TERROR

What Really Happened to Salem’s Witches

The hysteria that was the foundation for the infamous persecution of witches in 1692 has contemporary echoes in how ‘witch hunts’ form today.

10.28.15 5:00 AM ET

Children were the first to show symptoms. They complained of being pinched and bitten during the night. They barked like dogs, crawled under stools and chairs, and flapped their arms in attempts to fly.

They talked nonsense and erupted in spasmodic fits, shuttering and shrieking at random and contorting their faces and limbs. Parental admonishment only made matters worse. 

Perhaps the most confounding thing about their behavior is that it was confounding at all. What young child doesn’t enjoy a game of make-believe, all the more so when their foolish antics drive adults to distraction?

But prolonged antics were less common among Puritan children in 17th century New England, particularly in the home of a Salem, Massachusetts, minister, where 9-year-old Betty Parris, the parson’s daughter, and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, carried on like this for months. 

Villagers prayed at their bedside. Evidently these preadolescent girls were not fooling around: They were bewitched. As word of their grave diagnosis spread through town, the girls identified their tormentors: Three local women who glided over Essex County’s treetops on a pole.

Such are the stories conveyed compellingly by Stacy Schiff in her new book The Witches: Salem, 1692, a novelistic retelling of the hysteria that gripped New England during the Salem witch trials.

Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author (most recently of Cleopatra: A Life) pieces together her account of the 300-year-old Salem saga from both scholarly and primary sources, including 17th-century diaries, letters, sermons, and court records from Essex County.

The first suspect appeared in court in late February, 1692.

Nothing gave Puritans more purpose than proving themselves to be God’s most faithful servants. Indeed, the average New England churchgoer heard some fifteen thousand hours of sermons in his lifetime. 

Prior to 1692, marauding Indians and a hostile climate had wreaked considerably more havoc on New England than witchcraft. But sorcery was as well-suited to the region—“a howling wilderness haunted by devilish Frenchmen and satanic Indians,” Schiff writes—as it was well-suited to Puritanism, “an immersive, insecure-making creed that anticipated conflict if not downright cataclysm, having nearly been persecuted into existence.” 

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Unlike Indian raids and intemperate weather, witchcraft was one of few things the Puritans were able to control in the visible world, simply by imprisoning and executing suspects. 

Indeed, they believed the devil’s work accounted for anything morally reprehensible on their part, in addition to frosts and famine. In Salem, witchcraft “tied up loose ends for the arbitrary, the eerie, and the unneighborly...it deflected divine judgment and dissolved personal responsibility…Amid glaring accountability, it broke up logical logjams.” 

Even enlightened scientists believed in witchcraft, John Locke and Isaac Newton among them.

Enlightenment trumped common sense for Salem’s eager-to-prosecute magistrates and ministers when the witchcraft epidemic swept Massachusetts. As Schiff puts it, theirs was a society in which “the most literate people happened to be the most literal...They were less out of their depths than they were swimming in information.” 

By late summer, the epidemic had spread to Andover, where 1 out of every 15 villagers claimed to be a witch and embellished luxuriantly. The witches were no longer torturing with pinches and pricks; they were drinking blood in satanic rituals. 

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By the end of the year, 20 people and two dogs were executed for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Fourteen women and five men were hanged. One suspect was tortured and crushed to death beneath heavy stones when he refused to confess to collusion with the devil.

More than 150 others across 25 neighboring villages and towns were accused and imprisoned—the youngest at 5 years old and the eldest nearly 80—during North America’s most notorious moral panic, one that historians would struggle to make sense of for the next three centuries. 

***

Puritans were meticulous record-keepers, but public records of the actual trials were rewritten to mitigate their injustices not long after they ended.

They are thought to have been lost forever in 1765, discarded in muddy streets by a mob which had pillaged the home of Massachusetts’s last royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson.

