. This region was far from the civilized world of Europe in the 17th century, sometimes referred to as “the dark corners of piety” where anything could happen.

“This was the howling wilderness, a place of chaos and disorder. It was the devil’s lair. Living in the Piscataqua you were barely in civilized land.”

Baker pauses, unable to resist. “Some would say we’re still barely civilized. Go out in the woods tonight without a flashlight and let’s see what happens.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His newest hardcover history book is America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812.

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