"The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World" by Malcolm Gaskill explores the life of colonial settlers in seventeenth-century New England. Set in a small Puritan community in Springfield, Massachusetts, the story weaves together the lives of various English immigrants, each making their own way in business, life, and marriage. Many of them carried with them the burden of mistrust of their Puritan heritage from Old England and carried the prejudiced scrutiny of the Old World to the shores of New England.
The narrative centers on Mary Lewis, a young woman from the borderlands between England and Wales. Her journey began in 1641 and led her to Springfield, where she crossed paths with Hugh Parsons, an English brickmaker. Their marriage in 1645 was their second union, but life in Springfield proved to be anything but idyllic. Springfield was marked by challenges such as disease, harsh winters, rumors of foreign invasions, frustrations and the heartbreaking loss of children to smallpox and influenza epidemics. Amidst these hardships, a pervasive superstition spread, fueled by the fear of subversive books from Old England.
Despite the aspirations of self-sufficiency of the Puritan colonies in America, New England mirrored Old England in surprising ways. Events in one region often found an echo on the other side of the Atlantic, and the phenomenon of witch-hunting was no exception. Amid social unrest, civil wars, and religious strife in Old England, New England settlers became increasingly sensitive and suspicious, leading to indiscriminate accusations of witchcraft against newcomers, longtime neighbors, and even spouses.
A closer look at the micro-history of witchcraft in Springfield reveals a community that was characterized by isolation, unfulfilled dreams, jealousy and mistrust, resulting in hostility. The escape from the "Old World" to the "New World" did not free these immigrants from fear and superstition, but rather intensified these fears. The story, which begins with the neighbors' nightmares, leads to the trial of Mary for witchcraft and illustrates the ongoing effects of persecution in Old England on its inhabitants.