In the Devil’s Snare: Schenectady’s Connection to the Salem Witch Trials

In celebration of the opening of “Wicked” at Proctors, we are exploring the more historical side of witches! This is not the first time that Schenectady has been connected with witchcraft. Learn about Schenectady’s connection with the most famous witch trial in history…

On February 8th, 1690, Schenectady faced a devastating set back when 114 French troops and 96 Native Americans descended upon the unsuspecting town. After a bloody attack, 60 men, women, and children lost their lives, 27 men and boys were taken captive, and the town was set ablaze. As demoralizing as the catastrophe was to the survivors in Schenectady and the residents of upstate New York in general, it had lasting negative effects on the settlers of New England and, according to author Mary Beth Norton, helped (along with other French and Native attacks on English communities) cause the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.

Between February 1692 and May 1693 over 150 people were accused by a group of 40 or so individuals (mostly girls and female servants). By the end of the hysteria, nineteen people were hanged, one person was pressed to death, and as many as thirteen people may have died in prison. How could this tragedy stem from a French attack on a Dutch community over 150 miles away and culturally a world apart? In her book “In the Devil’s Snare” Mary Beth Norton hypothesizes on the emotional and psychological impact that the attacks had on people living very far away. Their fear of Native People especially helped create their image of the “Devil” and his abilities to ingratiate himself into their very community attacking their homes and families in a less visible but no less dangerous way then the Native Americans attacking frontier communities. The following selections from her book help explain the unexpected connection with the unthinkable attack on Schenectady with the most notorious witch hunt in American history.

1690 was a year of terrible attacks and setbacks for the English government in their war against France and their Native American allies. On February 24th, Samuel Sewall and his wife hosted a dinner party. “What should have been a pleasant and festive occasion, though, turned to ‘bitterness,’ Sewall noted in his diary, when the post arrived from Albany with the ‘amazing news’ of ‘the Massacre at Schenectady by the French.’” His journal went on to describe the attack “Schenectady, a village 20 miles above Albany, destroy’d by the French. 60 Men, Women and Children murder’d. Women and Child rip’d up, Children had their Brains dash’d out. Were surprise’d about 11 or 12 aclock Satterday night, being divided, and secure.”

The Schenectady attack has not the only attack undertaken by the French that cold, miserable winter. On March 18th, just as prisoners captured after the attack on Schenectady had predicted, 60 French and Natives attacked the community at Salmon Falls. Eighty to 100 people were killed or captured, the fort and more than 20 houses were destroyed as well as many cattle killed. After 5 days of fighting, the community of Falmouth surrendered to the French and their Native allies. Although promised quarter, the survivors of the attack were taken captive; many of the wounded men were killed.

These losses stunned and frightened many New Englanders and although many saw the attacks on Schenectady and Salmon Falls to at least be partially the fault of the settlers for their “unpardonable negligence” that “such a people are miserable and canot be saved,” the fear of attack and “Indians” in general put the whole country into a state of panic for the rest of 1690 and well into 1691.

This fear of attacks by Native people allied with the French may not be an easy jump to accusing your neighbors of witchcraft without the description of how New Englanders described the devil. In the various “attacks” and “confessions” of Salem residents, the devil is described as a “black man.” Historically this was believed to describe a man in black clothing and, further confusing the description, our modern terminology would bring about the image of a man of African descent. Norton asserts that “more likely than a reference to wearing apparel is that the adjective alluded to the specter’s dark or swarthy complexion- indeed, that the specter the witnesses envisioned resembled an Indian. On numerous occasions seventeenth-century colonists employed the word ‘black’ to mean ‘Indian’”

Misconceptions on the part of New Englanders that Native People were devil worshipers would explain why the devil looked like his followers. As people heard of more and more attacks after Schenectady, they feared for their own lives, for raids on their own communities. Truly believing that the devil walked among them and could attack at will, they saw his manifestation in Salem and his ability to not only attack the residents but to bring others into his circle as a logical strategy. The people of Salem were all to willing to see the “black man” their enemy amongst them.

Although revolutionary in her theories, Mary Beth Norton’s book has some logical and convincing arguments. It shows the interconnection between Colonial New York’s Dutch community and that of New England. While enjoying “Wicked” (or simply walking down the streets of the historic Stockade District) think about the connections Schenectady has to some of the benchmark periods of our country’s history!

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