Book review: Stacy Schiff’s history of the Salem witch panic is a shocking, riveting read

Schiff reminds us of the scale of the hysteria and the devastating consequences for hundreds of families caught up in it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 3:30pm

The Witches: Salem, 1692 

by Stacy Schiff

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

In 1692, 14 women, five men and two dogs were executed for witchcraft in Salem. That spring there had been 400 people accused. If we know this history primarily from Arthur Miller ’s The Crucible, it is easy to forget the scale of these strange events.

Miller portrays a small, claustrophobic world, where a handful of girls accuse a handful of their elders. In fact, there were reports of some 700 witches flying around Massachusetts, the youngest aged five and the eldest aged 80. One village after another imploded, with children informing on their parents and husbands on their wives. In The Witches, the American historian Stacy Schiff has found a way brilliantly to recreate this strange and fascinating story as it unfolded at the time.

Schiff has had the inspired idea of juxtaposing fantasy and reality, so that the supernatural activities are presented matter-of-factly alongside the more prosaic ones. There is only a thin layer of reproving sarcasm to draw attention to the impossibility of the more far-fetched events. Thus we learn that “skimming groves of oak, mossy bogs and a tangle of streams”, two middle-aged women flew on a pole across Salem, covering in a flash ground that would have required three-and-a-half hours on a horse. Absurdly, we see John Proctor simultaneously lecturing the town meeting on the dangers of mass hysteria, devilishly sitting on the marshal’s lap and leaping astride the minister’s dog.

This strategy enables Schiff to recreate the confusion of Salem at the time. It is clearer here than in Miller’s play how difficult it would have been to escape the mass hysteria; clearer that we cannot be complacent in assuming that we would have been on the side of the sceptics. This is partly because the stories of witchcraft were so vividly and specifically rooted in the surroundings that they could easily metamorphose from fantasies to memories. It is also because there was nothing to be gained from publicly expressed scepticism. The only possible way to save yourself was to confess.

A shocking number of small children were accused of witchcraft and ended up confessing to events that were after all no less convincing than the average bedtime story

In some respects, the events that unfold in Schiff’s book are more upsetting than those in The Crucible. This is not the tale of a good man who discovers his own goodness too late, but the story of hundreds of innocent people flailing in the face of a few powerful men. The lead villain in Schiff’s account (a figure who is absent from Miller’s play) is William Stoughton, chief justice of the court. Stoughton is so determined to prosecute anyone accused of witchcraft that he goes against all the prevailing advice of the time in accepting spectral evidence.

Neither he nor the Salem magistrate John Hathorne make any attempt to quarantine the afflicted girls and interview them separately or to match the teeth marks on the victims to the dentistry of the accused, even though several of the so-called witches are wholly lacking in teeth. A shocking number of small children were accused of witchcraft and ended up confessing to events that were after all no less convincing than the average bedtime story.

One seven-year-old girl announced that she had been a witch since she was six, though she could not be sure what age she was at present. She blithely informed the court that her mother had appeared to her in the guise of a black cat, unwittingly condemning her parent to possible death. Another five-year-old girl, having spent eight months in miniature manacles and having seen her mother (against whom she had testified) hanged, went insane and would require care for the rest of her life.

These are upsetting tales and Schiff writes movingly as well as wittily; this is a work of riveting storytelling as well as an authoritative history.

The Guardian