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The Ruin of All Witches

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A fascinating and well written/researched book on the witch trials of Springfield, Massachusetts. Gaskill strips away any lingering ideas of these hunts being driven by piety, displaying the base jealousy and greed that cost lives.

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DNF @ 50% and I'm SAD. This is SUCH an interesting premise. Even the chapter titles are fascinating. But I just keep zoning out or not paying attention. I love the idea of going deep on ONE town and ONE case of witchcraft, but this goes so deep into the time, I just could not make myself care about the art of brickmaking. Like, maybe a sentence about it would be really interesting and good to know. But there's a whole paragraph about bricks. I can't get past the fact that I love how lived-in this book felt and how fascinating the culture was but it just ... is executed in such boring ways sometimes. Maybe I'll pick up when I'm feeling less ADHD lol.

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I'm not a big nonfiction reader, but I am always drawn to anything about witches. The information in this book was so interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.

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review published in Law & Liberty

t’s a few years since I’ve been to Springfield, Mass. And I have to say that it never gave me the impression of being a place for the supernatural. It’s one of those rare towns that is an Amtrak crossroads. You can head west on the Lake Shore Limited and go all the way to Chicago, or take the Vermonter South to New York, or head up to St Albans or East to Boston. Three hundred and eighty years ago, it wasn’t the crossroads of anything: it was close to the edge of the whole world its residents knew.

Back then, Springfield was a place where the contradictions of magical belief and frontier society came to the fore. According to Malcom Gaskell, “what happened at Springfield was both America’s first witch panic and an overture for Salem, America’s last.”

It was 1645, when brick-maker Hugh Parsons and his wife Mary were charged with witchcraft. Settlers in New England had been rocked by news of the Civil War back in the old country. And cracks were emerging in the theological system that had been established by the Puritan authorities. Unlike some towns in New England, where entire parishes had upped sticks and emigrated, Springfield’s population was a diverse collection of people from different parts of Britain. They came with their own belief systems and habits, and presumably prejudices, carried along with them. The town father, William Pynchon, had to attempt to steer this ship of souls with the assistance of the local minister.

Life was hard, and many struggled. As back in Britain, infants born in this new world died with depressing regularity. Families faced the vicissitudes of crop survival, and clung to a grim livelihood, believing at least in a Calvinistic predestination. Hugh had a marketable trade, but still found it hard to stay out of debt. He also seems to have been something of a strange fellow. He was constantly dropping in on his neighbors uninvited, for no other reason than to sit at their table and have a smoke. Was he bored? Nosy? Oblivious to social cues? Who knows?

But this kind of ambiguous behavior could add up in a case about someone being a witch. As for Mary, she was apparently witch-obsessed. She talked of witches, and accused others before settling the blame on her husband. She was a gossip, he was unreliable in business, and their bad marriage apparently annoyed the town.

Was this enough to make the Parsons witches? Some of the accusations were odd and trivial, like misplaced tools suddenly reappearing. Another man thought Hugh had cursed him to fall from his horse. Some witnesses saw ghostly apparitions, but the most serious charge against Hugh was that he had bewitched his own child to death. Did all the townsfolk truly believe this? As Gaskill points out:

Though wicked, witchcraft was a slippery crime, suspended between fantasy and reality, credulity and skepticism. Most people believed in witches; the thornier question was whether an individual could reasonably be hanged on the testimony of her neighbors.

William Pynchon, far from being a keen witchfinder, was skeptical. (He had other doubts about Puritan doctrine, and published a book that the Massachusetts authorities deemed heretical.) Nonetheless, this was a world of harsh punishments; even adulterers were hanged in New England. And a court in Boston would decide the Parsons’ fates.

Dying women and children, failing crops, half the townsfolk were moving in a swirl of grief and financial struggle.

Mary’s fate was foreclosed by her confession to murdering one of their children – through human, not magical means. As Gaskill suggests, this confession may have been false, but it is hard to know. She died in prison before she could be hanged. A modern reader might ascribe Mary’s behavior to post-natal depression, and wonder whether Hugh was also having some kind of a breakdown. At one point Gaskill explains that wife-beating was illegal, as though that in itself answers any readers’ lingering questions about the Parsons’ marriage. (Domestic violence has always been underreported, whatever its legal status.)

But such truths remain just out of reach, unmentioned in the record. Gaskill’s years of research mean he takes us through the months leading up to the witch trial, and narrates Mary’s life before she made the decision to emigrate. She was Welsh and poor, and had joined a fervent Protestant congregation after being abandoned by her first husband. Her church connections arranged her passage, in order to work as a nursemaid in the new world. Hugh’s background is cloudier, making him the more mysterious figure.

Kai Erikson, in his 1966 sociological study in deviance, focusing on Massachusetts Puritans, wrote:

One of the surest ways to confirm an identity, for communities as well as for individuals, is to find some way of measuring what one is not.

To a Puritan settler, the measure was to be English, saintly, and saved, rather than Indian, foreigner, witch. On a frontier, these boundaries hardened, with fear of the Other close by. Gaskill suggests that this state of constant anxiety would have contributed:

To stray from the homelots, as children often did, was to sense the eeriness of isolation, feelings of foreboding and of being watched.

Add in the quotidian irritations of living in a small town, and it’s easy to imagine resentments curdling into accusations. It wasn’t a great stretch to believe in the actual witchcraft or demonic possession of one’s neighbors in a worldview that already encompassed ill fortunes, evil spirits, and the wrath of God. As Gaskill reminds us, witches weren’t figures of fantasy: they were felons.

