The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem

Oof, what a psychological mess. The town (and village) of Salem were on a collision course with history in the late 17th century and the narrow-minded justices steered straight towards it. Schiff bravely reads through the extensive historical record kept of the 1692 trials and pumps life into them, giving air, blood, tears, and wails an outlet over 300 years later.

She makes a lot of great points along the way, showing how grim life was on the frontier, several of the bewitched girls had lost fathers to Indian attacks. The gloomy Puritan atmosphere choked all joy out of growing up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1690s, and a group of young girls took the region on a whirlwind of accusations leading to the jailing of hundreds and the death by hanging of at least 19.

“Hysteria is contagious and attention addictive; wanton self-abuse comes naturally to a teenager,” Schiff explains. The men in charge were complicit, Hathorne (great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne who added the ‘w’ to try to distance himself from his shameful ancestor) asked leading questions and handed partial answers to the defendants. The outcome of the trials was known before they began.

Witchcraft as envisioned in the late 17th century had been around for hundreds of years, the Pope charging the inquisitors in 1326 with getting rid of all devil worshipers. Not surprisingly, many outspoken women were caught up in this purge, much like Salem and every other outbreak of “witchcraft” in between and since. A book of classical authorities (Malleus Maleficarum)  states “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

Schiff notes how powerful the girls must have felt: “the bewitched girls exercised uncommon power, the small and the meek displacing the great and the powerful. History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort.” She also notes that the attention to the young women’s spiritual state intensified at the very age of the bewitched, “when children became simultaneously more capable of reason and less reasonable.”

She gives a hat tip to Anne Hutchinson’s treatment decades earlier, evicted from the colony for daring to speak about God. Ann Hibbins, Mary Dyer, and various other ancestors to the Salem women had claimed “starring roles as heretics and rebels. Women had troubled New England since its founding…. [she] had no political rights. She neither voted nor served on juries. Officially voiceless, she nonetheless found plenty of ways to make herself heard and demonstrated a vaulting need to speak her mind. In legal records she hectors, shrieks, quarrels, scolds, rants, rails, tattles, and spits.”