The story of the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 has traveled with scarcely a pause across more than three centuries. Every schoolchild knows the headlines, and many of us who are older have seen Arthur Miller’s remarkable play The Crucible. Books on the subject would fill a sizable shelf. The town of Salem has thrived on this notorious piece of its history; to visit there today is to see witchcraft marketed shamelessly. The shadow of the accused “witches” still looms large; without it our annual observance of Halloween would be quite different.
Marketing and Halloween aside, the witch-hunt was a galvanizing event, hugely meaningful for all those involved, and tragic and traumatic in result. This is the burden of two new books, Benjamin C. Ray’s Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 and Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692.* Ray, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, measurably deepens our knowledge of the underlying dynamics, especially the parts played by important participants. Schiff, a writer of much previous accomplishment (the best-selling Cleopatra, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Véra), gives the most complete narrative account we are likely to have.
Sometime in the midwinter of 1691–1692 two Salem girls, Betty Parris, the nine-year-old daughter of the town minister, and Abigail Williams, her eleven-year-old cousin, began acting in “odd and…unusual” ways, “getting into holes, and creeping under chairs and stools,…[and] uttering foolish, ridiculous speeches, which neither they themselves nor any others could make sense of.” Their “antic gestures” were noticed by other local girls, several of whom would soon start behaving in similar ways. As the days passed, this little group started having full-blown, convulsive “fits,” in which, according to an eyewitness, “sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented.”
A physician, called to assess their condition, ruled out the possibility of “natural disease,” instead finding them to be “under an evil hand.” This meant bewitchment, a not unfamiliar diagnosis in New England towns of that era. The minister (and father of little Betty), Samuel Parris, offered the culturally approved response—fasting and prayer to Almighty God. But when a neighbor proposed something else, a folk remedy involving a “witch-cake” baked with urine taken from “the afflicted persons” and fed to the family dog, events took a different turn. Betty and Abigail “cried out of [i.e., against] the Indian woman” for afflicting them. The “Indian woman” was a household slave named Tituba; raised in the Caribbean, she had come to Massachusetts with the Parris family several years before. Within days the girls named two more village women as their “tormentors.”
Local magistrates, led by Judge John Hathorne (ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would write about the witch-hunt a century and a half later), began a formal “examination” of all three suspects. The opening questions set a pattern, virtually assuming guilt. “What evil spirit have you familiarity with?” they inquired. “Why do you hurt these children?” The second and third of the accused women responded with firm denials. But Tituba was coaxed and threatened (and possibly beaten by her master) into an astonishing set of confessions. She admitted to baking the witch-cake, being familiar with witchcraft “in her own country,” and having repeated contacts with the Devil and his confederates. She mentioned a yellow bird, a red cat, a “great black dog,” and a “thing all over hairy…that goeth like a man.” She confessed that she and other witches, including the two already identified, had indeed attacked the girls in the Parris household. Moreover, she and the others had attended large witch meetings, where participants consumed “red blood and red drink” (the Devil’s parody of the Christian sacrament).
These details had the effect of raising the stakes from everyday maleficia (particular harms inflicted on individuals) to satanic conspiracy against the entire Salem church and community. The numbers of the afflicted girls grew to seven or eight, and people throughout the village began to complain of strange encounters with witch-like apparitions. From now on, Salem would feel itself to be under siege.
As spring approached, new names were added to the list of the accused, including church members and other pillars of the community. Meanwhile the web of suspicion began to push out across the borders of Salem; eventually at least a dozen neighboring towns would disgorge their own “witches” into the rapidly spiraling mix. Jails filled with those accused and examined.
In Boston, the colony’s capital, topmost officials reacted with mounting alarm; in mid-April they decided to intervene. Henceforth the prosecutorial role would be assumed by members of the ruling council, led by the lieutenant governor. As investigation continued, the torments of the afflicted girls became more intense—raving, thrashing about, collapsing on the floor, especially when one or another of the accused looked in their direction. On most days, they performed before “a very great assembly” of onlookers.
This led to another shocking confession, by a wayward teenager named Abigail Hobbs, and then to “the apparition of a minister” seen (as usual) only by the afflicted girls but soon identified as Reverend George Burroughs, a former pastor at Salem whose tenure had been cut short by bitter factional dispute. Hobbs’s testimony included extraordinary details of Satan’s “awful plot.” And Burroughs was quickly cast as “ringleader” of the local witches. At one meeting after another, he had “pressed them to bewitch all in the Village…assuring them they should prevail.” All this came out in a spectacular series of examinations, embracing as many as eight new suspects in a single day. Within another month or so the total of the accused had surpassed fifty.
