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The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
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The Witches: Salem, 1692

by Stacy Schiff

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You’ve heard the story before, the Salem witch trials, and you’ve heard many reasons why it happened. Now read the truth.

Stacy Schiff does a great job pulling you into the story of this crazy occurrence. Teen girls somehow captivated tiny Salem and accused moms, dads, friends and even clergy of witchcraft. And then the accused accused others.

Nobody got burned at the stake, but several were hanged, and one was crushed to death. In fact, those who confessed to being witches survived, but those that fought the charges were executed.

You experience the story pretty much as it happened, with all sides pitching in – and the sides at the time included many people who did believe something otherworldly was happening in Salem. The writing is blessedly free of the “we know better now” skepticism you might expect. This helps the story feel more real, since you read what was going on and what they thought was going on.

Let’s not pull any lessons for now from this – I know other reviewers have used the phrase "Age of Trump" or have tried to draw parallels with "The Handmaid’s Tale. " That does this story injustice.

Read this and find out more about why America was the way it was at the end of the 17th century.

See more of my reviews at Ralphsbooks. ( )
  ralphz | Jul 25, 2018 |
This history of the Salem witch trials synthesizes many primary sources into a single chronological narrative. Schiff puts the events into a broader context, including information about the background of some of the central figures. I had hoped for more analysis of why and how the events came to pass than Schiff provided. These questions were addressed too briefly at the end of the book. Still, the thorough and orderly presentation of information from so many sources will be of great value to many readers who do not have ready access to the primary sources. ( )
  cbl_tn | Apr 29, 2018 |
I’ve reviewed a couple of books on the Salem witch outbreak before: Salem Possessed and Wonders of the Invisible World. I approached Stacy Schiff’s The Witches with some diffidence, since Ms. Schiff is a bestselling “popular” historian and my prejudice suggested a possible lack of rigor; I was disabused – this is an excellent, well written book. I wish I had read it as my first Salem history as the other books gloss over some of the aspects.

The Witches is mostly a straightforward chronological history of the witch outbreak: there’s some background, details of the years 1692 and 1693, and some summing-up. There are a lot of side trips Schiff could have taken but she sticks to the history; it’s already a long book. I’ll take some side trips myself in the review.

The Basics
Adolescent girls in Pastor Samuel Parris’ household did some sort of superstitious ritual; the results frightened them, and they began behaving strangely. They began accusing other people in the Salem area of bewitching them. A special court – Oyer and Terminer – was set up, and suspects were apprehended, jailed, tried, convicted and some were eventually executed. The accusations began to expand until a great many people from Salem and the surrounding area were imprisoned or under suspicion. Prisoners began to confess to pacts with Satan and flying to Satanic meetings – the confessions increased greatly when prisoners noticed that confessed Satanists weren’t executed (although some worried that would eventually come). The Mather family - father and son, Increase and Cotton - got involved. Eventually the hysteria seemed to die down more or less of its own accord, nobody else was tried, and all the prisoners were released. The trials became an embarrassment to the area simultaneously with becoming a national symbol for miscarriage of justice.

The Record
Schiff notes that records of the time are sparse. The official court proceedings are lost; it’s suspected they were destroyed in Stamp Act riots years later (1765), when the governor’s mansion was sacked and state papers thrown into the street. When Salem records were transcribed, everything relating to the trials was expunged from the new copies. Many contemporaries seem to have destroyed or expurgated letters, diaries, and other personal written records. This may account for inconsistencies in the reports I’ve read. For example, in Salem Possessed the girls have their initial encounter with the forces of evil when they do a ritual involving dropping an egg white into water and looking at the resulting shape; in The Witches the ritual involves making a “witch cake”. In Salem Possessed, part of the evidence against George Burroughs was he was able to pick up a heavy gun by the barrel; in The Witches, there are two incidents; once Burroughs picks up a barrel and sometime later he fires a heavy gun one-handed (since Burroughs was a “puny” man according to contemporaries, it was a given that he would need Satanic assistance to perform these feats, regardless of exactly what they were). In many of the accounts the slave girl Tituba - one of the accusers and a confessor to witchcraft - is portrayed as black; Schiff notes there’s no evidence for this and suggests she was Native American.

