Weidenfeld & Nicolson [Hachette] NZ$38
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew
The Witches: Salem 1692, Stacy Schiff
The facts are simple but baffling. In January 1692, Abigail (11) and Betty (9), the niece and daughter of the Rev Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, began to behave strangely, moaning, shrieking, writhing and throwing themselves about. Were they bewitched? In February Sarah Good, aged, destitute and given to murmuring threats, was the first to be charged with witchcraft. More girls began writhing and moaning, naming more locals as the witches who afflicted them. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, the laws were Bible-based, so witchcraft was punishable by death.
By the end of 1692, 120 people had been imprisoned for witchcraft, many more had been accused and 27 people had been sentenced to death. Fourteen women and five men were hanged, found guilty of being the witches who had tormented the convulsing Salem girls.
Then, almost as swiftly as it had begun, the witch-hunting fervour died down, doubts spread and the surviving prisoners were freed. The survivors resumed their normal lives, if life in households where family members had accused each other of witchcraft can be called normal. Writers of letters and diaries found it safer not even to mention witchcraft. By the end of the year a sort of amnesia seemed to have wiped the terrible events from people’s memories.
Stacy Schiff has done a superb job of forming a single coherent narrative out of the complex and confusing events of 1692. “Salem comes down to us pock-marked by seventeenth century deletions and studded with nineteenth century inventions,” she warns. Her account makes it clear that in the hysterical atmosphere of 1692 it was safer to confess to being bewitched than to claim innocence. Those who were sceptical soon found themselves accused. The court worked on the assumption that the accused were guilty, with the judges even making a jury that voted “Not Guilty” go back and produce the correct verdict.
In their bleak frontier existence, where everyone believed in witches, witchcraft was a convenient explanation for stock losses, crop failures, accidents, illness, deafness and even a headache. A malignant force must be at work. For the godly church members, Schiff points out another incentive, “The devil’s appearance was nearly a badge of honour, further proof that the New Englanders were the chosen people.”
My confession is “false and untrue,” cried Margret Jacobs but the people she had accused were still condemned. One was her former minister, George Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, who preached the sermon of his life from the scaffold and recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, something it was said a witch could not do. An explanation was soon found. “The devil stood beside him dictating to him.” As Burrough’s body dangled, the Rev Cotton Mather, who had ridden from Boston to see the hanging, reminded the awed crowd that Burroughs had not actually been ordained.
The property of those convicted was confiscated by the county sheriff, who seized cattle, crops and furniture. A woman’s wedding ring was pulled from her finger, and the trousers from Burrough’s corpse. Undaunted, old Giles Corey found a way to limit the judicial theft of his property. He refused to confess to being a witch and was pressed to death under a stack of rocks. Even while he was being tortured, the church excommunicated him as a suicide.
Yet, it was Giles Corey who had warned, “We must not believe all that these distracted children say.” Always the Salem story comes back to the writhing, shrieking young women whose every accusation was believed and acted on by the judges. Even when fraud was spotted – one girl had hidden pins in her clothes, then accused a witch of sticking them into her – the accused woman was still hanged. After the terror had burned itself out, the girls admitted their confessions had been “wholly false.” As the accusations flew, it had become safer to fake confessions than to plead innocence.
When they were asked what the devil had promised them, the girls spoke of fine clothes and “ease from labour,” clearly reflecting the wishes of young girls facing a constrained life of never-ending toil. Schiff records a chilling admission from a girl who had made accusations. “She did it for ‘sport, they must have some sport.’” Schiff uses her wide-ranging research to enable us to understand what motivated the young girls of Salem who triggered this terrible witch-hunt with their antics. She also brings a huge cast of characters back to life and helps us glimpse why they behaved the way they did; the true task of the historian.
This is the best history book of 2015.
Note: Parts of this review originally appeared in a Fairfax newspaper on 12 Dec 2015.