'The Witches': What really happened in Salem in 1692?

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff offers a comprehensive illumination of an unsettling period of American history that continues to captivate our cultural imagination.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 By Stacy Schiff Little, Brown and Company 512 pp.

Roughly two centuries after the Salem witch trials of 1692, the satirist and critic Ambrose Bierce listed two entries under the noun “WITCH” in his "Devil’s Dictionary": “(1) Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.”

In his wry and telegraphic style, Bierce suggests one answer to a question that has obsessed Americans ever since Salem: Why did Massachusetts villagers succumb to a murderous frenzy of superstition and execute 19 people – and two dogs – for witchcraft in a single year? Some compound of jealousy, disgust, fear, and desire lurks behind most accusations of witchcraft. And a time-honored method of demonizing women who arouse such a potent brew of emotions is to claim they are consorts of demons and devils.

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff’s new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, makes the excellent point that Salem is not remarkable merely for accusations of witchcraft. Women have been branded witches – not to mention a rhyming insult – for ages. When 19 people, five of them men, are not just called witches but are also publicly tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft over just a few months, a deeper explanation is necessary.

This is precisely what Schiff offers – a comprehensive illumination of an unsettling period of American history that continues to captivate our cultural imagination. Her book is a brilliant feat of research, and she organizes vast streams of often fragmentary historical data into a lively narrative that has an almost cinematic immediacy. She recounts even the supernatural with a straight-faced documentary style: “Ann Foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole.”

This technique does more than just enliven her story; it places readers in the position of the 17th-century New England villagers who heard fantastic episodes and apparitions reported as factual matters. Part of what makes Salem so extraordinary is just how mundane the supernatural was at the time. A world that most of us would need hallucinogens to experience – glow-in-the-dark jellyfish in a fireplace, a hairy, winged creature warming itself before the parsonage fire, a matron transformed into a blue boar – was accepted at face value by a broad spectrum of the community.

Schiff posits many possible reasons for this ubiquity of phantoms. The world was literally darker in an age of candlelight and fires, and the hard apple cider Puritans drank was often mind-bendingly strong.  The 17th-century New England frontier was also a land of threat and menace; Frenchmen and Indians were constant psychological specters for the settlers. Most people in small frontier towns had lost friends or family to ambushes, raids, and warfare, so the habit of seeing shapes materialize out of mists and shadows was understandable.

Religion was also a factor. Even toddlers could quote Scripture, and ministers made a point of reminding everyone of their fundamental sinfulness. The devil, “that old deluder,” was a familiar figure in sermons and conversation. If life is framed as a struggle between forces of light and darkness, it’s not hard to imagine that sometimes Satan and his recruits will triumph, infecting whole towns with evil. The Puritans in particular tended to feel hounded and harassed, and their historical repression by the authorities was easily attributed to more sinister powers. A certain paranoia was inevitable for a religious group that, in Schiff’s words, was nearly “persecuted into existence.”

Legal standards that we now take for granted were still hundreds of years away in 1692. Spectral evidence – which could also be called imaginary evidence – was admitted into the courtroom during the witchcraft trials, which often featured shrieking and convulsing teenage girls pointing tremulous fingers at the accused. This was also considered evidence. The ostensible witches were made to watch the frantic writhing of those claiming to be bewitched and told that this constituted irrefutable proof. If the official presiding over the trial did not like the jury’s verdict, he might ask them to reconsider several times until their opinion matched his.

It was far safer to be afflicted by a witch than accused of witchcraft, which likely led to many preemptive accusations.  But there were other good reasons to accuse someone of witchcraft. All sorts of domestic or neighborhood grudges that had been festering for years could suddenly be settled in a decisive and public way. Schiff does some subtle and ingenious archival sleuthing to show how simmering disputes over property boundaries, firewood allocation, and other local sore spots may have motivated many accusations.

Those who confessed that they were in fact witches were rarely executed, while those who fought the charges had far lower survival rates. The accused ranged from a five-year-old to an 81-year-old, and an astonishingly high percentage of the population was implicated. In Andover, one out of every 15 people in the town was accused. The socially marginalized – slaves, widows, beggars – were especially vulnerable, but no one was safe. A Harvard graduate was among those executed.

Schiff’s book could benefit from a careful editing that removed 100 or so of its 400-plus pages. Many of the details are quite literally fantastic, but even such outlandish and striking material can grow repetitive. But the work is a fascinating and largely unprecedented study that almost constitutes a new genre, a sort of nonfiction American magical realism. 

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