17th-Century Terrorism

The Witchesby Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Company. 512p $32

In January 1692 in Salem, the devil is very real. An 11-year-old girl feels bites and pricks and goes into strange convulsions and contortions. She is soon joined by her 9-year-old cousin and two neighbor children. They together are able to identify a local beggar-woman as their attacker. The town is in turmoil. The beggar woman is arrested. Soon more Salem children feel the effects of witchcraft and identify more attackers. They report actually seeing apparitions of their attackers as they are being bitten and harmed in other ways. Within six months more than 100 townsmen and women have been accused. All who come to trial except one are convicted. Those who confess are sent back to jail, rather than the gallows, to help in testifying against others. It is soon apparent that there are only two ways to avoid the gallows: Either you are pregnant or you confess to being a witch. By the middle of the year the witch hunt has grown into an epidemic, as the number of accusers appears to redouble with the number of convictions. Alarmed, the governor of the colony disbands the court hearing the cases. Mediations for peace ensue in the community.

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How could a small group of mostly girls and young women come to dominate a town through their accusations of witchcraft and, in a matter of months, send 19 of their elders to the gallows? Stacy Schiff’s careful analysis shows there could have been a range of natural forces at work—mental, psychological, political, cultural, climatological and even nutritional—influencing the accusers. Yet she does not discard the possibility of the preternatural forces of which contemporaries were convinced. Some of the accusers might have begun in the spirit of fun or spite, but, as Schiff’s research shows, from the depth and breadth of the accusations this could never have been just a pretense for most. Clearly the court did not think so. Everyone charged was quickly convicted by justices convinced that witchcraft was taking place before their eyes, as accusers convulsed in spasms before the accused on the courtroom floor. As Schiff quips, the trials demonstrate the dreadful result of “what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”

The author brings an open mind, skillful research and a highly detailed narrative style to events that continue to interest us because their legacy seems to touch upon important threads in our national character. Schiff may be overreaching when she calls Salem “our national nightmare.” Yet surely its shadow reaches beyond the uses Arthur Miller made of it in his play “The Crucible” and in the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King. It endures in our headlines today, in our current lurching attempts to deal with terrorism, immigration and Muslims as well as in our history of national scandals, our sometimes “paranoid style of American politics,” our tendency to over-respond to threats, like invading Iraq to search for nonexistent nuclear weapons, moving whole populations of Japanese in World War II and building backyard bomb shelters in the 1950s.

There is little to connect with our Catholic heritage, however. The Salem panic unfolded in what was essentially a theocratic state, driven by Puritan ideology and sanctimony, with leaders anxious to prove to England that the colony could govern responsibly. Having been barred by an edict in 1647, there were virtually no Catholic priests in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Conceivably some Catholic influence might have been mitigating. While Catholics had a terrible history of burning witches in Europe from the 13th to the 17th century, by the end of the 17th century persecutions were beginning to die out in Europe. Many priests were quite skeptical about the reality of witchcraft, accepting St. Augustine’s view that witchcraft could not exist, as it entailed a belief in some divine power other than the one God. Catholics had their belief in the Eucharist’s real presence and the rite of exorcism to defend themselves against devilish attacks. These protections were not available to Puritans in Massachusetts, however. To them the presence of the devil seemed a terrifying possibility, perhaps more real than the presence of Christ. Cotton Mather’s influential writings, and a small girl’s complaints, could easily whip them into a frenzy of fear.

Prosecution of witches all but died out in the next century, as a new climate of enlightened rationalism developed. Laws were revised. Severe penalties for the practice of witchcraft were replaced by lesser ones for the fraud that might be perpetrated in the pretense of witchcraft. The mere practice of witchcraft or any other magic became—as it is today—not a crime unless some harm could be proved. In a world where religion and state are separate, protection from witchcraft evolved legally into consumer fraud protection. In Christian eyes, of course, witchcraft remains a serious sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns all practices of magic and sorcery as contrary to the virtue of religion (No. 2117).

Schiff tells an exciting tale, richly and insightfully laid out. She is particularly good at carefully tracing the community’s gradual return to peace and normal relations among neighbors. Her undoubted talent for sketching a scene, building character portraits from limited material and sifting through voluminous historical data to make a dramatic story, as previously demonstrated in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Cleopatra, are on full display here.

As articulate as she is, however, it is hard to see how this book breaks new ground on a subject that has been exhaustively scrutinized by legal scholars and historians drawn to the topic as an object lesson in the mishandling of justice in the face of a growing hysteria and as a signal event in the beginning of the end of theocracy in the colonies. But for anyone new to the story, wanting an accurate and gripping account of events this is the book for you. You’ll be left pondering unanswerable questions such as: Did the young girls make up stories or were they really attacked? Did any really fly on broomsticks to a Sabbath in the town minister’s pasture, as they claimed? Did any of the accused really believe they were witches? Or did they confess to save their lives? However you answer, there can be little doubt that sinfulness was at work in Salem by either the accused or the accusers, or perhaps both.

Correction: April 28, 2016
The name of reviewer Nicholas Farnham was originally misspelled in this essay. 
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