Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Today I'm looking at a book about one of the more infamous events in American colonial history, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. For about nine months the village of Salem and nearby areas of Massachusetts were thrown into a panic over accusations of witchcraft. What began with a few teenage girls having fits and hallucinations turned into a hunt for scapegoats and the literal origin of the term witch hunt. Months of arrests and fantastic trials occupied the attention of Massachusetts residents and by the time the hysteria was over, twenty-five people were dead. Nineteen hanged, one pressed to death, and five had died in prison.

Historians have long tried to understand the Salem Witch Trials and find some answers as to why ordinary people succumbed to what appeared, even at the time, to be mass delusion. The historian's search into the events of 1692 is made even more difficult by the fact many of the records were later redacted, excised, edited, or otherwise destroyed, which if nothing else gives a strong hint that the Puritans themselves felt guilty of what they'd done and wanted to erase it from memory. Because of the ultimately unsolvable nature of the mystery, Salem remains a tantalizing subject for historians to investigate.

Schiff's work is mostly a chronological history of the Salem trials beginning in February of 1692 and the investigations of March and April, before the trials reached their fevered pitch in the heights of summer and then quickly tapering off in September and some aftermath that followed into 1693. Schiff also does a fantastic job of providing the cultural context of seventeenth century Massachusetts for the reader (or in my case listener) to help them understand how a witchcraft panic could grow to such proportions. Most importantly, the deeply religious culture of Puritan Massachusetts with its assumptions that the forces of Satan were hiding behind every tree to attack good Christians, and that the world was on the brink of an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil. In such a culture it's almost surprising not that the witch trials occurred, but that there weren't more of them.

The most infuriating thing is of course the trials themselves, at least from what court documents have survived. First there is the reliance on spectral evidence, the testimony given by the young girls, and a handful of older women. Apparitions that only they could see. Specters of the accused sitting on beams in the courthouse roof or on a magistrate's lap. Appearances of a dark man whispering in the ear of the accused, or yellow birds or other creatures that again, only those supposedly afflicted by the witches could see. And the trials were hardly anything but impartial. The magistrates often bullied the accused, showing that they were already assumed guilty by the fact of their being brought before the court in the first place, and forcing confessions from terrified men and women. In the case of Rebecca Nurse, who had the support of her husband and extended family to mount a legal defense for her during the trial, the magistrates explicitly overturned a jury verdict of not guilty and instructed them to vote guilty instead. There is hardly a clearer-cut example of a miscarriage of justice, and it is with good reason that Salem has its infamous reputation.

The most puzzling thing, of course, is the sudden appearance and then disappearance of the accusations of witchcraft. For a very short period there were so many accusations flying around Massachusetts that it seemed everything was the fault of witches. And then just as suddenly life went back to normal. Many theories have been advanced by historians over the years, some more plausible than others. For many years I had gone with a hypothesis proposed by an episode of PBS's documentary series, Secrets of the Dead, that the Salem panic was caused by a case of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a type of fungus that grows on rye and other types of grain and, when ingested in humans, can create sever pains, vivid hallucinations, and a variety of other nasty effects. However, upon listening to the evidence as it has survived, it does seem ergot poisoning is an unlikely explanation.

While numerous people provided vivid confessions of their activity as witches, these were extracted under pressure by the courts and it is well known that people under various forms of torture, both physical and mental, will say anything to make the torture end. Besides, the transcripts of court proceedings show the judges asking leading questions of the accused, giving shape to the answers the magistrates expected. The truly bizarre behavior, the physical fits, the hallucinations, the pricking, and other behavior was limited to a small handful of teenagers and women who may or may not have been acting in collusion. If ergot poisoning had been to blame, the hallucinations, fits, and other behaviors would have been far more widespread than the handful of people.

The most likely explanation as Schiff argues, is probably a combination of things. The girls behavior may have been a combination of the deadly tedium of a colonial Massachusetts winter, the inability of women in Puritan society to act beyond very narrow limitations, and a desire for attention. Schiff argues that the girls may have suffered from a number of psychological disorders which brought about this behavior. The fact that the estates of many of those executed for witchcraft were seized by the local sheriff suggest there were economic incentives for accusing one's neighbors of witchcraft, and there is evidence that small town rivalries, simmering for years, may have blown into accusations in the heat of the moment. And finally, people may have found witches simply because they expected to find witches.

Overall the story of Salem is interesting, infuriating, and a cautionary warning of what humans can do out of fear, jealousy, and the darker parts of our natures. While we may never get a totally satisfactory answer about Salem, we can at least analyze what we do know and see what we can learn from it.

- Kalpar

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