Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1682
When I was a child, my main source of knowledge on witches came from the TV series “Bewitched.” In this show, Elizabeth Montgomery played Samantha, an attractive, likable witch who was married to a hapless mortal named Darrin Stephens. Darrin hated that Sam was a witch and he made her promise not to use her witchcraft. She could never completely give it up, however, and used it frequently. She was a cute witch, though, who made magic by twinkling her nose, and who used her powers to make housework easier. I was certainly on her side throughout the series, as I suspect most viewers were. To me, then, witchcraft seemed like a cool party trick that was convenient yet benign.
I was a little confused later in life when I realized that historically speaking, witches were greatly feared and often killed. They were considered wicked and ugly, not cute and sweet like Samantha. Eventually, I learned in school about the Salem witch trials of 1692, which remain to this day a national embarrassment that we are hard pressed to explain.
Stacy Schiff, the noted biographer of Cleopatra, is the most recent writer who attempts to explain the inexplicable in her recent history The Witches: Salem, 1692. Her book is long and full of details about the many participants in the trials (the accused, the accusers, the judges, the townsfolk). Some of the details, to be honest, are a bit tedious. Nonetheless, the subject overall is fascinating (to me) and Schiff’s writing style is lively.
Here I have provided some excerpts from Schiff’s book in a question and answer format to give readers a taste of the Salem witchcraft story.
What is a witch? Joseph Glanville, a distinguished, Oxford-Educated English academic literally wrote the book on witchcraft: Saducismus Triumphatus, published in England in 1681. Glanville’s treatise was considered authoritative and was the source that the learned men of New England consulted for knowledge on witches and wizards.
Glanville defined a witch as “one who can do or seems to do strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits” (Schiff 60).
Witches could do all sorts of things, mostly of a troublesome sort. They liked to torture innocents by making them convulse, putting them into senseless trances, paralyzing their limbs, giving them fits, making them froth, gnash, shake, and so forth. In New England, they enjoyed drowning oxen, causing cattle to leap four feet from the ground, set pails crashing and kettles dancing, launched candlesticks through the air, flew on broomsticks and so forth.
Witches had the power to transform themselves into cats, wolves, or hares. They really liked yellow birds. Witches were most often female but could also be male. English witches like to maintain a menagerie of “familiars,” demonic mascots that did her bidding, such as hots, turtles, weasels, cats, dogs and toads.
Witches worked their magic with charms or ointments. To work her magic from a distance, a witch might resort on occasion to poppets—doll-like figures that represent a particular person on whom the witch wishes to cast a spell.
How does one become a witch? By consorting with evil spirits, who offered them bribes in return for the witch’s services. Ideally, a witch should sign an agreement with the evil spirit in blood. In New England, the evil master often bribed young women with promises of fine clothing, free time, and trips to beautiful or exotic locations.
How do you know who is a witch? In late 17th century New England, virtually everybody—including the highly educated–believed that witches were real. The only question was determining which particular people were witches. Some things to look for: the witch bore a mark on her body indicating her unnatural compact with the evil spirits. Those marks could be blue or red, raised or inverted. They might resemble a nipple or a fleabite. They came and went. Essentially any dark blemish qualified, though a mark in the genital area was particularly incriminating. Another sign of witchcraft is the inability to speak the Lord’s Prayer out loud without stumbling.
Traditionally witches were marginal members of the community: outliers and deviants, cantankerous scolds and choleric foot-stampers. This was true of some of the Salem accused, but not all of them. Some were prominent members of the community, even a minister.
As the witchcraft craze played out in Salem, all it took to be convicted of witchcraft was testimony against a person. Once a person was accused, there was no way to prove one’s innocence. Most of the accused denied that they were witches, but they were not believed. Not surprisingly, this tense situation made it easy for people to settle scores on their enemies by accusing them of witchcraft. As the hysteria grew, it seemed nearly everyone was either a witch or bewitched by one. Neighbors accused neighbors; husbands accused wives; parents and children accused one another.
How did the Salem witch craze start? It started when 11-year-old Abigail Williams and 9-year-old Betty Parris exhibited symptoms of prickling sensations; they reported being bitten and pinched by invisible agents. They barked, yelped, shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid. They had convulsions and were so contorted they could not dress themselves. Sometimes they were paralyzed.
