Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

Third Series, Volume LXV
July 2008

Digital Projects

“Salem Possessed in Retrospect,”

By Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum

Boyer, Figure IFigure I - Spring 1969: the first announcement of History 185, the experimental “laboratory” course introduced by Stephen Nissenbaum and Paul Boyer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for the fall of 1969. Initially, they planned to teach both Salem witchcraft and Shays’s Rebellion in the same semester. As the richness of the Salem topic became evident, they decided to devote the entire semester to it. (Shays’s Rebellion was the sole topic in the spring 1970 semester.)

Figure 2aFigure II - The final project assignment for the first Salem course (dated November 12, 1969, and distributed in blue Ditto-master format). This two-page assignment offers a vivid sense of the course’s hands-on approach.

Boyer, Figure IIIFigure III - Another Ditto-master handout: “How to Use the [Unpublished] Probate Records of Essex County, Mass.” (November 17, 1969). Students were encouraged to make research trips to the Essex County Courthouse in Salem, and several did so as part of their final projects. This handout supplies detailed logistical instructions for such trips.

Boyer, Figure IVFigure IV - The first effort by Boyer and Nissenbaum to map the landholdings of Salem Villagers who signed either the pro-Parris petition or the anti-Parris petition of 1695, which they discovered in April 1970 in the manuscript records of the First Church of Danvers. In July, having located the petition signers’ landholdings on nine separate maps of Salem Village real-estate holdings first published in the 1910s, the authors arranged photocopies of the nine maps on the floor to create a complete map of the village. Sensing something of a eureka moment as a striking geographic pattern emerged, they signed and dated this sketch. The final version of this map, titled “Land Ownership and Factionalism: Salem Village in 1695,” appears on page 85 of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).

Boyer, Figure 5Figure V - The first outline of the article Nissenbaum and Boyer planned to write for the William and Mary Quarterly. Over coffee in a campus cafeteria in late summer or early fall 1970, they dashed off this outline on a lunch bag from the cafeteria checkout line. Sketchy as it is, the outline contains in embryonic form key elements of the final structure of Salem Possessed: first, an overall summary of the Salem story and a brief account of the economic and geographic patterns that emerged in 1692; second, a more detailed historical and quantitative analysis of Salem Village’s factional divisions; and third, a final section (headed “Paradigms”) on the complex intrafamilial problems that divided the Putnam family and the equally complex tensions and divisions within Samuel Parris’s own psyche. (The crucial role of Israel Porter and his familial network would become clearer only as research and writing proceeded.)

Boyer, Figure 6Figure VI - A slightly expanded typed version of the “lunch-bag outline,” probably done later the same day.

Boyer, Figure 7Figure VII - A marked-up page from an early draft of chapter 4 of Salem Possessed, discussing the significance of the Ipswich Road. For the final version of this page draft, see Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed, 96.

Boyer, Figure 8Figure VIII - An early handwritten draft of the Pilgrim’s Progress discussion found in revised (but recognizable) form on page 213 of Salem Possessed. This passage explores the lure of material success that plagued the same Salem Village Puritans who accused others of selling their souls to the devil: “As the witchcraft outbreak gained momentum, the accusers were thus compelled to face the possibility that they were themselves being transformed by the forces of change that were buffeting Salem Village” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed, 214). In their retrospective essay, the authors suggest that this kind of historical and psychological reasoning offers a rejoinder to those who would reduce the argument of Salem Possessed to tax lists or lines on a map.

Boyer, Figure 9Figure IX - Fall 1972: the carbon copy of a letter from Boyer and Nissenbaum to Max Hall, their Harvard University Press editor, dated November 7 (and marked “2:45 a.m.” at the bottom!), accompanying some last-minute revisions of the first chapter and expressing their belief “that the book, for better or worse, is just about as strong as we can make it.”