A FEVER IN SALEM POSITS A biological cause for the early modem witchcraft epidemic, which resulted in the hanging of 19 people in Salem, MA, in 1692. Witchcraft persecution, Laurie Carlson writes, arose because of the strange behavior of the supposedly bewitched accusers. She concludes that the cause was a disease unrecognizable by the science of the time: encephalitis.
The history of the Salem witchcraft epidemic is well known. In the winter of 1692, two girls suffered convulsions and hallucinations, alarming fast their families and subsequently the entire community. When a medical diagnosis was not forthcoming, a religious explanation was accepted: the girls were acting strangely because "the hand of Satan was in them." The drama was intensified because the two girls were the daughter and niece of the town's minister.
Incident turned into epidemic when the girls were pressured to name the person who had bewitched them. Before the winter snow melted other town residents exhibited strange symptoms and accusations of the crime of witchcraft spread like a contagion. "Sickness as a result of sin was a common theme for [Reverend] Parris that spring," Carlson writes (55). The fast trial for witchcraft was held in June, and by September no less than 19 were convicted and hanged for it. Legal proceedings were eventually halted and those who remained in jail on witchcraft charges were freed. Historians of the Salem tragedy are divided over the question of whose behavior needs to be explained: the town leaders or the supposedly bewitched accusers. A Fever in Salem focuses exclusively on the latter.
"People of all cultures and ages," Carlson writes, "create explanations for phenomena they do not understand" (72). Where court transcripts and other sources of the time describe...