At this critical juncture Massachusetts received new leadership in the person of Governor William Phips, a royal appointee fresh off the boat from England. It was his job, together with the council, to create a special court for resolving the crisis. In early June the so-called Commission of Oyer and Terminer, headed by a famously stern and uncompromising jurist named William Stoughton, was ready to begin work; now the process would move from accusation and examination into full-fledged trials.
The first of these focused on one Bridget Bishop, a Salem woman of notorious repute, against whom the evidence seemed especially broad and damning. The afflicted girls produced more fits; confessors described Bishop’s involvement in blasphemous witch meetings; and ordinary villagers came forward with accounts of her suspicious behavior dating back decades. In short order, the jury brought in its verdict—guilty as charged—and the judges pronounced a sentence of death. (Witchcraft was a capital crime.) A week later Bishop was hanged.
What followed was a nearly month-long pause, during which ministers and others in positions of authority expressed at least tentative reservations about the proceedings so far. But near the end of June the commission decided to go forward anyway. Trials resumed; five women were convicted, four more were indicted, and examinations began for several who stood newly accused. In mid-July there were several more executions. At the start of August the commission held its third session and produced additional convictions, including that of Reverend Burroughs. This group, too, went quickly to the gallows.
In late summer the witch-hunt made its most far-reaching impact, on the nearby town of Andover. When the wife of a constable there fell ill from mysterious causes, two girls from the core group in Salem were invited to come and “tell what it was that did afflict her.” Their visit directed suspicion toward a trio of local women who, under harsh questioning, confessed to witchcraft and implicated many others. Once begun, confessions multiplied astoundingly; soon there would be at least forty.
September brought one more round of trials and convictions, and then the largest of the mass hangings. This raised the year’s total of those executed to twenty; meanwhile, many others languished in jail, apparently awaiting the same fate.
Around this time, however, doubt about the entire affair came fully into the open. The core of many prosecutions had been sightings of activity by the “spectral” shape of one or another suspect. Now leading ministers reconsidered their previous support for the use of such evidence. The venerable Increase Mather of Boston objected that the Devil might impersonate innocent parties, and thus delude their accusers. This put him at odds with his more celebrated son Cotton, whose widely read book The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) offered an impassioned defense of the trials, including their reliance on “specters.” As controversy mounted, Governor Phips suspended operations of the Oyer and Terminer court.
When the new year began, another court—also headed by William Stoughton—resumed trials, with a large backlog of cases carried over from the previous autumn. Most of these were quickly dismissed, and Governor Phips reprieved the rest. It took another several months for the jails to be emptied, but by midsummer the witch-hunt was over.
There would be a long, and anguished, aftermath. Step by step, Salem and its neighbors struggled to understand what had happened: the judicial killings, the responsibilities abused or evaded, the injuries to body and soul, the pain of it all. Individuals wrongly accused sought moral and financial redress. Judges, jurymen, and at least one of the afflicted girls made public apologies. (However, others in and around Salem held firm to their original position, insisting that Satan had indeed found willing followers in their midst.) Eventually the colony’s General Court passed a bill of attainder, nullifying most of the convictions, and—as late as the 1730s—offered reparations to some of “the families as were in a manner ruined in the mistaken mismanagement of the terrible affair called witchcraft.”
All this, and much, much more, is carefully laid out in Schiff’s The Witches. Her research is impeccable; no previous writer has scoured the documentary record to such great depth. Moreover, she has mastered the entire history of early New England—from long before to well after the year of the witch-hunt. At relevant points she reaches across the Atlantic to include European witchcraft as well. This enables her to provide deep, richly textured background for specific moments and situations. Indeed, readers may experience her narrative as a virtual tour of the time and place.
Her recreation of courtroom scenes is especially convincing; one feels, almost palpably, their pulsating mix of words, actions, and—above all—emotion. The fits of the afflicted girls, the sharp tone of the prosecutors, the excitement of the numerous bystanders, the look of the spaces involved, the weather and the landscape outdoors, the tension in the very air breathed by one and all: Schiff misses no opportunity.
She offers, too, some vivid biographical sketchwork. The leading participants in the hunt—accusers and accused, magistrates and victims, ministers such as Parris, the Mathers, the unfortunate “ringleader” Burroughs, government officials like Phips—come to life in deftly told personal stories.
