Behind the Madness of the Salem Witch Hunt
Stacy Schiff on the Darkest of American Stories
We will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.
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 oblivion 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.
No one burned at the stake. No midwives died. The voodoo arrived later, with a nineteenth-century historian; the half-black slave with Longfellow; the casting of spells in the forest with Arthur Miller. (A movie delivered the chicken blood and the boiling cauldron.) Erudition plays a greater role in the story than ignorance. It is however true that fifty-five people confessed to witchcraft. A minister was hanged. And while we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns before the crisis passed. Reports had it that more than seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts. So many stood accused that witnesses confused their witches. Even a careful chronicler afterward sent the wrong woman flying through the air on a singularly inauspicious flight.
The youngest of the witches was five, the eldest nearly eighty. A daughter accused her mother, who in turn accused her mother, who accused a neighbor and a minister. A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons‑in‑law their mothers‑in‑law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed. A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out. In Andover—the community most severely affected—one of every fifteen people was accused. The town’s senior minister discovered he was related to no fewer than twenty witches. Ghosts escaped their graves to flit in and out of the courtroom, unnerving more than did the witches themselves. Through the episode surge several questions that touch the third rail of our fears: Who was conspiring against you? Might you be a witch and not know it? Can an innocent person be guilty? Could anyone, wondered a group of men late in the summer, think himself safe?
How did the idealistic Bay Colony arrive—three generations after its founding—in such a dark place? Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.* You can blame atmospheric conditions, or simply the weather: Historically, witchcraft accusations tended to spike in late winter. Over the years various parties have played the villain, some more convincingly than others. The Salem villagers searched too to explain what sent a constable with an arrest warrant to which door. The pattern was only slightly more obvious to them than it is to us, involving as it did subterranean fairy circles of credits and debits, whispered resentments, long-incubated grudges, and half-forgotten aversions. Even at the time, it was clear to some that Salem was a story of one thing behind which was a story about something else altogether. Much of its subtext is lost to us, like the jokes in Shakespeare.
America’s tiny reign of terror, Salem represents one of the rare moments in our enlightened past when the candles are knocked out and everyone seems to be groping about in the dark, the place where all good stories begin. Easy to caricature—it is the only tragedy that has acquired its own annual, unrelated holiday—it is more difficult to comprehend. The irresistible locked-room mystery of the matter is what keeps us coming back to it. In three hundred years, we have not adequately penetrated nine months of Massachusetts history. If we knew more about Salem, we might attend to it less, a conundrum that touches on something of what propelled the witch panic in the first place. Things disturb us in the night. Sometimes they are our consciences. Sometimes they are our secrets. Sometimes they are our fears, translated from one idiom to another. Often what pinches and pricks, gnaws, claws, stabs, and suffocates, like a seventeenth-century witch, is the irritatingly unsolved puzzle in the next room.
The population of New England in 1692 would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, those families had sailed to North America to worship “with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were,” as a minister at the heart of the crisis put it. They believed the Reformation incomplete, the Church of England insufficiently pure. They intended in North America to complete the task. On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization—a “New English Israel,” as one clergyman termed it in 1689—from scratch. Nonconforming Protestants, they were double dissenters, twice in revolt. That did not make them popular people. They tended toward fissions and factions, strong opinions, righteous indignation. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence. Rigorous Calvinists, they had come a great distance to worship as they pleased; they were intolerant of those who did so differently. They were ardent, anxious, unbashful, incurably logical, not quite Americans, of as homogeneous a culture as has ever existed on this continent.
A visitor exaggerated when he reported that New Englanders could “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end on it,” but he was not far off. If there was a book in the house—as almost inevitably there was—it was the Bible. The early modern American thought, breathed, dreamed, disciplined, bartered, and hallucinated in biblical texts and imagery. Witchcraft judge Samuel Sewall would court an attractive widow with published sermons; she held him off with the Apostle Paul.* Railing that the people would rather starve him to death than pay his salary, the New Hampshire lieutenant governor cited Corinthians. His constituents countered with Luke. Saint John the Baptist might well turn up in a heated Cambridge land dispute. A prisoner cited Deuteronomy 19:19 in his own defense. And when a killer cat came flying in your window—to take hold of your throat and crush your chest as you lay defenseless in bed at night—you scared it away by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The creature thereupon leaped to the floor and flung itself out the window while you concluded that your irascible neighbor had paid a call, in feline form. A village away, a wheelwright came to the same conclusion when, just after sunset on a wet, windy evening, a black dog lunged at his throat. The ax in his hand proved useless; the name of the Lord alone spared him as he ran for his life.
The New World constituted a plagiarism of the old with a few crucial differences. Stretching from Martha’s Vineyard to Nova Scotia and incorporating parts of present-day Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine, the Bible commonwealth perched on the edge of a wilderness. From the start it tangled with another American staple: the devilish savage, the swarthy terrorist in the backyard. Even the colony’s less isolated outposts felt their fragility. A tempest blew the roof off one of the finest houses in Salem as its ten occupants slept. A church went flying with its congregation inside. The early American lived not only on a frontier but in many ways out of time. A foreign monarch could be dead one minute and alive the next, so unreliable was the news. The residents of Massachusetts Bay did not always know who sat on the throne to which they owed allegiance. In 1692 they did not know the terms of their government. They had endured without one for three years; finalized at the end of 1691, a new charter was only just sailing their way. For three months of the year they could not be certain what year they were living in. Because the pope approved the Gregorian calendar, New England rejected it, stubbornly continuing to date the start of the new year to March 25. (When witches assaulted their first victims in Salem village, it was 1691 in North America, 1692 in Europe.)
