Carlson - A Fever in Salem

July 20, 2004

Laurie Winn Carlson
A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999

Carlson argues that the Salem epidemic was lethargic encephalitis, the same disease that hit the US and parts of Europe in epidemic force in 1919 and 1920. The 1920 variety of encephalitis, a generic name for inflammations and infections of the brain, appears to have been carried by bugs and animals, and produced paralysis, hallucinations, and painful prickings. The symptoms match the accounts of the afflicted people in Salem. She postulates that this form of encephalitis is one that emerges and disappears at long intervals, and she finds another outbreak in New England in the 1740s that was interpreted as disease not as witchcraft, and some accounts from the early 17th century that also match the Salem symptoms.

It is an interesting proposal, one worth testing.
It does explain why afflictions and accusations were found outside of Salem - answering Boyer and Nussenbaum, and why both men and women were afflicted, answering Karlsen.
It does not explain the fits that the girls went through when confronted by some of the accused witches, unless the symptoms could somehow be provoked. Remember the trial of Martha Carey, where the girls trembled when Martha looked at them, and exhibited physical reactions mirroring what the accused did - she tilted her head, and they almost broke their necks.

Reviews have been skeptical, the most favorable pointing out that Carlson's explanation for why the accused acted this way is largely irrelevant to the historian's question of why the actions were interpreted as they were. Others have been less kind, jumping on her many errors of fact or poking holes in her hypothesis about the transmission and scope of the disease.

Mention in class as a possibility for the crisis, but don't use it as the "real" explanation.

Posted by Red Ted at July 20, 2004 01:50 PM | TrackBack
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