In Salem, any­thing vi­va­cious was witch­craft

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Elaine Showal­ter

In 1692, Stacy Schiff writes in her pen­e­trat­ing new book on the Salem witch tri­als, “New Eng­lan­ders lived very much in the dark.” Their days were filled with hard work and prayer, their sky “crow black, pitch-black, Bi­ble black, so black it could be dif­fi­cult at night to keep to the path.” When the in­ter­ro­ga­tions of sus­pected witches be­gan, Salem vil­lagers were daz­zled by ac­counts of the devil in a red hat, car­ry­ing a yel­low bird and a red book and serv­ing red bread to his coven at a wood­land feast. Anger and ha­tred flour­ished in the dark­ness of Pu­ri­tan reli­gious ex­trem­ism, and peo­ple lived bleak lives of monotony and piety; they were “starved for color.”

Witch­craft was cer­tainly col­or­ful. It was also dra­matic and ex­cit­ing, and the witch panic kept peo­ple dis­tracted from their quar­rels over prop­erty and fire­wood, their fears of In­dian raids and mas­sacres and their squab­bles about lo­cal pol­i­tics. Men and chil­dren were ac­cused, but the star witches of Salem were women, from re­spectable

house­wives to itin­er­ant beg­gars. Pre­pubescent girls, “tra­di­tion­ally a vul­ner­a­ble, mute, and dis­en­fran­chised co­hort,” came to the cen­ter of the stage as the posse of af­flicted ac­cusers, and their the­atri­cal out­bursts of re­pressed emo­tion led to the ex­e­cu­tion of 19 peo­ple and the im­pris­on­ment of al­most 200 more, and a sea­son of su­per­sti­tion, fa­nati­cism, mal­ice and cru­elty that be­came the In­qui­si­tion of Pu­ri­tan New England.

Salem witch­craft has ob­sessed writ­ers from Hawthorne and Longfellow to Shirley Jack­son and Arthur Miller, as well as scores of his­to­ri­ans, and it takes a writer of Schiff ’s con­fi­dence and bril­liance to tackle it anew. As in her Pulitzer Prize-win­ning bi­og­ra­phy of Cleopa­tra, Schiff ex­cels at find­ing fresh an­gles on fa­mil­iar sto­ries, car­ries out mas­sive re­search and then weaves it into a daz­zling so­cial panorama. In Henry James’s phrase from “The Art of Fic­tion,” she is a writer on whom noth­ing is lost.

In “The Witches,” her great con­tri­bu­tion is to cap­ture the at­mos­phere in which the pro­tag­o­nists lived. Salem was a tiny Mas­sachusetts com­mu­nity of 550 peo­ple and 90 fam­i­lies, crowded into small rooms and dwellings. Ru­mor and gos­sip were their only en­ter­tain­ment. Pu­ri­tans did not even cel­e­brate hol­i­days like Christ­mas and Easter; ser­mons and Sun­day church meet­ings were their “sole reg­u­lar means of shared com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” New England chil­dren were harshly treated, chas­tised and pun­ished. A third were sent away as early as age 6 to serve or ap­pren­tice with other fam­i­lies, a prac­tice called “bind­ing out,” in which girls risked beat­ings and sex­ual abuse. New England chil­dren ab­ducted by In­di­ans of­ten chose to stay with their more af­fec­tion­ate cap­tors.

Two pread­o­les­cent girls in the house­hold of vil­lage min­is­ter Sa­muel Par­ris were the first to be af­flicted with fits, speak gib­ber­ish, and com­plain of prick­ing, pinch­ing and chok­ing. In Fe­bru­ary, first the am­bi­tious Par­ris, then other min­is­ters, mag­is­trates and schol­ars in the re­gion, rushed to at­tribute their mys­te­ri­ous symp­toms to witch­craft and thus gave the at­tacks le­git­i­macy. In their mer­ci­less in­ter­ro­ga­tions, al­ways as­sum­ing guilt, the mag­is­trates pro­vided scripts of de­monic pos­ses­sion and pres­sured the ac­cused to con­fess, of­ten with threats and tor­ture. The in­quisi­tors could find ev­i­dence of guilt in every­thing, in­clud­ing the all-pur­pose “mut­ter­ing.” “Spec­tral ev­i­dence,” the un­prov­able re­port­ing of sight­ings of witches, wiz­ards, devils, ghosts and the dead, be­came a le­gal con­tro­versy but was never ex­cluded.