In isolated settlements, in dim, smoky, firelit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. Their fears and fancies differed little from ours, even if the early American witch had as much in common with our pointy-hatted crone as Somali pirates do with Captain Hook. Their dark, however, was a very different dark. The sky over New England was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location or that you might find yourself pursued after nightfall by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home, bloody and disoriented, on all fours. Indeed eyeglasses were rare in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. Hard cider was the drink of choice. Still, the thoughtful, devout, literate New Englander could, in the Salem courtroom, at times sound as if he were on a low-grade acid trip.
In all of New England, it would have been difficult to find more than a few souls to whom the supernatural was not eminently real, part and parcel of the culture, as was the devil himself. Most had a story to tell you, as many of us do today. We have all observed the occult in action, even if we do not quite subscribe to it. A year after the witchcraft crisis had passed, Cotton Mather, among the best-read men in America, visited Salem. He lost his sermon notes, which turned up a month later, scattered through the streets of a neighboring town. He concluded that diabolical agents had stolen them. One no more doubted the reality of sorcery than the literal truth of the Bible; to do so was to question the sun shining at noon. 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 arm?
For some of the things that plagued the seventeenth-century New Englander we have modern-day explanations. For others we do not. We have believed in any number of things—the tooth fairy, cold fusion, the benefits of smoking, the free lunch—that turn out not to exist. We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are. We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. We have all believed that someone had nothing better to do than spend his day plotting against us. The seventeenth-century world appeared full of inexplicables, not unlike the automated, mind-reading, algorithmically enhanced modern one.
Though we tend not to conclude that specters have stolen our notes, we live with—and continue to relish—perplexity every day. We love to hear that when the flash of lightning struck the man at prayer, it carried away the book of Revelation but left the rest of the Bible intact. Even those of us who do not occupy the Puritans’ high spiritual plane are susceptible to what Mather termed the “diseases of astonishment.” Our appetite for the miraculous endures; we continue to want there to be something just beyond our ken. We hope to locate the secret powers we didn’t know we had, like the ruby slippers Dorothy finds on her feet and that Glinda has to tell her how to work. Where women are concerned, it is preferable that those powers manifest only when crisis strikes; the best heroine is the accidental one. Before and after the trials, New England feasted on sensational tales of female daring, the prowess its women displayed under Indian assault. Those captivity narratives provided something of a template for witchcraft. Everyone has a captivity narrative; today we call it memoir. Sometimes too we turn out to be captives of our ideas. Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.
Rich in shape-shifting humans, fantastical flights, rash wishes, beleaguered servants, evil stepmothers, bewitched hay, and enchanted apples, the crisis in Salem resembles another seventeenth-century genre as well: the fairy tale. It took place in the wilderness, the address to which the hunter transports you when instructed to cut out your lungs and liver, where wolves follow you home. Salem touches on what is unreal but by no means untrue; at its heart are unfulfilled wishes and unexpressed anxieties, rippling sexual undercurrents and raw terror. It unspools in that fertile, dreamlike expanse between the uncanny and the absurd. There had been New England witch trials before, but none precipitated by a cohort of bewitched adolescent and preadolescent girls. Also like a fairy tale, Salem is a story in which women—strong-minded women and trembling, subservient women, upright matrons and wayward teenagers—play decisive roles. It includes a tacit salute to unsettling female power in the sheer number of women accused. A group of young, disenfranchised girls unleashed the crisis, displaying forces no one could contain and that disturb still today. Which may or may not have something to do with why we have turned a story of women in peril into one about perilous women.
Women play the villains in fairy tales—what are you saying when you place the very emblem of lowly domestic duty between your legs and ride off, defying the bounds of community and laws of gravity?—but those tales are as well the province of youth. Salem is bound up on every level with adolescence, that immoderate age when, vulnerable and invincible, we skip blithely along the border between the rational and the irrational, when interest surges both in the spiritual and the supernatural. The crisis began with two prepubescent girls and came quickly to involve a group of teenagers, understood to be enchanted by individuals most of them had never met. The girls hailed from a village clamoring for its autonomy and from a colony itself in the throes of a painful adolescence. For years the Crown had attempted to impose royal authorities on New England, the most recent of which the leading citizens of Massachusetts—including nearly all the future witchcraft judges—had overthrown. They had every reason to demand English protection against marauding Indians and designing Frenchmen. But while bemoaning their vulnerability—they were an “orphan plantation”—the settlers simultaneously resented oversight. They braced from the start for interference, vowing to reject it when it came and finding themselves humiliated when it did. The relationship with the mother country had devolved into a running quarrel; for some time the people who were meant to protect the colonists seemed rather as if they persecuted them. (By contrast, London found New Englanders to be of “peevish and touchy humor.”) The Massachusetts authorities suffered too from another anxiety that would play a role in 1692. Every time they looked back in admiration at the men who had founded their godly commonwealth, every time they lauded that greatest of generations, they grew just a little bit smaller themselves.
* Most accomplish only part of the job. As a proponent of the witchcraft theory conceded: “There are departments in twentieth-century American universities with as long and as vicious a history of factional hatreds as any to be found in Salem, and the parties to these hatreds accuse each other of all sorts of absurdities, but witchcraft is not one of them.”
* To prepare his seventeen-year-old for a suitor, Sewall read her the story of Adam and Eve. It proved less soothing than expected; she hid from her caller in the stable.
From THE WITCHES. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2015 by Stacy Schiff.