The Witches: Salem, 1692

498 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - by Stacy Schiff and Witches of Amer­ica by Alex Mar

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

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