The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown & Company, 421 pp.

The story’s a familiar one. In a frontier Puritan town, young girls were suddenly and dramatically afflicted with inexplicable ailments. Their bodies contorted. They grimaced and spat and howled. This behaviour would probably startle observers in 2016, but in 1692, in the straitlaced Massachusetts Bay Colony, it defied natural explanation.

We mostly know what happened next: Salem authorities suggested witchcraft as a cause, and the afflicted girls accused innocent villagers of torturing them at the behest of Satan himself. Many died before the col­ony’s governor, Sir William Phips, finally ended the witch trials.

These events have accumulated so much pop culture detritus the facts have begun to fade from public memory. They’re fodder for novels, films and television shows. Playwright Arthur Miller even invented a love affair between one of the afflicted girls, Abigail Williams, and John Proctor, who would later hang, for The Crucible. This makes for gripping theatre, but the affair never happened. In real life, Williams was 11 and Proctor was somewhere in his mid-60s.

Enter Stacy Schiff. Schiff, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov and later wrote an acclaimed biography of Cleopatra, has presented a thoroughly researched historical account of Salem in The Witches: Salem, 1692. She wraps her facts in necessary cultural context and successfully counters the idea that Salem was either some kind of bizarre anomaly or a tragedy that could have only occurred when and where it did.

It is true, of course, that Salem was at least partially a product of its time. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded as a sort of Puritan utopia free from heretical interference, and Salem, like all Massachusetts settlements, enforced religious law. No contemporary Ameri­can court would convict anyone of witchcraft. But in 17th-century Salem, villagers and authorities agreed that witches represented a real security threat.

“The early modern American thought, breathed, dreamed, disciplined, bartered and hallucinated in biblical texts and imagery,” Schiff writes.

But Salem wasn’t free from more profane upheavals. As Schiff carefully documents, it was ruled less by God than by a fractious congregation dominated by a few wealthy voices, a situation that almost certainly contributed to the outbreak of witchcraft hysteria.

Samuel Parris, Salem’s minister and a central figure in its sordid morality tale, occupied an important role in village life. But that didn’t mean he commanded respect. Schiff writes that he was merely the most recent in a succession of ministers who’d come to the village to share the gospel only for their salaries to go unpaid and the parsonage to fall into disrepair.

Despite the village’s disregard for their minister’s physical welfare, Parris, like his predecessors, was expected to fill a role similar to that of a town mayor. Previous ministers had been criticized and dismissed for neglecting to intervene in disputes or to meet privately with parishioners. According to Schiff, the meetinghouse was more than a spiritual sanctuary. It was the village’s beating heart, where villagers heard news and arranged the education of their children.

Parris had difficulty mediating the village’s intractable clan disputes and never won his parishioners’ loyalty. And it was in Parris’ home that the hysteria began. His 9-year-old daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams were the first to show symptoms of what would quickly be classified as witchcraft.

Schiff writes that the girls had been considered models of Puritan childhood, well-behaved and suitably pious. Their sudden illness was therefore especially shocking. They twisted their bodies into contorted positions and howled. Invisible forces bit them and prodded them with hot pinchers, they claimed. Prayer proved useless and so did medicine.

Witchcraft, to Salem minds, was therefore the only logical answer. Schiff is careful to note that there was indeed a certain logic to this belief. Puritans approached witchcraft with an almost scientific bent, believing – not wrongly, in their worldview – that if supernatural forces existed, they could be quantified. Witchcraft was superstition, yes, but that superstition wasn’t quite blind.

“One no more doubted the reality of sorcery than the literal truth of the Bible; to do so was to question the sun shining at noon. Faith aside, witchcraft served an eminently useful purpose. The aggravating, the confounding, the humiliating all dissolved in its cauldron,” Schiff writes. “It made sense of the unfortunate and the eerie…What else, shrugged one husband, could have caused the black and blue marks on his wife’s arm?”

Under questioning, the girls settled on the most likely candidates: the Parris family’s slave, Tituba, and Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, two marginal members of Salem’s insular society.

Osborne hadn’t been seen in church in three years, and Good had an established reputation for her sharp tongue and poor manners – unusual qualities for a Puritan woman. Neither fit the image of the ideal Christian mother and wife, and they therefore made likely witches. As for Tituba, she already occupied a precarious position – foreign, female and a slave. No one questioned the allegations. The girls had simply confirmed what everyone already suspected.

Eventually so did Tituba. She confessed to witchcraft and named her conspirators; Phips convened the Court of Oyer and Terminer and appointed William Stoughton to oversee the trials. Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan preacher, supported the court, which further bolstered its authority.

Good and Osborne denied the allegations, but to no avail; Osborne died in jail, and the court sentenced Good to hang. By the time she finally walked up Gallows Hill, Good had company: Three other women had been sentenced to die for witch­craft. They were the first four of Salem’s 20 victims.

The number of afflicted girls gradually grew to seven, and at the beginning, they reliably accused Salem’s humblest residents of witch­craft. Witches were mostly older wo­men, and poor to boot. Many, like Os­borne, were also embroiled in disputes with more powerful Salem families.

But the contagion inevitably spread, and according to Schiff, it began to climb the region’s social ladder. It eventually affected everyone from Good’s 5-year-old daughter Dorothy to ministers: George Burroughs, who had preceded Parris as the village’s clergyman, hung for his alleged activities as a warlock. Roughly 150 people had been accused of witchcraft by the time the hysteria finally ended.

Scholars have offered a number of theories to explain the events; ergot poisoning and cold weather are just two of the most recent. Schiff accepts mass hysteria as the most likely origin but makes a compelling argument that politics influenced the way that hysteria spread.

In her account, witchcraft effectively served dual functions. It represented a deep-seated frontier fear of the invisible and inexplicable, but it could silence dissent and restore social harmony. In some cases, it even behaved as a proxy for property disputes. No wonder, then, that clergymen like Parris andMather looked to authorities like Phips and Stough­ton to adjudicate the matter.

Parris, Mather and Stoughton had all attended Harvard. They were learned men, and their support granted witchcraft a veneer of intellectual credibility that bolstered true believers and arguably made them more dangerous than they could have otherwise been. The afflicted girls boasted official support, and this granted them a measure of authority themselves – something they traditionally would have lacked.

If, as Schiff argues, the witchcraft hysteria had political underpinnings, it makes sense that politics eventually ended it. Phips suspended the trials shortly after someone accused his wife, Lady Mary, of being a witch. By the end of 1692, the Massachusetts General Court had vacated all outstanding witchcraft convictions.

Tituba, one of the first to be accused, was last to walk free. Her eventual fate is lost to history. Other falsely accused witches struggled for years to redeem their reputations and to recover property and other valuables that had been confiscated after their convictions.

The Puritans had established the Massachusetts Bay Col­ony as a “shining city upon a hill,” a living testament to God. Their response to the religi­ous persecution they’d faced in England was not to establish religious freedom as we understand it now. Instead, they confused liberty with purity: Their new home had to be free of the Church of England’s taint. But in the process of creating a utopia, they repeated their motherland’s mistakes.

“The irony that they had come to the New World to escape an interfering civil authority,” Schiff observes, “was lost on the colonists, who unleashed on one another the kind of abuse they had deplored in royal officials. So was the fact that the embrace of faith, meant to buttress the church, would tear it irrevocably apart.”

Times have changed, but people haven’t.

Much remains unchanged from 1692. Families quarrel. People disagree over the distribution of property. They shun dissenters and loners. The First Amendment doesn’t guard against any of this. It does prevent modern-day Puritans from using religion to settle legal scores. And there are many who’d like to see that change. The targets now are not witches, but they are still often those on the fringes of society.

Schiff’s work is therefore exceptionally timely. With The Witches, she has produced a fair treatment of a complicated period in American history. It’s a compelling read for anyone who’s interested in Salem – or who needs to be reminded of the importance of religious freedom.            

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