Released by St. Martin’s Press on September 26, Killing the Witches: The Horror of Salem, Massachusetts by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard is just about a perfect read. The book is 291 pages long, inclusive of an index. My copy has, strangely, no table of contents, and, unfortunately, no bibliography or endnotes. Killing the Witches is the thirteenth book in the “killing” series. The cover describes O’Reilly as the author of eighteen #1 bestsellers.
I never watched O’Reilly’s Fox TV show. I’m a woman and a Catholic, and there are controversies in his career that trouble me. I mention my own feelings here because I want anyone who isn’t an O’Reilly fan to know – I loved this book. It was pretty close to a perfect read. I wish there were more books like it. If you are at all interested in the Salem witch trials and their echoes, including down to the twenty-first century, and you want a reader-friendly account, buy the book right now. The rest of this review will encourage you to do just that.
Killing the Witches: The Horror of Salem, Massachusetts is a misleading title. The first 144 pages directly address the Salem witch trials. Pages 145-231 address colonial America, the Revolution, and the new United States, with a focus on the biography of Ben Franklin. In this portion of the book, the authors discuss how various Founding Fathers felt about the question of freedom of religion, and how the legacy of the Salem witch trials influenced their worldview. Pages 232-263 recount the alleged 1949 demonic possession and exorcism of 13-year-old Ronald Hunkeler of Cottage City, Maryland, and also William Peter Blatty’s 1971 book The Exorcist, and the 1973 William Freidkin film of the same name. A three-page “Author’s Note” relates witch hunts to contemporary cancel culture. A six-page “Afterword” describes Salem, the tourist destination, today. A six-age “Postscript” describes the final days of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and John Adams.
All of this has been covered in other books. What makes Killing stand out? The book’s style. Killing could be read by an intelligent eighth grader. The vocabulary is basic. There are no attempts at deathless eloquence. There is no attempt to manipulate the facts to support some overarching pet theory. There’s minimal editorializing. The authors allow the facts to rattle, provoke, and horrify the reader; the authors don’t tell the reader how to feel or how to interpret the facts. You could read this book on a train or in the smallest room in the house. These are not put-downs; they are compliments.
Killing the Witches is the fruit of extensive research. The authors did the grunt work of ferreting out facts. They present a “Just the facts, ma’am” chronology of mind boggling events in Salem. The book is written almost entirely in present tense. I would have preferred past tense for past events. Present tense is probably more approachable for some readers.
Given that the witch craze says much about human nature, every thinking person should understand it. Unfortunately, such understanding is rare, for two reasons. First, the witch craze of Early Modern Europe, and its offshoots in colonial America, has generated a massive bibliography. The average person can’t read all those books. Second, Pagans, Christophobes, New Atheists and even the Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler (see here) have so powerfully exploited the witch craze for political gain that their propaganda has brainwashed even devout Christians and people who consider themselves to be well-read.
Just one example: New Atheists Michael Shermer and Steven Pinker have dedicated their considerable clout to maligning a heroic figure of the witch craze, the Jesuit priest Friedrich Spee. Shermer and Pinker’s falsehoods have wormed their way into the Wikipedia page on Spee. I’ve written Pinker about this. He appears unperturbed by the influence of his atheism-driven distortion of history.
Pagans and their allies have produced a slew of nonsense about the witch craze, including in books, songs, websites, and videos. See, for example, the spectacularly false 1990 film The Burning Times, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. This film alleges that nine million women lost their lives in the “Women’s Holocaust.” See also Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s 1973 book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, reissued in 2010 by the City University of New York. This allegedly non-fiction book, which is in fact fantasy, is still a best seller in several Amazon categories.
The real number of deaths is closer to 40,000; men as well as women lost their lives. In Iceland, most victims were men. A significant minority of the 200 accused and 25 dead in Salem were men. Even John Alden Jr, and a male Puritan minister, were accused. One eighty-three-year-old man was hung. Giles Corey, 81 years old, was pressed to death. The accusers in Salem were female. Depicting the witch craze as a crime committed by misogynist men against women is false.