The Accusers
According to Schiff, the average age of the bewitched girls was 18; the average age of the executed witches was 56 (the ages of two of the 19 people executed are unknown). She doesn’t accuse the girls of deliberate malice, instead suggesting they were bored and started the whole thing as entertainment. The girls saw things; the accused witches had yellow or blue birds about them that only the girls could see; the witches could fly up to the rafters in the church or courtroom and dance on them, again only visible to the girls; the witches stuck pins into the girls and bit them (at least one of courtroom spectators saw a girl pull a pin out of her clothes and stick it into herself, but the report was apparently ignored). The witches could cause the girls to have fits by looking at them or gesturing (so sometimes the witches were blindfolded and tied during the proceedings). Schiff notes there must have been collusion and advance choreography. In one case, a girl’s hands were “tied” such that it took strong men to force them apart; Schiff takes this to mean there was a physical rope involved (and therefore collusion) while I think (based on the statement that “strong men forced them apart” rather than cut or untied a rope) that it was a “spectral” rope.

The Accused
The first witch to hang (and the only one hanged alone, rather than in a group) was Bridget Bishop. Bishop fits the pattern suggested in Salem Possessed – that the accused witches tended to be unpopular with their neighbors; she ran a tavern and was rather notorious in Salem for lying and “bad behavior” – like wearing brightly colored clothes. Some of the other executed witches don’t fit this template, though (although it must be conceded that records are so sparse there may have been “bad blood” that was never written down). A particularly grim case was Rebecca Nurse; she was well-respected in the community and many signed a petition asking for her acquittal. She was initially found not guilty, but the magistrates ordered the jury to reconsider and she was pronounced guilty when they returned after a second deliberation. The governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, granted Nurse a reprieve but when he left the state to fight Indians and Frenchmen, his lieutenant governor, William Stoughton (who was also one of the Salem judges), rescinded the reprieve and confirmed the death sentence.

The Evidence
I came across “spectral evidence” before, in other accounts of the trials and in Mather’s book, but I didn’t quite understand what it implied until Schiff explained it. A “specter” has the appearance of a living person; a ghost has the appearance of a dead one. Both were important at the trials – but only the girls could see either specters or ghosts. Spectral evidence had been presented at trials before – not only in Massachusetts but all over Europe - and there had been debates over its validity. The Salem judges took the hard-line position – not only was spectral evidence valid, but an innocent person could not appear as specter; if your specter appeared somewhere – even if it were only visible to teenage girls – it was conclusive evidence of your deal with Satan. Nobody, even the accused, suggested the girls were lying; when the accused were asked why they thought the girls were behaving the way they were, the answers were “They are bewitched – but not by me” or “They are possessed”. (You were “bewitched” by somebody else but “possession” was strictly between you and Satan). There had been earlier cases in Massachusetts where people behaving like the girls were judged as possessed rather than bewitched, but nobody took that route at Salem. It was not just an article of faith but an article of law that witches existed; denying the existence of witches was both blasphemy and a criminal offense. There are some cases where people who expressed any skepticism were accused of being witches themselves.

The Arrests
The sheriff picked up the accused, often to their considerable surprise. In a few cases, people received warnings and were able to flee; however, that allowed the sheriff to confiscate their property. Prison conditions were grim; the accused were chained and were charged for their food; four died in prison. As time went on the Salem jail became overcrowded and the accused had to be housed in Boston. One suspect, Giles Corey, refused to plead; he was staked out in the prison yard and increasingly heavy weights were piled on him until he died (Corey has become sort of a folk hero; supposedly his last words were “Pile on more, you sons of bitches”. There’s actually no evidence he said that, and he had earlier accused his own wife – who ended up hanging).

