Prostitute murders and witch trial rituals haunt Portland in new book

Salem, Mass., gets most of the rap for the witch trials of 1692, a hysteria in which locals accused each other of using black magic, triggering slapdash court cases and torturous executions for folks “convicted” of witchcraft.

After the emotions of the time died down a bit, judges and jurors who helped condemn their neighbors to death over circumstantial/imaginary evidence apologized. (If only Hallmark had a card for that: “Sorry I wrongfully found your wife guilty of brewing magical potions, and then ordered her crushed to death by stones. Here’s a picture of a monkey in a party hat.”)

But the territory that is today Maine wasn’t completely detached from the hysteria, and a new novel by a Portland native and University of Maine Law alumnus supposedly brings that crazy environment back to life in Maine’s largest city.

Set in contemporary times, Kieran Shields’ first book “The Truth of All Things” follows newly appointed Deputy Marshal Archie Lean as he investigates a prostitute’s murder and uncovers what a news release calls “a series of ritualized killings that are reminiscent of the Salem witch trials.”

Shields is giving a talk about his book at the University of Southern Maine Portland Bookstore at 7 p.m. on March 28. The event is free and open to the public, and copies of the book will be on sale at the site afterward.

In full disclosure, I haven’t read Shields’ novel, so I can’t say what ties the Portland killings therein have with the historic witch trials — is there a cult trying to revive the idea of a supernatural court system of sorts, or did the murderers simply prefer hanging, drowning and stoning as their primary methods — but associating Maine with the Salem trials is not an unbelievable leap.

Renowned historian, author and college professor Mary Beth Norton wrote in her 2002 nonfiction “In the Devil’s Snare” about the more regional triggers for the 1692 witch hunts associated with Salem. According to a 2007 story in the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel reposted online by our blogger friends at Strange Maine, Norton broadened her scope of research into the time period and she came to the conclusion the prevailing culture of fear found on the Maine fringes (where regular unannounced conflicts with Indians had everybody a bit jumpy) followed the Mainers in their migration back to more urban centers.

Here’s what Norton told the News Sentinel:

I realized that so many of the people whose names I was familiar with from the trial records were actually from Maine. They were playing out conflicts that had started, in many cases, from years earlier on the Maine frontier. … I don’t think the northern wars caused the witchcraft crisis, but the crisis would not have occurred if the wars had been averted. Because the wars created the climate of fear that allowed the expansion of the crisis beyond those first accusations.

Norton said the heightened tension of living in danger of attacks by “mysterious” enemies — who seemed to appear and disappear at will on the edges of European penetration into the New World — created a community atmosphere of irrational overreaction to perceived threats, and in a sense acceptance of the concept of a mythical bad guy. That cauldron of emotions helped brew the now famous witch hunts of Salem when the frontiersmen came out of the woods, she argued.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.