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Linda Hilton

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The Witches . . . then and now

The Witches: Salem, 1692 - Stacy Schiff

Disclosure:  I obtained this book on loan from my local public library.  I do not know the author nor have I communicated with her in any way about this book or any other matter.  I am an author of historical romance, contemporary gothic romance, and assorted non-fiction.


As I think I mentioned in a status report, I had read Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts a couple of years ago, so I had a fairly decent background on the history of the Salem aberration before picking up the Schiff book.  And I had read Shirley Jackson's overview decades ago as well.  If you're looking for the general history, I would recommend either of those over The Witches.


Schiff obviously did extensive -- and intensive -- research for this book, but when I got to about the 350 page mark, I skimmed ahead to about 380, then read to the end of text at 421.  The last 50 pages or so (of the actual narrative) are worth more than the rest. 


I felt the title was misleading; this is less about the witches themselves than about the men who investigated, tried, convicted, condemned, imprisoned, and executed them.


EDITED TO ADD: Over 200 people were accused of witchcraft; twenty were executed. One man was pressed to death, the others -- 14 women and five men -- were hanged.  Although women numbered among the accusers and witnesses, all judges and jury members were male, as were all the government officials and church authorities.


Schiff relies on the documentation kept by the almost obsessive Puritan bureaucracy and reconstructs the accusations and investigations.  Rather than portraying the witches themselves as individuals, she focuses on the events, most of which really didn't involve the accused persons.  And because her documentation was presented as end notes, the flipping back and forth from text to notes became too tedious, so that I lost track of where the evidence came from, and how reliable it was.  (She also had frequent footnotes that might have worked better as just parenthetical information right in the text.)


One of the more interesting insights she gave, however, came near the beginning of the book, and I wish now I had marked that spot and scanned the page so I could quote it.  The point she made was that the Puritans' belief system almost certainly contributed to both the accusers' and the victims' acceptance of witchcraft.  The belief that the individual was innately sinful, that being "saved" was up to God and knowing his determination was impossible for the mere mortal led many, especially young women, to have no trust in their own intellect and experience.  If their minister accused them of being a witch, then it must be true, even if they themselves didn't think so.


And you have to wonder just how true that may be of current religious fervor as well.


That thought ran through my mind while I continued to read, and my curiosity was well rewarded in those last 50 or so pages.


On page 379, Schiff writes about Cotton Mather, the Boston minister who is closely identified with the Salem events though he took no official part in them.


Given how insistently he positioned himself at the center of events, it is understandable that he would come to be blamed for them, when he had urged every kind of moderation, denounced spectral evidence, attended no hearing and played no prosecutorial role.  For once causality was not a burning issue; the origin of the plague of evil angels interested Mather less than its utility.  So that proper use might be made of those "stupendous and prodigious things," he had written Wonders of the Invisible World.  He regretted no page of that volume, despite the abuse the "reviled book" had earned him.  Nor did he for a moment question the judges' "unspotted fidelity."  He put his finger on something that remained invisible to him: political considerations had grossly disfigured moral ones.

At that point in the reading, and especially after something she writes in the very next paragraph, I wished Schiff herself had spent more time on the political aspect of what was going on in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1692.  One royal governor had been summarily ousted some years before, there was no effective royal charter for a number of years, and a new governor, William Phips, was appointed curing the Salem events.  Phips's appointment came with the help of Increase Mather, Cotton's father. 


What's not often mentioned in the book, and perhaps it is simply taken for granted that the reader understands this, is that these colonies were established by religious people seeking a religious community. There was not only no separation of church and government; the very idea would have been anathema to the Puritans.  They wanted no part of the established Church of England, but that didn't mean they wanted a secular authority.  Far from it.


The Mathers, father and son, were of this same mind.


So when Schiff writes in the very next paragraph,

Mather folded something more of an explanation into his 1697 life of William Phips, a fairy tale written to exonerate a disastrous administration and the men behind it.

the political ramifications were even more obvious.


On page 405, she writes,


The irony that they had come to the New World to escape an interfering civil authority was lost on the colonists, who unleashed on one another the kind of abuse they had deplored in royal officials.  So was the fact that the embrace of faith, meant to buttress the church, would tear it irrevocably apart; the wonder tales harvested to prove New England's special status undermined it in the end.  Political concerns outweighed all others, as political concerns had produced both Illustrious Providences [written in 1684 by Increase Mather] and Memorable Providences [published in 1689 by Cotton Mather].   Mather's account of the witchcraft would be inseparable form his life of Phips; the authorities believed they protected a fledgling administration.  They had constructed a kind of autoimmune disorder, deploying against themselves the very furies they so feared.  There were in 1692 no perpetrators, and no consequences.


Interestingly, Cotton Mather became a staunch advocate for smallpox vaccinations!  Throw that into the mix of 2019 news!


All of this  led me to want even more exploration/analysis of how the political became so horribly, deadly personal.


The Witches was published in October 2015, before the present catastrophe.  But Schiff draws parallels with other modern "witch hunts," suggesting the memory of Salem lingers below the surface, and not necessarily in the dark depths.  From page 413: 


In the 1780s, enemies of the Federalists accused that party of launching a "detestable and nefarious conspiracy" to restore the monarchy.  Anti-Illuminists warned of prowling Jesuits, of the Catholic serpent already coiled about, with sinister political designs.  "We must awake," they warned in 1835, "or we are lost."  The judge sentencing the Rosenbergs for espionage in 1951 termed theirs a "diabolic conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation."  A network of subversives, night and day vigilance, the watchtowers of the nation, and reckless cruelty returned with the 1954 McCarthy hearings.  It took very little in 1998 to turn Linda Tripp into the nosy Puritan neighbor and Ken Starr into a witch hunter.