The Witches – Stacy Schiff

The Witches – Stacy Schiff
Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company
496 pp.

Stacy Schiff’s 2015 release The Witches is a thoroughly-researched, thoroughly end-noted (57 pages of them) non-ficton study of the New England witch panic of the early 1690s and the witchcraft trials that followed, with the main focus being on the town of Salem, Massachusetts.

The Witches - Stacy Schiff

Schiff begins by setting the scene, introducing the individuals and families involved in the coming paroxym of fear and rigid justice, as well as the town itself, setting all within well-explored historical and relational contexts. She spends a good bit of time on the rocky political and social history of the fledgling colony, as well as providing a solid understanding of the Puritans and their faith, and the ramifications of both for their collective character and psycology. This is time well-spent, as both are contributors to what happened and, more importantly, primary determinants of how it happened.

When the witchery begins, Schiff has to tell a complex story, and her sources are centuries-old observations made from numerous, quite varied viewpoints. This telling could quickly become cumbersome; Schiff avoids this difficulty by presenting a straightforward, unified narrative of events that reads with the smoothness of fiction; if interested, the reader can delve into sourcing and attributions in the endnotes. The pacing, writing and subject matter combine to maintain the reader’s interest in what could be dry history in the wrong hands.

Schiff’s coverage of the trials is an excellent example of this approach. Actual records are fragmentary and biased by the recorders, and the scenes themselves were emotionally-charged and, at times, chaotic; the result is a disjointed collection of multivariate impressions, which Schiff works into a smooth, connected narrative. Her recounting of the trials was particularly revealing to me; I had no idea that the victms of witchcraft played such an active role in the prosecutions, providing “spectral evidence” of the witches’ guilt via the “touch test” and the torment that they suffered with every glance and gesture of the defendants. As elsewhere, Schiff sets the trials in a proper legal/historical context, examining Colonial law and its evolution from British law, all without being pedantic.

The “action,” so to speak, is followed by a solid, multi-level look at the aftermath of the witch panic and trials, exploring their far-reaching, and in some cases devastating, effects on individuals, families, the town of Salem, and Colonial society as a whole, both short-term and long-term.

Schiff closes with an explanation of sorts; she does not examine the various theories propounded by others, nor does she advance a theory of her own; rather, she shows how the unique intersection of aberrant psychology, the Puritan mindset, adolescent angst and the intense collective stresses of the time, place and season could combine to produce the evidence of witchcraft and confessions thereof (and indeed had done so in the past), and how factors specific to that point in the history of Salem caused this belief that some among them were witches— in and of itself nothing new for the Puritans— to explode into a brief firestorm of accusations, imprisonments and executions.

The pains to which Schiff goes to provide the proper context for the events that she recounts make this a valuable read if you want to understand why they happened, and her writing style and approach to the subject matter combine to make it an enjoyable read as well. Recommended.

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