The Witches, Salem 1692


Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Company


To cast aspersions on a bewitched girl, to visit one’s imprisoned spouse too regularly, was to risk accusation. Questioning the validity of witchcraft, the legitimacy of the evidence, or the wisdom of the court bordered on the heretical; the more you resisted, the deeper you dug yourself in. Imputations proved impossible to outrun. The word of two ministers could not save an accused parishioner. Neither age, fortune, gender, nor church membership offered immunity. Prominent men stood accused alongside homeless five-year-old girls. Many braced for the knock at the door.

                  from  The Witches, Salem, 1692


Sacrificing on the altar of our fears

In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.

So begins Stacy Schiff’s account of the Salem witchcraft trials, one of those moments of collective insanity that occurs from time to time. As the best historians do, Schiff, the author of Cleopatra: A Life, takes us into the raw, pulsing day to day world of the past, a world where the Devil is real—not as a metaphor for evil, but as a living, breathing presence.

While recent scholarship has softened the harsher criticism of the Puritans (H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”), Schiff’s portrayal of them would probably not make you too pleased to see them pull up in their moving van as your new neighbors. They do appear to be a rather glum and joyless lot, and intolerant of any religious freedom besides their own.

The trials started with several teenage girls believing—or saying they did—that they were being “afflicted” by certain women who were witches in the community. The Devil was alive and well in Salem town! The mystery is why they were believed and how quickly the hysteria spread.

Over the course of that year, there were 200 arrests and nineteen executions (not including the dogs.) Given that the population of Salem was only about 600 people, one’s chances of being accused of being a witch were pretty good. What was more surprising was the number of self-confessions, most made without what our modern euphemistic age calls “enhanced interrogation techniques.” People confessed to witchcraft crimes they couldn’t possibly have committed. The Devil was the Great Deluder and you could be in his power without even realizing it. (If so many people say I’m a witch, then I must be a witch!) People were willing to sacrifice their faith on the altars of their fears.

As the hysteria mounted and the Salem citizenry accused, imprisoned, and hanged more and more of their neighbors, non-Puritan Boston down the road believed it couldn’t happen to more deserving folks.

Voltaire once noted that where people believe absurdities, they will soon commit atrocities. Especially as we enter into a presidential election year, when absurdities seem particularly more prevalent, it is well to be reminded of our human predisposition toward fear and scapegoating. As history has shown time and time again, the greatest evil we have to fear is usually from within.

The final irony is that the Puritans were right: Metaphorically, if not literally, the Devil was in their midst. And they themselves became his instruments.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.