Stacy Schiff attempts to set the record straight on the witch hysteria of 1692, something that has been defined for modern people by how it is depicted in movies, plays, and books. This is partially due to the efforts of those who lived through the crisis to erase the witch madness from the collective memory (for example, noted diarists of the period have blank spaces for the 9 months of the trials). Schiff relies on the official court transcripts for much of her narrative providing a relentless account of accusations, denials, questionable judicial practices, confessions, and further accusations. The repetition of the process would be tedious if it weren’t so terrifying. The psychological effects of the hysteria are laid clear in written accounts of the accused who actually came to believe that they may in fact be witches. Over the course of time the crisis spirals out of Salem Village to Andover and Boston and threatens to undermine the economy and government of New England.
Schiff does a great job of establishing the context of the witch trials, with the understanding of witchcraft and previous crises including a dramatically large one in Sweden in 1675. Other events of the time that had an effect on the New Englander’s psyche was the recent King Phillip’s War (and continuing scuffles with natives and French settlers on the frontiers) and the revolt against New England royal governor Edmund Andros in 1689. The adoption of a new charter for the province and the arrival of a new governor for Massachusetts are events happening concurrently with the witch trials. Closer to home, Schiff examines the relationships of the residents of Salem Village. It’s pretty clear that if you lived in Salem Village in 1692, you had some asshole neighbors, and the resentments informed the underlying tensions related to the witchcraft accusations. In the final chapters, Schiff also examines some theories behind why the witchcraft hysteria occurred, especially the psychology of the “afflicted” girls whose accusations were the tipping point. It’s an interesting and accessible history of a horrendous atrocity and miscarriage of justice in American history.
Recommended books: The Crucible by Arthur Miller