“Vengeance is walking Salem, the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!”The Crucible, Arthur Miller
In 1692 in the small town of Salem Massachusetts, it was put into public record that 700 witches were at large, ranging in age from 5 to 80. Neighbours informed on other neighbours, servants on their masters, children on their parents and husbands on their wives and eventually 400 people were tried. At the end of this incomprehensible yet fascinating period in history 14 women, 5 men and 2 dogs were executed for witchcraft.
How did such mass hysteria take hold in the otherwise puritanical town of Salem and why were the far-fetched and often impossible claims taken seriously? Stacy Schiff sets out the background to the phenomena and details the events that led one town to become synonymous with the notion of witchcraft.
The Witches is a dense and detailed historical record, yet it often reads like a novel or thriller. Schiff presents the more fantastical claims made against people in the town as a matter-of-fact in order to present the moral confusion that had taken over the town at that time. This was a strictly religious place, where the only book read was the Bible and any kind of enjoyment or frivolity was frowned upon. In some ways Schiff suggests that the whole enterprise started as a kind of distracting piece of mischief between a bored group of young girls, but once taken seriously, it was too hard to extricate themselves from, leading to a domino effect of accusations, denials and confessions.
Some of these accusations make for difficult reading. It’s not hard to understand why a disgruntled servant might accuse their mistress of being a witch out of anger and jealousy, but Schiff recounts stories of children as young as six implicating themselves as witches, or worse, accusing their own mothers and then having to watch them put to death.
As with all types of witch-hunts, Schiff is careful to explain where motivations may have come from that led to a town turning on itself. The strict puritanical lifestyle is one reason for the initial claims, with the original girls who started the rumours suffering from a kind of mass hysteria which resulted in shaking, fits and violent outbursts. The mistrust of women, jealousies, grievances and power struggles would also have played a part, with people seeing an opportunity to take revenge on past slights, or get their hands on much needed land. As with all witch-hunts, the most obvious cause is the fear of being accused. If you point the finger elsewhere, it is unlikely to be pointed at you.
Faith aside, witchcraft served an eminently useful purpose. The aggravating, the confounding, the humiliating all dissolved in its cauldron. It made sense of the unfortunate and the eerie, the sick child and the rancid butter along with the killer cat. What else, shrugged one husband, could have caused the black and blue marks on his wife’s arms?
Schiff is particularly clear-eyed in her depiction of the lawyers and figures of power who should have put an end to these snowballing accusations before they could start. William Stoughton, chief justice of the court, was particularly at fault and seemingly determined to prosecute as many people as possible. The methods used by the courts were lax in the extreme and completely prejudiced against anyone who had been accused.
When the girls contradicted themselves, when they fumbled with an inconsistency, he turned a blind eye, discarding facts that failed to fit his extraordinary case…All signs indicate a prosecutor single-mindedly pursuing a pre-ordained end.
The Witches is also an interesting read as a companion and comparison to Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible. It’s fascinating to see how many of the characters from the play were drawn from history, including John Proctor, Abigail Williams, Giles Corey and Rebecca Nurse and both are convincing in their convictions about the dangers of false accusations.
Overall The Witches is a well-written slice of history that perfectly captures the atmosphere and tenor of that particular time and place. I read this for Witch Week 2021 hosted by Chris at Calmgrove and Lizzie Ross.
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