25 October 2014
The Penguin Book of Witches edited by Katherine Howe
Chilling real-life accounts of witches, from medieval Europe through colonial America
From a manual for witch hunters written by King James himself in 1597, to court documents from the Salem witch trials of 1692, to newspaper coverage of a woman stoned to death on the streets of Philadelphia while the Continental Congress met, The Penguin Book of Witches is a treasury of historical accounts of accused witches that sheds light on the reality behind the legends. Bringing to life stories like that of Eunice Cole, tried for attacking a teenage girl with a rock and buried with a stake through her heart; Jane Jacobs, a Bostonian so often accused of witchcraft that she took her tormentors to court on charges of slander; and Increase Mather, an exorcism-performing minister famed for his knowledge of witches, this volume provides a unique tour through the darkest history of English and North American witchcraft, never failing to horrify, intrigue, and delight.
Penguin is not kidding when they say "real-life" accounts. Katherine Howe has collected primary source documentation on the persecution of suspected witches, The transcripts of trials and interrogations are chilling - one was guilty of being a witch simply by accusation. The incidents occurred primarily in Colonial America but a few from England are included. Howe has a doctorate in this exact period of United States history - as well as being descended from accused witches on both sides of her family tree - and provides excellent introductions to each piece of material.
The Penguin Book of Witches is an excellent short anthology of court records and testimony. However, it does not read smoothly. Howe did not re-write the accounts simply to make the reading experience easier, which I appreciate because there is no reason why the testimonies cannot be read in the original rather than in a "modernized" edition (cf. my least favorite question at the bookstore: "Do you have an English translation of [insert English language classic like Jane Eyre here]?"). But the layout of the actual text makes for difficult reading. Unintelligible or missing writing was noted in the transcripts as [torn] or [illegible], right in line with the text and was confusing. I would be reading along and read [torn] as something actually stated and have to back up to re-read. In future editions, Penguin should add a few spaces around the lacunae and perhaps place the text in italics - this is a short book so a few more pages could be spared for ease of reading.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book through the Penguin First to Read program.