There have been plenty of books and plays about the Salem witch trials of 1692, a dark but compelling chapter of early American history.
Stacy Schiff, author of “Vera,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the life of author Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and “Cleopatra: A Life,” thought there was still a lot more about Salem to be discovered. Her book, “The Witches: Salem, 1692” (Little, Brown and Company) is the result.
Schiff will speak and sign her book, along with four other authors, at the 89th Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon on Monday at Burton Manor in Livonia.
The author explained what drew her to the Salem tragedy.
“I was thinking about chapters in American history that are both riveting and consequential, and the Salem witch trials have attained a sort of mythic presence,” she said. “We go back to the witch trials over and over, it’s so much a part of our DNA.
“It’s a fascinating story, but it also had huge ramifications for what came next. It was a dress rehearsal for the American Revolution.”
The chaotic political situation in 1690s Massachusetts hasn’t gotten enough credit for leading to the witch trials, Schiff said. The colony was adrift, without a government because of a political coup, in 1692.
“The men who prosecuted the witchcraft, including the ministers, were the men who had instigated that coup,” Schiff said.
As a result of the Puritans’ extreme religious beliefs, the village’s isolation and a hard, colorless life of physical labor, the village succumbed to a sort of mass hysteria. In the end, 20 people were tried, convicted and hanged for witchcraft.
Schiff’s style is dense and impressionistic; she wants the reader to see, hear and smell what it was like to live in Puritan Salem, before processing the trials. She doesn’t front-load the book with theories about why it happened, but instead drops clues in each chapter, leading up to the ending.
How could Ann Foster come to believe that she not only rode on a pole to a demonic meeting, bread and cheese in her pocket, but fell and hurt her leg?
Why did the Indian slave Tituba claim that a man accompanied by a yellow bird (or later, disguised as two red cats, a black dog, and a hog) came to her and ordered her to torture several young girls? It was all alleged torture, all in the girls’ imaginations, but it was accepted as fact, and could not be disputed by any of the accused.
“Salem was this locked room mystery,” Schiff said. “It gnaws at us because we feel we can’t truly get to the bottom of it. How could this happen? It seems so discordant with what we know of our past. There were still a lot of questions hovering over it.”
It was in February 1692 that the first of dozens of women and several men were accused of being witches, based upon the testimony of fellow villagers, starting with a handful of pre-teen and teenaged girls who were suffering what appeared to be involuntary seizures.
Some of the accused witches were village characters, including a homeless woman, and those who were “different,” such as Tituba, the slave. But as time went on, even ministers and longtime residents were caught up in the accusations. In some cases husbands denounced wives, and daughters betrayed their mothers.
Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” is set in Salem in 1692, and many other books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about it.
The term “witch trial” has long been shorthand in American culture, “but we don’t necessarily know what those words refer to,” Schiff said. “The myths have overgrown the reality.”
For her research, the historian pored over Essex County court transcripts to get a sense of why and how the witch hysteria broke out. Salem Village, it turned out, was a litigious, insular backwater town, where neighbors frequently squabbled over fences and straying livestock.
Debt and drunkenness were common, and women were in constant peril of assault. Neighboring townspeople looked down upon the village as a fractious, unhappy place.
The 17th century language and details are vivid. One servant calls her mistress “an ordinary whore, burnt-tail bitch and hopping toad.”
The extreme superstition of so many in the community is illustrated by cases such as the husband who blames his impotence on “witches in the woods.”
It seems strange to modern sensibilities, but these Puritans, who came to Massachusetts to set up a “pure” religious society, thought that spectral beings, animals and people flying through the air, were as normal and real as the devil.
Even one of the most educated men in Massachusetts, the minister Cotton Mather, believed implicitly that witches walked among them.
“Everybody believed in witches,” Schiff said. “There are occasional villagers who would say ‘I don’t know what a witch is,’ but they all believed in the concept. The skeptical literature about witchcraft hasn’t yet made it into Massachusetts. England is no longer prosecuting witches, but they don’t know that yet. That’s why the trial attracts such attention.”
Nobody questioned the existence of witchcraft after the trial, either, they had no regrets, said Schiff. “They just probably thought they prosecuted the wrong people.”
One of the most interesting parts of the story to Schiff was after the witch trials and the hangings were over. After so many villagers turned against each other, how could they return to “normalcy”?
“How do you go back to living alongside people who accused you? “ Schiff said. “How does a girl go home where she is motherless, because she sent her mother to the gallows? Or the minister who accused his parishioner … how does the world reconstitute itself afterward?”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
89th Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon
27777 Schoolcraft Road (at I-96 and Inkster)
11 a.m.: Books may be purchased; noon: luncheon; 1 p.m.: Speakers begin
Authors will autograph books after the luncheon
Tickets are $40, available online at bookandauthor.info and by phone at (586) 685-5750
Ann Hood: Author of the best-selling novels “The Red Thread,” “The Obituary Writer” and “The Knitting Circle.” She also writes nonfiction, for which she’s won food writing and travel writing awards. Her latest novel is “The Book That Matters Most.”
Marisa Silver: Her 2001 collection of short stories, “Babe in Paradise,” was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The New York Times has called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers,” and her 2013 novel “Mary Coin” was a New York Times bestseller. Her latest novel is “Little Nothing.” /
Randy Wayne White: The Florida-based crime fiction writer has written 23 Doc Ford novels, including “Deep Blue.” The fishing and nature enthusiast has also produced four collections of nonfiction; and the novels “Haunted”, “Gone,” “Deceived,” and the latest, “Seduced,” featuring the Florida fishing guide and part-time investigator Hannah Smith.
Patricia Anstett: The veteran reporter spent 22 years as a medical writer for the Detroit Free Press, where she wrote often about breast cancer. Her book, “Breast Cancer Surgery & Reconstruction: What’s Right for You,” is a guide for women describing the ins and outs of lumpectomy, mastectomy and breast reconstruction, via the stories of women who experienced the procedures.