The “average New England churchgoer absorbed some fifteen thousand hours of sermons” in a lifetime, Stacy Schiff reveals in her meticulous and disturbing history of “America’s tiny reign of terror”: “The Witches: Salem, 1692.’’
“On intimate terms with the supernatural,” Puritans were repeatedly reminded by their ministers that the devil was “watching, wishing, snatching, to devour us.” In their zeal for religious vigilance, the godly people of Salem “stripped the calendar of every festival and holiday,” which only made the risk of bewitchment worse. After all, Schiff writes, possession “rarely occurs in the absence of intense piety.”
With “The Witches,’’ Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, most recently, of “Cleopatra,’’ draws on a huge body of scholarship as well as primary sources to synthesize her own erudite chronicle of a community in crisis, weeding through centuries of accreted mythologies to tell, from its strange start to its wretched finish, what actually took place in several localities north of Boston at the end of the 17th century. She tells us what happened there. But the bigger question, of course, is why?
While acknowledging the established frames of interpretation — adolescent psychology, the politics of gender, issues of class, and a dozen more — one of Schiff’s strongest contributions to this American horror story is her constant reminder that while we may never be able to definitively explain exactly why 19 people (and two dogs) were executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts (owing in part to a concerted effort to expunge any public records), we can still learn something from it. “The Witches’’ is not merely the story of the Salem witch trials — it is a cautionary account of our human tendency “to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous [and] drown our private guilts in a public well.”
The horror began in January 1692 in the Salem home of minister Samuel Parris. His 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams and his 9-year-old daughter Betty complained of “prickling sensations . . . bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun.” The list of strange, spasmodic symptoms went on and on. There were no physicians in Salem, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered much — the basic medical kit of the time differed little from that used by the Greeks.
The malady was eventually decided to be supernatural. And it was contagious: The number of accusers and accused grew until the plague had spread to 25 nearby villages and towns; in Andover, one out of every 15 people would be accused of witchcraft.
What was behind the panic? Schiff argues that conditions “favored such an outbreak. The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic.”
These were a people so vulnerable to what Cotton Mather called “diseases of astonishment” that they postponed Harvard College’s graduation on account of an inauspicious eclipse. In this community, “[n]ot to believe in witchcraft [was] the greatest of heresies.”
The witch hunts lasted nine months, during which as many as 185 people were imprisoned and brought to Salem’s newly-formed court of oyer and terminer for criminal trial. By the end of 1692 14 women and five men had been executed, all publicly hanged except 81-year-old Giles Corey, who over two long days was slowly crushed to death by planks and stones as spectators urged him to confess his collusion with the devil. He never did.
As the paranoia spread it soon became evident that “it was safer to be afflicted” by witchcraft “than accused,” and naturally the number of accusations escalated. “A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives . . . siblings each other . . . A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out.” Attempting to clear one’s name was in fact the worst possible strategy: Every single defendant who actually confessed to witchcraft was spared; only those claiming innocence were executed. For it was not the accused’s place to determine innocence or guilt; in this highly structured society, “[j]ustices and ministers alone unriddled witchcraft.”
The fact that many more women than men were accused and convicted fits with the contradictory role women held at the time. Women had no political rights in New England and were regarded as the weaker sex. Yet female religious leaders, such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, were considered potential threats to the very foundations of society. Further, women were constantly appearing as the strong, daring, wily heroines of the Indian captivity and escape narratives that became, as Schiff suggests, templates for stories of witchcraft.
The series of show trials and gruesome executions finally wore down the psyches of the public and officials. By late 1692 those in charge, who were some of Massachusetts’s most esteemed public figures with names that still resonate in the state — the ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, Stephen Sewall (a street in Brookline is named for him), William Stoughton (the town of Stoughton is named for him, as is a residence hall at Harvard), and John Hathorn (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added a letter to his name to obscure the relationship) among them — began to cover their tracks.
Salem was a community of “[m]aniacal record-keepers,” Schiff writes, but they “made an exception for 1692.” Thomas Putnam, Salem’s official court recorder, rewrote the village record, deleting any events that were, in his words, “grievous to any of us in time past or that may be unprofitable for time to come.” Schiff states with stunned bluntness: “No trace of a single session of the witchcraft court survives.” What we have instead are the personal notes of community members, some of whom heard the stories second hand.
Over the past three centuries, however, historians have resurrected much of the world Putnam tried to erase. Schiff balances an elegant, almost imperial narrative style befitting the scale of the tragedy with a sensitivity to the individual lives that were destroyed. Five-year-old Dorothy Good, for example, who “spent eight and a half months in miniature manacles. Her infant sister died before her eyes. She had watched her mother, against whom she had testified, head defiantly off to the gallows.” Little Dorothy “went insane;” Schiff writes: “she would require care for the rest of her life.”
Horrifying as it was, Schiff never distances herself or the reader from the human experience she has recounted. “We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs,” she reminds us. “[W]e just don’t know yet which ones they are.”
THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692
By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown, 498 pp., illustrated, $32
Illustration: Papercut Totentanz/ Dance Macabre, Walter Draesner, 1922.
This review was originally published in the Books section of the Boston Globe on Sunday, October 25, 2015.