The Witches: Salem, 1692
To set the scene for her immensely droll explication of the Salem witch trials, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life, 2010) informs us that America’s Puritan forefathers believed wholeheartedly in the supernatural. “One no more doubted the reality of sorcery than the literal truth of the Bible; to do so was to question the sun shining at noon,” she writes at the start of The Witches: Salem, 1692, her 400-plus-page scholarly riff that, for maximum effect, should be read out loud in its entirety. You wouldn’t want to miss a word of this detailed accounting, told with such deft humor that it’s as if Schiff is your beloved elderly aunt, regaling you with an engrossing, shocking, and hilarious story over tea that might be spiked with liquor.
Schiff combines court records, archival journals and papers, town gossip, theology, history, and a subtle use of psychology to explain the Puritans to a modern readership while holding the Puritans up as a mirror to that same audience. We are not so far beyond the days of witch hunts, she hints at nearly every turn, without tossing out more than a handful of overt references to this theme. She plunges us into the squabbling and pious world of Salem village — modern-day Danvers, Massachusetts — where the accusations of bewitchery began “over a week of inky black nights, with prickling sensations. Abigail Williams … appears to have been afflicted first. Soon enough nine-year-old Betty Parris exhibited the same symptoms. The cousins complained of bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They barked and yelped.”
Never deviating from a demanding diction level and density of information, Schiff manages to make nearly every sentence a revelation in some way, often in the form of a scathing “burn” at the expense of outmoded beliefs. But in reference to the passages about the 19 innocent men and women hanged as wizards and witches, the effect is brutal and chilling. Accused wizard Giles Corey, who raises the number executed to 20, was not hanged for his supposed crimes but pressed to death by boulders as punishment for, essentially, refusing to be sworn in so that he could be tried. His wife, accused witch Martha Corey, was hanged two days later.
It was a time of great political unrest as New England chafed under the rule of the crown and Salem village tired of the authority of Salem town. Villagers were without much governance, and rural areas were particularly vulnerable to violent attack by Indians. People were quite litigious; many witchcraft accusations involved old grudges over property. Men tended to accuse women of showing up in their bedrooms at night, while girls and young women tended to be afflicted with pains and seizures at the hands of those who had never heard of them. Hundreds were accused and spent much of 1692 and 1693 in jail. Fifty-five of the accused confessed, many with florid stories of flying to midnight witch gatherings, and their lives were spared.
No accused witches were burned at the stake in Salem; that was an invention of Arthur Miller in his 1953 play, The Crucible. Many of his characters were named after real people, but like the residents of Salem and the surrounding area, he filled gaps in the truth with his imaginings. And though the dark era — the witch-hunt portion of which lasted less than a year — is usually blamed on the ravings of teenage girls, men and women of all ages and social stations were complicit, especially the men who served the church and on the judicial bench. The biggest question they faced wasn’t the existence of devil possession and witchcraft, between which there was significant crossover, but of the legitimacy of spectral evidence. Could they really convict on the basis of something a witness had only imagined? History shows the answer was both yes and no. History also shows the ludicrous nature of the questioning on the part of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which was set up expressly to handle the onslaught of witchcraft accusations. Suspects were presumed guilty if they claimed innocence and harangued about why they persisted in their devilish acts. A core group of accusers sat in court each day, disrupting proceedings by going into convulsions that were ostensibly the fault of the person testifying, who appeared to be sitting there doing nothing. They were always believed; this was not considered spectral evidence.
There are no easy answers to the ongoing questions about why a town engaged in such flights of fantasy that its residents killed 20 innocent people, but Schiff gets to dozens of convoluted ones. If a cow got sick in 17th-century Salem, a farmer wanted someone to blame. If the crops failed due to lack of rain, it was interpreted as God’s punishment for the Puritans’ collective sins. Many of the women accused were considered difficult, outspoken outsiders who didn’t play nice. Many of the accusers were adolescent girls who were allowed no voice in such a society. “Instructed not to fidget, well-mannered, well-behaved Betty and Abigail writhed,” Schiff writes. “It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion.” — Jennifer Levin