Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Books: "Killing the Witches" By Bill O'Reilly

Killing the Witches: The Horror of Salem, Massachusetts

By Bill O'Reilly & Martin Dugard

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 304 pages; $32.00; available today, Tuesday, September 26th 

This is the latest book in TV journalist and radio host Bill O'Reilly's Killing series, which he has written with Martin Dugard, who has authored several bestselling books of history, including Taking Paris and Taking Berlin. This is the most popular series of narrative histories in world, with 19 million copies in print and a remarkable run of #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestsellers. 

There have been 12 books in the Killing series to this point, including last year's releases were Killing the Killers (please click here for our review), which focused on the War on Terror and became a #1 New York Times and national bestseller, and Killing the Legends, on Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Muhammad Ali. (click here for our review).

Killing the Witches takes us back to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693, with O'Reilly and Dugard going into excruciating detail - starting 70 years before with the Pilgrims' arrival on the Mayflower - about one of most frightening and inexplicable episodes in American history. 

What started as two young girls' mysterious affliction, as they suffered violent fits and exhibited strange behavior, soon spread to other women. Salem then became consumed by rumors of demonic possession and witchcraft.

Three women were eventually arrested under suspicion of being witches, but as the hysteria spread, more than 200 people faced accusations. Thirty were found guilty, twenty were executed, and others died in jail or had their lives ruined.

O'Reilly and Dugard reveal the dramatic history of how the Puritan tradition and the power of early American ministers shaped the origins of the United States, influenced the Founding Fathers, the American Revolution, and all the way up to the Constitutional Convention.

The repercussions from Salem continue to the present day, notably in the real-life story behind The Exorcist and in contemporary "witch hunts," also known as cancel culture, on social media. The running themes, then and now, are good and evil, community panic, and how fear can overwhelm fact and reason.

In this excerpt, O'Reilly and Dugard write of the journey on the Mayflower: "SEPTEMBER 6, 1920 - PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - MORNING

The New World beckons.

It is a cool English day as John Alden, a twenty-one-year-old barrel maker and carpenter, stands at the rail of the merchant ship Mayflower, watching the chaos on the wharf just below. He is about to risk his life on an extremely dangerous voyage. What he sees terrifies him.

Today is Sunday, a day of rest, yet dozens of workers are loading provisions onto the ship. It looks unlikely there will be enough to last the 102 passengers as well as roughly thirty members of the crew and officers the entirety of the ten-week voyage. In addition to the lack of food, some of those who have booked passage are growing apprehensive about the journey because the Atlantic Ocean has been wracked by gale-force winds. In fact, many of them refuse to board.

Even though Alden is young and a relatively inexperienced member of the crew, he knows this is not an orderly departure.

And perhaps an omen of troubles to come.

The truth is that the Mayflower should have been long at sea by now. The planned three-thousand-mile voyage to the American coast is harsh even in the calm summer months. But the North Atlantic turns mean in autumn. Two previous attempts to depart in good weather ended when the Mayflower's companion ship Speedwell began leaking. Repairs failed and the small vessel eventually had to be abandoned in port. As a result, the Mayflower will have to carry far more people and belongings than originally intended. One of the leaders of the venture, Robert Cushman, writes to a friend, 'If we ever make a Plantation, God works a miracle.'

John Alden, a husky blond adventurer, understands this risk. He knows that only one other English settlement has survived in America. This is Jamestown in Virginia, where as many as 3,000 of the 3,600 settlers have perished since the colony's founding in 1607. Those colonists are members of the Church of England, a faith swearing loyalty to the king. Many of the Mayflower voyagers are Protestants of the Puritan sect, often known as 'dissenters' due to their strong disagreements with the king's religion. This is their reason for seeking a new life in America. But for some on board, such as Alden, faith has nothing to do with the journey. It's just a job. Furs and tobacco can be very profitable when shipped back to England. No matter the motivation, all are willing to sacrifice comfort - and perhaps their lives - for a better future.

This is not the first time the Puritans have fled England. Twelve years ago, they sailed to Holland because the Crown was persecuting them. However, the Puritans, mostly farmers, found it difficult to purchase land in Holland. They were relegated to working in the wool industry, where wages were low. In addition, Puritan leadership believed the Dutch were corrupt - the Devil was working among them in Holland. Thus, the group returned to England, knowing they would eventually have to find another place to settle.

Almost immediately, the Dissenters and King James clash. Puritans believe in religious law but reject the laws of the Crown. That is unacceptable to James. But rather than punish them, the king sees a chance for the Puritans to actually help him: the fundamentalists would be allowed to sail off once again, on the provision that they establish an English colony in the Americas.

At first, the Puritans consider going to South America but eventually decide that Virginia might be a better place. A British merchant company agrees to support their settlement in return for profitable exports from the New World. Thus, the Mayflower is chartered by the merchants. For this reason, the Puritans are also required to take on board many other paying passengers that do not share their extreme faith.* (*All passengers were required to pay the merchant company more than $3,000 in today's money in order to come to America. That payment and their commitment to build a settlement have them each a share in the New World profits, which they used to pay down their substantial transportation debt.)...

Mayflower is known as a 'sweet ship,' because the leakage from wine casks over a decade has left a pleasant aroma in the hold. But that will soon change. One hundred and two passengers living in tight confinement below the main deck quickly turns the space dark, damp, and malodorous. Living quarters are divided with curtains. Ceilings are just five feet high. Passengers live by lantern, rarely knowing if it is day or night. To make this fetid hold even more crowded, all materials needed to build a settlement - from seed to cannon, from Bibles to cauldrons - are also stored below. The Puritans believe themselves to be a peaceful people, but they are also realistic, and well armed to defend their new colony from pirates, the French, and local Indian tribes. They have dragged on board muskets, fowling pieces, swords, daggers, and several heavy guns, including two 1,800-pound sakers, three 1,200-pound minions, and four smaller cannon.

As the Puritans and Strangers soon learn, the Mayflower has not been built for this type of village. She is a sturdy merchant vessel, built to carry 180 tons of cargo in her hold. In more than a decade at sea, the Mayflower has carried a wide variety of goods, from wine to furs, to European ports - returning to England with brandy and silk. The ship has never attempted a voyage of this length with so many passengers.

Autumn storms soon turn the Atlantic treacherous. Winds blow so strong that, at times, the ship is forced to 'lie ahull,' lowering its sails and being carried on the waves. Puritan leader William Bradford writes, 'The ship would be badly shaken. Conditions aboard are dreadful.'

This is true. Passengers are subjected to hardships they have never known. Meals are cold: hard biscuits, cheese, smoked and pickled meats, salted fish. It is always wet and filthy, with no relief from the incredible stench. They recline side-by-side with absolutely no privacy or hygiene. The air is barely breathable and the only activities are card playing for the Strangers and Bible reading for the Dissenters."

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