I have wanted to read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 for years, but must admit that I had been a little discouraged by all of the negative reviews. Regardless, my boyfriend purchased a copy for my birthday, and I dug in, choosing to read it over the Hallowe’en period of 2020. I read it from cover to cover over the space of a week, wanting to give myself enough time to absorb all of the information, and Schiff’s meticulous research.
Despite the wealth of two- and one-star reviews on the book’s Goodreads page, The Witches was received well by critics. The Times commented that it was an ‘oppressive, forensic, psychological thriller’ with writing ‘to die for’. Hilary Mantel deems the book ‘sharp-eyed, discriminating, crisp’, and Robert K. Massie praises it for its ‘meticulously researched, effectively constructed, and beautifully written work’. The Witches was also selected for several ‘books of the year’ lists after its publication in 2015.
The Witches begins with a colourful cast of characters, all of whom were players involved in the Salem Witchcraft Trials of the early 1690s. They began in 1692, ‘over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s niece began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before panic had infected the entire colony, nineteen men and women had been hanged, and a band of adolescent girls had brought Massachusetts to its knees…’. The murdered included fourteen women, five men, and two dogs, all of whom were found guilty of witchcraft, and all took place between June and September. The youngest accused was just five years old.
In her introduction, Schiff signposts the main details of the Trials, and looks at the way in which they have impacted upon – indeed, suffused – modern society in the United States. She writes: ‘We have been conjuring with Salem – America’s national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past… It crackles, flickers and jolts its way through American history and literature.’
Schiff calls the Salem Trials ‘our first true-crime story’, and states that they have ‘been attributed to generational, social, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable themes.’ She then goes on to discuss the difficulties of history, and the way in which just one contemporary account of the Trials exists; what is written about them was almost entirely composed afterwards, ‘pockmarked by seventeenth-century deletions and studded with nineteenth-century inventions.’
Schiff is interested throughout in the denouncements which were made, often under conditions of torture: ‘Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons-in-law their mothers-in-law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed.’ She writes wonderfully about the culture of fear that was created as a result of the denunciations.
An astonishing amount of elements could lead someone to be accused of witchcraft: someone doing ‘strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature’; the presence of toads; any mark upon the skin; stumbling over the Lord’s Prayer; using ‘charms or ointments’; and even making ‘uncommonly good cheese’…
In New England particularly, witchcraft had ‘troubled’ the state since its founding. There, witches were thought to have ‘drowned oxen, caused cattle to leap four feet from the ground, tossed skillets into the fire, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, sent pails crashing and kettles dancing. They launched apples, chairs, embers, candlesticks, dung through the air.’ Schiff includes an awful lot of historical context to explain the rise of supposed witchcraft in the region; for instance, the way in which the fifteenth-century ‘introduced the great contest between Christ and the devil.’
Different figures have been followed throughout, from the accusers to the accused. Those in positions of power, as is so often the case, fostered and spread the fear which was growing within communities, and went on to accept and encourage the ‘hunting’ down of witches. I really admired this focus on individuals, and upon particular cases.
I am so pleased that I have read The Witches. It is a thorough and far-reaching work of non-fiction, and I felt immediately absorbed within it. Schiff’s writing style felt fresh and original at times, and I feel as though it suited the wealth of material which she had to handle. Her prose is suitably beguiling for such themes, and is accessible to the general reader throughout. The Witches would make an excellent introduction to this topic, or prove a fascinating and involved read for those who already have knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials.