The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England
Emerson W. Baker
Reviewed by David Rankine
This book is an absorbing study of a little-known incident of lithobolia (stone-throwing devils) on Great Island in New Hampshire in 1682, ten years before the Salem Witch Trials. The author expertly blends historical details of comparable incidents with a comprehensive exposition of the major players and the social undercurrents of the situation. There is so much contextual material that it is difficult to know where to start in elaborating on this fascinating work.
The religious divisions present in late seventeenth century New England created massive social tensions, between rival Christian sects like the established Puritans and the Quakers (who were considered so radical they were outlawed and even killed on occasion). Religious disputes such as the Antinomian Controversy, whose followers held to the belief that God did not place preconditions on salvation, and the established socially acceptable view that a God-fearing law-abiding life was essential, also coloured the personal politics and relationships between settlers living in this very different world to ours today.
Examples of the social structure of the time beggar belief by modern standards, and give us more of a window into the fear-ridden world of this time and place – fear of social, political and religious change in a culture which was being pulled in too many directions at the same time. A place where an Indian servant was less valuable than a pig but more valuable than an indentured Irishman! A place where swearing could see you fined and placed in the stocks, and where visits to the courtroom were frequent for failing in a huge range of social constraints.
Although this book is more of a work of history than of folklore, some of its value lies in the clever stripping away of the layers of accreted opinion to present the facts in a way supported clearly by opinion. The author presents coherent arguments and gives a huge array of supporting evidence. This approach is one which many modern writers on the history of paganism and magick could benefit from. The end of the book leads the reader from the events at Great Island to those of Salem ten years later. The parallels between the circumstances and events of the two are laid out in a way that opens whole new views of these events, and will hopefully cause a lot more questioning to be done.
All in all this is an excellent, extremely well-written and absorbing work, which I recommend to anyone who enjoys a good history book!