The canonical Pagan narrative runs like this. Witches were healers and midwives. They practiced a peaceful, joyful, sex-positive religion that had existed at least since the Stone Age. In the Middle Ages, omnipotent, jealous, male Catholic priests tortured and murdered these women so that they, the Catholic priests, could take on healing authority. At least nine million women were killed. Scientists, secularists, and atheists ended the witch craze. Every detail in this narrative is false.
Recent years have produced important new scholarship by authors like Brian P. Levack, Keith Thomas, and Lyndal Roper. These scholars extensively examined trial and other records. Their work tells a new story, grounded in facts. The Witch craze occurred during the Early Modern Era, not during the so-called “Dark” or Middle Ages. Contributing factors included instability caused by the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, a Little Ice Age, fluctuation in grain prices (see e.g. here and here), and insecurity, after the Protestant Reformation, in the face of the loss of reassuring Catholic rituals. Civil authorities tried and killed witches. Women were significant drivers of the witch craze. Women were often the accusers of other women. Biblical beliefs didn’t provide significant support in most accusations; rather, Pagan superstitions did, including belief in limited good, the evil eye, and sympathetic magic. Victims were not healers; they were often post-menopausal, poor, lonely women without allies. The Pagan, non-Biblical, anti-Christian concepts of limited good and sympathetic magic suggested that a post-menopausal woman, given her infertility, and her “dry” breasts and womb, could, by her very presence, her glance, and her hunger, “curse” a field and ruin crops, dry a cow’s udders, or kill a baby.
Atheism, secularism, and the Scientific Revolution of c. 1500-1700 did not end the witch craze; rather, people continued to believe in witchcraft, in demons, and in magic. In fact the witch craze was co-terminus with the Scientific Revolution. Dr. Martha J. Reineke of Northern Iowa University writes that “the great wisdom of eighteenth-century humanism” did not “free” “the masses” from belief in witchcraft. The false insistence that atheism freed the masses “betrays a kind of ethnocentrism that distorts our understanding.” “Research on the witch craze has shown that the witch craze ended with beliefs about demonology still intact among both the educated elite and the peasant masses.”
Brian P. Levack, the John E. Green Regents Professor in History at UT Austin, wrote to me in 2015, “The trials did not end because judicial authorities stopped believing in witchcraft but because they began to realize that the crime could not be proved at law. It was a lack of sufficient evidence that led to the acquittal of accused witches and eventually the reluctance to allow prosecutions in the first place. I call this attitude of judges and prosecutors ‘judicial skepticism,’ as opposed to a philosophical skepticism based on rationalism or science. Judicial skeptics did not deny the existence of witches, only that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute and convict them.”
It didn’t take a scientist, a secularist, or an atheist to see the problems in the witch craze. Early Modern Catholics and Protestants, both lay and clerical, articulated the problems quite clearly. Franciscan friar Samuele Cassini, in 1505, published Questione de le strie, or Treatise on Witches, called “The first book to oppose the identification of witchcraft as a heresy.” Cassini’s approach was not to attack the church, but to attack misuses of faith.
Johann Weyer, a Dutch physician, was among the first to publish a lengthy critique of the witch craze. His 1563 book, De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis, or On the Tricks of Demons, did not deny the existence of demons or their power. Rather he argued that better explanations could be found for accused witch’s behavior, for example, mental illness.
In Spain, an inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frias, was dubbed the “Witch’s advocate.” The Spanish Inquisition was one of the first institutions in Europe to ban the death penalty for witches; this decision influenced Catholic Europe. Spain, Portugal, and Italy had relatively few executions of accused witches.
Puritan preacher George Gifford was a moderate skeptic. He argued in works published between 1587 and 1603 that the devil didn’t need witches to torment humans, and he argued against prosecutorial extremism. Gifford rejected witch hunts as a spiritual distraction. German Lutheran Johannes Meyfart published Christliche Erinnerung, an gewaltige Regenten, or A Christian Reminder to Powerful Princes, a graphic denunciation of witch trials, in 1636. In 1691, Dutch Reformed Pastor Balthasar Bekker published The World Bewitched, a thorough rejection of the witch craze. He was persecuted but his book was influential in ending the witch craze.
