While settling New England in the 17th century, the Puritans brought an eccentric panoply of customs and beliefs, including an unshakable faith in the menace of Satan and his agents on Earth — witches, both female and male.
As Stacy Schiff meticulously chronicles in her sumptuous new work, “The Witches,” the Salem scare of 1692 began in the austere residence of the village minister but then rapidly engulfed the Massachusetts countryside.
In her retelling we hear a kind of colonial primal scream, a uniquely American blend of religion and paranoia, “a little story that becomes a big one, much more than our national campfire story, the gothic, genie-releasing crack-up on the way to the Constitution.”
Early in the year, the Rev. Samuel Parris’ young daughter and niece showed signs of supernatural affliction, moaning and thrashing about one moment, silent and still the next.
Soon other girls were complaining of similar symptoms and accusing fellow villagers of ghostly visitations, ceaseless torments. The colony elders — among them William Stoughton, chief magistrate and Schiff’s chief villain — convened hearings to figure out what the hell was going on.
When Parris’ slave, Tituba, offered a colorful account of yellow birds and rides on poles, the girls followed her lead: “From Tituba’s on down, the Salem testimony explodes with invigorating, over-the-rainbow intensity. … the girls appear starved for color, expressionist splashes of which light up their testimonies, nearly conjuring ruby slippers.”
By summer the Salem jail had filled with witches of both genders and all ages, from a toddler to a grandmother. The hysteria radiated outward, snaring other communities, such as Andover and Ipswich.
As Schiff moves into the trials and convictions, her narrative slows down, its language tightening beneath a surfeit of detail: Cotton Mather’s self-serving observations, Stoughton’s cruel reversal of Rebecca Nurse’s acquittal.
Ultimately 13 women and six men were hanged, with another hapless victim, Giles Corey, pressed to death under stones. They proclaimed their innocence to the end, while virtually all confessed witches were spared, including Tituba, who disappeared from the historical record shortly afterward.
Schiff regains her stride in the book’s conclusion, where she analyzes the trials’ aftermath, tickling a later witch-centric myth, “The Wizard of Oz” (both the L. Frank Baum and film versions): “Past the window flew warped versions of the girls’ fears … the detritus of dreams and nightmares, scraps of gossip and political darts, a veritable Chagall of cats in the doorway and neighbors in the orchard.”
A few girls atoned as adults but without disclosing their motivation.
Schiff nimbly connects Salem’s fatal mania to subsequent witch-hunts, such as McCarthyism and the rise of Movement conservatism, revealing how close we remain to the specters and demons that stalked the Bay Colony more than three centuries ago.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.