Book: The Witches, Stacy Schiff

“In this place they would establish Satan’s Kingdom, where his recruits could expect happy days and better times.”

The Essex County witchcraft scare of 1692 in and around Salem Massachusetts reveals that certain ideas have always haunted America’s colonizers and their descendants: fear of the devil, fear of outsiders and invaders, fear of conspiracy, and most of all fear of persecution by enemies who are anonymous and invisible but somehow seem no less real for it.

Pulitzer-winning biographer Stacy Schiff chronicles the entire sordid affair, from its roots in the strange affliction of a minister’s niece and daughter through the theocratic crusade that executed 19 people for crimes that are impossible to commit and into the lessons of what happens when religious extremism becomes the norm.

Reader Guide

There are countless books about Salem and its witch trials, but the problem with many of them is that they try to offer specific, rote hypotheses to “explain” the moral and legal panic of the period and sometimes include an awful lot of speculation.

Schiff’s book sticks largely to the facts of the case but still explores the larger context. European colonizers of New England believed that the devil was constantly harassing them, that nearby native tribes–with whom they’d been at war for a generation–and enemy states were agents of Satan, and that persecution by evil powers may lie at the root of any misfortune that befalls them.

In Schiff’s account of this period we can see the outline of the theology, persecution complexes, conspiracy think, and cultural paranoia that persists in America to this day, and reminds us of the terrible consequences of allowing religious zealotry to become the predominant force in society.

Some critics have criticized Schiff for factual errors, and the book tends toward a stream of consciousness style that’s distracting at times. It’s not the most straightforward account of the history, but it is one of the ones with the least amount of baggage.