Later this summer, I will have the opportunity to travel to New England, a part of the country I’ve never been to before. The nexus of the trip is Maine, but I had an opportunity to plan a couple of day trips, and Salem immediately came to mind. I’ve always enjoyed learning about history, and as readers who have seen my October posts know, the occult is also a subject of endless fascination. As I started planning the trip, though, I realized that I didn’t know as many details about the witch trials as I would like to before visiting. It seemed like the perfect time to head to my local library and check out a book from my backlist–Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.
Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer, and The Witches certainly demonstrates why. It is a thoroughly researched and compelling account of the myriad factors–the people, the environment, the traditions, the historical context–that coalesced in 1692 Salem to create one of the most troubling and mysterious moments of our history. The scope of Schiff’s work here casts a wide net, but that doesn’t mean she grazes over any details. From what little information is available to us, Schiff is able to turn the actors in the trials into full characters, and to turn the panic, suspicion, and antipathy of Salem into a setting for this travesty. This is not a simple story of good guys and demons, nor of charade and liars; it is a real story of a real place, and so is inevitably as complicated and entangled as any moment of life and culture tends to be.
In The Witches, Schiff introduces the reader not just to the men and women imprisoned, tried, and hanged for witchcraft, but also to their accusers and their judges. She lays the groundwork for the kind of place that Salem was at this time, the kind of place that could foster this sort of mass hysteria. I think, going in, I was expecting there to be a more tidy resolution: a known plot on the part of the accusers, for example, or a clear-cut agenda in the judges towards the people they tried and accused. It was surprising and, in ways, more disturbing to read about the ambiguity and complication that we’re left with. Schiff paints a picture of a community unique to its time: a rigidly religious community where anything other than hard work and prostration before God was seen as suspect and dangerous. Schiff puts the reader into this world, one that presses down upon you with constant surveillance and paranoia. She writes about the world as the Puritans saw it, highlighting the “incidents” of witchcraft as another part of the cultural landscape. This was a world constantly under threat, and as a reader, you feel this threat. The witch-fever seems, instead of anomalous, almost inevitable.
Of course, the horror of the innocent deaths is not underplayed. Perhaps one of the most chilling passages was the execution of George Burroughs, a former Salem minister that had been accused of being the ringleader of the scourge of witches. Schiff details the moments before his death, in which Burroughs delivered a stirring sermon in argument for his innocence, and in hope of the Lord’s mercy. He then proceeded to perfectly recite the Lord’s Prayer (a task which was put before accused witches–it was believed that a witch could not say the prayer without stuttering or faltering, which many did.) The crowd reacted to Burroughs: “For a few moments it seemed–tears welling in the eyes even of prominent men–as if the crowd would obstruct the execution.” But of course, it proceeded, and over the protests of the crowd, one of Salem’s leaders, Mather, assured them that the very thing that should have proven Burroughs’ innocence instead ensured his guilt. Schiff explains: “The devil stood beside Burroughs, dictating to him. Who else could preach so eloquently? […] Minutes later the minister dangled from a semi-finished beam. The life had not gone from his body when Mather stepped in to smother the sparks of discontent […] What better disguise might the devil choose on such an occasion than to masquerade as ‘an angel of light’? It was time-honored tactic. In the encyclopedia of backhanded compliments, this one qualified among the greatest; to the last, George Burroughs was to be condemned for his gifts. His sentence had been a just one, Mather assured the crowd. The protests quieted, as did the minister who dangled in midair. He may have heard a portion of Mather’s remarks.”
The grip of this insistence of evil in the accused–and the insistence of justice on the side of the accusers–is infuriating throughout. But it is also complicated: again, Schiff has done an excellent job of building the world in which these events transpired. We may never fully understand the perfect combination of factors that fomented this kind of mass delusion, which was unusual and noteworthy even in its time. Then again, we might. The biggest takeaway from The Witches is that a society built on paranoia–on the certainty that deviants are a threat, on the constant surveillance of neighbors and friends, on the fractious community that this kind of value system engenders–can easily allow terror and hatred to overtake logic and compassion. It’s a dark stain on our history, and a prescient reminder, making this book worth the haunting read. (For a condensed version, you can read Schiff’s New Yorker article on the subject here.)