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What Really Happened in Salem

In Stacy Schiff's new comprehensive account of the 1692 Salem witch trials, "The Witches," female sexuality and empowerment get burned at the stake. We talked to the author about why teenagers lied, why witches confessed, and "the riddle of women in...
October 27, 2015, 4:05pm
Image courtesy of Little, Brown

Stacy Schiff says the first scene in The Witches had to be Ann Foster's 1692 flight over Andover, Massachusetts. The details are fantastic and absurd: Elderly Ann and her friend Martha Carrier hitch a ride across the Ipswich River on a pole, with bread and cheese stuffed in their pockets in case they get hungry. They're on their way to drink blood-red wine and wet their heads in a baptism service officiated by the devil. But Schiff's delivery is sincere. She writes with precision and gravity about something that is, of course, completely made up.


As bizarre as the image of Ann and Martha may be, laden with snacks and a passion for devil worship, it's more disturbing that Schiff got this account from Ann herself. One of hundreds of people accused during the Salem witch trials in just a few months in 1692, Ann was forced to confess it. In total, 19 people were hanged. "You have to understand the pressures on the women who confessed and why they confessed," Schiff says, "and how deep the strain was that led them to have to deliver these extraordinarily detailed, colorful tales." There were innumerable pressures, too, on the teenage accusers, previously vulnerable and disenfranchised young women who discovered dangerous power, that led them to give their own outrageous testimonies of being tormented and put under spells. In bringing Foster's flight to life, "as opposed to having her just stand in front of a bunch of authorities who were about to shred and humiliate her," Schiff "wanted to make the women inhabit these stories that they had to tell."

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Schiff's conviction that history has "turned a story about women in peril into one about perilous women" is essential to the premise of The Witches: Salem, 1692, her newest book and the most comprehensive popular account to date of witch hysteria. Schiff argues that, rather than a blip in our otherwise exalted (cough) colonial history, what happened in Salem and how we remember it gets directly at the dark heart of American nation-making and its consolidation of white, patriarchal power. It helps that her writing is as evocative as Ann's wild tale—Schiff says that the book is "meant to read like a thriller, which is to say that the answers come at the end."

Lithograph depicting imagined witch trial, 1892. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Schiff has a track record of excavating women from myth, and from the myths of important men. Her last book, Cleopatra, emphasized the Egyptian queen as the once-most powerful woman in the world, though she has long been remembered as the oversexed seductress of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. Before that, Schiff examined the influence of Vera Nabokov on her husband Vladimir, for whom she worked tirelessly and nearly invisibly as editor, publicist, researcher, agent, and muse. My favorite sentence in Vera exemplifies everything I love about a cutting Stacy Schiff one liner: "Her capability was matched only by his capacity for ignoring everything that did not concern his own work." It encapsulates her snarky, impeccably composed, and succinctly delivered brand of shade.

Schiff didn't feel, though, that with those projects she had yet cracked "the riddle of women in power." Looking to Salem, she found a story where women—what's more, teenage girls—not only determined the course of events, but had important men across the Eastern seaboard believing in translucent cats, claiming that topless women menaced them in their beds. And Schiff noticed that, though we don't believe the accused witches, both men and women, really made pacts with the devil, history has made the women of Salem out to be witches anyway: The villains of the story have become the afflicted girls. In Salem, "there's an incredible fear here of what a woman could do. Yes, she can turn thread into lace, but she can also bewitch your cow." And she can also lie—that's the real, lasting evil with which women have been charged. The suffering of the women accused—like Ann Foster, who died in prison before she could be hanged—is immense and disturbing, but the collective vilification of the girl accusers matters, too. Schiff's analysis of them together, as symptoms of the same social ills, is what makes The Witches so compelling.

Women not only determined the course of events, but had important men across the Eastern seaboard believing in translucent cats.

To check in on the contemporary popular understanding of Salem, I watched the 1996 film version of The Crucible, in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays John Proctor, accused male witch, crying on a windy beach in some really billowy pantaloons. Based on Arthur Miller's 1953 play, the movie is the biggest contribution to irresponsibly untrue Salem lore. Everyone fascinated by Salem should read The Witches, and then watch The Crucible—because, in light of Schiff's work, the prevailing understanding of events, which condemns the accusers outright as diabolical, hysterical, or a combination of both, is inexcusably misogynistic. Miller wrote The Crucible, in part, to criticize McCarthyism, but the true demon in Miller's account is female sexuality. Miller ages accuser Abigail Williams from 11—her actual age at the start of the trials—to around 18 or so, and has her involved in an affair with John Proctor. In addition to making Abigail (Winona Ryder) patient zero for the hysteria epidemic—essentially an extreme iteration of "She really wants the D"—Miller has Elizabeth Proctor apologize for pushing her husband to adultery. It's an excellent representation of the phenomenon Schiff observed and into which her work intervenes. There's something about teenage girls, coming into their sexual lives and coming into their power, that Americans consider scarier than Harvard-educated magistrates who accept accounts of women flying through the Boston night. There is a reason why, once their wives were accused, some men blamed witchcraft for their impotence.

