cover image The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World

Malcolm Gaskill. Knopf, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-31657-3

Historian Gaskill (Between Two Worlds) combines first-rate historical research with a driving narrative in this captivating study of a married couple accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. Mary Lewis and Hugh Parsons arrived separately in Springfield, Mass., in 1645 and married later that year. According to Gaskill, the community’s growth and prosperity also brought “competition and unrest,” as well as fears about external enemies, political instabilities, and diversions from Puritan orthodoxy. Residents became convinced that a series of odd occurrences meant the devil was in Springfield, and suspicion soon fell on the Parsons. Mary, who had three children by 1650 and likely suffered from postpartum depression, didn’t behave like a proper Puritan wife, while Hugh was beset by health problems and bad dreams, and exhibited a lack of emotion following his son’s death. (He was also accused of causing a cow to act strangely and knives to disappear.) Though the General Court in Boston found the evidence of the Parsons’ witchcraft insufficient, Mary died in prison awaiting execution for the self-confessed killing of one of her sons. Hugh, meanwhile, moved with their daughter to Rhode Island, where he prospered. Gaskill’s vibrant portraits of Springfield community members, especially town founder and magistrate William Pynchon, an amateur theologian whose life “had been stalked by war, hunger and pestilence,” and lucid explanations of Puritan theology and Massachusetts’s intertwined laws of church and state make for dense yet riveting reading. This portrait of early America fascinates. Illus. (Nov.)