“It’s really a book about anxiety,” said author Stacy Schiff of her latest tome The Witches: Salem, 1692, which gives an astoundingly thorough examination of the infamous 1692 Salem trials that remain unendingly fascinating today. In the 300-plus years hence, the facts of what occurred during the course of that year have morphed and been misrepresented — no one was burned at the stake, although 19 people were hanged, men included. Schiff puts straight what actually transpired and sheds light on the human behavior that allowed such mass hysteria to occur: “Why do we give in so easily to delusion? How do we live with terror? How do we make ourselves feel less anxious?” Schiff posited during a recent phone interview from her home in New York. Below is a truncated version of our chat about her riveting book and its spellbinding topic.
What got you interested in writing about the Salem witch trials? Well, partly it seemed to me to be one of those moments that we go back to over and over but we don’t really know anything about … like how quickly this happened or that men were victims and that a minister was a victim. … So much of our thinking, even today in the course of the elections, what you see on the Internet, in the way rumors go viral — it’s so resonant with this history. It seemed to be a moment that was worth taking a closer look at it.
To me, it seems like the mass hysteria about witches is almost like the mass hysteria over terrorism. It’s a very similar moment where everything feels like it’s dislocated. And because of that, and because you aren’t in control, you need to somehow confront some kind of menace or identify some kind of menace in your midst. … And that feels very soothing in some strange way, and you can see that at work in 1692 just as well as you see it today.
Puritanism played a huge role in that the congregation was told to basically watch your neighbor; they might be the Devil. A community is only as pure as its weakest link, so if your neighbor sins, then you are equally responsible in some way. So you’re building this biblical commonwealth, and it depends on the virtue of everyone around you. … You can see how it would get to the point where you could feel you were doing your duty. When that becomes a kind of cleansing ritual, you’re in trouble.
It was crazy how much power the teenage girls’ accusations wielded. What’s interesting in terms of how much power they wielded … [is] why did the adults take them so seriously? What is the adult agenda that would make them want to legitimize the girls’ claims? That’s the real question there. We’ll never be able to diagnose the girls, but the fact that these stories are taken at face value, and then you know, retailed to the extent that they are really is amazing.
I was surprised by the rapidity with which the accusations and trials happened. First of all, they felt they had to eliminate this immediately … And second, this is major in terms of capital crime; it is second from the top — idolatry, witchcraft, and then murder. And you’ve got no justices for the defense. So things move very quickly once they get to court, as well.
Did you find something particularly surprising after writing about this? The more I worked [on it], the more topical it seemed. Because so much of it — this was before Trump started, even before the political discourse began to resemble it — racial profiling, crowd-sourcing, crowd-sourced stories, public shaming — so much that we were doing online … So that was that clear connection, as well. And I was impressed by the politics, because this was, you know, a political period which is completely forgotten. … There had been witchcraft accusations before; there had been witchcraft trials before. What really makes this happen is the relentless prosecution, and that, to me, is really largely for political reasons.
What are you going to discuss at UCSB? I’ll do a talk about the book, which will be about what witchcraft really was, and then I’ll follow one person through, probably Martha Corey, because I have really good documents on Martha Corey. And not so much give a sense of why it happened, but what happened. Because I think we misunderstand that, and then I leave the why it happened to the Q&A.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Stacy Schiff Monday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Hall. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. For the full interview, see independent.com/witches.