German priest Freidrich Spee wrote Cautio Criminalis, a 1631 book condemning witch hysteria and arguing against torture. “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist,” Spee wrote. Of prominent witch hunters, including his fellow clerics, he wrote “virtually every one of their teachings concerning witches is based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.” Spee’s work is “one of the first sustained, detailed attacks…against the witch trials and use of torture.” “Driven by his priestly charge of enacting Christian charity … Spee sought to expose the flawed arguments and methods used by the witch-hunters. His logic is relentless as he reveals the contradictions inherent in their arguments, showing there is no way for an innocent person to prove her innocence … if the condemned witches truly are guilty, how could the testimony of these servants and allies of Satan be reliable? … Suspects, no matter how heinous the crimes of which they are accused, possess certain inalienable rights.”
In 1592, Father Cornelius Loos attempted to publish De vera et falsa magia or True and False Magic. He argued against confessions obtained under torture. He was forced to recant, he was imprisoned, and it was long assumed that his book was destroyed. In 1886, the manuscript was rediscovered.
In 1700, Boston cloth merchant Robert Calef published More Wonders of the Invisible World, a protest against the Salem witch trials. Calef’s criticism of the witch trials asks the reader not to follow superstition, but, rather, to “hearken to the Dictates of Scripture and Reason.” That is, he and his readers thought of scripture and reason as mutually reinforcing, not enemies. He argues to a Christian audience against the witch trials from a Christian point of view.
These men were exceptional. While their surrounding societies went mad, they held up a “STOP” sign. They were exceptionally brave; speaking out, they risked their lives. The influence of their arguments took a great deal of time to be felt. Why do these men matter to us today? Why does it matter that, contrary to the false narrative, the witch craze occurred during the Early Modern Era, not the Middle Ages? Here’s why. The false narrative places the witch craze in the Middle Ages because, before the Reformation beginning in 1517, the Catholic Church was the dominant religious power in Western Europe. The false narrative insists that the witch craze was the product of a monolithic Catholic Church ruling over benighted “Dark Age” fools.
In fact, societal chaos and fragmentation attendant on the Reformation, rather than an alleged Catholic theocracy, contributed to the witch craze. And the increasing knowledge of the Early Modern Era did not quell the fires. With simple common sense, combined with human decency, men like Spee and Loos were able to deduce that confessions procured under torture were not reliable. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. And yet hysteria reined. It reined because of terror, envy, and hate, human reactions we must wrestle with today, no less than four hundred years ago.
In the false narrative, it was those primitive, unenlightened, religious Catholics who burned witches. As long as we bash Catholics and Catholicism, we are free of any self-examination. This false narrative prevents us from learning anything from one of the most significant passages in our history. People like us, pushed by human flaws we share, succumbed to the witch craze. We, too, are subject to fanaticism and destructive hysteria. Atheism is no immunization from deadly mob behavior. The French Revolution’s Terror and Stalinist Russia’s show trials are proof of that.
While reading Killing the Witches, I could not help but think of trans extremism. In 1692, adolescent girls in Salem made outlandish claims about the devil. If you defied them, society punished you. In 2023, adolescent girls make the outlandish claim that they are really boys. If you defy them, society punishes you. In 2023, we aren’t even facing the poor harvests and Indian attacks that fueled the Salem hysteria.
Killing the Witches opens on September 6, 1620, in Plymouth England, aboard the deck of the Mayflower. The Mayflower was about to transport Pilgrims to New England.
Witches describes the rigors of the journey the Pilgrims and other passengers experienced on the Mayflower. They were trapped below decks. Beer was the only safe beverage. The Atlantic was stormy. America did not promise success. Jamestown, the only other surviving English settlement, had lost a large percentage of its initial population. Upon arrival in America, the Mayflower’s passengers faced hunger, scurvy, frostbite, and deadly conflict with Indians. “By March, 1621, forty-nine of the original Mayflower contingent are dead – almost half of those who set sail from England.”
