The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

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We’ve all heard of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, fourteen women, five men, and two dogs were convicted of witchcraft and put to death. Another man refused to confess and was crushed to death, probably within earshot of his wife, also imprisoned for witchcraft. In his classic “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller referred to this time as the “coming madness,” a warning to us of the chaos that can envelop a community when paranoia and persecution intersect.

It started with the kids. Puritan children in Salem were expected to be miniature adults, quiet and obedient to a fault. So when girls started making strange sounds, spreading their arms out like wings and pretending to fly (basically nothing babysitters today would blink at), to their community there was only one explanation-they must have been bewitched. Perhaps jealous of the attention these children were getting, more girls started acting bewitched. And their stories grew. Contorting themselves into uncomfortable positions, they screamed that their skin was being pricked with pins, that they were being tortured, that agents of the devil had done it. Priests came first. Then law came. At first just a few women were accused, the kind of poor and unpleasant women they wanted out of the community anyway. Then it snowballed. 80-year-olds and 6-year-olds were accused in the same breath. Daughters accused mothers. Husbands accused wives. Even the pastor’s family wasn’t safe from the accusations. And once accused, they were clapped in irons and transported to a cold, dank prison to await trial.

What’s surprising is that the person most responsible for making the Salem Witch Trials what we know today was also one of the most powerless people in the community. When brought in front of the court, as the other women denied the charges of witchcraft, the slave Tituba said “The Devil came to me. And bid me serve him.” She painted a masterful picture of supernatural forces and animal accomplices. She implicated two of her fellow suspects. She stuck to her story, and painted in vivid, convincing details. By the time she was done testifying, the men were convinced. There were witches in their midst.

Much like Pringles, once the court popped, they just couldn’t stop. One accused witch would name another woman, who would name another, until everyone in Salem knew at least one witch. In Andover, one of every 15 people were accused of witchcraft. In the court, the growing number of possessed girls writhed and screamed, pointing at invisible men at the witches’ shoulders that the court could not see but nevertheless accepted as fact. The pastor’s wife was accused. When the jury found her innocent, the judge instructed them to go back and deliberate again. He kept sending them back until they came up with the guilty verdict. The hysteria continued to grow as more were named and arrested and even executed (although never burned at the stake) until it puttered to an end. No official reason was given, but I’d bet it was because the elders finally realized that they could be next.

Once the mania subsided, the good people of Salem hastily tried to hide evidence that any of it had ever happened. Letters and sermons were burned, pages of meticulously updated journals were torn out, and months of entries from the village minutes disappeared. The official court records vanished too, probably destroyed during the Stamp Act riots of 1765, when a mob raided the mansion of a Massachusetts’s royal governor.

This is the 4th book by Stacy Schiff that I’ve read, and once again, I’m not disappointed. Schiff does a fantastic job of taking us into this world. As a historian she admits what facts she doesn’t know and tries to construct a probable idea of how history played out. Maybe more importantly, she humanizes these people, knowing that we would scoff at these dumb, scared, and primitive people. Schiff doesn’t allow us to feast on our own arrogance, pointing out “We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs…we just don’t know yet which ones they are.”

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