Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of "The Witches: Salem, 1692" by Stacey Schiff

In "The Witches: Salem, 1692", Stacy Schiff provides a thorough exposition of what happened during the Salem, Massachusetts witch frenzy of 1692. The trouble seems to have begun when two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, took to twitching, convulsing, yipping, rolling around on the floor, being bitten, pinched, and pricked by spectral creatures, and so on. The attention this garnered the 'afflicted' young ladies soon inspired other girls to exhibit the same symptoms. The stricken youngsters said witches were responsible for their symptoms and proceeded to accuse their families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of being the witches in question. Soon afterwards the accusers were seeing people morph into animals, observing women fly through the air on rods, watching turtles and birds suckling on churchgoers fingers, seeing women consort with the devil, etc.

Before long many members of Salem's Puritan community were accusing each other of witchcraft. The Puritans apparently came to believe the devil wanted to destroy them. Satan's supposed method: get people to sign his book (and become witches) by promising them new shoes, foreign travel, nice clothes, land, riches - whatever their hearts desired. The newly minted witches would then go out and turn others to the dark side. If the devil's plan was successful the Puritans would apparently suffer eternal damnation. Thus, the witches had to be ruthlessly eliminated from the population.

Local authorities - prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and others - not only believed these ideas, they were often the main proponents. Thus, accusations of witchcraft were taken very seriously. And an accusation was almost as good as a conviction. Almost every person arrested for being a witch confessed, usually because she/he was relentlessly badgered, ruthlessly tortured, or completely self-deluded. And accusations weren't reserved for adults. Some witches were as young as five years old.

Arrests for witchcraft resulted in hundreds of shackled, hungry people languishing in filthy, stinking, freezing prisons, often for many months. To rub salt into the wound, the prisoners had to pay for their jail stay. Most of the accused were middle-aged to elderly women, but some men were suspected as well. Perhaps the most unlikely person accused was George Burroughs, a former Salem church minister.

The ongoing witch trials - not remotely fair by modern standards - resulted in 19 people being hanged, including Minister Burroughs - who maintained his innocence to the very end. In addition, one man who refused to confess was pressed to death by stones (a horrible way to die) and two dogs were executed. Moreover, a number of people died in prison, succumbing to the fearsome conditions.

Once a person was convicted of witchcraft (and sometimes even before conviction), his/her possessions were looted by authorities and sometimes local residents - leaving remaining family members penniless, homeless, and starving. One might suspect that this opportunity for 'legal theft' provided a likely motive for false accusations.

Eventually, a semblance of sanity began to creep back into Salem and the imprisonments, trials, and hangings ebbed and ceased. By then the major culprits of the witch trials - the prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and Governor of Massachusetts - were having second and third thoughts. The highest officials (including famous Minister Cotton Mather) spent the next few years trying to explain, excuse, and justify what they'd done. By then though, people's reputations had been irreparably ruined, families had been impoverished and/or destroyed, and the town had suffered tremendous hardships. To this day descendants of the Salem Puritans seem abashed about the hysteria of the 1600s - though it's given rise to a lively tourist business.

The book is almost too thorough in its coverage of the topic. There are so many descriptions of people being accused, arrested, questioned, imprisoned, tried, and hanged (or eventually freed), that they blend together. After a while it's hard to remember who's who. In addition, the repetition is tedious.

I was also mystified by the numerous references to Sweden, which didn't seem to make much sense (or maybe I missed something). In any case I googled 'witchcraft/Sweden' and found that a frenetic witch hunt in Sweden resulted in the 1675 Torsåker witch trials. Convictions in Torsåker resulted in 71 witches being beheaded and burned in one day. Salem authorities were apparently familiar with the Swedish witch hunt (in any case they mentioned Sweden a lot), and this may well have influenced their beliefs and actions.

Like many people, I was somewhat acquainted with the Salem calamity from history classes in school. This book, however, gave me a real education in the subject. The author's research was clearly prodigious and I found the story interesting (despite the repetitions). I'd highly recommend the book to curious readers as well as history buffs.

Rating: 4 stars

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