In 1692, at the edge of colonial settlement in the New World—a place that a visitor once called a “remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness”—panic had set in.
It began during an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when, without warning, a minister’s niece inexplicably began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, after 19 men and women—and two dogs—had been executed for witchcraft.
The most educated men and prominent politicians were involved in the terror that swept over the young colony. “A daughter accused her mother, who in turn accused her mother, who accused a neighbor and a minister,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff. “A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons-in-law their mothers-in-law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed.”
How did the colony, just three decades after its founding, arrive in such a dark and terror-filled place? That’s the question taken up in Schiff’s new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).
The event at the center of the book, which has come to be known collectively as the Salem witch trials, is the first and most bizarre case of mass hysteria in American history. Over the years, the event became so notorious that the term “witch-hunt” has been used to describe countless incidents of false accusations, improper scrutiny and absence of due process of law. But exactly how and why the episode took place remains a mystery, shrouded in antiquity.
“Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassinations,” Schiff writes. “Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud; taxes; conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks, and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.
“Even at the time, it was clear to some that Salem was a story of one thing behind which was a story about something else altogether,” Schiff writes. “Much of its subtext is lost to us, like the jokes in Shakespeare.”
Attempting to unravel the truth behind the frenzy that surrounded the Salem witch trials was no mean feat, according to the author. “I read the bulk of what was written at the time,” she said in a recent interview, “including more Puritan sermons than is healthy, [and] as much as I could of what was read at the time—the literature on witchcraft was enormous, and the Massachusetts ministers owned big libraries.
“Tragically, the papers from the actual trials have been lost,” she said. “We have only pages from the preliminary hearings, a few death warrants, confessions and petitions. In several cases testimony was doctored after the fact; accusations against some of those who were hanged, for example, were beefed up after their executions.”
Dealing with all of these loose ends from such a dearth of sources made for a particularly difficult book to write, according to Schiff. “There are economic, political, psychosexual and spiritual aspects to the story,” she said. “You have a cast of unreliable narrators. You’re writing meticulous nonfiction about events with an illusion at their core. Above all, you need to make the wacky seem entirely reasonable.”
The deeper she delved into the witch trials, the more they surprised her. “The story is stranger than I had ever supposed,” she said. “The heroes don’t turn out to be whom you would think. There’s a dress rehearsal in there for the American Revolution. And I was utterly fascinated by the silence—and the swift return to normalcy—after the trials. It was as if nothing had happened; the year simply evaporates.”
Schiff hopes that the book will also help the reader see the witch trials—and modern times—in a new light. “These were not a strange, benighted people, but people with our fears and grudges and itch for resolution,” she said. “We go back to the witch trials in the same spirit that encouraged them in the first place: unresolved mysteries, half-solved riddles unnerve us.
“I hope, too,” she said, “that the reader might emerge with a renewed appetite for tolerance, or mercy, for standing up for sanity when all about him others are losing their heads.”
Main image credit: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/generic.html