After a long period when there were few witchcraft trials in England, in the mid-1640s, during the civil war, there was a devastating outbreak in the eastern counties. Self-professed witchfinders, assisted by midwives and other searchers, rode from place to place investigating rumours and encouraging witnesses. Around 300 suspects were arrested, a third of them executed. Something of the witchfinders’ methods, and the underlying causes of their crusade, drifted across the Atlantic to the American colonies. New England, which had seemed unbothered by witchcraft in the first twenty-seven years of its history, hanged its first witch in 1647. One of the best documented outbursts took place in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1651, when the fear and rage of a frontier community focused upon a labouring couple, Hugh and Mary Parsons. This talk tells their tragic story, and suggests how their fate was rooted in turbulent old England as well as in the unique conditions of the New World.
Speaker: Malcolm Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of several books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (2001) and Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005). His latest book is The Ruin of All Witches: A True Story, to be published by Penguin, Allen Lane in October 2021. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and lives in Cambridge with his wife and three children.