The le­gal sys­tem was prim­i­tive; in­form­ing was en­cour­aged and ram­pant, es­pe­cially within fam­i­lies. The vil­lagers packed the court­rooms and joined in the cho­rus of ac­cu­sa­tion. Sto­ries of atroc­ity and bru­tal­ity abound; pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing chil­dren as young as 4, were held for months in eight-pound chains in freez­ing, stink­ing jails. In the sum­mer, when the ex­e­cu­tions of the con­demned be­gan, lo­cals swarmed to see the hang­ings with their off­spring: “It was the kind of thing to which you took the chil­dren.” As Schiff shows, it takes a vil­lage to hang a witch.

The Salem ter­ror didn’t so much end as burn it­self out, “as if all sim­ply, sud­denly awoke, shak­ing off their strange tales, from a col­lec­tive preter­nat­u­ral dream.” The ac­cused were re­leased from pri­son and emerged crip­pled or mad. There was some show of re­pen­tance, a fast day, some small financial repa­ra­tions. But New England Pu­ri­tans did not ques­tion or give up their faith in witch­craft. In the trea­tises that fol­lowed the Salem tri­als, by such author­i­ties as Cot­ton Mather, much was writ­ten about the ex­is­tence of witch­craft and lit­tle about the er­rors of the judges. Mis­takes were made, per­haps; but surely there were witches, who must be killed. As Schiff dryly ob­serves, “The pas­sive tense has rarely had such a work­out.” A pe­riod of col­lec­tive am­ne­sia en­sued, in which “the ea­ger­ness to for­get was as great as, for nine months, had been the strong-arm­ing to re­mem­ber.”

Why did it hap­pen? Schiff does not give a new so­lu­tion to an old case but con­cludes that the panic be­gan with a hys­ter­i­cal con­ver­sion dis­or­der in which the girls were driven by the monotony, drudgery and pain of their en­vi­ron­ment to ex­press emo­tional con­flict through their skin and bod­ies. Un­con­scious in the be­gin­ning, the hys­te­ria es­ca­lated into fak­ery, col­lu­sion and the stag­ing of syn­chro­nized at­tacks in the court­room. And life for the girls im­proved; “never be­fore had they been so cos­seted.” What no one can ex­plain is the so­cio­pathic fe­roc­ity of the girls’ ram­page. The ea­ger par­tic­i­pa­tion of the mag­is­trates and judges com­pounded the fury of the epi­demic. In­deed, there were 25 other neigh­bor­ing towns with witch­craft pan­ics; An­dover, about 15 miles to the north, brought more pros­e­cu­tions than Salem. But with­out news­pa­pers or mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the spread was slow.

While it’s com­pul­sively read­able, I did have some prob­lems with the book. Al­though Schiff pro­vides a help­ful list of the char­ac­ters, I found it hard to keep track of the huge cast and even more so of the chronol­ogy. More­over, Schiff seems to be hold­ing her­self back. She re­frains from draw­ing strong com­par­isons to mod­ern witch hunts. She writes with cool, dis­pas­sion­ate irony, strip­ping away the false leg­ends and re­fus­ing to see any he­roes. But with that mythol­ogy dis­missed, the colos­sal sto­ries seem smaller. Giles Corey’s re­fusal to con­fess un­der the grue­some death of press­ing — and his call for “more weight” — may have been em­bel­lished by retelling, but his epi­taph in “The Cru­cible,” “It were a fear­some man, Giles Corey,” is im­mor­tal. The full mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance of Salem is more than the his­tor­i­cal record; it in­cludes all the ad­di­tions, the­o­ries and rewrit­ings that have fol­lowed it.

That said, “The Witches” is a su­perb ac­count of the Ter­ror of Salem. If we take witch­craft to be an evil ma­nia that in­fects a whole com­mu­nity, Schiff shows that it is buried in the dark un­con­scious of a so­ci­ety, a night­mare wait­ing to reemerge. As her ti­tle hints, the witches will al­ways be with us.

Witch­craft is an evil ma­nia that in­fects a whole com­mu­nity, a night­mare wait­ing to re-emerge.

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