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The Witches: Salem, 1692
by stacy schiff
little, brown and company, 496 pages, $32

Of all the catchphrases Americans employ in times of political crisis, “witch hunt” is perhaps the most unsettling. It casts opponents as evil, not merely wrong. Richard Hofstadter famously labeled this tendency in American politics “the paranoid style,” and saw it as a common thread in our political discourse. Faced with inexplicable events, Hofstadter observed, the American mind drifts toward “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Playing the witch card, however, unleashes a special form of paranoia. It brings to mind 1692 Salem and the nineteen men and women executed for witchcraft. It is a singular blemish on a system of jurisprudence that was otherwise among the fairest of its time. Worse still, it arose in an egalitarian community, thus eroding America’s faith in the good sense of the common man, especially in times of extreme crisis. The Salem witch trials are our reign of terror, and we live in fear of them happening again.

Stacy Schiff’s The Witches offers a spritely narrative of the events as they unfolded. Her aim is to recover the complex human motivations and historical context from arcane documents and popular caricature. Peppered with allusions to Harry Potter, hallucinogens, and social media, her story is geared not to the dour antiquarian, but to the pop culture enthusiast. If the people who endured the witchcraft trials are not familiar to us, at least our narrator is. In her telling, a deponent at the trial sounded “as if he were on a low-grade acid trip.”

True to form, then, The Witches begins cinematically. We meet Salem’s most notorious sorceresses (Martha Carrier, Ann Foster, and the West Indian slave Tituba) mid-flight, soaring over New England’s dense oak forests on a broomstick as “a plush carpet of meadows and hillocks unfurled beneath” them. Schiff encourages us to immerse ourselves in their exhilaration, hoping that this wild ride will open our minds to the reality of these women and their accusers. For a time, it does. As Schiff ushers us through the day-to-day lives of the people who appear in most history books either as bland plaintiffs and defendants or as overblown emblems of right and wrong, she presents a New England rich in individual concerns and concrete detail. If an event takes place on a Wednesday, the yeasty fragrance of bread dough rises along with it (for Wednesday was baking day in New England). In the meetinghouse where the trials transpire, the boarded-up windows and decaying sills reflect the community’s economic distress. The Salem witch trials, Schiff notes, began in Salem Village, founded largely as a buffer against Indian attacks on the more prosperous Salem Town and mostly inhabited by tenant farmers.

Soon we encounter Samuel Parris, the embattled local minister, whose disgruntled parishioners have withheld his salary as punishment for a lukewarm ministry. It is within his own household that the witchcraft accusations begin, when his nine-year-old daughter experiences a fit of apoplexy. In what becomes a recurrent pattern, young girls accuse older women (mostly servants and social outliers) of witchcraft, writhing wildly before their parents and local magistrates under the “pinching” and prodding of their tormentors’ invisible hands. Allegations spread like a virus, no longer targeting only the poor, but also the elites. Presiding over it all is fifty-one-year-old Justice of the Peace John Hathorne, the great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne (who added the “w” to his name). By turns plodding and relentless, Hathorne presses his inquiries forward, even when witnesses wrongly identify their supposed torturers or rely on “spectral evidence” alone, pointing to spirits of the witches careening in the meetinghouse rafters, which only the tormented can see.

Yet Schiff wisely resists making Hathorne a malevolent figure. For him and his community, witchcraft is real and a genuine danger. How else would witches do the devil’s will except by invisible and occult means? This is the greatest strength of The Witches. Blow-by-blow accounts of the various depositions breathe new life into the original court records’ terse reportage, though no one would wish them longer. We see both accuser and accused as people, not victims, even if we never completely understand their motivations. The Witches is based, too, on careful research. Schiff’s sources, primary and secondary, are sound, and by the end of her account of that fateful year in Salem, we have encountered all the major players and heard the prevailing interpretations found in academic studies of the trials.

At times, however, the details overwhelm the story. By the book’s third chapter, only the most encyclopedic of minds can keep track of defendants and accusers. Only in the book’s penultimate chapter does Schiff provide some themes and contextual facts that make sense of the proceedings at Salem.

The first is gender. What are we to make of the fact that 80 percent of the accused were women? Schiff believes that the witchcraft accusations of young women and girls reflect the desires of an up-and-coming generation of female New Englanders for more social agency. Yet her concluding summary of their lives after the trials reveals no firm pattern. Some lived more empowered lives; others did not.

Another theme concerns the line between accusers and accused. It was not simply poor women who were targeted. Men and women on both sides of the growing economic divide accused their opposites of witchcraft. Here, Schiff discerns an important outlier: Maine minister George Burroughs, who was eventually executed. He had no real part in the local grudges of Salem Village. Why, then, was he singled out as its ringleader?

The Witches concludes that the Massachusetts colony’s precarious position in the newly restored British Empire played the biggest role. Having kicked out their royal governor four years before the trials, the colony had just been granted a new charter by the Crown. Along with it came a new governor—and the vindication of elite Bostonians’ sense of superiority over other colonists. Schiff squarely places the blame for trials lasting too long and claiming too many lives at the feet of the Boston magistrate William Stoughton, who was sent to Salem to affirm the colony’s proper oversight of the matter. “In prosecuting witches,” Schiff observes, “he simultaneously redeemed himself at home and [proved] the colonists could govern themselves in an orderly, Old World way.”

If Schiff had developed this case further, with the inference that Stoughton’s desire to prove his colony’s worth to the Crown had allowed him to rationalize the trials’ terrible destructiveness, we might have understood Salem as something more than a symptom of the “paranoid style.” Her narrative suggests that strong leadership would have saved lives and maintained the social order better than executions and imprisonment did. Yet The Witches leaves us in much the same place we were before we read it. The moral of the story, as Schiff tells it, is that Salem is a “crowd-sourced cautionary tale, a reminder that . . . extreme right can blunder into extreme wrong.” Even the most generous reader will find this statement unsatisfying. We come to this subject grasping for the wherefores and whys.

One can never quite shake the feeling that Schiff’s story is narrated too much in the shadow of those tousled-haired suburban wizards of J. K. Rowling’s creation, even as the events it describes show that witchcraft was not simply paranoid fantasy in seventeenth-century New England. As the trials and executions proceed and allegations become ever more bizarre, her insouciant style begins to seem like a shallow reaction to the horrors, a way of reducing them to recognizable human folly.

The most famous representation of the trials, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, goes in the opposite direction. Miller didn’t trivialize the terror. He absorbed it, taking it in as he read the records closely in the Salem courthouse before composing the play. “When I walked at night along the empty, wet streets of Salem in the week that I spent there,” he recalled in a 1996 essay (“Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible,’” the New Yorker), “I could easily work myself into imagining my terror before a gaggle of young girls flying down the road screaming that somebody’s ‘familiar spirit’ was chasing them.” He found the “human center” of the play in a macabre moment when a young woman in court raises her hand to strike an older woman she accuses of witchery, but as her fist gets closer to the woman’s head, it opens and her fingers extend and gently touch the other’s hood—at which point, the accuser screams that her hands are burning.

It’s a horrifying performance. When Miller says that it was motivated by bad blood between the two women, who had lived in the same house and, perhaps, slept with the same man, he doesn’t dispel the horror. He shows that ordinary human impulses can, indeed, decay into grotesque incrimination—if a community is breaking down and can no longer contain our seething resentments.

Phillip Round is John C. Gerber Professor of English at the University of Iowa.