Halloween is over, and we may be storing our witch costumes in a trunk for another year, but that doesn’t mean we’ll put away our obsessions with witches anytime soon.
This month, one of my book clubs will be discussing a novel about the Salem witch trials, The Shape of Mercy, and I decided to supplement that reading with historian Stacy Schiff’s new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692.
I confess, I’ve always been obsessed with witches more than most other supernatural beings. It stems, I think, from a dream I had when I was four years old and hospitalized with nephritis. My family and I were at a football stadium–presumably Soldier’s Field–and the entire stadium was filled with witches wearing black pointed hats. It was a sell-out: every last seat was filled with a witch except for the five seats my family held. It terrified me so much that I still remember the dream vividly, decades later.
And when it comes to terrifying witch stories, none is more frightening than the stories of the 1692 Salem witch trials, when young girls and old women reportedly flew around rooms on broomsticks and otherwise behaved so badly that fourteen of them, as well as five local townsmen, were accused of witchcraft and hanged to death. To a child, the terror of the story is the bizarre behavior of the girls and perhaps the fear that it could happen to me. But to an adult, the greater terror is the idea that our society’s answer to their inexplicable behavior was to kill them–an answer that frightens us because we aren’t so sure we’ve changed all that much.
Do we still destroy that which we fear, or don’t understand?
In The Shape of Mercy, a college student named Lauren is hired to transcribe the diary of a fictional character named Mercy Hayworth who was accused of being a Salem witch. The story alternates between Mercy’s words and worries and Lauren’s contemporary concerns, and it serves as a decent, if simplistic, recounting about what happened in Massachusetts back then. Although Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called the novel potentially life-changing, I wouldn’t go that far. What I will say about the novel is that it left me hungering for more information about a period in history that I knew about, yet knew so little about, at the same time.
So I quickly and anxiously dove into the just-released The Witches, Salem: 1692, which NPR’s Maureen Corrigan praised as “eerie and engrossing,” saying that author Stacy Schiff surveys the entire setting of Salem “like a broomstick jockey flying through the night sky” to explore the many characters, details, and possible theories behind what really happened back then. I have a confession to make: I didn’t make it through the book. Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, so she certainly did her research. The problem was that I found the book so filled with information that I felt overloaded, wanting to scream, “Stop! Too much already!”
That’s the problem with mysteries like the Salem witch trials. We keep digging for information, and we occasionally uncover a few more factual pebbles, but we still don’t know. It’s not that we don’t know what happened; we know who was accused, who the accusers were, and who was hanged. What we still don’t know is why. Why did the girls and women exhibit such bizarre behavior? (There are theories, one of which has to do with a certain fungus that grows in grain. I personally like the theory that they had some sort of viral-induced autoimmune deficiencies, like Susannah Cahalan in Brain on Fire.)
The more important question is why did the village men so easily come to the conclusion that the accused must be hanged as witches? This is the one that all the historians and research in the world will never be able to help us answer–partly because many records of the trials were (conveniently) lost. And partly because there’s no easy answer to a lot of questions that begin with why (as most parents discover).
I set out to read these books thinking I was fascinated with stories of witches. Writer Hazel Cills believes we women romanticize witchcraft because it’s about women “using powers to change a world that doesn’t like [them] in the first place.” Witch tales, she says, are feminist fantasies “about having a physical, mystical power that can create real, dangerous change in a world that would rather take power away from them.”
So, maybe it’s the feminist in me that loves witches.
But I am also obsessed with these stories–especially the ones about the Salem trials–because they’re about oppression, a human flaw that sadly continues today, and one I know I’ll never understand.
I like the way writer Michelle Dean put it. “The funny thing about the witch trials is this: it wasn’t, really, those hysterical little girls and so-called temptress wenches who did all this damage to America’s soul. It was the leaders, the rational men in charge, whose hysteria proved the most devastating.”
If you want to read more~
There are far too many books about the Salem witch trials to count (or to list them all here), but here are a few more if you’re as fascinated about the subject as I am. (These descriptions are quoted, or paraphrased, from the site to which the books are linked.)
British novelist, journalist, and scholar Frances Hill tells the all but unbelievable tale about a group of girls who accused innocent women of practicing witchcraft, and she emphasizes the harshness, sterility, and repressiveness of seventeenth-century New England Puritan life.
In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton
Using newly available materials from trial records, letters, and diaries, Norton argues that a complex of political, military and religious factors, including the fallout from the First and Second Indian Wars, led to the outbreak of hysterical fits, the settlers’ thinking they were being punished for their sins, and the ultimate infamous trials and hangings.
A first-hand account by one of the townspeople in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts.
The Crucible, Arthur Miller
First produced in 1953, at a time when America was convulsed by a new epidemic of witch-hunting, Miller’s play brilliantly explores the threshold between individual guilt and mass hysteria, personal spite and collective evil.
The Heretic’s Daughter, Kathleen Kent
Kent is a tenth generation descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be accused of witchcraft and hanged in the Salem trials. She paints a haunting portrait, not just of Puritan New England, but also of one family’s deep and abiding love in the face of fear and persecution.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe
A spellbinding, beautifully written novel that moves between contemporary times and one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history–the Salem witch trials.
The Afflicted Girls: Poems, Nicole Cooley
A poetic work, including historical research, of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts by New Orleans native Nicole Cooley, winner of several awards including the Walt Whitman.