Review: ‘The Witches’ by Stacy Schiff

The Witches. Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown. 512 pages. $32.
The Witches. Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown. 512 pages. $32.

Stacy Schiff takes us back to America’s most notorious witch hunt in her latest book, an absorbing and enlightening account of how colonists revered as America’s founders came to execute 14 women, five men and two dogs in the belief that they were agents of Satan.

Author of Cleopatra: A Life, Schiff answers the two most important questions a modern reader brings to this story. First: How could this happen? Schiff deftly paints the social and historical background for this moment for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritan settlers were fighting royal (read: Anglican) control from England, attacks from Native Americans, incursions from the French — and, not incidentally, squabbling with each other over town boundaries, civic responsibilities and ministerial appointments.

At the same time, the entire region was suffering a sort of post-traumatic stress from King Philip’s War. That conflict with Native Americans ended in 1678 after it had “obliterated a third of New England’s one hundred towns, pulverized its economy, and claimed 10 percent of the adult male population.”

The second question of a modern reader: Who were these people, and were they anything like us? With a dry but sympathetic tone, Schiff supplies character portraits that show how an orphaned adolescent girl or a widowed woman denied her inheritance might find herself vulnerable, especially in the isolated yet claustrophobic setting of a colonial village.

While Puritan New England is a foreign and bizarre country to us, envious neighbors are something we can understand. “There were as many reasons to accuse someone of witchcraft in 1692 as there were to denounce him under the Nazi occupation of France,” Schiff writes, “envy, insecurity, political enmity, unrequited love, love that had run its course.”

The contagion started in a parsonage, of all places, in the rural outpost of Salem village (different from the seaport downtown that sells its witchy history today; Salem village is now the town of Danvers). The minister’s niece and daughter started showing signs of bewitchment in February, in the middle of a brutal winter. “The cousins complained of bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid.”

The first to be accused were, as you might expect, defiant social outsider women who may have hurled a few curses around. But it soon spread to some unusual suspects, like Philip English, Salem’s leading ship owner, and 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse, a great-grandmother, pillar of the community, member of a prominent and successful clan that never stopped defending her. It even swept up 66-year-old John Alden, “a hard-edged Boston sea captain and merchant, the firstborn son of Plymouth’s founding family.”

Clearly no one was safe — though some credited the end of the crisis to an accusation against the governor’s wife.

Children accused parents and grandparents. The indicted included a 5-year-old girl and a toothless gray-haired man who might have been 80. The accused were subjected to relentless interrogation, some of which reached a level we would call torture. Those who confessed were generally spared, while those who maintained their innocence were more likely to go to the gallows.

“If you could save your life by admitting that you flew through the air on a pole, wouldn’t you?” Schiff writes. Some of the more prominent and well-connected escaped, though their homes and possessions were looted in their absence. (Not Rebecca Nurse, though — even though a jury initially acquitted her, the chief justice ordered them to reconsider. The governor reprieved her, then revoked the pardon. On July 19, 1692, she was hanged with four other women.)

By the end of the year, the governor finally stepped in. He countermanded the last eight execution warrants issued by the witchcraft court in January of 1693. “It was as if all simply, suddenly awoke, shaking off their strange tales, from a collective, preternatural dream,” Schiff writes.

By taking us back to that time — and making the people of 17th century New England comprehensible — Schiff rescues the story of the Salem witch hunts from being a mere tourism draw or even a political metaphor. Instead, it’s a fascinating and all-too-human story of how individuals and a community confront their deepest fears.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN-Miami Herald News.

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