A Suburb of Hell

Stacy Schiff’s history of the Salem witch trials.

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff.

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff

“Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and the lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former precedents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.” So wrote a minister affiliated with the Salem witch trials of 1692. He could be speaking as well for anyone who’s ever attempted a book-length nonfiction treatment of the tragedy. Novelists and playwrights—most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne (great-grandson of one of the trials’ magistrates) and Arthur Miller—have fared better. They have the license to invent, but more important in this case, also the license to trim. They can whittle down the nightmare of Salem into an indictment of Puritan rigidity or a parable of the paranoid groupthink that intermittently seizes American politics.

The popular historian of the witch trials has a much tougher job. The latest to attempt it is Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a purveyor of the sort of sleek, high-end narrative histories about celebrated individuals that make such excellent gifts for older relatives; her most recent book, Cleopatra: A Life, was a No. 1 best-seller. The appeal of applying Schiff’s talents to the witch trials is obvious. A former editor at Simon & Schuster, Schiff is a publishing industry veteran rather than a historian. She, surely, can be trusted to focus on the crowd-pleasing elements of the Salem crisis, rather than getting bogged down in the pettifoggery of historical accuracy.

Yet the result, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a disappointment. While by the end Schiff’s book pulls itself into a reasonably cohesive shape, offering some credible (if not wholly original) interpretations of the madness that gripped Essex County between February and October of that year, it begins—like most Salem histories—in a bewildering tangle. The only writers ever able to wrestle this stuff into a shapely chain of cause and effect have been cranks and obsessives peddling theories that promise to trace the madness to a single origin. (The most persistent of these is the ergotism scenario, first proposed in the late 1970s, in which the convulsions and hallucinations of Salem’s “bewitched” accusers are attributed to a fungus that infests grain stores. Although few historians take this theory seriously, it commands a following among indefatigable Internet commenters, some of whom are surely already typing at the bottom of this story.)

The witch trials are fascinating. They offer scary Puritan fanatics, gruesome death, and a supernatural reputation that persists despite the fact that no actual witches were involved. Today, the city of Salem milks this mystique for all it’s worth in tourism dollars, emblazoning its police cars with witch silhouettes and holding extensive Halloween festivities. Teenagers in particular seem drawn to the subject; not only are they often intrigued by the occult and subject to persecution complexes themselves, but children and adolescents stood at the center of the drama in Salem. Perhaps that explains why each of the dozens of books on the subject seems to have collected a string of Amazon reader reviews complaining that it’s “confusing.”

To be fair, it’s hard to keep track of all the players. By the end of the craze, as many as 185 people had been named as witches or wizards in 25 villages and towns. Some were arrested, released and arrested again. Fifty-five people confessed, spinning demented but repetitive yarns about infernal hoedowns where the devil served up red bread and red wine. Nineteen people were hanged, and one man, a stubborn holdout who refused to register a plea in a hearing he regarded as illegitimate, was pressed to death under a gradually increased weight of stones by authorities trying to force him to comply. At least one accused witch died as the result of being imprisoned, with dozens of others, in a deplorable jail whose conditions caused one observer to liken it to “a suburb of Hell.” It’s difficult to keep all these people straight. Most lived lives of routine Puritan rectitude. Their names are vexingly similar—the record is a wilderness of Anns and Sarahs—and each is situated in a mind-boggling web of interrelationship, connected to all the others by blood, marriage, remarriage, church membership, business ties, property boundaries, trauma in the recent Indian wars, the Puritan custom of sending one’s children to live and work in other families’ households, or, in the case of the officials and ministers, Harvard.

The vast majority of the colonists caught up in the craze left no record of their thoughts and experiences during the trials, so there’s very little to distinguish them as characters. The court records themselves are spotty and strongly biased against the defendants. Some diaries and letters from the period were destroyed later, when the witch hunt became a source of shame. Furthermore, on the rare occasions when one of the accused’s statements was taken down, the meaning isn’t always clear. Giles Corey, the man who was eventually pressed to death, was accused by Hawthorne’s great-grandfather of performing sorcery even as he stood before the magistrates. His response—“I am a poor creature, and cannot help it”—seems weirdly out of character with what proved to be his (literally) die-hard defiance. Accounts written after the crisis come from parties who are far from disinterested, particularly big-shot minister Cotton Mather, depicted by Schiff as the consummate ass-coverer. (That said, Mather, who never actually attended the trials, did argue for caution in evaluating the evidence and leniency in sentencing.)

