Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, The Witches is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story -- the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.
Praise For The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem…
"The Witches is the fullest and finest story ever told about Salem in 1692, and no one else could tell it with the otherworldly flair of Stacy Schiff."—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Quartet
"Stacy Schiff has beautifully combined remarkable story telling with historical accuracy and insight. Shehas opened up important new avenues for Salem scholarship."—Bernard Rosenthal, editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt
"Stacy Schiff's The Witches is an indelibly etched morality fable, the best recounting of the Salem hysteria in modern times. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Schiff makes the complex seem simple, crafting a taut narrative that takes in religion, politics, folklore, and the intricate texture of daily life in Massachusetts Bay, with particular attention to those 'wonder-working' women and girls who chose this moment to blow apart the Puritan utopia they'd helped to found. It's all here in one devilish, oracular book."—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller
"Enchanting. Out of the shadows of the past come excitable young girls, pompous ministers, abusive judges, grieving parents, and angry neighbors, all of them caught up in a terrifying process that seemed to have no end: discovering who among them deserved death for being in league with Satan. The Witches is as close as we will ever come to understanding what happened in and around Salem in 1692. Courtrooms, streets, churches, farm yards, taverns, bedrooms-all became theater-like places where anger, anxiety, sorrow, and tragedy are entangled. An astonishing achievement."—David D. Hall, Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History, Harvard University
"From Cleopatra to the Salem coven. From intelligent rule to hysteria, mayhem, and murder. The Salem witch trials offer Stacy Schiff an out-sized drama that seized Americans' imaginations more than 300 years ago. All of Schiff's books demonstrate her rigor as a historian and her dexterity as a stylist. The Witches proves she has something else: the instincts of a thriller writer. This book needs a seat belt."—Kathryn Harrison, author of Joan of Arc
"Once again Stacy Schiff dazzles us. The Witches is a must read for anyone intrigued by this baffling and horrifying chapter from America's Puritan past. What Schiff uncovers is mesmerizing and shocking. Her meticulous research and lyrical writing lay bare an injustice that we should never forget-lest we repeat it."—Patricia Cornwell, author of Depraved Heart
"Schiff, who had a hit with her biography Cleopatra, may get even more attention for her new look at America's infamous witch trials."—Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"The Witches is a vivid investigation of the original American nightmare. Stacy Schiff brilliantly teases apart the strands of myth and history. In an age when superstition remains a vibrant and dangerous force, her book is, alas, also relevant."—Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World
"Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a reliably entertaining guide...[to] one of the strangest, most fascinating chapters in American history."—Tom Beer, Newsday
"Few authors set the scene of history quite like Stacy Schiff.... The Witches brings a fresh eye to the worst misogynist atrocity in American history, tracing the complex cultural and psychological origins of the Puritan hysteria."—Megan O'Grady, Vogue.com
"Unlike the drudgery of the movie adaptation of The Crucible, which you probably watched in high school, Schiff writes with conviction and a strong sense of narrative, elevating the dry snooze of history to a new level. It's an endlessly fascinating read."—Megan Reynolds, Gawker
"Schiff possesses a talent for forcing us to rethink what we know.... The Witches explodes a lot of myths."—Deirdre Donahue, AARP
"A brilliant, exceptionally well-researched account of the 1692 Salem witch trials.... Much of what is so compelling about The Witches is how vividly Schiff brings this very different era to life.... This narrative approach works so well because Schiff just happens to be a superb and witty writer.... The Witches definitely sparkles."—Alden Mudge, BookPage
Back Bay Books, 9780316200592, 512pp.
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
About the Author
Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Government, she lives in New York City.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. In The Witches, Stacy Schiff evokes what everyday life was like for the Puritans of Massachusetts. Drawing from Schiff’s descriptions, what about the culture and routines of Puritan society would you say laid the foundation for the explosion of witchcraft?
2. The events of the book take place in the 17th century. Can you imagine something similar taking place today? Can you point to recent current events that have parallels to those Schiff describes?
3. In modern society, there are many who feel strongly that science and a belief in magic are incompatible. Was this also the case in the time of The Witches? How did the popularity of mysticism among highly educated citizens influence the way Puritan authorities handled accusations of witchcraft?
4. Consider the role gender played in the Salem witch trials. Most of those affected—whether in the position of accused or accuser—were female. What do you make of this? What social forces does Schiff suggest may have led to this gender imbalance?
5. Schiff often compares the experiences of the possessed women to the experiences of Joan of Arc, drawing parallels between the visions they had. At a time when women weren’t allowed in the military, Joan of Arc used her visions to justify fighting in the armies of King Charles VII, and went on to become a hero. Think about the place of Puritan women and girls in society at the time of the trials. Did those who claimed to be victims of witchcraft derive a similar power from their visions?
6. Contrast the reactions of the officials—the two Mathers, Judges Hawthorne and Sewall, Parris, Stoughton, and ultimately Thomas Brattle—to the crisis. Who do you think exercised his influence the most responsibly?
7. On page 414 Schiff writes: “In troubled times, we naturally look for traitors, terrorists, secret agents.” What fueled the Puritans’ panic? Identify and discuss examples from your lifetime in which widespread panic has ignited. Were these instances of panic the product of deeper anxieties?
8. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, one of the most influential literary depictions of the witch crisis, was written and performed during the Red Scare, a period marked by fear of Communism’s influence over American life. What do you suppose prompted Stacy Schiff’s decision to research and write about Salem now, at this moment in history? In what ways do the events that have unfolded in the wake of 9/11 echo the period of the witch crisis?
9. Because of the small size and religious intensity of their community, the Puritans led very public lives, and the power of reputation and shaming provided fertile ground for accusations of witchcraft. With the rise of the internet as replacement for the public square in today’s culture, has the act of shaming become more potent? How so? Does the society you live in place as high a premium on a clean reputation as Puritan society did? The Puritans held each other accountable for their adherence to a shared moral code. Do you find that this is true today? Who holds you accountable?
10. Can you imagine how those in and around the two Salems resumed their normal lives, how families embraced children who had accused now-dead relatives, how neighbors greeted those against whom they had testified, how congregants treated ministers who had denounced their family members? How do you read the various apologies and the timing of those apologies?