One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.
Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.
Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.
Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.
The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events. I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction.