In The Witches, Pulitzer-winning nonfiction writer Stacy Schiff takes another look at 1692 Salem and its witch hunt. She explores the climate of New England at the time, particularly its paranoia and excessive religiosity, and why it was open to such an over-reaction. The book also explores the ramifications for the region for years to come.
Schiff quickly points out that much of what is “known” about the witch trials is apocryphal. There was no black slave, for example, but an Indian servant. Schiff reconstructs the events from what she can find, many of the official documents having been destroyed at later times, and the accounts, even of the official note takers, varying considerably from one another and interjecting opinion and descriptive wording that should not have been permitted.
The incident began with one household, where some of the children were subject to screams and contortions. This household was that of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. The girls were a niece, daughters, and a servant, all teens or pre-teens. Schiff is fairly charitable in ascribing the state of these children to a condition that was later diagnosed as hysteria (a condition itself fraught with controversy), which generally affected young women leading restricted lives with little hope of change. Later, we hear of another householder who handled a similar condition severely and eliminated it. But Parris soon established it as witchcraft, and an even larger group of girls and other people who became afraid of being accused themselves were on their way to a lot of attention. As one of them put it (whose remark was ignored), “We must have some sport.”
They had their sport all right. By the end, 19 people and 2 dogs were hanged for witchcraft. Some of the girls would have gone on from there, but the colony finally declared there would be no more prosecutions and the behavior eventually stopped.
This is a fascinating book that explores such topics as permissible evidence, assumption of guilt, the treatment of people who protested their innocence versus that of those who admitted guilt, and the behavior of certain of the principal leaders of society. It finds parallels to other events much more recently in our past.