Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials Credit: collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum

The Salem witch trials took place over the course of nine months in 1692 in a small Massachusetts village. Twenty men and women (plus two dogs) were eventually executed, most by hanging. It’s a comparatively short episode in American history, and yet we remain transfixed. The trials, in the popular imagination, have spread to encompass the entire state of Massachusetts, where witches were burned en masse.

“Why can’t we ever get through the Salem phase?” Stacy Schiff asks. “What is it?”

Schiff herself is recovering from a major Salem phase: she just published The Witches: Salem, 1692, a detailed narrative history of the trials, after spending several years immersed in the culture of Salem. This included a lot of poring over Puritan sermons, which described, in excruciating and creepy detail, the end of the world and how sinners would be punished. 

“I felt very haunted by the imagery,” Schiff says. “Puritans were always looking for signs and portents. I became a superstitious person, like if I left my phone on one side of the bed, I would have a better writing day. Everything had meaning. I was anxious for the entire time I was working on [the book]. The insecurity and uncertainty were contagious.”

In The Witches, Schiff transports her readers back in time to colonial America and forces them to “return the humanity” to the historical figures involved. Massachusetts was still covered with forests. At night, the world was very, very dark. Even candles and lanterns left shadows; you could never be quite sure what you were seeing. (Schiff notes that one house was actually “haunted” by a teenage boy who liked to throw things around the room and out the window while his grandfather was deep in prayer.) The European settlers were terrified of attacks by Native Americans. This was not an idle fear: several Salem residents had survived massacres in other towns. There was also a sense of unease throughout the Massachusetts colony—in 1692, it received a new charter that drastically reduced civil liberties, much to the dismay of the colonists.

Salem itself was a small and tight-knit community with a culture of constant surveillance required to maintain a sense of communal purity—everyone was responsible for their neighbors’ salvation. Salemites were encouraged to spy on one another, to peep through windows and report what they’d seen. As in any small community where people know each other very well, there were lots of hidden grudges and resentments that could easily grow into accusations of witchcraft, given a little bit of encouragement. “The lovely thing about witchcraft,” Schiff says, “is that you can get back at anyone. There was always a reason.”

Sometimes there was a lack of food, and there was always a lack of potable water. Settlers subsisted largely on cider, which may have also been a catalyst for seeing things or letting tempers get out of hand. None of the afflicted girls left diaries, but Schiff speculates that the nightmarish sermons also had an effect on their states of mind, particularly since there was no other form of entertainment or pop culture in Salem. “When people started to imagine things,” she says, “they imagined in ways dictated by the ministers.”

These imaginings could be terrifying for children and teenagers.

“Samuel Sewell’s daughter was 15 and believed she had no shred of hope for her soul,” Schiff observes. “She thought she was a reprobate. The Godwin kids thought they hadn’t prayed hard enough for grace. The Parris girls lived in a house under siege. Their father [the town minister Samuel Parris] was mauled by parishioners. When a parent is attacked, it’s hard for a child to bear.”

Life in Salem was particularly difficult for young girls. “It was an extremely patriarchal society,” Schiff points out. Many of the girls could read, but they were never taught to write or even sign their names. Women had no voice in the community. Most of them spent their adult lives taking care of children and grandchildren, if they survived childbirth. “The girls had to watch their mothers having kids,” Schiff observes. “They were terrified.” Many of the afflicted girls had lost one or both parents—they had to deal with evil stepmothers, or they had no male protectors. Many orphaned women became servants in households where their masters felt free to beat them.

“It clearly mattered,” says Schiff. “It became a great way to attract attention and protection, for a girl to say, ‘Will you kill that ghost for me?’ I don’t think a girl who felt protected in that way would say that. ‘Save me from a witch’ is an outlandish ploy for attention.”

But with the witchcraft accusations, the young girls of Salem suddenly had power. “They were running the show,” Schiff explains. “They were unable to articulate what they were really trying to say. They weren’t bewitched. We don’t know what they were. But the authorities turned to them. They were visionaries. They could tell a man, ‘I see something off the path, would you please stab it with a pitchfork?’ “

Fanciful representation of the Salem witch trials, lithograph from 1892Credit: Joseph E. Baker

(Oddly enough, though, it was the ministers, not the girls, who came up with the weirdest stories. The girls talked about being pinched or pricked with pins or seeing specters on the rafters of their houses and twitched and screamed at the trials. But it was Cotton Mather who came up with the theory of witches flying on poles or broomsticks, which he’d poached from an account of witchcraft in Sweden.)

Schiff found some indications of what the girls wanted from their accounts of their conversations with the devil. “The devil offers what they want. Everyone is longing for inner peace and rest. The girls want fashion books and trips to the golden city.”

And then, for a few months, they became celebrities. The Witches makes it clear that the trials were definitely the best show going in Salem. The tavern did tremendous business on trial days. There seem to be some striking parallels to the 21st-century obsession with Facebook and Internet celebrities. (The day I interviewed Schiff, an Australian teenager made the news for renouncing her Instagram fame and claiming it was all a sham.) “There’s this increasing paranoia and sense of surveillance and the politics of fear,” Schiff says. “How much does Google know about you? Are you being tracked? It’s an easy way to feel haunted.”

But this is only the most recent manifestation of the legacy of Salem. Schiff argues that it has echoed throughout American history. (See Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which used the witch trials a mirror for the blacklists of the 1950s.) “It’s moral righteousness at work,” she says, “people acting in the name of God. It’s determined the flavor of America. It’s a loopy story, but it’s a seminal one. It shows where exceptional thinking takes you.”

But also, the story of the trials is just plain fascinating. No matter how much information you have—and Schiff looked at everything that was available, including contemporary court transcripts, literature on witchcraft, and sermons—you can never quite get to the bottom of it.

“You need to understand how disturbing a girl screaming like that can be,” Schiff says. “There’s no explanation. It’s something truly sinister.” Besides, she adds, “how can you resist demonic talking cats?”

Stacy Schiff will be discussing The Witches on Mon 11/9 at 7 PM at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville, 630-355-2665, andersonsbookshop.com, $32 (includes a copy of the book).