Spending time in “a suburb of Hell” – The Witches, by Stacy Schiff

November 30, 2015 at 2:46 am (Book review, books)

563274521907e.image  I’ve been brooding over how to write about the experience of reading this book. It was like being immersed in a soup of evil…

Although witches had been accused and executed prior to 1692, it was in that year that the accusations and executions reached a fever pitch. Twenty people were convicted of practicing witchcraft and put to death for it – nineteen by hanging and one, Giles Corey – by being “pressed to death.” Because he refused to enter  plea, this is what was done to him:

As a result of his refusal to plead, on September 17, Sheriff George Corwin led Corey to a pit in the open field beside the jail and in accordance with the above process, before the Court and witnesses, stripped Giles of his clothing, laid him on the ground in the pit, and placed boards on his chest. Six men then lifted heavy stones, placing them one by one, on his stomach and chest. Giles Corey did not cry out, let alone make a plea.

After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, “More weight.” More and more rocks were piled on him, and the Sheriff from time to time would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey’s bulging eyes. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, “In the pressing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again.”

Three mouthfuls of bread and water were fed to the old man during his many hours of pain. Finally, Giles Corey cried out “More weight!” and died. Supposedly, just before his death, he cursed Sheriff Corwin and the entire town of Salem.

from the Wikipedia entry

At the time that this extraordinarily cruel procedure was  carried out upon him, the resolutely brave Giles Corey was eighty-one years old. (Sheriff George Corwin, by the by, was a major beneficiary of the Salem witch hunt, as he eagerly confiscated the property of the condemned souls and parceled out the booty to his confederates and to his own bulging coffers.)

The devil was loose, all right. But the sanctimonious judges, in thrall to a group of shrieking, convulsing girls, had, it would seem, gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The death of seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was similarly appalling. A blameless woman of exemplary character and piety, she was very nearly acquitted. But one of the judges – William Stoughton, I believe, a man with much to answer for – gave the jury a pointed warning, and they ended by convicting her, probably because they were afraid not to. She, along with eighteen others, was hanged in 1692, a year in which the devil enjoyed an exceptionally rich harvest of souls in Salem Town, Salem Village, and nearby Andover.

As Schiff describes them, the Puritans of New England were almost fated to experience this dire  (as perceived by them) onslaught of malevolence:

The Puritan was wary and watchful. His faith kept him off balance and on guard. And if you intended  to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke–on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it–seventeenth century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.

(You’ll note the exclusive use of the male pronoun in this passage. Women were ostensibly powerless, able neither to vote nor to serve on juries. However, as is often the case in such situations, they found other ways to exert their influence.)

And what of the accusers? They were for the most part in late adolescence, though Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams were ten or eleven at the time, and Mary Warren may have attained the age of twenty. The core group was composed of eight girls. In the course of their testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, they came up with some remarkable scenarios: spectral evidence; witches perched in the rafters; diabolical convocations in moonlit meadows; bites in the  flesh of a number of the girls, the wounds supposedly inflicted by the accused witches; and much more. But perhaps most astonishing of all was the credence of the judges. That, and an almost incomprehensible laxity in the judicial proceedings, virtually assured the disaster that was to follow:

Hathorne [Judge John Hathorne] never asked saucy Abigail Hobbs to produce the finery the devil had promised. Nor did he quarantine the girls or interview them separately,, as every legal manual advised. He made no attempt to match teeth marks to dentistry, which would have yielded some surprising results, one of the accused having, noted a contemporary, “not a tooth in his head wherewith to bite.”

To get at what motivated these young women, it helps to have some idea what their lives were like. Schiff has synthesized this description of the ideal Puritan young woman from the writings of a number of contemporary clergymen:

She was a sterling amalgam of modesty, piety, and tireless industry. She spoke neither too soon nor too much. She read her Scripture twice daily. Her father was her prince and judge; his authority was understood to be absolute. She deferred to him as she would to the man she would marry, in her early twenties.

Sound like any teen-age girls you know – or have ever known? It seems likely that they were desperate for an outlet – any outlet – and this, unfortunately, was what they came up with. Some of their inventions, ironically, probably emanated from the world view that the adults around them had helped to create. This was especially true of the household of Samuel Parris, where the trouble began:

The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic. The house was cold and growing colder. Disaffected churchmen thumped heavily in and out of the parsonage to air powerful resentments.Betty and Abigail had no escape from those furies in early 1692, the dark, bleak, and confined months when death felt closer, when witchcraft accusations tended to peak. It helped that the girls occupied the kind of small, sealed-off place that makes good theater (and good detective fiction); witchcraft charges less often emanated from urban addresses. In an isolate community, in a tightly would household, the people who observed and conceivably caused the girls’ distress were the only ones to whom they could appeal.

Schiff concludes: “Whether precipitated by a visit from Sarah Good, a message from the pulpit, or an interior anguish, something disabled them.” Add to all this the severe New England winter, with its extreme cold, fierce storms and impenetrable dark, plus the threat of Indian attacks, and it becomes clear that the pressure must have been well nigh unbearable.

Stacy Schiff’s tone throughout this book is an interesting mixture of compassion and irreverence. One reviewer called it “glib.” I can see where  some readers might be disconcerted by it, but I personally was grateful. An opportunity to smile, however short-lived, provided relief from the almost unrelenting horror of this narrative. When I told a friend that I was reading this book, she said she was not planning to do so because she feared it would be too disturbing. It is disturbing, all right. It is also enraging and frightening. One thing it isn’t, is dull. The Witches tells a fascinating and very complex story, replete with a large  cast of characters. (A list of these characters at the front of the book is extremely helpful, especially since there’s an inordinate number of females named Mary, Sarah, Abigail, or Ann; also quite a few mothers and daughters with the same first names.)

As I was reading Schiff’s book, the works of two other writers kept coming to mind: Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In The Crucible, Miller meant the witchcraft trials to serve as a metaphor for the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s efforts to find and root out Communist subversion. But the subject matter and Miller’s treatment of it were so compelling that the play now stands on its own merits as a powerful record of a terrible time in our history.

When I read The Crucible in my student days, I remember being filled with wonder and dread. I haven’t revisited that famed drama for many years, though now I think I’d like to. Hawthorne, on the other hand, I have long loved. I return to the stories again and again. Unlike Arthur Miller, Hawthorne dealt with  the long shadow of Salem indirectly and obliquely. His stories are infused with the supernatural aura of a world that is not quite real, in which good but naive souls are menaced by an unseen, unnamed evil. Among my favorites are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”

Born in Salem in 1804, Hawthorne was a direct descendant of John Hathorne, one of the judges in the witchcraft trials. He added the ‘w’ to his last name on purpose to obscure the kinship. (I, on the other hand, have felt a sort of kinship with this author, having visited his home in Concord, Mass. on several occasions.)

Stacey Schiff appeared – in costume, no less! – on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about The Witches:

Here she is again on CBS This Morning:

I found two documentaries on the witchcraft trials on YouTube. I haven’t had a chance to watch either of them and so cannot attest to their quality. One was shown on the History Channel; the other, on the Geographic Channel.

Finally, here is the trailer for the 1996 movie version of The Crucible, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Joan Allen.

I’ve not seen  this film, but from the above I gather that heavy emphasis is placed on the supposed illicit love shared by John Proctor and Abigail Williams. To my knowledge, this relationship was Miller’s invention. There is no intimation of it in the historical record. But then, as Stacy Schiff would be the first to tell you, there has got to be plenty that never made it into that record.






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