‘Witch Book’ with ties to Salem trials sells for $221,000

This copy of the Bay Psalm Book was once owned by Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the Salem witch trials, and his wife.
This copy of the Bay Psalm Book was once owned by Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the Salem witch trials, and his wife. Swann Auction Galleries

There’s no sorcery here — just a case of high demand.

A book with ties to the Salem witch trials sold at auction last week for more than five times what auctioneers had expected.

A previously unknown seventh edition of the Bay Psalm Book — once owned by Jonathan Corwin, a judge in the Salem witch trials — fetched $180,000 at an auction hosted by Swann Auction Galleries in New York.

After the “buyer’s premium” was tacked onto the item, the total cost of the book was $221,000, said Rick Stattler, an Americana specialist for Swann Auction Galleries.


“It turned out to be the most expensive book ever sold in an Americana auction here,” Stattler said.

Stattler said the book came to be known as the “Witch Book” because it was owned by Corwin and his wife, Elizabeth, not long after the conclusion of the witch trials of 1692.

Later, descendants of John Proctor, who was tried and hanged during the witch trials, took ownership of the leather-bound book. The double connection to the trials added to buyers’ intrigue, Stattler said.

William Reese Co. of New Haven, a major dealer of early printed Americana, bought the book, Stattler said.

Eight people registered to bid by phone during the auction, and many others gathered in the auction hall. Officials from the Salem Witch Museum had interest in the book but were quickly outbid.

The bidding “just took off,” said Biff Michaud, chief executive of the Salem museum. “When it hit $110,000, I thought maybe I could put in $115,000. But then it blew by that and became just unreachable for us.”

Michaud originally planned to bid just $40,000.

“How wonderful it would have been to have the single most important article from that period as part of the new exhibit we are putting together,” he said.


Bill Reese, president of the William Reese Co., said he purchased the item because “it was an opportunity that wasn’t going to come again.”

Reese expects to sell the book to a private collector.

The book was part of the Printed and Manuscript Americana auction lot. It contains psalms and spiritual songs followed closely by the Puritans.

The first edition of the Bay Psalm Book was printed in Cambridge in 1640. According to the Library of Congress, the hymnal is considered “America’s First Book.”

Later editions were published in England. Until this version of the Bay Psalm Book surfaced, it was not known that a seventh edition was printed in the United States.

Text in the book indicates it was printed and sold by Benjamin Harris at the London Coffee House in Boston in 1693.

Reese said he was more interested in the book’s rarity than its connection to the trials.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.