Schiff was left to work with villagers’ accounts of the trials, many likely second-hand, in addition to “preparatory papers—depositions, indictments, confessions, petitions—and two death warrants.” She also had access to full transcripts of some preliminary witchcraft hearings. 

Schiff weeds out popular myths and misconceptions of Salem to tell readers, in painstaking detail and while referencing a huge cast of characters, how the wretched events of 1692 unfolded. 

The result is a spellbinding work of nonfiction that reads like a thriller with Harry Potter-esque flourishes: monstrous wild hogs, people disguised as cats, cats disguised as toads, muttered incantations, and flying objects aimed at enemies.

In a footnote, Schiff even compares a New England authority’s belief that witchcraft was “managed in imagination yet may not be called imaginary” to Dumbledore reassuring his young pupil: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

Schiff’s prose conveys a humorous, dry sensibility decidedly unlike that of the Puritans. 

They were well-educated and god-fearing, yet “the thoughtful, devout, literate New Englander could, in the Salem courtroom, sound at times as if he were on a low-grade acid trip,” she writes. One woman with a particularly vivid imagination was “as utterly clear-minded and cogent as one can be in describing translucent cats.”

Schiff’s descriptions of the bewitched, however, are straight out of The Exorcist. The girls writhed in their beds, cross-eyed and peaked, as clergymen recited psalms beside them. Court hearings were frequently interrupted by their caterwauling and convulsions.

Witnessing these fits in a crowded courtroom was a terrifying ordeal for the Salem villagers, who worried they might catch the diabolical pestilence from one of the afflicted girls dribbling blood from her mouth. 

Having grown up in Massachusetts, Schiff was obsessed with the events of Salem as a teenager. Only after finishing Cleopatra did she return to her adolescent preoccupation, fascinated by yet another moment in history when women’s voices were at once potent and strangled. 

Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the bewitched girls who kicked off the first round of charges in Salem, are among the young women who may have been seeking attention when their agonies first manifested in the parsonage.

“Courtroom notoriety is hard to resist, but for a young girl to feel as though everyone is hanging on her every word would have been so powerful,” Schiff told The Daily Beast. 

That attention would have been all the more gratifying for an orphan or a refugee. (Most of the bewitched girls had lost their fathers, many of whom were gruesomely murdered during Indian attacks.) 

Historians have previously floated numerous theories to explain the Salem witch trials: residual trauma from Indian massacres; adolescent hysteria; women doing men’s work and usurping the traditional male-female dynamic; and many others.  

Schiff alights on these theories in her own retelling, but she doesn’t impose new explanations for Salem’s panic. Instead, she weaves together existing ones to help us better understand the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans and the satanic scourge that plagued them. 

One theory that Schiff devotes considerable attention to suggests the patriarchal Puritans were so threatened by women who exhibited power and authority in the visible world that they cursed them with evil powers in the spectral world. 

“Often the thing that makes us feel powerless is the thing that we fear,” Schiff said, noting that the Salem witches threatened not just men but mankind. Suspects who were noticeably pretty, recalcitrant, clever, or pious were determined by judges to be the most wicked witches. 

“This is a Cleopatra problem as well,” she added. “The woman who is too good or too smart or too attractive is often dangerous in some way.” 

Today, we still colloquially associate an excess of talent or virtue with the supernatural or otherworldly. We often refer to our female idols as “goddesses.” 

In a New York Times column praising Hillary Clinton’s performance in the first Democratic National Debate, Frank Bruni called the Democratic presidential frontrunner “a bit of a sorceress.” 

Needless to say, the sorceress has come a long way since Salem, when a suspect who confessed had a greater chance of surviving than the one who stridently maintained her innocence.

The harshest punishments were handed down to the prettiest and most stubborn suspects. 

Women commanded attention from all sides during the Salem trials: Men listened carefully, rapt, when they spoke, whether they were victims or oppressors.

Schiff links their critical role in the trials, where their testimony was required for (in)justice to be served, to their critical role in building and protecting the colony.

