The more you think about the Salem Witch Trials, the weirder and weirder they get.
Thanks to The Crucible’s place of pride in the American high school curriculum, we all know the basic outlines of the story. Several young girls—possibly under the influence of too many stories about hellfire, possibly tripping balls on ergot—sudden start flailing and thrashing. Several say they see things. Adult Puritans start pointing fingers and over the course of months, more than 200 people are accused of witchcraft. Nineteen people go to the gallows. Daniel Day-Lewis yells BECAUSE IT IS MY NAME, cut to credits, New England remains slightly sheepish generations later, and we’ve all learned a lot about why HUAC was bad.
But this brief gloss omits quite a bit, which Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff attempts to rectify in her timely new tome, The Witches: Salem, 1692. It’s a play-by-play chronicle of events spinning out of control, as well as an attempt to explain the wider context of the trials. This wasn’t simply a bunch of teenaged girls sending their most stereotypically witchy neighbors to the noose.
You quickly lose track of all the competing agendas—and all the people who fucking loathed each other. Individuals endlessly policed their own righteousness, as well as that of their neighbors. Families were crammed into small homes through dark, miserable New England winters. Mothers-in-law didn’t get along with daughters-in-law. Forget about siblings-in-law, much less young stepmothers and grown children. Various families fought over parcels of land. Salem Village kept running off ministers, maybe because they spent much of their time trying to get the local elders to pay their damn salary. The authorities of prosperous Salem Town (home of the trials) fought with the authorities of more hardscrabble, frontier Salem Village (home of the initial accusations). The colony was in something of a shambles, and many of the prominent men who’d play a part had only recently helped boot their royal governor. A new leader was just taking over as the trials got going, appointing the panel of magistrates who’d run the court.
And here all these people were supposed to be working in concert for God’s will, of course.
As the trials wore on, the accusations got much wilder than “I’m pretty sure that nasty woman killed my cow.” (A shift driven in part by the accused, who responded by confessing in vivid detail, turning the magistrates’ attention to others.) Suddenly, a terrifying story emerged. George Burroughs—an irascible former Salem minister who inexplicably kept surviving skirmishes with Native Americans in Maine, despite so many of those around him dying—was not simply a witch, but the ringleader of a circle of witches who met for a Satanic Sabbath, a diabolical sacrament, working tirelessly to undermine the Puritan project.
Schiff explains that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony saw themselves as a people under siege from enemies within and without—Catholics, lurking dissenters like Baptists and Quakers, the uncooperative Crown, Native American tribes who weren’t ceding territory without a fierce fight. And of course, who knew what enemies lurked underneath their own roofs, whether simply backsliders or active underminers? Events in Salem were urged onward by prominent men like minister Cotton Mather, who were obsessed with the idea of witches infiltrating their utopian experiment, sabotaging their attempt to build a community of the elect, a “city on a hill.”
I chatted with Schiff about this strange chapter of American history. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Why the Salem witch trials? There’s been a lot written about it, and people think they know about it. Why’d you decide to tackle this subject?
It’s ingrained in the American mythology, and yet what we know about it generally is either vague or misguided. It comes as a surprise to most people that we didn’t burn witches, that they were hanged; the victims are not all women, but five of them are men. That one of them should have been a minister comes as a great shock. The entire political scene is virtually unknown—how much these people were under siege by the Native Americans and how they’re really clinging to their existence by their fingertips. It’s a very strangely unfamiliar piece of American history. I think many of us think that the Pilgrims landed and then Paul Revere rode off, that the years in between somehow have been eclipsed.
And it’s really hard to pass up demonic talking cats and bewitched hay. We all have this obsession, I think, with magic, but it’s just such a crazy, off-the-rails wipeout of a moment. It was one of those things that gets under the skin and doesn’t really let you go. There’s an enchantment to it, for its very mystery.