Their guardian, Samuel Parris, was distraught and did not know what ailed the girls. Eventually, he brought a doctor to attend to them. In 1692, no university-trained physician had yet arrived in either Salem town or Salem village, where the girls lived. A basic medical kit of the time looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart. In powders or plasters, snails figured in man remedies. Hysteria had appeared before 1692. A Salem physician treated it with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear. Given the ignorance of doctors at this time, it is not surprising that the doctor’s visit was not helpful.
How did they know the girls were bewitched? In an attempt to determine who had bewitched these girls, a woman named Mary Sibley made a “witch cake.” This required mixing the girls’ urine into a rye-flour cake, baked amid the embers on the hearth. Then she fed the concoction to the family dog. It was unclear how the magic worked–possibly by drawing the witch to the animal or transferring the spell to it. Whether or not it was because of the witch cake, Betty and Abigail soon named names. This started the seemingly endless chain of accusers (girls who had been bewitched) and accused—witches and wizards.
How many people were involved in the Salem (and surroundings) witch craze of 1692?
- 55 people confessed to witchcraft. (This is not surprising, since it was the only way to save one’s life. Confessed witches were spared their lives, while those who spoke out against authority and in favor of the accused were hanged.)
- Somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in 25 villages and towns before the crisis passed.
- Reports had it that more than seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts.
- The youngest of the witches was 5, the eldest nearly 80.
- Before it was all over, 19 men and women were hanged and one elderly man was crushed to death.
What made Salem so unusual in terms of witches? What sets Salem apart is not the accusations, but the convictions. At other times raving women had been said to be witches and men dreamed of the devil without anyone thinking twice about it. Why the unsparing prosecution in 1692? Schiff believes the reasons for so many convictions was ultimately political. Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney—the prime movers—acted in the interests of the orthodoxy, which happened to align with their personal agendas. (Schiff 401)
Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton was the Chief Justice of the courts in charge of the witchcraft trials and the one ultimately responsible for the outrageous number of convictions. Schiff argues that he was so inflexible in his treatment of accused witches because he needed to prove his own constancy as a well as a new government’s legitimacy. He was as aware as anyone that to the Crown the colony appeared lax, impertinent, disorderly. They had paid a crushing price for having deviated from the laws of England. In prosecuting witches he simultaneously redeemed himself at home and broadcast New England’s proficiency abroad; the colonists could govern themselves in an orderly, Old World way (Schiff 403)
After the witchcraft craze was over, did the Salem/Boston leaders take responsibility for their mistakes? Not really. A few prominent figures (such as Samuel Sewall) suggested in a roundabout way that perhaps some mistakes had been made, but there was no full scale acknowledgement of the guilt of the leaders in causing the deaths of so many innocent people. It was not until more time had passed that later generations could look at the situation with more objective eyes.
What actually caused the “bewitched” girls’ symptoms? We will never know what felled the girls, whether it had more to do with their souls or their chores, with parental attention or inattention. The prickling sensations, the twitching, stammering, and grimacing, the ulcerated skin and twisted limbs, the curled tongues and convex backs, the deliriums, the “furious invectives against imaginary individuals” do however conform precisely to what nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, with Freud following him, termed hysteria. Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. When sublimated, distress will manifest physically, holding the body hostage. Charcot’s drawings of convulsing hysterics agree in every detail with the scenes that left Deodat Lawson reeling (Schiff 387)
“What they developed sounds to have been a form of emotional laryngitis; a sense of suffocation tends to accompany hysteria. The girls expressed in fits what they could not communicate in words, or what no one seemed to hear when they entrusted it to words. . . Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else” (387). Shiff points out that “Conversion disorder also favors backwaters, women (especially young women), and the fatherless. It tends to break out in convents, schools, and hospitals, in tight-knit, emotionally charged environments. Freud noted that the especially visual, intellectually astute child will suffer first” (388).
Fortunately, our country has progressed well beyond the point where we could become hysterical about the demonic influence of any group of people. We don’t need to worry this could ever happen again. (Note the heavy sarcasm here.)
P.S. For a gripping fictional account of the witch trials, read or watch Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. His play is based on Marion Starkey’s history The Devil in Massachusetts, published in the 1940s.
This blog post is my 1600-1699 entry for the When are you reading? challenge.