Salem, Massachusetts, was not the original location of witchcraft hysteria in seventeenth-century America. Ten years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, a series of attacks on residents by unseen rock throwers sent the small New England settlement of Great Island into controversy. In The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft and Conflict in Early New England, Emerson W. Baker chronicles the events that transpired in this burgeoning town.
The key to understanding why perfectly rational human beings would accuse neighbors of witchcraft lies in the details, and Baker provides lots of them. At first glance, one might even believe the possibility that there were actually "stone throwing devils" plaguing the town, given the fact the victims seemed to have had no cause for fabricating their tales. Meticulous inspection reveals a greed, uncertainty, desperation and vengeance that certainly influenced the accusations so freely leveled.
Emerson introduces the story of George and Alice Walton. On June 11, 1682, the Walton family experienced a four-hour barrage of stones flying dangerously throughout their home and tavern, breaking items and causing physical harm to inhabitants. No attacker was ever found, and the rocks seemed to be airborne of their own accord. Some were even hot, as if they had been pulled straight from the hearth. Witnesses called the phenomenon “lithobolia.”
The attacks commenced outdoors and continued for several months, by the end of which George Walton had publicly accused elderly neighbor Hannah Jones of witchcraft. This is interesting, since George and Alice supposedly responded to the attacks with their own magical remedies. The written accounts of two prominent witnesses, Richard Chamberlain and Increase Mather, seem to absolve Jones of guilt and hint that she may have even been framed.
Here we begin to see the similarities between Great Island and Salem. An extended land dispute between Walton and Jones over a property line could have been motivation for either party to cause such distress. Court records prove that Walton was not such an upstanding citizen as originally thought, and various disputes over the years created an ongoing feud between the two neighbors. Further investigation reveals marriages, death, and other stressors of the time that could have fueled the controversy. Disease and hardship affected the colonists of Great Island just as they did Salem.
Many connections could have led to the eventual controversy. Indeed, the pious settlers of early America maintained soap-opera style relations. Emerson provides maps and diagrammed family trees that help the reader understand the relationships of the time and the dynamics of the island. As was typical of the time period, families were very large, and there are multitudes of names to become familiar with to follow all possible leads. As a foreword, Emerson details a list of the principal characters comprised of over thirty names with short bios. The Devil of Great Island is not light reading. It is an intense investigative study, further illustration of the effects of the religious fervor and ignorant greed of the time period.