We have this set of almost allegorical narratives about the trial, but we don’t know about as much about the facts. And the more I read about it, the more ontologically destabilizing it felt. This was a group of people who were absolutely sure they had the framework to evaluate what was happening. It’s amazing to watch people be that sure and be that wrong.
Well, you know, I meant what I said when I wrote [in the book] “a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.” We do still do that today. That was part of the interest for me too—as unfamiliar and as foreign as this feels, a lot of it also feels topical, whether it’s because of overstated national security threats or because we can’t seem to believe climate change or evolution. That deep apocalyptic strain in American thinking remains.
And then, also, who is more sure of him or herself—other than a fundamentalist—than an adolescent? So this whole idea that teenage girls should be running the show and that everybody is suffering from an almost adolescent delusion is fascinating.
So how do a bunch of teens end up sending several people—including a former Salem minister—to the gallows?
The point that I tried to make with the book was, everyone here has his reasons. Everyone has an agenda, whether it’s the girls or one of the ministers or the neighbors or the authorities. The problem is that every agenda is somewhat hidden. The stated reasons—obviously, since there was no witchcraft at work—are different from the real reasons.
The short answer to your question is that everyone’s agendas were aligned, and that a witchcraft trial served everyone’s purposes admirably. I mean, something is terrifying at least some of these girls. And some of these girls are clearly legitimately suffering from something horrific. But [the proceedings are] encouraged along the way by other people’s, by adults’ needs and desires and agendas.
The stereotype is that a bunch of teenage girls accuse a bunch of marginal women. And your book makes it clear it’s not that simple. And sometimes it’s maybe men attacking other men through proxies who are female. How much of it do you think is that, versus a set of agendas from the girls themselves?
Remember that after the first hearing, grown men start seeing things. Everyone here is so suggestible. So after Tituba first testifies, those two farmers suddenly start seeing unearthly creatures flying off into the twilight. Everyone is suddenly parading into court with his or her—what we would consider—ghost story. Who knows who actually named the initial names, whether it’s the girls or whether the names are suggested to them by the adults. But there are at least several cases along the way where someone is suffering and either a minister or someone at the girl’s bedside says, “Was it so and so? Was it so and so?”
So how much of this is coming organically from the girls and how much of this is coming to them from the adults in the community is very hard to say. But it’s clearly a collaborative process, as it is with the magistrates once they get into court. These questions are leading questions, and some of the testimony aligns so perfectly that you know that the imagery and the answers are either being worked up while people are in jail together or suggested to them simultaneously by the same authorities.
One of the great surprises and thrills of it is to see how the story mutates from a simple “several girls are bewitched/an evil witch cast a spell on a little girl” fairy tale moment—of which there have been any number in New England—to this demonic Sabbath and this conspiracy to undermine the state. That it should take on these extraordinary dimensions is pretty unusual.
Women and young women in particular are so often dismissed, and their complaints are dismissed. And this was a very rigid culture with a very limited set of roles for women. And yet the entire colony revolves around them for several months. Could you talk about that paradox and how that happens?
It’s such an outlier in that respect. How often do teenage girls get to run the show, right?
First of all, remember that this is a people who are obsessed with their children. And for all of the hardship and for all of the spiritual exactitude of early New England life, there’s an enormous primacy given to children, because they are the future, and this is an oppressed people, and so they’re paying particular attention to the next generation. There’s an obsession with education, with the children’s spiritual health. So they’re listening carefully to their children—possibly too carefully.
And they’re being fed these tales—one story, there’s a maid so terrified by that morning’s sermon that she actually knocks on her master’s door at midnight and says, “I can’t sleep because of the fire-breathing dragons.” You get a sense of terror that these girls had to live with. Or Betty Sewell, and her breakdown about “I’m a 15-year-old but I’m a reprobate and there’s no chance for my salvation.” You get a sense of the spiritual burden these kids were carrying.
