Stacy Schiff has read more Cotton Mather treatises than any modern soul should have to endure. The shocker is, she did so eagerly.
“You know you’re a goner,” said the prizewinning nonfiction author, “when your idea of a great book is a Puritan sermon.”
Schiff, who returns for her second appearance as a Talking Volumes guest Tuesday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, spent much of the past several years immersed in colonial New England life during its most infamous period for her latest book, “The Witches: Salem, 1692.”
Schiff’s wide-ranging subjects — including a No. 1 bestseller on Cleopatra, a biography of “The Little Prince” author/adventurer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a Pulitzer winner about Vladimir Nabokov’s wife and muse, Véra — tend to enthrall her to the point of obsession.
The new book was “a deep dive into a dark, cold place,” she said. “To figure out how these people thought, I had to live there with them. I was afraid I’d slip back into the 21st century.”
Repressed New England was ripe for conjured-up scandal in the late 1600s, and the witchery phenomenon had it all: mean-girl power plays, pompous authorities including Mather, religion-stoked fear and shame, scheming opportunism, petty small-town vendettas.
With a daughter, mother and grandmother all testifying against one another, and teen divas shrieking about being stuck with imaginary pins, the scene was like a prototype of “The Real Housewives.”
From Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” to scholarly analyses to trashy horror films, plenty has been written about the 19 women and men convicted and put to death for the imagined crime of being witches. But with her usual meticulous research, Schiff has crafted a narrative about dozens of fascinating characters (helpfully summarized at the beginning of the book) to get at the roots of how something so senseless and primitive could happen.
How does an author find new facts on a topic that has been plumbed thoroughly, and that descendants may be too ashamed of (or irritated by) to discuss?
Schiff found unexpected aid in the equivalent of today’s small-town police reports — the court records of Essex County, Mass., circa the 1690s.
“They were remarkably similar to what you find today,” she said. “Someone’s cow got out of the pasture and onto the road. So-and-so was jailed for drunkenness or beating his wife.
“Everyone has something on everybody. People got righteous and felt deeply transgressed upon by minor irritants like smelling a neighbor’s cooking, and they wanted there to be consequences. Living in such close quarters, it’s easy to create a froth, and exercise grudges.”
The trumped-up witch epidemic was primarily fueled by scheming teen girls who were playing “a giant game of telephone,” she said, exaggerating testimony for the thrill of it and basking in the spotlight.
“There is a sentient madness about the teenage brain that fails to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural,” Schiff said. “They weren’t the only ones accused, but the people who think they’re bewitched, the main finger-pointers, are a core group of adolescents. In their shrieking, screaming, claims of pins emerging from their flesh and speaking with the devil, they gained attention and power they never would have any other way at that time.
“It was so liberating for these girls to be able to say anything they wanted. Reason and proper behavior have gone on holiday.”
For the grown women, fomenting witch stories was also a creative, if overly dramatic, method for alleviating cabin fever.
Schiff interviewed colonial re-enactors who all said February was the worst month for the settlers, “utterly confined to their kitchens, jumping out of their skin.”
“Living in such close quarters, everything was more contagious.”
And what of the scholars who bought into the witchcraft scenario every bit as much as the unschooled villagers? Clergymen such as Cotton Mather, the formidable Puritan minister who was one of the period’s most influential thought leaders, justified such medieval beliefs through a combination of religious faith and pseudoscientific reasoning. Gender politics, specifically man’s fear of woman as “other,” also had significant influence.
While women’s claims of finding male intruders in their beds were fairly common at the time, the witch trials were an opportunity for men to turn the tables.
“They testified that women transformed into cats or other beasts, assaulting them in their rooms,” Schiff said.
From outrage to shame
Most of those found guilty were hanged; one man was “pressed to death” by stones. Contrary to popular belief, none of the accused was burned at the stake. Such untruths endured because the trials quickly became a source of embarrassment to the community. When playwright Miller was writing “The Crucible,” he complained about the locals’ reluctance even to admit that the trials ever happened.
“The whole thing veered into shame,” Schiff said. “We don’t even know where the executions took place because no one wanted that recorded.”
About half of the “afflicted” girls eventually got married and had children. Although it seemed to stop as suddenly as it had begun, the hysteria that gave rise to the trials had some long-term effects, including an erosion of the church’s foundation. “Attempting to prove one thing, the Puritan orthodoxy had proved quite another,” Schiff writes. “The very idea of confession had been contaminated.”
Whether people considered that a negative or positive outcome, clergy members were no longer viewed as absolute authorities, and could not so easily abuse their power.
“It was weird and wacky, but ultimately led to a revolution, opening the door to more religious tolerance, a kind of mercy no one could have foreseen. It wound up actually chastising the establishment. I hope it affects readers the same way, acting as inspiration to stand up for what is right.”
The motivations behind the accusations certainly live on, as well, as a scan of the local headlines will tell you. A few weeks ago, a suburban Minneapolis woman was arrested for sending her neighbor an anonymous note suggesting that her children, who had irritated the woman, would taste “delicious.”
As Schiff writes, “Who doesn’t have a bone to pick with a neighbor?”