Witches moves on to the Puritans. Puritanism began in England, in the late sixteenth century. The Church of England, in the Puritans’ opinion, was still too much like the Catholic Church that Henry VIII had rejected during the Reformation. Puritanism is often described as a Utopian movement. Like other Utopians, Puritans were given to extremes. One famous Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, committed what some call a “genocide” against Irish Catholics. The fortunes of the Puritan movement fluctuated in England. Under King Charles I, conditions for Puritans were not good, so many left for America c. 1629-1640.
In 1630, led by Puritan lawyer and lay preacher John Winthrop, about 700 newcomers arrived on a fleet of eleven ships in Massachusetts. Winthrop promised that their new settlement would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” as the Puritans lived in brotherly love. One of the passengers was Roger Williams. Williams said that “The distinction between the church and the world must always be kept clear, otherwise, the wilderness of the world will invade the garden of the church.” Williams was banished. He founded Rhode Island, which practiced separation of church and state. Elsewhere, “every aspect of life in New England is governed by the church.” Celebrating Christmas or Easter resulted in a fine. Adulterers could be killed.
There were 70,000 Indians in New England. European newcomers were intrigued by their magic practices. There was armed conflict between settlers and Indians and many were killed on both sides. There were reports of Indians torturing the newcomers.
In January, 1692, Puritans faced cold, hunger, and fights between neighbors. In Boston, Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather preached hellfire sermons. Departures from strict Puritan behavior, they insisted, would result in divine punishment. A slave named Tituba entertained girls with fortune telling. Tituba had been in Boston when Ann Glover, an impoverished Irish Catholic, was hanged for witchcraft in 1688. Tituba tells stories about witches. Her charges, who lived in the home of a preacher some wanted to remove, began to go into convulsions. The girls blamed witchcraft. Two other Salem girls followed suit. They began to accuse their neighbors of being witches. Tituba admitted to being a witch and she accused others.
Accusations spread as if they were a contagious disease. Young girls exhibited a practiced routine. They screeched and writhed and imitated the movements of those they accused. It all sounds so ridiculous it’s hard to believe that Salem residents took it seriously. It’s hard to know how many did; the book quotes many Salem residents as denouncing the whole thing as ridiculous. “One witchcraft trial judge, Nathan Saltonstall, resigns in disgust.” In the case of the accused John Proctor, more than fifty people filed petitions insisting that he was innocent. Puritan Reverend George Burrows was hung. “He gained the admiration of all present,” one spectator at his hanging reports. That admiration could not save him. Bratty, deluded girls, desperate for attention and power, condemned him as taking dictation from the devil. Some in power took the girls’ accusations seriously, and Salem residents went to jail, suffered and died as a result. Cotton Mather recommended the use of “spectral evidence.” That is, if someone feels convinced that another person’s “specter” has visited her and done her harm, she can accuse the “specter’s” owner of a capital crime.
Previous victims, like Ann Glover, were poor and marginal. In Salem, propertied and respected people were accused and killed. Disputes over property appear to have played a role in their misfortune. “The property of a convicted witch is seized to pay for lodging in jail and the trial. Hathorne and other court officers are paid well for their services.” After accused witch Rebecca Jacobs was arrested, Constable John Putnam seized her husband’s property, took the food from her pantry, and her wedding ring. Greed killed.
Ambition killed. Those who opposed the new minister, Reverend Parris, were picked off one by one. “All opposition to Reverend Parris is now eliminated.” “For Increase and Cotton Mather, the witch executions are bringing fame and prosperity … No one is more powerful in New England than Reverend Increase Mather. Except, perhaps, his son Reverend Cotton Mather.” Increase Mather watched the mob hang his colleague, Reverend Burroughs. Cotton Mather “wears expensive clothing and the finest boots made in England. He indulges in fine food and drink.”
Thwarted as well as rewarded ambition fuels the frenzy. Tom Putnam who “controls the four primary accusers,” “has never achieved the status he expected … his bitterness has turned to revenge.” Cowardice also killed. Many opposed the trials but were afraid to say so. If they spoke up, they risked being accused and killed.
