The Witches: Salem, 1692 Review


This is one of the best books of 2015. It is so vivid and well researched that you are transported back to 1692 and beyond. The books is more than just about the witches and warlocks that plagued the poor, young victims of Salem, but about the justice system and the beliefs that were involved in the proceedings. Nearly a century later, one of the founding fathers (John Adams) would refer to the incident as one of the most shameful chapters in American history, and others would look back and scoff at it. And yet -as Schiff points out- the belief in witchcraft remained a constant all the way to the twentieth century. Gone were the days of spectral evidence (as used in the Salem trials) but people could still be shamed or judged based on the belief that they had something to do with the devil or they were witches. Nowadays the town of Salem is a safe haven for Wiccans. I have been there. It is one of the best places to visit, there is a lot of history, old houses, museums and everyone is very friendly. But the stigma of what happened there remains, and as one contemporary (Brattle) wrote -when he as so many saw that things were going too far- something of that magnitude isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

The reason why is not so much the number of people that were hung (19), pressed to death (1) and the animals that were also killed; but the court procedures. I don’t want to make this review political but I feel I have to because reading this biography, you see a lot of these attitudes going on today. These people really believed in the devil, and they really hated authority.
They didn’t rebel against King and country because they believed in democracy or wanted to establish a Republic, neither did they believe that everyone should learn to read and write so people could think for themselves. On the contrary, these staunch Protestants firmly believed that God had chosen them for salvation. They believed (without a glimmer of doubt) that the Devil was in Salem and the more the Devil attacked them, the more special they were.
Cotton Mather was a Harvard educated young man, son of another educated man, who had the nerve to say that nothing was wrong with the trials (except when it came to spectral evidence which was somewhat hypocritical of him when he agreed with Stoughton view that it should be allowed as ‘evidence’) and continued on to incite others to accuse their neighbors if they believe that they were witches.
This contradicts the statement that knowledge is everything. Knowledge can be everything, when it is used for good and to open minds instead of closing them like so many well-educated men acting as jurors and consultants in the trials did.

As for the girls, many historians have tried to figure out what ailed them. Some have said it could have been a case of infected grain, or a virus. Schiff makes a great case saying it was likely hysteria, pointing out the studies that were done at the end of the nineteenth century and that are still being conducted today. In short, it was nothing more than mass delusion and the fact that the girls were the product of a highly patriarchal system that allowed them little freedom. The puritan maiden could not say or do anything without her guardian’s permission (which consisted of the male head of the household), and most were not raised by their parents but instead were sent elsewhere to learn good manners. This happened to boys as well, however when they grew up and married and made a life of their own, they were free to act as they pleased so long as they didn’t offend the church. Girls couldn’t have that luxury. As wives, their lives were more restricted and filled with hardship. And the Indian attacks left a lot of children without parents, some of these were girls. So for them to see how much freedom their ‘afflictions’ earned them, was like a Godsend. They were no longer required to do house chores, nor to sit still during Mass, or behave properly. This by no means condones them, but it explains most of their actions. And they might have also deluded themselves into believing that the Devil was causing them (so they could have a clean conscience and not feel guilty of the people they send to jail and to their deaths). Puritans’ religious fervor was extreme when it came to women. The way they were educated, they believed that anything they did was their fault, or not good enough for their men.

The last three chapters are tragic. The victims never got closure, some tried to move on but most of them could not get the stigma of being related to witches off them. Two of the victims didn’t get their names cleared until 2001, and only one of the afflicted girls admitted that it was a lie brought about because of the devil. And as for the judges, some paid a high price but the most important and well-educated went on to be elected. Why? Because despite many holding grudges against them, belief triumphed over reason. And that is the ultimate lesson of this book and the Salem Witch Trials: when belief triumphs over reason.

2 thoughts on “The Witches: Salem, 1692 Review

  1. lottenaughton November 25, 2015 / 8:00 pm

    I completely agree with your review! I just finished the book yesterday and was so impressed by how Schiff tackles the subject matter in a new refreshing way. So glad to see this chapter of American history is still as fascinating as ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. BJ December 6, 2015 / 4:18 pm

    I just finished reading a novel about the Salem witch trials, The Heretics Daughter, and now I want to read a good history book about the subject. I recently saw this book at the bookstore too and it looks like a good choice.

    Liked by 1 person

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