The witchcraft hysteria that possessed Salem, Massachusetts, at the end of the 17th century destroyed dozens of lives and left a dark, lasting mark on American history. Here, best-selling historian and biographer Stacy Schiff uncovers the spiritual and psychological underpinnings of the trials and their aftermath.
Octavian Report: Do the Salem witch trials hold any relevance or lessons for our era, where people can instantly become subjects of digital witch hunts?
Stacy Schiff: The echoes seem to me urgent and disturbing. More than ever we have cause to be reminded of the dangers of the politics of fear; much of what happened in 1692 falls out from fierce, largely invisible agendas. The prosecutorial manning of the watchtowers begins in 1692, when for one people to be pure others had to be impure. Social media has made clear how effortlessly misinformation, false allegations, and hysteria will travel. Salem stands as a metaphor and as a vaccine. We turn to it when fear paralyzes reason, when we start to hunt down the alien or seditious, when we head out on crusades against imaginary evils. When a crowd begins to chant that someone should be locked up, without a nod to reason or evidence, the abuses of 1692 should and do spring to mind. Here is what happens when — anxious about one thing — we cast blame on someone or something else. We seem to do so regularly, as I suppose all peoples do. In our case we inject an absolutist, apocalyptic strain into the narrative, another New England legacy.
OR: Are there other attractions that help the hysteria in the Bay Colony in 1692-3 still hold our attention as Americans?
Schiff: We go back repeatedly to Salem for a host of reasons. The trials are firmly embedded in our DNA; in an improbable display, they bring together American exceptionalism and the paranoid strain in our politics. They remind us of our fundamentalist origins and, not unrelatedly, of the brand of defiance that would produce the Revolution. Thanks to Hawthorne and to Arthur Miller, Salem has embedded itself in the classroom; you can’t get through high school without the trials (ironic as adolescence played a crucial role that year in the history). And then there’s this: We have no simple answer to the question of why 19 innocent people hanged in 1692. Unsolved puzzles annoy us. We return to 1692 over and over to try yet again to coax the pieces together.
OR: How does it relate to Europe’s “tradition” (so to speak) of similar hysterical outbreaks?
Schiff: Most crucially, Salem comes later. The great hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries had ended; by the time the Massachusetts witches took flight, the European witch craze had exhausted itself. Holland had abolished persecutions in 1610; Geneva in 1632. By 1692 a New England witch differed from her English counterpart primarily in that she was more real. Evidence used to convict in the Salem courtroom would no longer have held up in England. A tightly controlled press insulated the Massachusetts settlers from that news, as from all skeptical literature on the subject.
It’s notable that the Salem witches did things that no other Massachusetts witches had done before; they flew, engaged in Satanic baptisms, and plotted against the state. (We can explain all three variations on the theme.) The devil himself played a role that year he had never played before. Suddenly he was a megalomaniacal conspirator laboring to subvert God’s kingdom. Another first in 1692 was the merciless prosecution. Previous witchcraft cases in New England had met with leniency. (Of the prior 103 Massachusetts cases, the conviction rate hovered around 25 percent.) In 1692 no one walked out of the court without a conviction. The Salem epidemic concerned mostly families and neighbors, who accused each other. In a departure from tradition, authorities did not identify suspects. Husbands instead accused wives, daughters their parents. Which touches on perhaps the most terrifying aspect: the 1692 victims were very rarely muttering, post-menopausal malcontents. The suspects were not the usual ones.
OR: How and when does the mass delusion begin? When does it really sink into the public mind and propagate itself?
Schiff: At the end of January or early in February, 1692, the 11-year-old niece and nine-year-old daughter of the Salem village minister began to shriek and convulse. They interrupted sermons; they seemed to fly across rooms. Within a matter of weeks witchcraft was diagnosed. There seemed no other explanation for the girls’ symptoms. Theirs looked like textbook cases of enchantment. In February the girls named three names; the first arrest warrants went out late in the month. One of the three suspects quickly and colorfully confessed. And with that confession the epidemic took off. Nearly every New Englander already believed in witchcraft; the confession made this particular outbreak real. It also suggested a conspiracy. Immediately grown men begin to see unearthly creatures by the side of the road. Others (and not only preadolescent girls) had already begun to writhe and convulse. Fingers pointed right and left. Many felt they were doing their sacred duty — and this is essential to the crisis — by naming names. Spiritual purity was at stake. At the same time, the outbreak managed to reactivate all kinds of ancient grudges and lingering mysteries. Witchcraft effectively diffused them all.
OR: Can you outline a few of the leading personalities on both sides — the accusers and the accused?
Schiff: One of the first to manifest the symptoms of the parsonage girls was 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr. The eldest of six siblings, she over the next months demonstrated an uncanny knack for predicting the future and for recalling events that happened before she was born. The fourth accused witch rode to the Putnam home, to confront her directly, in March. No sooner was the woman inside the house than young Ann began to choke. Her feet and hands twisted; she clamped her tongue sharply between her teeth. She crumpled to the floor. She claimed she could see her caller nursing a diabolical familiar — in this case a yellow canary — and roasting a man on a spit. She accused her of blinding another woman in church that week. Ann Putnam also denounced a five-year-old homeless girl, who she claimed had urged her to sign a pact with the devil. She also named a close neighbor. In all she would claim to have been bewitched by no fewer than 62 people. Of the 19 who hanged, she would testify, under oath, against all but two. Ann never married, but would, in 1706, publicly express regret for the role she had played in the tragedy. The excuse? She had been unable to withstand “the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness and Prince of the air.” She had been an instrument in his designs. In other words, the devil made her do it.
