November 10, 2015 8:22:54 AM
The story of the Salem witch trials has a fascination unmatched by that sparked by any other bit of colonial history. You can find all sorts of accounts and interpretations of it - feminist, Freudian, hallucinogen-induced, Marxist, not to mention the novels and plays and movies. There is lengthier analysis of it than more important historical events, such as even the landing of the Pilgrims. There is no chance we are going to stop thinking, imagining, and worrying about Salem's infestation of witches, and no chance that people will stop writing new accounts. Now here is a good one: The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown) by historian Stacy Schiff. It is an ideal account for our times, as Schiff describes witches, wizards, broomsticks, and apparitions as they seem to have appeared to those who were experiencing them, according to the accounts of witnesses. This brings an immediacy and a weirdness to the social and legal proceedings, and Schiff's detailed and lengthy account goes a long way towards explaining what was going on. It never completely explains the witchery; it was all too strange ever to be fully explained. But Schiff goes a long way to making the events understandable in a human way, and deftly ties them at the end to our own contemporary magical or malevolent ideas.
It all began in the very house of the village minister, among his own family. The Reverend Samuel Parris was the fourth minister to Salem village, and he was not popular. He had taken the pulpit in 1689 with no prior pastoral experience, and certainly no acquaintance with epidemics of witches. The villagers were always arguing about something, and for Parris it was arguing about his wages, the condition of his fences, or his allotment of firewood. In Parris's household were his wife, three children including an eleven-year-old niece Abigail, and two Indian slaves, Tituba and her husband, John Indian. At the beginning of 1692, Abigail and the nine-year-old daughter started having fits; they babbled, danced, leaped into the air, and reported seeing things. It is hard to understand what was really going on; kids this age just behave that way, but perhaps they were not supposed to in seventeenth century Puritan homes. Their antics proved popular, with crowds of people from the little village nightly coming into the minister's house to gape at the odd little girls; that sort of reinforcement must have made the performances more likely.
The previously model children, all agreed, had been bewitched. Their audience included clergymen and constables. Soon there was full-scale audience participation. The girls identified certain attendees as being part of a huge satanic conspiracy, and when the authorities convened an investigation in the town meetinghouse, the performances continued. One of the girls might insist that a woman present had been a leader of a recent satanic ceremony wherein forty witches drank blood in communion. Or one might reach out to strike a woman who was attempting to exculpate herself on the stand, only to have the striking fist magically unclench and touch only the witness's clothing, whereupon the girl would shriek in pain as if the hand were burnt. Others were recruited into the demonstrations as one girl would cry out, "Look to her! She will have a fit presently!" and the girl called out would begin convulsing, and perhaps giving out delirious warnings. There are many pages of this sort of hysteria in Schiff's book, showing that it wasn't just rumors or exaggeration that caused the epidemic; people could see for themselves that the little girls were possessed, and that the witches they pointed out were fearful of exposure.
Schiff explains that in the atmosphere of the colonies, where attacks by Indians loomed as everyday possibilities, along with attendant dismemberings or abductions, it was not surprising that devils would seem real and that a gateway to hell could open at any minute. It is astonishing, though, that children could be acting impulsively one day and soon because of it, other children's parents or grandparents might be on trial, or hung, or tortured to death. It's easy to say that the village was comprised of ignorant and superstitious rustics, but they did not power the reprisals against the accused witches. The judges, clergy, and magistrates were not so prone to superstitious ignorance as they were to superstitious enlightenment. There was lots of information in print about witch infestations, and it was not the equivalent of pulps, but the academic accounts from learned religious societies and universities. The officials in Salem were aware of an outbreak of witches in Sweden a few years before; witchcraft was detested, but it was still a suitable topic of investigation and report. You could also find texts discrediting belief in witchcraft, but no such book of skepticism was published in Boston before 1692. Some of the officials took a pride in the infestation; if Satan was working his ways so hard in Salem, they suggested, then Salem must be doing something right. Cotton Mather, whose writing and opinions run throughout Schiff's book, was a highly educated minister who said that the witchery not only showed a pride of place, but of time. It was clear that it was a sign that the Second Coming was imminent, perhaps but five years away.
The investigations would go on to the fall of 1692, and the results were dire. Among the accused were, just as you would expect, isolated old women, but there were also a deputy village constable, a tavern keeper, one of the richest merchants in the colony, and a minister. Nineteen of the accused were hung, and one was crushed to death with large stones in a failed attempt to get him to confess; none were burned alive, as that was not the fashion. Scores of others were jailed in grossly sordid and sometimes lethal cells. Neighbors were pitted against neighbors, husbands against wives, children against parents. The accused learned the best strategy in what was essentially a powerplay: confess. One of the reasons that there were so many witches is that so many confessed to being witches. No one who confessed got the noose. Those executed lost their lives because they claimed innocence. The minister, George Burroughs, came close to stopping the proceedings on his gallows by giving a sermon and then reciting the Lord's Prayer. This was a test for wizardry; no witch or wizard could recite the prayer without stumbling. His eloquence got him only minutes of reprieve. Of course he could recite the Lord's Prayer perfectly, came the explanation - the devil was right at his shoulder, dictating to him.
As the year wore on, the show trials and gruesome public executions began to erode the enthusiasm of the public and the officials who had used the proceedings to consolidate power. The ministers and magistrates began to cover their tracks. Astonishingly, the records from 1692 are largely absent, when otherwise Salem residents were obsessive about making records. The court recorder rewrote the village record, deleting distasteful events. Not a single transcript of a session of the witchcraft court can be found.
Nonetheless, Schiff has probed the journals and letters that remain, and brought forth a shockingly intimate view of village life that was hard enough without witches bursting in. Her strong command of detail cannot demystify the madness, but it does make it part of a recognizable community process. She mentions, but without over-emphasis, the sorts of witch-hunts we have subsequently put ourselves through, like the McCarthy hearings and the daycare scares. We have yet fully to learn the lesson that people under duress will confess guilt to all manner of unlikely things, or that we should distrust the torture that can reliably produce answers the torturers desire. Warnings of millennial doom continue. We have not left 1692 entirely behind.