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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.