Witchcraft was not some wild superstition but a serious expression of disorder embedded in politics, religion and law. Witches were believed to invert every cherished ideal, from obeying one’s superiors to familial love. They were traitors and murderers, bad subjects and neighbors, delighting in spite and mayhem.

But the fervor of suspicion arose due to local conditions. Historian Mary Beth Norton has tied the Salem witch panic to town leaders already in a defensive crouch after fleeing Indian raids on the frontier. They were determined to assert dominance over threats appearing from magic or human sources. In Springfield, it was a time of political turmoil too—as well as individuals pushed to the limit. Dying women and children, failing crops, half the townsfolk were moving in a swirl of grief and financial struggle. The desire to place blame somewhere is universal, and theirs was a cultural context where witchcraft was available.

The religious frenzy of the Reformation and English Civil War only increased mistrust, and (like “heretic”) the label “witch” was political as well as spiritual. The conflicts of the Thirty Years War and English Civil War were about political power as much as religious doctrines, and across Europe witch trials were fiercest in regions of religious schism. This rippled across to the New World, where Puritan settlements were defined by religious adherence.

The tragic story of Hugh and Mary Parsons is not unknown to historians, but was a minor footnote in the history of early Massachusetts. Gaskill’s careful tracing of their lives through the paperwork of the trial and the early records of Springfield bring their world into clearer view. Feeling sympathy across 300 years is easy, even as I was left wishing some more of the gaps in the story could be filled.

Unlike Salem, Springfield today makes little of its witchcraft connection. There are no pointed hats or broomsticks on street signs. Did the rest of the town regret Mary’s case? Or were they simply glad the finger hadn’t been pointed at them?

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Love to read history about witches and this particular time period in American history. This book was a little dry and slow to begin with but I appreciated all the backstory in the end.

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Hugh and Mary Parsons were perhaps the most miserable couple in Springfield, Massachusetts circa 1650. Mary suffered from severe, untreated mental illness, and cantankerous brick maker Hugh managed to alienate everyone in town. The pair quarreled constantly and each accused the other of witchcraft. Moreover, the residents of Springfield attributed all kinds of misfortunes, from bad milk to mysterious illnesses, to the devilish actions of Goodman and Goodwife Parsons, and were all too delighted to testify against them. As the reader can imagine, this tale does not end well.

Author Malcolm Gaskell does a good job of showing the reader just how difficult life was for American colonists in the demon-haunted seventeenth century. All in all, this is a thoroughly researched account of an obscure time period.

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woo boy! that was dense! but utterly fascinating. i was totally drawn in. this may not be for everyone, but i was super interested. i would say that it definitely rides the line between academic texts and narrative nonfiction. i was really reminded of readings that i did in undergrad while studying for history. so if you're a reader looking for something more accessible or pop nonfiction-y, this may not be for you. i enjoyed the contextual bits surrounding the actual accusations and trials of hugh and mary parsons. it felt really fleshed out. and i also enjoyed the touches of humor and drama that were presented. gaskill knows how to tell a story without sensationalizing. because it is somewhat dense, it is a little difficult to get into and find your bearings (at least it was for me) but i would definitely recommend checking this out if you're interested in histories of religious oppression, colonial america, or just witchcraft trials in general.

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Lay readers may find Gaskill's tone slightly dry, but his exploration of a Colonial witch hunt that preceded the more famous Salem trials by several decades will be sure to interest anyone wishing to learn more about this period of American history.

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First line: Once, beside a great river at the edge of a forest, there stood a small town.

Summary: It is 1651 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This young town in the New World has been experiencing troubles. Food is spoiling, tools are missing, animals are dying and people are suffering from fits. It appears that something sinister is happening and it looks a lot like witchcraft. The town begins to turn on the local brick maker and his wife.

My Thoughts: I recently heard the author speak on a podcast and was instantly intrigued by the story. Ever since reading A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi, I have been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials. As a young person it seems impossible that people could believe these accusations but as I have grown up I understand how prejudice and fear can make rational people do irrational things. Even though this is a lesser known and much milder witch hunt than Salem it still has many important points and insights into life on the frontier of a new country.

As I read I was amazed by the amount of research and information the author was able to gather. He created a narrative that was almost like reading a novel. I was impressed with his passion for the topic and his handling of the material. As well as giving information about the case he also filled in the reader about life at the time including church, politics and family dynamics. By including these it made the story more real. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in early colonial history or the history of witchcraft. It is not as sensational as the trials of Salem but still fascinating to discover.

FYI: Death and witchcraft.

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Wonderful book that weaves a story into the factual context. You always hear about the Salem Witch Trials but never about the case in Springfield, MA. The author does an amazing job making you care about everyone involved, particularly Mary Parsons and her struggle. You really feel for her. And I loved reading about William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, who turned out to be not a bad guy. I came into this familiar with the Salem trials and felt it was going to be more of the same, but it wasn't at all. Will definitely recommend for anyone interested in colonial America and how people survived and coped in the New England wilderness.

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As someone who is fascinated by the Witch Trials and has read many books about it, I was both excited and skeptical when I found The Ruin of All Witches on NetGalley. I can now say that this is one of the best researched and fascinating books on the subject!

Malcolm Gaskill brings you into the community of Springfield and introduces the inhabitants as if this was a play and allows you to meet the Parsons before showing the descent of both Hugh and Mary but also the community into paranoia and accusations of witchcraft. I loved how Gaskill shows the townspeople as individuals with their own motives before it becomes a witch hunt.

I feel like Gaskill has crafted a book that is both highly engaging but also researched immensely and can be loved by historians, fans of books about the witch trials or someone who wants to understand paranoia and the role it plays in the fall of people or a community.

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