The Trials
Seventeenth century Massachusetts was a very litigious society; almost everybody had been to court at one time or another, either for lawsuits with neighbors over stray cattle or land titles, or if you did something the authorities didn’t like, such as fail to attend church. Nevertheless, there was nobody with formal legal training; instead the trials were conducted by a tribunal of magistrates who acted as prosecutors and judges (there was a jury, but the magistrates acted as judges in the sense that they ran the proceedings). The accused had no defense lawyer and didn’t know the evidence against her until she appeared in court. Although English law held you were innocent until proven guilty, the magistrates didn’t act that way. What trial records exist seem to describe a pretty chaotic scene; the magistrates flinging rapid-fire accusations at the accused and the girls going into fits or seeing specters as the mood struck them. In at least one case, the girls had accused someone they had never met but knew only by name; in court they flew into fits when the wrong person arrived. As far as we know, there was only one “Not guilty” verdict in the initial round of trials, and that was overturned when the magistrates ordered the jury to go back and redeliberate.

The Executions
The guilty were taken by cart to improvised gallows; they had to mount a ladder – probably a difficult accomplishment when tied and hooded – and then “turned off”; there was no drop and the victims slowly strangled. George Burroughs made an impassioned speech, including a perfect recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This caused some murmuring among the spectators, since witches were supposedly unable to do so; however, they were assured that Satan was invisibly prompting him and he hung anyway. There was a single execution on June 10, 1692; five (all women) on July 19; five (four men) on August 19; and eight (two men) on September 22.

The Confessions
Prisoners eventually realized if they confessed they were spared immediate execution – although perhaps believing they would be executed eventually, at least it gave them some time. Soon everybody still in prison was confessing – and implicating more and more others as they did so. The confessions are very similar – Satan appeared as a “black” or “dark” man in a high-crowned hat. He offered you a book to sign, sometimes promising benefits if you did and sometimes making threats if you didn’t. Once enrolled, you flew on a pole (no brooms involved) to Reverend Parris’ pasture where you hobnobbed with your fellow witches and wizards. The Satanic benefits are surprisingly prosaic; no eternal life or sexual pleasure; instead recruits were promised colorful clothes and picture books. Hmm, books. I wonder… No, never mind. Schiff notes that colorful things figure prominently in many of the narratives – the girls often saw spectral yellow or blue birds associating with the accused witches, and the confessions mention colorful things as Satanic rewards; she speculates Massachusetts in the late 1600s was so drab color was the most luxurious thing people could imagine.

The End
Governor Phips returned from his military expedition; he dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and directed trials continue in the regular courts; he also forbade consideration of spectral evidence. (One of the magistrates, Stoughton, resigned in protest, but eventually returned). There were no further convictions and everybody, including all the confessed witches, was released.

The Aftermath
Everybody had accused everybody else of Satanism; they all just hung their heads and went about their business. Salem Village eventually changed its name to Danvers (Salem Town remains Salem and eventually began profiting from the notoriety, doing a lot of tourist business on Halloween). John Hathorne was one of the “Hanging Judges”; out of embarrassment his family changed their name to Hawthorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne was a descendant). Formal apologies were issued to some of the families, and there was some financial restitution (although it took years to come through). Since the word “Puritan” was tainted, history books began calling the initial Massachusetts settlers “Pilgrims” instead of “Puritans”. The witch trials were even used as a slur on the North by the South during the Civil War.

The Implications
This is an area where Schiff seems deficient. She attributes the girls’ behavior to “hysteria” and cites Freud as an authority, apparently not realizing that neither the term “hysteria” nor the authority of Freud carry much weight any more. There’s one mention of the recent “satanic day care abuse” cases, where day care center operators were accused of a variety of seemingly unlikely things (and often convicted and imprisoned) based on the testimony of preschoolers. Schiff doesn’t mention the hypothesis of political conflict between Salem Village and Salem Town developed in Salem Possessed; however, she discusses at some length the coup carried out against Governor Edmund Andros in 1689; Andros was accused of plotting to betray Massachusetts to the French and of supplying Indians with weapons. The Mathers and some of the other figures involved in the witch trials were prime movers in the action against Andros; Schiff notes it’s more likely that Andros was actually deposed for promoting the Church of England and enforcing anti-smuggling laws rather than any imaginary efforts on behalf of French and Indians.

