Pulitzer-winning author captures the mania of the Salem witch trials

“With the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins”

In 1692, over a span of just nine months, 55 people confessed to witchcraft, 19 people were hanged and one was killed by pressing. (Joseph E. Baker/WIkimedia Commons)

For nine months in 1692, the colony of Massachusetts went mad.

When three young girls began displaying very unladylike symptoms — barking like dogs, interrupting church services, flailing around — the prominent men in the community immediately cried “witch.” The result was an epidemic of accusations: neighbor turned against neighbor, daughter against mother. Anyone who expressed doubt or tried to deny their witchery immediately implicated themselves. “I cannot think of another moment in American history that is as seminal and yet as loopy,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff.

The mania resulted in 20 murders and a stain on the early American psyche that has lasted until the present day. Schiff likens this episode to a fairytale. “It continues to resonate in so many ways, and I think almost more so now in a relatively dislocated age. And, yet, it’s just astonishing and bizarre and eerie,” Schiff says with a touch of awe as she explains why she chose to take on this seemingly well-trodden subject for her latest book.

In The Witches: Salem, 1692, Schiff uses court documents and diaries from the time period to explore how three young girls suffering from hysteria (or what today is known as conversion disorder) could have resulted in such a disturbing outcome. She is particularly interested in giving voice to the women at its center, the accusers and the accused who have remained largely silent, confined to the graveyards of history. “We do not have a 17th-century woman’s diary period … their stories come to us, as you know from the book, the way fairytales come to us: written by men,” Schiff says. “But the more interesting question obviously is: what were they trying to say?”

“The Witches” explores the mass hysteria that engulfed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.

Schiff is no stranger to giving silenced or misunderstood women their due. One of her early books — and the one that earned her the Pulitzer — told the story of Véra Nabokov, who was integral to her renowned husband Vladimir’s writing career, but who was mostly missing from his story. In her last book, Schiff retold the story of Cleopatra, going beyond the legends to portray the powerful female pharaoh as a more complete woman whose role in history was as impactful as it has been misunderstood.

With the Salem witch trials, Schiff had the same objective: reclaim the stories of the women who, during a unique and rare moment in early American history, wielded great power over a community. It was a time of “women in peril being turned into perilous women, and women running the show in a very strange and indirect way.”

The process of reconstructing their stories was “a little bit [like] taking the carpet and turning it over and looking at the underside,” Schiff says. She was forced to examine the men’s accounts and read “backward.”

Life in 17th-century Massachusetts was brutal and harsh, entailing endless amounts of hard work under the constant threat of attack by Native Americans and French soldiers. To top it off, there was no room for fun in Puritan society. Settlers spent countless hours listening to sermons and reading Bible passages about the end of days and how their eternal souls were in jeopardy. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that young girls facing the weight of a harsh physical and spiritual world and the expectation that they must silently obey at all times would have buckled under the pressure. In fact, it was documented that this same type of “spiritual meltdown” had happened to other young women before.

“As much as you may write [these girls] down, or one may write them down, as brass or counterfeiters or delusional adolescents, something was wrong, I mean they were in pain,” Schiff says sympathetically.

But two things were unusual: the community’s reaction was rapid and extreme, well beyond the response other similar incidents had received. And, during the nine months from the first “bewitched” girl to the last hanging, women wielded an abnormal amount of power in the strict, male-dominated society. Schiff points out that it wouldn’t be until Prohibition and suffrage, over 200 years later, that women would again play such a key role in historical events.

On the one hand, “The bewitched girls exercised uncommon power, the small and the meek displacing the great and the powerful,” Schiff writes. “History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins.”

Stacy Schiff, author of “The Witches,” in New York, Oct. 16, 2015. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author explores the mass hysteria that engulfed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 and resulted in 19 hangings. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Author Stacy Schiff is no stranger to giving silenced or misunderstood women their due. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The girls who claimed to suffer at the invisible hands of the witches found themselves with a new respect and freedom; instead of their previous lives confined to home and church, they traveled to nearby villages and towns to advise on spiritual matters and other cases of affliction. Their male elders not only listened to them, but also acted according to their pronouncements and visions. It was an almost irresistible position for a young Puritan girl to find herself in.

On the other side of the equation, the sheer number of women who were accused, imprisoned, and even killed speaks to the threat the men felt by many women in their communities. “It is a tribute to female power, obviously in a perverse way,” Schiff says. “The number of female accused tells you something about the power of women because it is so much more frequently women who are being accused.”

The situation quickly spiraled out of control. Young women, who weren’t naturally suffering psychological ailments, started faking bewitchment, partly for the power, partly because it became clear that if you weren’t a victim, there was a good chance you would be accused of witchcraft. Anybody who expressed doubt at the antics of the bewitched or the court proceedings was also in danger.

Plus, accusations of witchcraft became a nifty way to settle old family grudges and to rid society of those who didn’t quite fit in. As Schiff began looking into the day-to-day court records of the county, she was surprised to find that the witch courts often mirrored past conflicts — like land or inheritance disputes — in the regular courts. “Witchcraft tied up loose ends, accounting for the arbitrary, the eerie, and the unneighborly,” Schiff writes.

Despite the unusual amount of power women held during this period, there wasn’t a lot of sisterhood among them. Most of the time, women were accusing other women, even sometimes their own mothers or daughters.

But there was one unusual instance when they stood up for their own. One of the few men accused of witchcraft was former Salem minister George Burroughs, who had buried two wives and who was suspected of being abusive. Suddenly, the bewitched girls found themselves visited by his late wives’ ghosts, who had a lot to say about the evil things the minister had done. “It’s like the furies, in that case,” Schiff says, her voice rising a touch with excitement. “They’re like the deities of vengeance here, trying to exact some kind of toll on him for having done this. But that’s a fairly rare thing where they’re sort of standing up for another woman and, in fact, that’s a dead woman that they’re standing up for.”

The trials were a rare moment in early American history of “women in peril being turned into perilous women.” (Joseph E. Baker/Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, as many as 185 people were accused across 25 towns, with 55 people confessing to witchcraft, 19 people hanged (and one killed by pressing), and 13 girls “bewitched” over a span of just nine months.

After reason returned and the ghosts dissolved into the night, the young girls and women fell silent again, their stories largely lost and their power gone for hundreds of years. And the complicit and guilty in Salem attempted to bury the affair forever.
But to no avail. The Salem witch trials continue to haunt the American story to this day.

In The Witches, Schiff resurrects this dark — and downright terrifying — world and helps to explain how our seemingly serious and rational forbears could murder 20 innocent people. But that doesn’t mean she’s put our fascination with this salacious affair — our country’s first true horror story — to rest. “I think partly [it’s because] it’s a ghost story,” Schiff explains of our continued obsession. “It’s so incongruent that these god-fearing, self-righteous, incredibly erudite men go this far off the rails.”

“[And] I think the very fact that it’s about adolescents keeps us glued to it. I mean, we read about this when we’re adolescents … it gets into our skin then, and it plays on all those adolescent themes of not being able to tell the real world from the supernatural world, and feeling our faith very intensely, and shape shifting, and all of the finger pointing, the sort of bullying and shaming … I think we almost never outgrow it in a way.”

The Witches: Salem, 1692 is published by Little, Brown & Co (2015).

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