There was eventual backlash. Powerful people began to backtrack. The last executions took place in September, 1692. The last trial took place in May, 1693. Relatives of the accused worked for their exoneration and compensation. Reverend Joseph Green replaced Reverend Parris. He unified Salem. Only one Salem accuser, Ann Putnam, who had the blood of eleven innocents on her hands, publicly expressed regret. Reverend Green accepted her confession on August 25, 1706. Clearly, she still believed in the influence of the devil on human behavior, but her application of that belief changed. Ann Putnam approached her guilt through the Christian ritual of self-examination and confession:
“It was a great delusion of Satan yt deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental with others tho’ ignorantly and unwittingly to bring upon myself & this land the guilt of innocent blood … I desire to lye in the dust & to be humbled for it in that I was a cause with others of so sad a calamity to them & their familys, for which cause I desire to lye in ye dust & earnestly begg fforgiveness of God & from all those unto whom have given just cause of sorrow & offence, whose relations were taken away or accused,” [sic] she said.
Subsequent church records reveal that under Reverend Green, the church repented of its false accusations, for example, in this record from 1702:
“Whereas this Church passed a vote Sept. 11. 1692 for the excommunication of Martha Cory, and that sentence was pronounced agt her Sept. 14 by Mr. Samll Parris formerly the Pastour of this Church; she being before her excomn condemned & afterwards executed for supposed witchcraft: and there being a record of this in our Chh book page 12. We being moved hereunto do freely consent & heartily desire that the same sentence may be revoked, and that it may stand no longer agt her for we are thro’ Gods mercy to us convinced yt we were at that dark day under the Power of those errours which then prevailed in the land ; and we are sensible that we had not sufficient grounds to think her guilty of that crime for which she was condemned & executed” [sic].
Not just individuals, but state bodies, took a Christian path to healing. On January 14, 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting to repent of “the late Tragedy, raised among us by Satan.” The church gathered “to take the Blame & Shame” of the trials. Trial jurors begged for forgiveness.
In the same way that it took great courage to resist the witch trials while they were happening, it took great courage to admit, after they happened, that those that carried them out had, as Ann Putnam confessed, the “guilt of innocent blood” on their hands. And yet some were able to do so, and it is to their credit that they did so. They gained the necessary courage, at least in part, from the Christian ritual of self-examination, confession, and repentance.
At about the halfway point, Killing the Witches moves on to a sketch of Ben Franklin and life in the Revolutionary Era. Colonial Americans did not enjoy freedom of religion. A Catholic priest could be killed, under the law, for merely entering colonial Massachusetts. Puritans fought a deadly military battle against Catholics in Maryland, a colony that was founded to protect Catholics. In Maryland, Catholics could not vote, hold public office, practice law, worship in churches, or make converts. The “Boston Martyrs” were four Quakers put to death in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Other Quakers were whipped from town to town.
The Founding Fathers looked back on Salem’s witch trial history and decided to take a different path. Not all Founders were in agreement about what that path should be, though. William Penn, a Quaker and the founder of Pennsylvania, believed in separation of church and state. John Adams described himself as a “church going animal.” At one point he wrote, “This would be the best of all worlds if there was not religion in it,” but he also wrote, “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company. I mean hell.” Adams also said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Thomas Jefferson long supported freedom of religion. “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” he wrote. “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief,” he proposed in a Virginia bill that failed to pass in 1779.
Patrick Henry, an opponent of Jefferson’s proposal, favored tax money going to “Teachers of the Christian religion.” Henry wanted to make Christianity the official religion of Virginia. Jefferson advised James Madison “devoutly to pray for his death,” that is Henry’s death. George Washington agreed with Patrick Henry. Catholics, forced to pay taxes to support the Anglican church, agreed with Jefferson. James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of religion.
The final pages of Killing the Witches introduce the reader to an alleged genuine case of demonic possession, that of thirteen-year-old Ronald Hunkeler of Cottage City, Maryland, in 1949. Hunkeler was exorcised by priests who kept records. Years later, William Peter Blatty, a Georgetown student, stealthily acquired those confidential records and used them in writing The Exorcist. There is a brief account of the making of the movie based on the book; this account alleges that strange things happened on the set of the film. I’m skeptical of accounts of demonic possession, and these pages did not move the needle for me.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery