Book Review: America Bewitched

America Bewitched is a fascinating examination of the legal and social issues surrounding the belief of Witchcraft in the United States. Owen Davies details in a balanced, straightforward manner how the witchcraft trials of the New World did not end with the horrors of Salem. While the mass killing of alleged witches ended with Salem, the smaller-scale assaults on accused witches continued into the early 20th century.

Central to the author’s research was digging into the civil court records. Most works on the subject tend to look at only criminal court cases. And if looking solely at the criminal records, one would come to think that the belief in witchcraft had sharply declined after Salem. But a common misperception is that all of the witchcraft laws were removed from the books. As Davies shows us, the laws were not so much removed as replaced. Witchcraft went from being a criminal offense of treating with the Devil to a civil offense of committing fraud by way of claiming to perform witchery in general.

Davies brings together the civil court records with newspaper reports and census records to provide us with a deeper understanding of the belief in witchcraft in America. As late of the early 20th century, individuals were still being charged with witchcraft simply because the average citizen didn’t differentiate between the defunct crime of “being a witch” and fraudulent crime of “claiming to be a witch.” Many of these cases were later charged under different names like disturbing the peace, poisoning, and vandalism. But by matching up the newspaper records with the other facts, Davies shows how many of these cases originated from charges of witchcraft and were the same accusations with different, more “enlightened” names.

Davies also digs deep into the sociological reasons for the belief in Witchcraft. He discussed in great detail how accusations of witchcraft were commonly used by different ethnic immigrant groups in the New World against each other, either because of misunderstandings due to cultural differences or outright hostilities. His examples of how one group’s folk remedies would be interpreted as another group’s witchcraft are enlightening. His examination of how accusations of witchcraft were used against both slaves and Native Americans is particularly noteworthy.

America Bewitched should be considered required reading for anyone with an interest in the full history of witchcraft belief in America.

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