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

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Through the gripping micro-history of a family tragedy, we glimpse an entire society caught in agonized transition between supernatural obsessions and the age of enlightenment. We see, in short, the birth of the modern world.Life in 1650s Springfield, Massachusetts is far from the Puritan idyll its townspeople might have hoped. Beset by freezing winters and withering summers, smallpox, typhoid and an unfathomably high infant mortality rate, they relied on homespun remedies – “a drink made from boiled toads… powdered sheep’s horn for sores” that to the modern reader might themselves sound like witchcraft.

Malcolm Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and the author of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans. Gaskill is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books. At the same time, in Old England there is a resurgence in witchcraft and men and women being suspected and indeed prosecuted as witches. These suspicions soon come to New England and to Springfield. With a life of very hard work, ravaging cold winters and hot summers with droughts, close community living, poverty, little money, food and death a constant, along with strict religious behaviour the signs, are to these settlers, everywhere of God's love, displeasure and calling. Equally and as forcefully, are the temptations to stray from the path by the Devil/Satan, with his ways in luring, talking, forcing and leading people. As such suspicion falls through verbal threats, strange happenings and signs that show devilry and witchcraft is happening amongst the people of Springfield.

Their failure to build their nirvana is not surprising. People have believed in very strange things since the beginning of time, including hundreds of very different religions, and, their attempts to build new societies on their beliefs have not usually been successful. Worst of all were the big bids for utopian societies. The Russian, French and Chinese revolutions all started in idealism and laudable aims but ended in terror, hatred, murder, tyranny and - not least - the madness of crowds.

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