Perhaps organizing all of this into a unified, lucid narrative that makes sense to a contemporary audience is impossible, but step one might be to adopt a straightforward, meticulous style designed to help the reader stay oriented. That’s not Schiff’s game. She owes her success in part to her highly colored, dramatic, often elliptical style. “The sky over New England was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black,” she rhapsodizes at one point, and while I recently spotted a bunch of academic historians ridiculing this bit of poesy on Facebook, I rather liked it myself. Schiff wants to help her reader understand how her subjects felt hemmed in by their vast, dark, unknowable new world. But given that they didn’t understand what was going on, immersing us in their mindset isn’t going to help us understand it either. Schiff also has a habit of putting information in the opposite order in which you want it, presumably to drum up a bit of suspense. For example, she’ll introduce a new character with several sentences of description and only later reveal the person’s name, like a waiter whipping the lid off a platter. This technique works well enough when the character is, say, Julius Caesar, but when she’s just another Martha or Abigail amid a metastasizing list of Puritans, such flourishes only compound the muddle.

Author Stacy Schiff.
Author Stacy Schiff.

Photo by Elena Siebert

The Witches does redeem itself toward the end, with Schiff’s handling of what few seem to realize was the most remarkable aspect of the Salem witch trials: not how the crisis started but how it ended, and how quickly. Since the 1970s, an explosion in primary-source research into local archives has overturned historians’ understanding of European witch hunts. In that context, Salem’s trials were far from extraordinary; in fact, they were a rather typical case. Most witch hunts, and certainly the bloodiest ones, occurred not in the Middle Ages but in the early modern period, when traditional ways of life felt the encroachment of social change. Most were conducted by civil rather than religious authorities; church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) often tried in vain to moderate the carnage. The preferred targets were older women—not healers and midwives, as some wishful feminist historians would have it, but quarrelsome, disagreeable neighbors whom nobody liked and who served as convenient scapegoats when a baby sickened or a hog died. (Still, a good 20 percent of those executed were men.) Once kindled, a classic witch hunt fed on the tinder of grudges and feuds, the long-harbored animosity of people who lived in close quarters with little to spare.

Salem’s witch panic followed most of these patterns. It took place against a backdrop of political instability and uncertainty in a colony whose borders were harried by terrifying clashes with Native Americans. Like a notorious 1675 Swedish witch hunt (much referred to by Mather), it began with fabricating and possibly hysterical children: the 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece of the parson of a village on the outskirts of Salem. By the time the crisis reached its greatest frenzy, the most prolific accusers were teenage maids, some of them clearly being fed names of the enemies of their vindictive employers. The Puritans of Salem were extraordinarily fractious even by the usual small-town standards. None of this, however, would have led to such a high body count if it weren’t for William Stoughton, chief magistrate of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, a hanging judge if there ever was one. Stoughton never repented his brutal role in the witch trials. (One judge, Samuel Sewall, would issue a public apology five years later.) The first of the hangings took place in June 1692 and the last in September.

By October, the tide had turned. Critics became more vocal, a courageous act because anyone who objected to the witch hunt was liable to end up accused and imprisoned. Increase Mather, Cotton’s father, published a treatise that tactfully undermined the legitimacy of “spectral evidence” based on apparitions that were only visible to the accusers. The citizenry grew troubled and doubtful when some of the executed victims pled their cases and behaved in ways that seemed incompatible with having sold their souls to the devil. Someone accused the governor’s wife. A privately circulated letter by an Enlightenment-minded Boston merchant, Thomas Brattle, described by Schiff at length, demolished the cases assembled against the accused. “In many ways,” Schiff writes of Brattle, “he seemed to have parachuted into 1692 from another century altogether.”

He did seem so, but the sorry truth is that witch hunts in one form or another can happen in any century. Schiff makes a passing reference to the ritual satanic abuse panic of the 1980s. Several adults, many of them daycare and preschool workers, were convicted of horrific crimes solely on the basis of fantastical testimony coaxed out of small children by therapists and other officials using leading questions. No other evidence supported claims that a vast secret network of devil worshippers lay behind these alleged crimes and perpetrated similar atrocities nationwide. It all sounded very much like the conspiracy to overthrow the Massachusetts Bay Colony and claim America for the Prince of Darkness said to be behind the infestation of witches in Essex County in 1692. The inclination to turn against and purge our neighbors seems to be ever-present in human nature, a devil worth learning to recognize and battle the next time he raises his head.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.