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Author Stacy Schiff explores the Salem witch trials

Created date

November 23rd, 2015
1876 engraving Witchcraft at Salem Village
1876 engraving Witchcraft at Salem Village

After more than three centuries, the Salem witch trials still fascinate and, in many ways, horrify us. The reign of terror that descended on this small Massachusetts hamlet in 1692 was a sad chapter in human history.

But as unbelievable as it may seem, it really happened. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff explores how in her new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (Little, Brown, and Company, 2015). 

She spoke with the Tribune about her research and why this story captivates and terrifies us over 300 years later.

Tribune: As a writer, what did you find most compelling about the story of the Salem witch trials?

Schiff: Everything about the story astonishes me, from the way an isolated case of witchcraft grows into a complex conspiracy, to the galloping pace at which it does so, to the extraordinary role reversals: You had established authorities taking direction—and soliciting advice from—adolescent girls! Brothers denounced sisters; daughters accused their own mothers; parishioners named their ministers.

Tribune: How long did the research and writing take you?

Schiff: About four and a half years overall. I devoted three years exclusively to research and 18 months to writing, though maddeningly, I was still researching up to the end. I would still be doing research if I could; the material is that rich.

Tribune: Writing historical nonfiction requires a lot of archival work. What did your research for The Witches involve? Were there any undiscovered troves of material?

Schiff: The documents with which I spent the most time are those at the Danvers Archival Center [where the Salem village record book remains], at the Peabody Essex Museum [which has the bulk of the witchcraft testimony], the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.  

There weren’t any wholly undiscovered troves, though one of my favorite documents is the little-known letter George Burroughs, the minister who hangs, sends from his frontier garrison months earlier, begging the authorities for help against Indian attack. It’s in the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston.

Tribune: Did researching this book present certain unique challenges that your previous projects did not?

Schiff: More than I care to enumerate. Among them: People testify to events that they wholly believe happen and that could not have, unless you believe in demonic talking cats, or hearthside goblins, or freely migrating trees.

Tribune: Did anything surprise you?

Schiff: A great deal, including everything I just mentioned. I knew nothing of the political context, which is crucial. I had not taken into account how suggestible we all are; grown men begin to see fantastical creatures immediately after the first “witches” testify. 

The ability of family members to turn on one another is shocking. And the silence afterward is like a conspiracy in itself.

Tribune: And how about the popular understanding of these events: Are there any long-standing misconceptions about the witch trials that you hope to dispel?

Schiff: Well, I think most of us forget that the witches hanged rather than burned; that of the victims, several were men and one a minister; and that the whole crisis runs its course in less than a year. 

But mostly, though, I wanted to make clear that the early American was not an ignorant, medieval creature. He was immensely learned; he believed he was acting righteously, for the public good. He was just basing his assumptions on false premises.

Tribune: Characters like Rev. Samuel Parris, Jonathan Corwin, and John Hathorne were quite chilling. In their eyes, the denizens of Salem were, as Parris had declared in one of his sermons, on one side or the other—one of the bewitched or one of the witches. And save for the handful of dissenters willing to publicly denounce the insanity of this inquisition, many in Salem went along with it out of sincere belief or to avoid becoming one of the accused.

Why is it, do you think, that these people were so easily manipulated by the girls’ claims of affliction?

Schiff: The girls’ symptoms truly terrified me. Imagine living day and night in a household with two shrieking, writhing adolescents! At least some of those early symptoms were real; these children were in pain, something no parent wants to ignore. 

And remember that after a certain point it was safer to accuse than to be accused. Terror rumbled under the surface already; the witchcraft simply focused it.

Tribune: Is this witch-hunt mentality confined to 1692, or is it still with us? Are there modern parallels?

Schiff: Yes, I think the modern parallels are striking. The closest parallel—and it’s a very close one—are with the prosecutions of the daycare workers in the l980s for sexual abuse [i.e., the McMartin preschool trial].

Tribune: What does this story tell us about human nature? Are we all that different from our seventeenth-century counterparts?

Schiff: We suffer precisely the same fears, frustrations, and doubts. We explain and address them differently.