Rich merchants and pious, pregnant mothers of five figured among the accused; many of them demonstrated remarkable nobility and eloquence in face of the charges. It’s not easy to single one out, but as he’s said to be the ringleader of the satanic conspiracy, let’s talk about George Burroughs, a Harvard-educated minister in his early forties. When accused he was living on the frontier, in what is today southern Maine, amid a small group of congregants whom he had rescued from a brutal Indian attack. We have no idea why he was named, though we do know Burroughs was a combative man and an abusive husband. What had earlier seemed like exceptional gifts — he was uncommonly strong for his size — suddenly seemed like something else. He elicited special animus all around: even those who went on to express skepticism of the trials did not defend Burroughs. When Cotton Mather came to write up the history, he would say that he would have been happier if he had never heard Burroughs’s name, which he refused even to commit to the page. (No other alleged Salem witch received that treatment.) At the same time, Burroughs remained steadfast and dignified throughout the ordeal, writing his children from prison not to forsake their faith. When a teenaged girl who had falsely accused him came to beg his forgiveness in prison, he granted it. The next morning he nearly created a riot as he stood below the gallows and flawlessly recited the Lord’s Prayer, something a witch was understood to be unable to do. In the crowd around him many began to cry. They nearly interrupted the execution. Burroughs hanged all the same.
OR: What are the most dramatic moments of the 10-month conflict?
Schiff: You could argue that everything about witchcraft — and about mass delusion — is dramatic. From the testimony that sets the crisis in terrifying motion, to Burroughs’s execution, to the closing of the witchcraft court (which would entail a showdown between the governor and the chief justice) there are any number of sensational scenes. No one knew at whose door the arresting officer would knock next. A Boston ship captain strode confidently into court to defend himself. He was, after all, accused by Salem girls he had never seen and was to be interrogated by men with whom he had transacted business for years. He assured his former colleagues that there was not a word of truth in the reports of his accusers. Decades-long loyalties crumbled on the spot; the authorities preferred the testimony of the bewitched girls to that of the suspect. In the case of ancient Rebecca Nurse, accused early on, the jury delivered a verdict of not guilty. Displeased, the chief justice insisted they re-deliberate. The jury produced a guilty verdict. Nurse’s husband — one of the few men actively to stand behind an accused wife — secured her a reprieve. Others arranged to have it revoked. By the fall a number of men begin to express skepticism about the trials; a dramatic turnaround ensued. Years later, witchcraft justice Samuel Sewall stood before his entire Boston congregation, his head bowed, to beg forgiveness for his role in the trials. That must have been an emotional, electrifying moment.
OR: Why the contemporary (and to some extent continuing) silence around the trials?
Schiff: Samuel Sewall packed the words “blame,” “shame,” “sin,” and “guilt” into that 1697 statement. Those are words from which we all prefer to run. A blanket of regret fell immediately on the events of 1692; in their wake, church records, private correspondences, sermon books, diaries were redacted. Everyone seemed to prefer to make that year disappear, the victims of the families included. I would wager that the problem was that everyone felt to some extent complicit, if only in his silence. Certainly it would take far longer to discuss Salem than the three generations or so that normally distance us from an atrocity. Arthur Miller complained in the 1950’s that the locals would not talk about the witchcraft.
OR: 2015 was Miller’s centenary year — what do you think of The Crucible as a representation of the forces at play behind the trials?
Schiff: Miller read carefully through the Salem archive, then took all kinds of liberties with it — as dramatists are meant to do. He also perfectly captures the propulsive forces, the free-floating apprehension, the sanctimony, the tribal instincts, the demonizing, the idea that — as he put it — “common human decency was going down the drain.” It is interesting that the play was not an immediate triumph and yet is canonical today. The Crucible reminds us to question our beliefs: As Miller himself wondered: “What am I now convinced of what will turn out to be ridiculous?”
OR: Are there any works on the subject — other than your own, of course — that you would recommend to a busy reader?
Schiff: There is no finer portrait of 17th century America — its color, its sensibility, its preoccupations — than Kenneth Silverman’s 1984 The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. Silverman not only delivers Massachusetts in all its texture but brilliantly explores the mind of its preeminent intellectual. David D. Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, on the intersections of religion and superstition in early New England, is no less a gem. For another account of the Salem episode in particular: Emerson W. Baker’s 2015 A Storm of Witchcraft. If you want to begin to pry apart some of what happened, the greatest number of clues turn up in Cotton Mather’s confused, loopy, utterly compelling Wonders of the Invisible World, a book composed as a propaganda piece but billed as a felicitous accident. Work backward from Mather’s political and spiritual warnings. He demonstrates another interesting phenomenon: with Wonders he introduces an earlier warning of the 1692 witchcraft, one he seems to have invented for the occasion. It is a dangerous thing to have the same men in the prophecy and the history businesses.
Stacy Schiff is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of, among other books, The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem and Cleopatra.