The Witches: Salem 1692 | Author: Stacy Schiff | Rating 9/11 |
In any American history course, there are certain dates that take precedence: July 4, 1776 (Independence Day). April 12, 1861 (The beginning of the American Civil War). Salem 1692.
That last date is one that is shrouded in mystery. Aside from Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which is an allegory for McCarthyism, not much is known about the Salem Witch Trials. Although a number of books have been written on the topic, many rumors still circulate to this day regarding what exactly happened in the Salem courtroom (contrary to popular belief, no accused witches were actually burned), and the little that is known is rather murky. Fourteen women, five men and two dogs were hanged during the trials, as well as one man who was crushed to death for refusing to confess.
In Stacy Schiff’s newest historical narrative, The Witches: Salem 1692, she attempts to uncloud the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials. Similar to her epic, Cleopatra, Schiff paints fascinating scenes. However, unlike Cleopatra, the scenes in The Witches: Salem 1692 border on terrifying as Schiff masterfully illustrates a town gone mad. The town’s jails sweltered with heat and disease covered women. Giles Corey’s, the aforementioned man who was crushed to death, moans echoed through the town as stone after stone was placed on him. The girls shrieks every time they encountered a “witch” sent shivers down the judges spines. Schiff’s gruesome prose starts to bring to light just how horrific and confusing the trials were.
While the scenes are expertly set, the characters do begin to get muddled. This may be because the Puritans themselves were fairly interchangeable (a number of Sarah’s and Ann’s were accused) but towards the middle of the book the cast of characters in Salem begin to get confusing. Tituba, the Parris’ slave who was the first to confess to being a witch, stands out the most for her imaginative descriptions of witches and of “the black man,” including “a yellow bird accompanied her visitor. He appeared as two red cats, an oversize black one, a black dog, a hog.” The backstory of Samuel Parris, whose two young nieces were the first to fall into “fits and convulsions” also proves to be quite fascinating, as he was a preacher scorned by his own sheep.
Despite the confusing narratives at times, The Witches: Salem 1692 is an intriguing read. Schiff considers all of the different reasons as to why the trials occurred in the first place (neighborhood strifes, PTSD from constant attacks from the French and Indians, adolescent cries for attention) and why they remain such an integral part of American history crafting a sympathetic yet mysterious tone that captures the Salem Witch Trials in a new light.