Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff discusses her book The Witches: Salem, 1692 and explains what really happened during the infamous witch trials.

I think that when trying to understand Salem and the trials we assume that it has a lot to do with religion and the fact that those people actually believed in witches. Was that the case?

You have that exactly right. The early Americans believed in witches precisely as the Bible defined and described them. They were religious figures: In league with (and no less real than) the devil, eager to do his powerful bidding. They were not the cackling, pointy-hatted figures of folklore or THE WIZARD OF OZ. Which meant too that identifying witches — and eliminating them — constituted one’s godly duty. Of this the New England ministers were certain; the Salem minister in particular called on his congregants to prove their piety. Hence the epidemic of finger-pointing once the first names were named.

Your book also points out other reasons, non-religious, that were behind people accusing their neighbours that they knew for all their lives. Like unsettled disputes, old grudges…

Indeed once the witchcraft was established, once the accusations began to fly about, it was open season for scraps of gossip, old grudges, fears, antipathies, suspicions. Who doesn’t have a bone to pick with his neighbor? There were as many reasons to accuse someone of witchcraft in 1692 as there were reasons to denounce him under Nazi Occupation of France. Envy, insecurity, political animus, unrequited love — all found a channel. Unruly households were targeted. So were men who bludgeoned wives. Some wound up in court purely for their refusal to join in the proceedings. The unsavory, the meddlesome, the outspoken, the peevish fared poorly, but so did the pillars of the community, the constables and local authorities who had told people over the years what hey preferred not to hear. The hugely successful found themselves named too. Witchcraft allowed you to eradicate all malignancies at once. From our vantage point there is no discernible pattern to the charges; everyone had his reasons.

I can understand grudges against neighbours. But accusations inside families? And not distant relatives, sometimes it was a daughter accusing her own mother.

Amazing, no? Or so it seems at first blush. But there are a number of factors at work. One of the first girls who speeds the epidemic along is 14-year-old Abigail Hobbs. She was the first to mention the satanic Sabbath; she added a few colorful details to the case; she named additional names. Those included both her parents. She was clearly more than a handful; even her friends despaired of her rudeness. She had bragged earlier of her many misdeeds. Nor was she the first teenager in history to call her mother a witch. In this case her mother was a stepmother, which did not help. Others would be pressured to turn against their families; in the case of the Proctor boys, they were physically tortured. Some came to believe what they were told, or what was suggested to them about family members. Then too there was always this: After the first months it became clear to everyone that it was safer to name names than to be accused. And then there was the palpable fear in the air. By August, in Andover, a girl might accuse both her mother and her grandmother and seem fully to subscribe to her belief in their sorcery.

You mentioned those young girls that were first to accuse others. Why would they do that? Was it only the young rebelling? I’m trying to understand why they did not stop when things got really serious and people started to die.

Something grave and entirely real afflicted the first girls. It’s impossible to diagnose them from this distance, but the symptoms conform (the shrieking, the contorting, the paralysis, the flying about) to what we would today call hysteria or conversion disorder. Unfortunately, in the l7th century those symptoms conformed to what was understood to be witchcraft. The village minister was reluctant to admit to that diagnosis, which did not reflect well on him, but once it seemed to be the only diagnosis, once the witchcraft was established, it became necessary to find a witch. The first three women named were obvious candidates: a slave, a litigious villager, a vagrant. The contagion soon spread to other girls (as hysteria will), some of whom may have been counterfeiting symptoms, but some of whom seem truly to have been ill. We can ask the question about why the girls did not stop then only about an accuser who was counterfeiting, and we can’t know how those were, if indeed any existed. We CAN ask why the girls named the people they did; the adults around them seem to have supplied names. Through the girls they worked their agendas. It’s fairly easy to believe that a girl who got involved, and who in fact remained healthy, might have felt she was on an important religious crusade. She was helping to purify the community, she had the attention of a legion of adults, she was cosseted and interviewed and listened to, she could get out of her chores.

Was it also about having some power over men? Rebelling against patriarchy? Because a lot of powerful men did as they were told by young girls…

Certainly there are few other moments in history when teenaged girls ran the show. Or — Joan of Arc aside — when everyone listened attentively to each and every adolescent utterance. There was some clear score-settling against men, most notably against the former village minister, George Burroughs. Many testified that he was at the center of the satanic conspiracy. (Abigail Hobbs was the first to point a finger in his direction.) He had made many enemies, for reasons largely lost to us, but he had also abused his wives, which no one had forgotten. He was arrested in Maine, where he was something of a local hero, and carted back to Massachusetts, where he hanged for witchcraft. So in that respect yes, there was some patriarchal score-settling in the testimony. Many other forces were at work at the same time, however. And the girls may have played into male hands as names were suggested to them by civic authorities and family members looking to advance their own agendas.

In some ways it looks like justice, for example for men that abused their wives. Earlier you mentioned that some of those girls might have thought they’re doing a service to their community by purifying it. But there were cases when the accused were people who did not even knew the girls earlier. When I’ve read about those people and how quickly they have been deemed guilty, what came to my mind was… internet haters. And the end of your book you also point out some similarities there.

There are so many parts to the story that shock: No one — not even the civic-minded, God-fearing elderly mother of 8 — knew whether she should expect a knock at the door. (That one heard it. And hanged.) Then there were the people who had never set eyes on the Salem girls but found themselves accused by them. The speed with which rumor traveled; the speed with which misinformation traveled; the virulence of falsehood; the fragility of truth indeed all seem very familiar today. So does the sacrifice of the individual to a community out of control.

Once the narrative was in motion no one seemed able to stop it, though any number of people would have been in a position to point out it was false. When finally men began to, they did so in the most gingerly fashion. And they took every care to do so anonymously. It was too dangerous to oppose the prevailing current otherwise; over the summer of l692 anyone who vocally doubted the witchcraft found himself accused of it.

And how do we now know how it all happened? What were the sources your book was based on?

Easiest answer to that question is to send you to the endnotes and bibliography.

We have about 1000 contemporaneous documents: depositions, arrest warrants, prison reports. They include some rather chilling pages, like the jailer’s accounting (a prisoner paid for his own hay, manacles, blanket). I read every sermon of the era, all extant diaries, the witchcraft literature, the Mather publications, the court records of the previous years (The Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County), which provide a great deal of insight into past witchcraft accusations, into how litigious the colonists were, into long-simmering feuds and half-expelled grievances.

To that add a very loud silence: One thing that tells us how deeply grief and shame blanketed Salem afterward is the resounding silence. The trial papers have disappeared. The year is missing from compendia of sermons, personal correspondences, the church record book. It is as if it never happened, or happened in a fever dream.

That obviously did not work and the trials in Salem are legendary. Why do you think Salem became this “hometown” for witches and is known as the most popular story around this topic?

Believe it or not, Salem has a TV sit-com to thank. Through the l950s you could still not discuss the trials; they were the kind of history that never happened until generations — in this case MANY generations — after it had.

It would seem that the one way to talk about this episode in history was for it to make it into TV and start to make profits for Salem from tourists…

You could argue that the fictions helped return us to the facts. BEWITCHED had no more to do with the events of 1692 than does Halloween. Yet Salem claimed them both, sanitizing the history in the process.

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