I don’t think there’s any way to dismiss how terrified the parents would have been to be living in small households with screaming, writhing children. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. It would have been horrific. But there’s a greater agenda here, in terms of prosecuting them. There’s every reason to listen to them, because they already suspect that something is amiss, and because the idea that evil angels have descended upon them makes a certain amount of sense.
I’m amazed by things like the girl in the tavern telling a man, “There’s the person who’s flicking me,” and she’s directing him to swat at this figure with a pitchfork or this rapier later on. He can’t see a thing. It’s almost a fairytale moment, where she’s telling him what he sees, and he’s believing her. He can’t see it, but he privileges her vision over his own. And that happens time and again. The girls will say, “Look at so-and-so up in the rafters of the meeting house,” and everyone else just assumes his vision must be defective. The girls had become the real visionaries. There’s a wholesale exchange of responsibility, where suddenly the girls know more than they do. Or the justices turn to the girls to explain to them spectral evidence, because they don’t understand it entirely themselves. It’s really amazing! It just tells you how much everyone else is invested in believing this story. Because for other reasons, it suits their needs.
When they have this complete freakout in Salem about witches, what are they talking about? Who are they talking about?
We don’t realize that they have this not only religious belief in a witch, in what witchcraft is, but they have this clinical, scientific understanding of witchcraft. So a witch to them is usually—but not always—a woman who has some sort of unnatural powers who is in league with the devil. And the New England version of that was, in league with the devil to essentially corrupt your soul so that you too would become a confederate of the devil. She really isn’t after your body—the bodily afflictions are just because she’s trying to get you to give your soul up in the recruiting process.
But that part is lost when we say these people were accused of being witches. We think they were accused of being, you know, black-suited Margaret Hamiltons with pointy hats. What they’re accused of is, basically, diabolical confederacy.
The amount of ink that is spent on describing witchcraft, and propping up the idea of witchcraft, and fending off the skeptics over these years is extraordinary. And all of those pages are pages that Cotton Mather, for example, would have imbibed. So you have these immensely learned men with the biggest libraries in New England, who’ve read an enormous amount of literature that we would today consider to be fiction. But they took it at face value.
It was hugely important to me to make clear that they think they’re doing the right and the righteous thing, but also that they’re immensely educated men. And of course that’s one of the side effects of the trials, is that the experts are discredited.
When you talk about this confederacy of witches—they’re basically picturing some sort of Gunpowder Plot involving the devil. They have a very political understanding of how this plays out. And it’s not all women that are accused. What is the gender dynamic to this? Because it seems like it’s maybe not as straightforward as we conceive of it as being, or as the European witch trials maybe were.
Because the story comes up organically, there’s not one person who sets the agenda. But, as the narrative is shaped through the people who testified to the Burroughs Satanic Sabbath, it is interesting that you have this enormous cast of witches, but it is a man in charge. It’s Burroughs who’s administering all of this. And also it’s interesting that in painting the picture of that subversive meeting, women are made deacons. So they’ve put women in positions of authority, which is already an offense and a heresy, but of course everyone reports to a man, still. As many charges, as often as people are accused, no one ever puts a woman in charge of the whole operation. So certain gender things are reinforced here, as well.
Were there particular people you were especially drawn to?
Elizabeth Coulson—she’s the teenager whom they come for, and she sprints out of the house and she tries to run away. The guts of that young girl to have just tried to run from the authorities. And ultimately she fails to do so but, I just so admired her courage there.
Susannah Martin, who’s a very sarcastic woman who laughs at the girls in court—she’s in her 70s, she’s that Amesbury widow. They throw their gloves at her; she makes fun of them. She’s like Martha Corey. The people who are the most noble and the most defiant and the most straight-spined are all the ones who will hang. Which is one of the ironies of the story. The people who confess, or who give them what they want, will live. So the Susannah Martins, who are sharp-tongued and they’re just going to stand their ground even though they know it’s going to cost them, to me are among the most compelling.
