In Salem, anything vivacious was witchcraft
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.