Schiff’s skills as a writer extend to such formal matters as structure, pacing, and point of view. The various parts of the narrative unfold in apparently seamless succession. At some points they speed up, at others slow down; however, a reader feels no bumps or jarring turns along the way. She moves in for close-ups and draws back for overviews. Now and again she inhabits her characters, yet she maintains throughout the authority of an omniscient narrator who is firmly in charge.
With so much to appreciate in Schiff’s work, it seems surprising to find any fault. But there is one, and it’s not unimportant. Her preferred tone is irony, a kind of tongue-in-cheek playfulness in which bits of behavior or speech are oddly juxtaposed. When witches changed themselves into animal forms, they showed “a particular fondness for yellow birds.” As compared with New England witches, those in Europe “had more fun. They walked on their hands…. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest.” In beleaguered Andover “a swarm of superstitions nested under the plain Puritan floorboards.” Cotton Mather sometimes wrote about himself “in the third person, a different brand of transparent, out-of-body experience.” A county sheriff “wore himself out dismantling the households of the accused.”
Examples of such stylistic practice abound in Schiff’s pages. Often enough, they are pleasingly clever, things to chuckle over. But here and there they shade toward parody, even mockery. And in this, they jibe with certain longer passages as well. A paragraph on New England medical practice offers a dizzying list of such “excellent” remedies as
beetle’s blood, fox lung…dried dolphin heart…the fat of a roasted hedgehog dripped into the ear…sixty drops of lavender and a mouthful of gingerbread…a wolf-skin girdle…burnt black-cow dung or frog-liver powder administered five times daily…a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear.
By the end it feels like piling on.
Schiff also attempts broad characterizations of “the Puritan”—presumably a type—as “wary and watchful,” “intensely alert, preternaturally attentive, neurotically vigilant about the state of his soul,” gripped by “an obsession with causality,” and so on. At such points her portrayal amounts to caricature—indeed the same one that has long clung to the figure of (again) “the Puritan.”
Schiff’s book is long on narrative, and somewhat short on explanation. To be sure, she does point to the “feverish circumstances” surrounding life for “the adolescent” (in this case the afflicted girls), the possible impact of “conversion disorder,” the way “the adults transfigured…adolescent distress,” and a pattern of feuding among various and sundry Salemites before the witch-hunts started. But it is with Benjamin Ray’s Satan and Salem that explanation comes fully to the fore. Ray joins a host of previous investigators bent on discovering whys and wherefores. What were the leading causes of the witch-hunt? Why did it go to such extremes? Who was ultimately responsible?
People of the time, when reconsidering the trials, usually cited the “mysterious providence” of God; in effect, they blamed themselves for His allowing Satan to come down on them with such terrible force. In their minds, the witch-hunt was nothing less, or more, than divine retribution for their own sins and shortcomings.
After the eighteenth century, when such heavily supernatural thinking waned, witchcraft historians proposed a range of more earthbound causes. Possibly there was outright deception and fraud by the afflicted girls, colonial “bobbysoxers” on the loose. Or perhaps it was class-based oppression, with the clergy and other authorities using accusations of witchery to hold the “common people” in thrall. What about mental illness—the power of mass hysteria—starting with teenagers but then overwhelming entire communities? These were among the favored theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Within the past fifty years, witch-hunt explanations have proliferated astonishingly. One of them—ergot poisoning, caused by the ingestion of bad rye harvested from Salem farm fields—made it into the magazine Science, and then onto the front page of The New York Times. (It was later debunked by professional pharmacologists.) Another offered a medical diagnosis: encephalitis in “pandemic” proportions. A third involved stress created by shifting cultural attitudes—from pious “Puritan” to “practical, self-reliant Yankee.” A fourth found patriarchal power at the root of the witch-hunt, since many of the accused appear to have been women of atypically independent means. (As such, they would have to be put down.) A fifth stepped backward in time to credit the accusations at roughly face value, thus asserting the presence of “actual” witches. (Yes, they were guilty as charged.) A sixth, at the center of Miller’s play, pointed to political repression, with an implied connection to McCarthyism.
None of these seems more than marginally persuasive in explaining the witch-hunt. But two additional studies have left a lasting impression. In Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974)—now considered a classic of interpretive social history—Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum uncovered a long-standing fissure inside the Salem community that closely aligned with opposing sides in the trials. The accused came largely from the families of well-off, market-minded, centrally positioned farmers and merchants, their accusers from poorer, tradition-bound folk living in the town’s interior. The trials, then, can be seen as a backlash phenomenon, a struggle to ward off deep-rooted social change—nothing less, in fact, than the onset of modern capitalism and the values it advanced.
