Tag Archive | The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Book Review: The Witches

I have read a few books on the Salem Witch Trials and have been fascinated by how it all went so far… So when The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, popped up as available on the library website as I was looking for new audiobooks, I was interested.  Into the download folder it went…

This book started off differently, with a history of the Puritan ministers in Salem and Salem Village, as well as the conflict that existed among the villagers at that time.  Wood was already scarce, and whether a minister had to procure his own wood or have it delivered by the congregation was an issue that lead to some deep seated feuds over the years.  Who knew…  She gives several examples like this, where day to day relationships had been breaking down for years.  Add to that the fact that the Massachusetts Puritans seem to be really litigious, and you have a group of people who seemed bent on settling scores.  It makes all the finger pointing make a lot more sense, all of a sudden…

She pulls in the transcripts of the trials when possible, while pointing out that there are some trials that seem to have no transcript at all.  Even the most complete transcripts are mediocre at best, filled with summary, huge gaps and interspersed with opinion and bias.  What is clear from the transcripts is that the judges took confessions as fact, and denials as just another opportunity to wear down the accused.  I bet by the time I’d been in a filthy, cold jail with no food for months, I’d be willing to cough up a confession too if I were offered mercy.

Schiff breaks down the statistics of who went to the gallows; how many confessed vs. denied, how many had seen previous witchcraft allegations, how many were involved in a land or other legal dispute with another villager.  She also broke down the behavior of the judges and other key players long after the trial: who regretted, who repented, and who steadfastly stuck with their original decisions.  It is fascinating when seen in the light of day, and when considering who had something to gain by getting you out of the way…  In Puritan New England, just like now, it was a case of “be careful who you cross.”  It seems we haven’t changed all that much…

The Witches: Salem, 1692

 

Schiff’s book, although relatively long, makes for an interesting read.  She supports her findings with research – there are a lot of footnotes.  She breaks new ground on the topic, offering plausible background context for how the mass hysteria got underway and how it was permitted to continue.  Her writing style draws you in and kept my interest until the end.  A worthwhile read.