Author Stacy Schiff visited the Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square on Tuesday, September 21, to discuss her latest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, with help from moderator Brenton Simons, President and CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The nonfiction book examines the social, political, and legal landscape of the Salem witch hysteria, an ordeal that began in late winter 1692 and ended nine months later.
Schiff, who joked that she came to Boston from New York City via broom, explained that a variety of political and historical factors—including the recent King Philip’s War and the coup of Massachusetts governor Edmund Andros—contributed to an environment of fear and paranoia in 1692 Salem. It was in this unstable landscape that the first witchcraft accusations emerged after two pre-adolescent girls in the home of town minister Samuel Parris began to act strangely. Soon, other teenage girls throughout the town began to shriek and writhe, and accusations of witchcraft were leveled against everyone from a beggar woman to one of the wealthiest merchants in Salem.
Schiff explained that unlike the modern-day conception of a witch with a pointy hat and broomstick, a 17th-century witch was a religious figure, a colleague of the devil viewed as a very real threat. Witches, she said, were a way to explain everything from a misplaced item to the death of a family member—they helped explain the unexplainable. She added that accusing someone of witchcraft was also a convenient way to retaliate against an enemy.
A 17th-century court room, Schiff said, was already a rowdy place; the shrieking girls who filled Salem’s courtroom as evidence of witchcraft only added to the chaos and confusion. The accused soon learned that they could save their lives by confessing and in turn pointing a finger at a neighbor. By August of 1692, everyone on trial was confessing to witchcraft. When the hysteria ended, Schiff noted, a veil of silence fell over the trials and records were destroyed. As recently as the 1950s, when Arthur Miller visited Salem for research for The Crucible, residents were reluctant to discuss the trials.
In response to Simons’ question about possible causes for the hysteria, Schiff dismissed the old theory of poisoning by ergot—a fungus found in rye that causes hallucinations—as not possible for a variety of reasons; instead, she believes trauma resulting from King Philip’s War was a contributing factor. The brutal conflict between the colonists and Native Americans had ended about fifteen years before the trials, and everyone in Salem knew someone who had died or was a captive.
Before concluding with a question and answer session, Simons pointed out that, thanks to an invitation from the New England Historic Genealogical society, a number of the night’s audience members were descendants of the accused.
Boston Public Library holds original records from the Salem Witch Trials, including manuscript depositions, as part of our Colonial and Revolutionary Boston Collection of Distinction.
The next Author Talk features Larry Tye, author of Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, on Thursday, September 22, at 6 p.m. in Rabb Hall.