Abigail Williams' testimony during a 1692 Salem witch trial

So The Witches is truly an act of recovery, and a complicated one. The falsehoods peddled by distilled narratives like The Crucible are amplified by a collective lack of understanding of the particular politics and social mores of 1692. Schiff is a talented historian, as well as a skilled, broomstick-ride raconteur, and the book is an illuminating portrait of a rarely discussed and pretty weird time in American history. "Nobody knows about the Indian wars or thinks the Indian wars are still going on at this junction," she argues, referring to King Philip's War, and to the constant raids by Indians on colonial settlements that kept residents in a state of constant anxiety (although, what did they expect by moving into someone else's land?). Or when Bostonians ousted the royal governor Sir Edmund Andros in 1689, which Schiff calls "a dress rehearsal for 1776."

Insofar as she uses this background to provide an explanation for hysteria—though she likes to "keep [a thesis] off of her desk" when writing—Schiff offers a convincing account of a teenage America colliding with teenage girls to produce something "explosive." While the men of Massachusetts were trying to negotiate political independence, represented in The Witches primarily by Cotton Mather, from whom we have "reams" of his own writing on the subject (which Schiff finds incredibly annoying), young girls in Salem found room to do the same thing. If you were able to make into young adulthood, Schiff provides a harrowing picture of the hardships of being an adolescent woman in 1692.

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One of the most significant revelations is the concept of "binding out," in which daughters, many of whom had been orphaned by and survived Indian raids, were sent to be servants in the homes of other villagers, at the mercy of men who weren't their fathers. "The vulnerability must have been extreme," Schiff says. Paradoxically, adolescent girls who cried witchcraft had "the protection of the men and the protection of the state."

"They are able to both advertise their virtue by pointing fingers and have these men sitting by their bedsides, tending to them day and night," Schiff says. "The trauma that some of them have lived through clearly combusts in a way that has them feeling that, if they point these fingers, they are in some perverse way protecting themselves." What's more, the girls accused people who disrupted the social order in some way: If "you were too rich or too smart, or too strong, or you traveled through the rain and didn't get wet, or you divined the contents of a letter"—or if you were a West Indian slave, two of whom were accused and became accusers—"whatever it was, it's usually a gift, usually a woman who had something going for her." The teens rightly assumed their male elders would easily endorse their treatment of these outliers as a threat to the nascent nation. In this way Salem isn't a blemish on American history; it's a key to its very foundations.

I ask Schiff explicitly about how she would feel describing her work as feminist, given how radical The Witches is in privileging the perspective of both the accusers and the accused, allowing so much empathy for the women on both sides. Actually, I ask if she felt negatively about it, given how many women have been disavowing the identifier lately. "No, not at all," she answers. "It's vital to mark that there is such discomfort about women's voices, and the power that a woman's voice could actually carry."

"Even if it's not a moment we would think of as something you would want to wave as a banner," she continues, it's a moment where women both asserted themselves and exposed the great fear that asserting themselves instilled. As Schiff asks at the book's outset, "What are you saying when you place the very emblem of lowly domestic duty between your legs and ride off, defying the bounds of community and laws of gravity?"

Which is another thrill of reading The Witches: Schiff's writing is as unruly as her subjects were, as if she too has "overturned the apple cart" of her predecessors. Although she tells me it wasn't hard for her to respect the Salem men as scholars and clergymen, she did feel that sometimes they had to be "called out." She claims she "didn't want the author to be in any way calling attention to herself. On the other hand, it's really cold and dreary in New England and you have to have a little bit there to light up the page." She quotes Donald Rumsfeld in a chapter epigraph; she uses a line from Harry Potter to explain a particularly convoluted Cotton Mather phrase. There is some sense that Stacy Schiff is doing whatever she wants in The Witches, and it's perfect for her material. She's fierce, clever, and a little wicked—as long as no one says she's a you-know-what.