Schiff has read more Cotton Mather treatises than any
modern soul should have to endure. The shocker is, she
did so eagerly.
know you’re a goner," said the prizewinning
nonfiction author, "when your idea of a great book
is a Puritan sermon."
spent much of the past several years immersed in
colonial New England life during its most infamous
period for her latest book, "The Witches: Salem,
wide-ranging subjects — including a No. 1 bestseller
on Cleopatra, a biography of "The Little
Prince" author/adventurer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
and a Pulitzer winner about Vladimir Nabokov’s wife
and muse, Véra — tend to enthrall her to the point of
new book was "a deep dive into a dark, cold
place," she said. "To figure out how these
people thought, I had to live there with them. I was
afraid I’d slip back into the 21st century."
New England was ripe for conjured-up scandal in the late
1600s, and the witchery phenomenon had it all: mean-girl
power plays, pompous authorities including Mather,
religion-stoked fear and shame, scheming opportunism,
petty small-town vendettas.
a daughter, mother and grandmother all testifying
against one another, and teen divas shrieking about
being stuck with imaginary pins, the scene was like a
prototype of "The Real Housewives."
Arthur Miller’s play "The Crucible" to
scholarly analyses to trashy horror films, plenty has
been written about the 19 women and men convicted and
put to death for the imagined crime of being witches.
But with her usual meticulous research, Schiff has
crafted a narrative about dozens of fascinating
characters (helpfully summarized at the beginning of the
book) to get at the roots of how something so senseless
and primitive could happen.
does an author find new facts on a topic that has been
plumbed thoroughly, and that descendants may be too
ashamed of (or irritated by) to discuss?
found unexpected aid in the equivalent of today’s
small-town police reports — the court records of Essex
County, Mass., circa the 1690s.
were remarkably similar to what you find today,"
she said. "Someone’s cow got out of the pasture
and onto the road. So-and-so was jailed for drunkenness
or beating his wife.
has something on everybody. People got righteous and
felt deeply transgressed upon by minor irritants like
smelling a neighbor’s cooking, and they wanted there
to be consequences. Living in such close quarters, it’s
easy to create a froth, and exercise grudges."
trumped-up witch epidemic was primarily fueled by
scheming teen girls who were playing "a giant game
of telephone," she said, exaggerating testimony for
the thrill of it and basking in the spotlight.
is a sentient madness about the teenage brain that fails
to distinguish between the natural and the
supernatural," Schiff said. "They weren’t
the only ones accused, but the people who think they’re
bewitched, the main finger-pointers, are a core group of
adolescents. In their shrieking, screaming, claims of
pins emerging from their flesh and speaking with the
devil, they gained attention and power they never would
have any other way at that time.
was so liberating for these girls to be able to say
anything they wanted. Reason and proper behavior have
gone on holiday."
the grown women, fomenting witch stories was also a
creative, if overly dramatic, method for alleviating
interviewed colonial re-enactors who all said February
was the worst month for the settlers, "utterly
confined to their kitchens, jumping out of their
in such close quarters, everything was more
what of the scholars who bought into the witchcraft
scenario every bit as much as the unschooled villagers?
Clergymen such as Cotton Mather, the formidable Puritan
minister who was one of the period’s most influential
thought leaders, justified such medieval beliefs through
a combination of religious faith and pseudoscientific
reasoning. Gender politics, specifically man’s fear of
woman as "other," also had significant
women’s claims of finding male intruders in their beds
were fairly common at the time, the witch trials were an
opportunity for men to turn the tables.
testified that women transformed into cats or other
beasts, assaulting them in their rooms," Schiff
OUTRAGE TO SHAME
of those found guilty were hanged; one man was
"pressed to death" by stones. Contrary to
popular belief, none of the accused was burned at the
stake. Such untruths endured because the trials quickly
became a source of embarrassment to the community. When
playwright Miller was writing "The Crucible,"
he complained about the locals’ reluctance even to
admit that the trials ever happened.
whole thing veered into shame," Schiff said.
"We don’t even know where the executions took
place because no one wanted that recorded."
half of the "afflicted" girls eventually got
married and had children. Although it seemed to stop as
suddenly as it had begun, the hysteria that gave rise to
the trials had some long-term effects, including an
erosion of the church’s foundation. "Attempting
to prove one thing, the Puritan orthodoxy had proved
quite another," Schiff writes. "The very idea
of confession had been contaminated."
people considered that a negative or positive outcome,
clergy members were no longer viewed as absolute
authorities, and could not so easily abuse their power.
was weird and wacky, but ultimately led to a revolution,
opening the door to more religious tolerance, a kind of
mercy no one could have foreseen. It wound up actually
chastising the establishment. I hope it affects readers
the same way, acting as inspiration to stand up for what
motivations behind the accusations certainly live on, as
well, as a scan of the local headlines will tell you. A
few weeks ago, a suburban Minneapolis woman was arrested
for sending her neighbor an anonymous note suggesting
that her children, who had irritated the woman, would
Schiff writes, "Who doesn’t have a bone to pick
with a neighbor?"