Recommended Reading: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

The Witches flying off to Ohio with me a few weeks ago.

The Witches flying off to Ohio with me a few weeks ago.

Nothing like history to make the week of Halloween really scary. As in, “this book makes me grateful for our modern legal system” scary.

“The Puritans come to most of us today,” noted biographer Stacy Schiff writes, “through The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, which we read, appropriately enough, as adolescents” (415). Her new book, which could be considered a biography of crisis, is The Witches,* an account of the 1692 mayhem wrought by mainly teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts (or the Massachusetts Bay Colony, more properly). I enjoyed Ms. Schiff’s recent biography of Cleopatra, and I looked forward to reading her treatment of the Salem witch trials, especially since I live in Boston and have thus spent a fair amount of time in Salem (pro tip: parking is hard to come by in October). 

The current Salem, which is pretty kitschy and also home to a sizable community of Wiccans (I once went to an October Wiccan wedding in Salem, which was surprisingly traditional) is a far cry from the late seventeenth-century Puritan enclave of infighting neighbors that Ms. Schiff describes, itself a web of relationships much more complex than the communities of Hawthorne (descended from one of the Salem judges) and Miller. The village of (separate from the town of) Salem had a tendency to cycle through preachers rather too quickly, and tensions were high over any number of matters, including land disputes, slander accusations, and attacks from nearby Native American tribes.

The winter of 1692 was particularly bleak (the accusing girls, Ms. Schiff points out, tended to describe demonic activity in a riot of color), but soon the weather was the least of anyone’s worries. Accusations of witchcraft started flying (no pun intended) and by summer accused witches and wizards were filling jails—at their own expense. Neighbors turned against each other; daughters accused mothers, brothers their sisters. Children under the age of ten were jailed and manacled hand and foot. Before the end of the terrible epidemic nineteen people were hanged and one man was quite terribly pressed to death. Those who confessed (with one exception) were spared; those who were executed were those who fought spurious charges (some were condemned on “spectral” evidence, which is just as preposterous as it sounds).

Ms. Schiff goes beyond the sensational to explain the backgrounds and complicated histories of the major players (accused, accusers, judges, and observers)—a list that fills four pages in small type—and the political situation of Salem, Boston, Massachusetts, and other towns (the epidemic consumed Andover, for instance; about 1 in 10 inhabitants was accused of witchcraft). She thoroughly investigates the workings of the court and its observers, powerful men like William Stoughton (as in the town where Ikea lives, fellow Bostonians), Wait Still Winthrop, and Cotton Mather.

It is her focus on the authorities’ failure to contain or mitigate the crisis, or try the accused with even a semblance of fairness, that will make you want to hug the first lawyer you meet. The accused were often not permitted to face their accusers directly; they had no counsel; they were presented with what we would now view as literally incredible evidence. It impossible not to be horrified that elderly women like 71-year-old great-grandmother Rebecca Nurse, who was arrested from her sickbed, were thrown in fetid jails, despite long histories of piety and kindness. Rebecca Nurse was excommunicated and hanged.

The Witches is a detailed, interesting, and frankly horrifying account of one of the worst episodes in American history. Recommended.

And happy Halloween.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.