Reviews — From the November 2015 issue

Trial and Error

Three centuries of American witch hunts

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Discussed in this essay:

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown. 512 pages. $32.

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, by Richard Beck. PublicAffairs. 352 pages. $26.99.

One night in May 1692, Ann Foster and Martha Carrier hopped on a pole in Andover, Massachusetts, and flew twelve miles to a meadow in Salem Village. They picnicked on the grass and drank from a nearby brook before attending a meeting of about two dozen witches — a small fraction of the total number in New England at the time. The details of the meeting are unknown, but its purpose is not: the witches vowed to destroy Salem Village and set up “the devil’s kingdom” there. At her trial, Carrier denied everything; she was hanged for witchcraft in August. Foster confessed and survived in the Salem jail until December: under the strange rules that governed the village at the time, those who confessed to witchcraft were not put to death. After she died in prison — technically of natural causes, which were no doubt hastened by the jail’s freezing, vermin-infested conditions — her son had to pay the bill for her upkeep, including the chains that shackled her, before he was allowed to bury her body.

In The Witches, her new book examining the Salem witchcraft trials, Stacy Schiff calls the events that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 — during which some two hundred people were accused of witchcraft, more than a hundred were imprisoned, and nineteen were executed — a “national nightmare” that “crackles, flickers, and jolts its way through American history and literature.” Like a dream, its images linger in the mind, half remembered and half imagined, equal parts tragedy and shame. The tragedy is obvious; the shame, more hidden. A sign of it, perhaps, is that, despite the Puritans’ typical fanaticism for record-keeping, the historical record of the events is incomplete. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and Salem’s most comprehensive and renowned chronicler — he published twenty-two books between 1689 and 1691 alone — wrote his diary for 1692 in retrospect. The letters and diaries of Mather’s contemporaries, many of whom were meticulous chroniclers themselves, mysteriously elide the crucial months of the trials. As Schiff points out, the voices of the women at the heart of the drama — both the accusers and the accused — are the most difficult to make out, passed down to us by notetakers who were “far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard [the] statements.” It is no wonder that Salem remains one of the darkest, strangest, and least understood episodes in American history.

The Witch No. I, 1892, by Joseph E. Baker © akg-images

The Witch No. I, 1892, by Joseph E. Baker © akg-images

Most writers would consider such gaps in the record a drawback. Schiff seems to regard them as a personal challenge. In her previous biographies, she drew complex, nuanced portraits of figures about whom little was known or whose histories had been overtaken by myth: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who died mysteriously not long after completing his uncanny fable The Little Prince, one of the best-loved children’s books of the twentieth century; Véra Nabokov, who projected the image of a demure wife but wielded spectacular behind-the-scenes power; and, most recently, Cleopatra, whose character Schiff reconstructed from a bare-bones historical record. Now she brings her gifts to the confusions of Salem, piecing together a dramatic narrative from disparate and often tersely unrevealing sources, including diaries, memoirs, and court reports. She never lacks for an apt detail, drawing on academic studies that focus on everything from the region’s sexual mores to the way sounds echoed in the atmosphere.

Yet for all Schiff’s historical acumen and storytelling flair, the mystery at the heart of her book remains unsolved — as perhaps it must. Explanations for the madness, at least hypothetical ones, can be marshaled from many perspectives. The colonists were under extreme physical and psychic pressure. The adolescent girls who provoked the crisis were suffering from a classic case of Freudian hysteria. It’s not impossible, though Schiff doesn’t entertain the theory, that a fungus containing hallucinogenic chemicals may have infected the rye crop that year, causing many of the symptoms the girls experienced. But persuasive as some of these theories may be, none addresses the real question of Salem: not just why it happened but why it continues to happen. That fatal repetition, and not the horrifying events that unfolded over a few months at the tail of the seventeenth century, is the true national nightmare, the American curse for which no counter-hex has yet been discovered.

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is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford). Her biography of Shirley Jackson will be published next fall.

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