Stacey Schiff’s last book, Cleopatra: A Life, made the kind of splash historians dream of, including a much publicized sale to Hollywood. Her latest, The Witches, about the Salem witch trials, has received mixed reviews, and doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact. But it’s quite brilliant. I wouldn’t call it the definitive study of Salem–she acknowledges her considerable debt to John Demos, both personally, and for his wonderful Entertaining Salem–but I found it an extraordinary achievement, superbly researched and written.
She begins by acknowledging the hold the Salem witch trials still have on our collective imagination.
Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional tensions imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.
So to what theory does she subscribe? Essentially none of them, and all of them. But if I had to paraphrase her final conclusions, she attributes the trials to, well, humanity. Constantly, page after page, chapter after chapter, Schiff puts us in the position of the men, women, and (particularly) teenaged girls of Puritan Massachusetts in the last decade of the seventeenth century. She asks us to imagine ourselves in their situation. She describes sympathetically and imaginatively the human impact of Puritan theology; the guilt, the insistence on constant self-examination, the constant, unremitting daily chores and obligations. The fears, the tensions, the cold and dark corners of the town and of townspeople’s imaginations.
It could be us. It could be me, my friends, my neighbors. Paranoia and suspicion rising from threats, real and imagined, overreacting, underthinking, giving way. As with the Know-Nothings, as with the Japanese internment camps, as with Jim Crow laws and commie scares and, today, anti-Muslim rants from prominent politicians. Still, I kept thinking, reading Schiff’s book, I get it. It makes sense to me, in human terms. The central conundrum of Salem was simply this: sober, intelligent, well-read people, testifying under oath in a court of law, who believed with all their hearts and souls that lies told under oath would condemn them to eternal damnation, told the court that they had, personally, flown miles on sticks, crash-landing in meadows, attending meetings chaired by the devil, to whom they had sworn allegiance. And Schiff believes, and reading her, we believe, that those testimonies were believed to be accurate and factual, not only by the jurors, but by the testifiers themselves, at least while they were testifying.
Some years ago, I acted in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I played Giles Corey; obstreperous ‘more weight’ Giles Corey, who stubbornly refused to speak the pro forma and meaningless words that, by law, began all criminal proceedings. And was pressed to death for that refusal. I’ve been a Giles Corey fan ever since, as well, of course, as a massive fan of Miller’s superb play. Miller wrote it in the midst of the McCarthy committee hearings. Having refused to name names, thus risking imprisonment, he wrote. His play is not only a dramatic and theatrical triumph, but also an act of moral conscience and defiant citizenship. It’s a genuinely great play. Historically, though, he got most of it wrong.
John Proctor, Miller’s protagonist, was sixty years old, and not a particularly important member of the Salem community. Also, more specifically, a man who certainly had not had an affair with Abigail Williams, who was not a prominent accuser and who was in any event eleven years old. He also accused his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, something the Proctor in the play refuses to do. In reality, the central figure among the accused wasn’t Proctor, but George Burroughs, a charismatic and superbly qualified minister, and Indian fighter, and something of a muscular prodigy; also a man who abused his wives sufficiently to be prosecuted for it. The Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, in charge of prosecuting and sentencing witches, was not Thomas Danforth, it was William Stoughton, who was also Massachusetts’ Lieutenant Governor. And Tituba was probably not Black. And most of what we know about the Salem witch trials comes from a character Miller doesn’t even put in his play, Cotton Mather, whose role in the trials went a good deal beyond that of chronicler.
The more significant, and probably controversial point, though, is that the teenaged girls at the heart of the Salem witch scare, the girls who writhed and twisted and pointed fingers, Abigail Hobbs and Mercy Lewis and Betty Parris and Ann Putnam Jr. and Mary Warren and the rest of them, may not have done so maliciously. For Miller, the girls were liars, knew they were liars, and kept on lying because they were afraid of Abigail Williams. Schiff doesn’t think so, and I believe her. She describes the symptoms of something called conversion disorder, a malady that previously went under the over-broad rubric of ‘female hysteria.’ Schiff doesn’t exactly blame this particular disorder for the trials, but she offers it as a possible explanation for the girls’ conduct. Above all, though, she treats all the characters in the story with compassion. She sees the events not as melodrama, with carefully defined villains and heroes (as, frankly, Miller tends to), but as tragedy, as a deeply human and terribly distressing combination of factors.
If the book has a villain, it’s probably William Stoughton. He was the most forceful personality in the room, the most impressive and fearsome politician in Massachusetts. He was also a man of infinitely malleable convictions, having taken multiple sides in every political controversy of his age. He was a survivor, a wily old bear who could make any position seem unassailable. So why, on this issue, did he become so unbending, so ferociously inexorable? Why, on this one issue, was he so unwilling to listen to those few timorous voices wondering if it was possible that quite so many New Englanders were witches, or if entirely spectral evidence could be enough to condemn otherwise upright people to death for consorting with Satan?
Rebecca Nurse was twice acquitted. Both times, Stoughton interrogated the jury. Were they certain? Had they considered this evidence, or that testimony? Perhaps they should deliberate some more? The third time, the jury took the hint. And Rebecca Nurse, the very picture of a virtuous Puritan matron, was hanged for witchcraft. Despite the considered opinion of the most respected Boston ministers, Stoughton admitted the most questionable kinds of evidence. And given a chance to show clemency, everyone convicted received the harshest possible penalty. And 20 people were executed.
None of them witches. And we need to keep that in mind. Because witches and witchcraft and enchantments and spells and incantations are frequent memes in our popular culture. And that’s fine, if kept resolutely in the realm of fantasy fiction. But as many as a hundred thousand innocent people were killed, most of them from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Twenty were killed in New England, plus those who died in prison, plus Giles Corey. The citizens of Boston and Salem were not actually plagued by witches; no one with superhuman powers lived in those communities, nor, in fact, in any communities in the world, ever, anywhere. Bridget Bishop was a woman in her fifties, unkempt, belligerent, often homeless, brash and outspoken. She was one of the first ‘witches’ killed from Salem. Sarah Good was younger; another homeless woman, sullen, dependent on the reluctant charity of hard-hearted Puritan farmers, a lurker and a mutterer, probably disturbed; another woman hanged in Salem. That’s who ‘witches’ were; women outside the mainstream of society. Only after the disposable women of the community were disposed of did the good citizens of Salem and Boston and Andover turn to the Martha Coreys and Rebecca Nurses and John Proctors; respectable, but somewhat litigious people, who had made enemies with scores to settle.
The story of Salem is the story of innocent people unpardonably persecuted, and unjustly prosecuted. It’s the story of American paranoia run amuck. It’s human beings doing what humans do; overreact to scary events. It’s also a story that Americans have reenacted far too frequently, as have the citizens of every other culture on earth. Schiff’s book avoids facile conclusions, and easy judgments. It’s a wise and judicious and thoughtful and superbly written book. I can’t recommend it too highly.