Long but an easy read; footnotes, endnotes, and an excellent bibliography. Photographs of paintings of some of the participants. I’ll have to read more and take on some of Schiff’s other books. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
Whilst Schiff gathers together an impressive amount of information regarding the Salem witch trials, there is a distinct lack of cohesion to this book. It rambles on for hundreds of pages, hashing out the same kinds of things every book ever written about Salem splats on a page, although i will give the author credit regarding the detail of her research. Interwoven with the information concerning the trials is an intimate history of dozens of people involved including discussions of their political ideology and how this may have affected the trial. This novel does not address in depth the main thing I was interested in when I picked it up. I thought that someone may have finally written in depth on the psychological principles behind what happened at Salem. Unfortunately Schiff devotes less than one chapter out of twelve to any sort of discussion as to why Salem occurred, let alone the psychology behind it.

Though it should never be forgotten that innocent people died as a result of ...ignorance, mass hysteria, unrighteous indignation, oppressed/repressed emotion, attention seeking teenagers, religious fear or any other number of things...I sum up this book using a quote from it, used by the author to describe Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World, "the work is jumbled, lumpy, at times deliriously incoherent."

Read if you are interested in the events at Salem. Do not read if you are looking for a refreshingly new investigation or analysis of events/motivations. ( )
  KatiaMDavis | Dec 19, 2017 |
Ok, maybe two stars. But I'm only on the planet so long.

While a pile of research went into it, it reads more like fiction; imputing various thoughts in the heads of people without any real proof, endless narrative of this happened then that happened, and then he or she said x, y, or z.

Meanwhile the important questions of the subject are breezily dismissed. Rather than a real examination of the human condition, we get dismissals of irrational hysteria and superstition that essentially say, "well, who among us hasn't had an irrational thought?"

Deep questions of extreme religious doctrine, prep-rational (i.e. Pre Enlightenment) society, repression of women, isolation, mob hysteria, individuality, human rights, and more go totally unexamined, or at least absent from the first 100 pages, at which point I put the book away.

Any intelligent and thoughtful society should demand a better work. This is more antiquarianism than history, bubble gum for the eyeballs, a waste of the reader's time.

Ugh. ( )
  pgiltner | Oct 30, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
 
 
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. Schiff’s explanations for the events are convincing. She identifies the symptoms of the supposedly bewitched with those neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot listed in his studies of hysteria (twitching, stammering and grimacing) and she suggests that in a repressed, puritanical society, people found this an easy outlet both for boredom and for an uneasy conscience. There were also questions of power at stake: land disputes; sexual and professional rivalries. “Vengeance is walking Salem,” cries Miller’s John Proctor; “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stacy Schiffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Foss, ElizaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Wendy Belzberg
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I
The Diseases of Astonishment
We will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.
—Anton Chekhov

In 1692 The Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September, a stark, stunned silence followed. What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice. Innocents indeed appeared to have hanged. But guilty parties had escaped. There was no vow never to forget; consigning nine months to obliviion seemed a more appropriate response. It worked, for a generation. We have been conjuring with Salem—our national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past—ever since. It crackles, flickers, and jolts its way through American history and literature.
Quotations
"A witch is one who can do or seems to do strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits." - Joseph Glanvill
"Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers."
In the anxious murk, religion sometimes seemed a kind of halfway house between reason and superstition.
I observe the law to be very much like a lottery - great charge, little benefit.
Oh! You are liars, and God will stop the mouth of liars...I will speak the truth as long as I live. - Dorcas Hoar
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Book description
A look at the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which a wave of mass hysteria and religious fervor resulted in more than 100 people being accused of being witches, and nearly a dozen being executed as such.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316200603, Hardcover)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, THE WITCHES is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 08 Jul 2015 18:27:33 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra analyzes the Salem Witch Trials to offer key insights into the role of women in its events while explaining how its tragedies became possible.

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