Then there’s Thomas Brattle, who walks into this situation and says, “You all must be kidding.” The voice of reason. Which, I must admit, when I got that point of the book I just thought, thank goodness. Somebody you actually would want to quote. It was as if the 18th century had suddenly arrived.
Then there are the people you sort of perversely like, like Abigail Hobbs, that juvenile delinquent girl who’s so mean to her stepmother, of whom her parents despair, and who moves the story along, who basically is the first person who points the finger toward Burroughs, and who clearly is just getting back at everybody here. And about whom we know relatively little.
You talk about Abigail Hobbes and the conflict with her stepmother—it was striking how much of the conflict was driven by too many people in too small houses with uncertain relations. We’ve got refugee orphan girls, we’ve got multigenerational family units where dad has remarried and the grown kids don’t like the stepmother. It’s amazing how much seems like very old, very petty resentments.
Everyone has a grudge. Which I guess is true today, too. If I asked you who you find annoying or who you have a grudge against, you could probably come up with a name. Everyone has something on someone. And everyone has something they feel guilty about, and it doesn’t take that much probing for people to get to that. You see the stuff just toppling out in court, as soon as people start saying, “Can you name a name?”—everyone can.
Or, “Can you tell me something of which you might have been guilty?” They don’t know the difference between a guilty conscience and diabolical collusion. So suddenly “Oh I was drunk” or “Oh I had a little bout of adultery there,” that somehow manifests as “I must be a witch.” This inability to distinguish between the two makes confessing relatively easy.
Now we just put it on Real Housewives franchises.
Exactly! This is reality TV, is what it is. I told you it felt topical!
It literally reminded me of a Real Housewives of New Jersey plotline where two sisters-in-law were in this feud supposedly triggered by cookies. Somebody would have gone to the gallows over those cookies in Salem.
But you see how easily you can just clear that right up with a witchcraft accusation! Let’s just clear up the neighborhood. And it is interesting, because it does have that cathartic power. Unfortunately, it’s probably not the best way to handle it. But it is effective.
You talked about some of the ways we think we know about the trials, but we don’t know as much as we think. The trials have so often been used to tell other stories—for instance, in The Crucible. Are there particular ways we not just misunderstand but misinterpret the trials?
The biggest one is there were young girls who were obviously in danger and who were obviously threatened and frightened and had possibly been abused or hurt. And we’ve all focused on witches—women who are inherently dangerous and cast spells on people. It’s easier to think about women as being malefactors than women as being victims.
Today Salem (the town) has this almost campy tourist remembering of the trials, whereas Salem Village has renamed itself Danvers and doesn’t particularly want to talk about it. What do you make of the way it’s remembered locally?
The shame and the guilt afterwards are immense. It’s a smothering blanket of “let’s just not talk about this.” It will amuse you to know that Salem town finally embraces the history only after Bewitched films there in the 70s. And even until that point, it’s a very tentative.
The villagers, which is to say the Danvers residents—the trials don’t take place there. The accusations take place there. In a funny way, it’s a very different historical burden that they have to bear. The lives have been lost there or in Andover, in fact. Which would be another question—why do we never even notice that Andover, which is so severely affected, was involved in the trials? But Salem town tries very hard to figure out a way to address the history and it’s only after Bewitched--which sanitizes it—are they able even to venture back there. And then the whole commercialization takes off. The Danvers archivist even said in the 60s and 70s people in Danvers will not talk about it. They just say, “Why are you trying to unearth this history that we’d all prefer to leave forgotten?” It’s not unusual with historical events for it to take several generations. it’s a little more unusual for it to take several centuries before anyone can talk about it. That’s a little extreme.
So many people here are implicated, whether you accused or not. You were complicit in your very silence. And so it’s very hard afterwards to see that justice is applied because everybody is in some way involved. There can’t be the kind of expiation you would have by somehow prosecuting the malefactors. Everybody’s pretty much part of it. Which makes it a little more difficult to rinse the stain.
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