“As ever, society proved most elastic in a period of unrest,” she writes. Women were often assigned to traditionally male roles during these periods. They built ramparts across the Charles River to protect Boston from Indian invasion during King Philip’s War. They took up arms during the 1692 Indian attack on Wells, Maine. In 1690, half of Boston’s innkeepers were women. 

“Women tend to make strides in societies when the workforce is small and the labor is infinite,” Schiff said, referring to the relatively “small” workforce of colonists.

Some historians have argued that these strides alone provoked the Salem witch hunts.

Before and after the trials, New England women often emerged as daring heroines who escaped Indian captivity.

They were the opposite of damsels in distress, returning home with riveting stories about what they’d endured and overcome. Their survival tales “provided something of a template for witchcraft,” Schiff writes; the patriarchy subverted their derring-do by associating it with wickedness.

Pious Puritan colonists had as much reason to fear witchcraft as they did devastating Indian invasions. Both threatened their existence and were linked—in Puritan minds—to the devil’s maleficence.

Still, some thought Satan’s presence had its upsides during the years after the Puritans’ Massachusetts charter, “a near-sacred document,” had been revoked in 1684 by King Charles II, threatening the Puritans’ theocracy in New England.

The Crown did not approve of the colonists founding “a self-governing republic while no one was looking.” (Two years later the king would send over a royal governor to rule on their turf.) 

Cotton Mather, a colonial leader and illustrious Harvard-educated minister, believed the devil’s lingering to be proof that, despite all that afflicted them, the New England Puritans had been hand-picked by God to prosper in the new world. 

Ministers concurred that prayer was the only remedy against the devil, who—they reasoned among themselves—unwittingly united the community in church even as he threatened to tear it apart.

It is not entirely clear why the indictments stopped abruptly at the end of 1692, except perhaps due to fear that anyone might be next. The magistrates appeared as bloodthirsty as the witches who drank from the devil’s cup. 

When they did stop, the Puritan ministers (and some magistrates) involved in the trials repented for sending friends, family members, and clergymen to their death. Some villagers’ whose homes had been pillaged when they were arrested demanded compensation.

Magistrates drafted a bill promising that the Bay Colony would repent for mistakes made on all sides in the “late tragedy.” The word witchcraft was carefully omitted from the bill. 

By spring of 1693, one key magistrate in the trials referred to the events of Salem as “supposed witchcraft.” 

In the latter half of the 20th century and beginning of 21st, the events of Salem have often been referenced to make a political point.

In Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, they served as an allegory for McCarthyism.

These days, a quick Google search of the term “witch hunt” will yield a number of headlines from recent news events, from the Benghazi panel (“Benghazi is a Fox News farce: what the witch hunt reveals about the right’s most cherished lies”) to a rape investigation in Britain, described as a “baseless witch hunt.”

None of them have anything to do with hunting witches, of course, and some hardly suffice as metaphors. 

But Schiff insists the witch-hunting instinct is universal and cross-cultural, even if we’ve lost the concept of the witch. 

“A witch hunt may sound like an antiquated term, but all the elements are still there: lopping off the infected part of society and publicly expiating our sins in some communal way,” Schiff said, adding that mob justice and public shaming are more prevalent today thanks to anonymity on the Internet.

“If anything we’ve only gotten better at it because we now have this unbelievably exquisite tool with which to do it. You can embark on a crusade without necessarily having any truly relevant grounds on which to march.” 

Witches is a cautionary reminder that the atrocities of Salem will always be with us, ready to re-emerge amid a perfect storm of paranoia, panic, and collective sense of crusading righteousness. It was only 30 years ago that a destructive child sex abuse panic swept the country, eerily resembling the events of Salem; more than 80 convictions proved to be largely unfounded. 

The only difference between today and 1692 is that the click of a button can muster the pitchforks internationally—and in the blink of an eye.