The Witches by Stacy Schiff: A foul stain upon this country. This is a long expansive and, at times, overly detailed biography of a town in the grip of groupthink. It was challenging to pull back from the daily account to understand the scale and depth of the allegations, trials and daily tribulations.
This is not simply about the witch trials. It covers the growth of the town of Salem with its neighbours. The colonists have come from England and brought their myths about witches with them. Then there is Europe where there was trials of witches was probably most prevalent.
Stacy Schiff’s prose certainly brings the trials to life, translating it into a thriller. From the off she points her finger at the clumsiness of administration, but it reads more about how the people in the colony in a culture of fear accused each other and in so doing propagated the myth.
Schiff paints the story with a vivid present reality: “skimming groves of oak, mossy bogs, and a tangle of streams, Ann Foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole.” She captures the intent of the constabulary and courts to seek out witchcraft as if they knew it was already there: “again Hathorne began with the presumption of guilt…”
Schiff at times allows herself a little sardonic observation: “by this point interrogations and accounts of interrogations were so frequent in Salem village it is difficult to believe dinner appeared regularly on the table.”
Schiff identifies the centre of gravity in the village as undoubtedly involving the clergy – they feature prominently as accuser and accused, and “intimate” with the court. That power extended to how the wealthy were incarcerated: “. The jail keeps tended to be eminently bribable…”
Schiff pinpoints witchcraft as following matrilineal lines, as the reason for when illness hits, and once a reputation is gained it is hard to lose. Occasionally she provides the bizarre allegations of witchcraft such as transforming into animals, self emptying vessels, and dissolving fence posts.
Behind the witchcraft lay the devil, who “intended to topple the church and subvert the country.” Schiff argues that the questioning of witchcraft was treated as borderline heretical.
There are plenty of curiosities that defy common sense such as “ Martha Carrier’s ten year old son admitted he had been a witch for a week” with his own pole. And his sister, now eight years’ old had been a witch for two years. And her mother visited her in prison in the guise of a black cat.
At its height the court indicted nineteen witches in one week “on meagre evidence.” And 120 soiled underfed witch suspects in prison, of which nearly half had confessed. So the authorities had set “a free and voluntary confession” as the proof.
In the final quarter of the book “the tide turned” and “it did so abruptly.” Schiff talks about a tidal wave of reasons turning the tables. The practice of the courts, that the bulk of the charges had nothing to do with witchcraft, and testimonies extracted under force. The outcome was that many families had been torn apart. Notwithstanding that, the legislative assembly still declared that the devil plagued Massachusetts. And execution warrants were still hurriedly issued while they could be, whilst church-goers still feared the presence of witchcraft.
The story ends with some people holding onto their beliefs about witchcraft, the church torn apart, those that propagated the myth refusing to apologise, and the accusers and accused having to live next door to each other, in some instances in the same home.
Schiff concludes by saying “hysteria is contagious and attention addictive” She also points the finger at the Massachusetts elite as not so much out of their depth but as swimming in information – “poisoned.” Below the elite were those that executed the orders without question. A quote – after the time – “A foul stain upon this country” when the trials were meant to purify. A warning from the past for today’s cultural trends.
For all the fascinating insight and vivid story telling I still found the level of detail smothering, making the book as much an article of record as a thrilling stranger-than-fiction story.