A second book, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002), by Mary Beth Norton, traced a very different line of influence. Norton discovered that many of the trial participants—afflicted victims, alleged witches, and prosecutors alike—had previously lived on what was then a settlement frontier in coastal Maine. That region had long been prone to warfare with Indians, some of it horrific, all of it deeply unsettling. The result was a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that refugees brought with them when they moved down to Salem. “Indian devils” and witch devils converged, and amplified each other, in the panicked psyches of some who pursued the witch-hunt.
Benjamin Ray begins his investigation by disavowing the views offered in much previous explanatory work; not for him such “global” theories as ergotism, mass hysteria, culture clash, and capitalism. Instead, he views the witch-hunt as “a multivalent societal tragedy” involving “a perfect storm of factors.” He focuses more on “how the witch trials unfolded and less on the question of why, which…often results in a simplistic verdict of a single cause.” This points him toward “particular decisions and motives of individuals and groups…as well as a number of particular circumstances.” “Particular” is, for certain, his watchword.
His book is unshapely in form, his prose graceless (in great contrast to Schiff’s), but his nose-to-the-ground method does yield results. He is especially effective at showing links between the different categories of participants. He stresses the importance of “collaborative effort” in moving things along, and concludes that “the local legal and religious establishment…was fully behind the prosecutions.” He believes that “their families and the authorities…stage-managed the girls’ actions at every step of the way.” Indeed, he pays especially close attention to the details of their bewitchment. He asks how much of all they said and did was “deliberately contrived.” Most previous historians of the witch-hunt have given the girls the benefit of any doubt, persuaded by the extreme nature of their distress. Ray takes a more nuanced position. Often, he thinks they were responding to cues embedded in the magistrates’ questions. In at least one case, their behavior looks quite calculated (“hardly hysterical”). Yet at other points he sees them as driven by the “trauma” of their own participation.
Not surprisingly for a professor of religious studies, Ray gives full credit—or blame—to the force of Puritan belief. Fear of Satan, and fear of God too, lay at the heart of New England culture. Ray sees Reverend Parris as “a dedicated agent for the prosecution” whose “foreboding sermons had created the perfect climate” for witch-hunting. “We are either Saints, or Devils,” Parris affirmed—a binary distinction that could only sharpen antagonisms. Further in the background, but still of much importance, loomed religious controversy. Parris strongly opposed the so-called Halfway Covenant, a liberalizing tendency that had already overtaken many Puritan churches and was approved by some of his own congregation.
In a particularly telling chapter Ray examines the role of confession. Previous witch trials had made this the primary ground for findings of guilt—and thus for execution. But Salem reversed the pattern; there the lives of those who confessed were spared. The judges held them in jail, hoping to obtain their additional testimony for use in subsequent trials. Moreover, confession appeared to drain the witch’s power to afflict; her supposed victims were suddenly calmed. In time, the accused drew the obvious conclusion: confess, in order to save oneself. Thus most confessions were at once voluntary and coerced. Eventually, their specious nature was recognized; this was another part of ending the witch-hunt.
Ray’s list of essential “factors” goes on and on. Near the end, he uses digital mapping of “geospatial conditions,” to show the plague-like way that accusations spread. This highlights the “interaction…between four basic social networks,” including two different subgroups within Salem, the ministers, government officials, and the townspeople of Andover. From first to last, connection remains Ray’s key to understanding the witch-hunt.
Ray’s choice to concentrate on “how” is a sound one. But the “why” won’t go away. Why did the witch-hunt happen in Salem? Many other New England communities were struggling with a very similar range of tensions and conflicts, their own versions of “a perfect storm.” And why in 1692? Witchcraft cases had occurred previously here and there across the region, but none of such breadth and depth, and hardly any after the 1660s. There was something special about this witch-hunt, something not quite revealed by asking “how.”
And why do we still care, after all these years? Let the two authors have a final say. Here is Ray, on the legacy of the accused:
Salem’s victims, who faced death rather than confess to a lie, have left an indelible mark on American moral consciousness…. It is this pathos and humanity…that has carried the story down through three centuries as one of the most vivid moral narratives in…America’s historical imagination.
Here is Schiff at her most eloquent, on connections to the present:
We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion.
Courage and weakness; honor and shame; love and hate; life and death: examples that are telling to us all.
I am included in Schiff’s acknowledgments. ↩