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Why Salem bought in to witchcraft hysteria

In 1692, the colonial town of Salem, Massachusetts, became caught up in a fervor over alleged witchcraft. In her new book “The Witches,” Stacy Schiff explores what led a group of Puritans to execute 19 people. She sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss why the events still captivate us centuries later.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    An exceptionally severe winter in Massachusetts, a minister's daughter began to scream and went into convulsions. Less than a year later, 19 men and women had been hanged and one man crushed to death.

    It was all part of the Salem witch trails, and they are the focus of the latest add to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Biographer Stacy Schiff turns her gaze to "The Witches: Salem, 1692."

    She recently talked with Jeffrey Brown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The first thing that hits me here is nine months. All of this unfolded in nine months, in one year.

    STACY SCHIFF, "The Witches: Salem, 1692": Frightening speed, right?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Frightening speed.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    It's exponential. It begins with two little girls, presumably bewitched, and names begin to fly about. And before you know it, you have this explosive number of accusations.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Before you know it, that's what — and then it comes to an end.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And yet it has lived on.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right.

    And that's interesting that it's a stuttering start. Just, it flames to life, and then it dies out very quickly as well, and, yes, lives on partly because we think of this as something very unlikely to have happened in enlightened America.

    This is the kind of thing that we — that happened in the medieval world in Europe. It didn't happen here on our shores.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There are so many vivid characters here. Is there one that you could — that you remember kind of hitting you in the gut, that made you think — yes?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    I guess in terms of what is most beguiling, there's a minister at the center of this crisis who is accused of witchcraft.

    And he's partly a very compelling and many-sided character, and he's partly unexpected, because you assume that the accused witches were all women. And here you have a Harvard-educated minister who has been accused of witchcraft, and who is said to be, moreover, not just a wizard, but a conjurer. He's a rank above a wizard, so he is invested with these particularly terrific powers.

    And all fingers seem to point to him. He's the one who begins to minister diabolical sabbaths, or say the confessors, in the parsonage field in Salem village.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In bringing these people to life and this community, did you — did they feel familiar to you, or did it feel like an alien culture?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    They don't — yes, it's farther away in many ways from other subjects I have worked on intellectually.

    You really have to get into a Puritan mind-set. Religion is their means of reasoning. And that is why witchcraft becomes so — is so essential to them. It's part and parcel of the intellectual heritage. But in their gripes, in their insecurities, and in their preoccupations, and in their gnawing need to solve a puzzle, they feel just like us.

    In that sense, they strike me as our cousins in many ways.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the things that really I find interesting for you as the writer is, you have to make a decision about how to treat them, right, to treat their craziness, in a sense.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You, Stacy Schiff, do not believe that women were riding brooms around in the night, and yet those people did.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right.

    I felt like it was my job to make you understand that they truly believed this, that the women who confessed that they flew threw the air on a pole to a diabolical sabbath with their neighbors on the pole with them believed to some extent what they were saying.

    You had to buy into the idea. You had to buy into the imagery. And then you had to at the end explain why all of these seemingly delusional things really were delusional. But you had to make them feel real before you could then discuss why they were crazy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And how did you do that? How did you decide to do that?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Well, part of it was showing where they were getting this imagery from.

    And a lot of it derives from what they're hearing in the pulpit. A lot of it derives from prior witchcraft cases. The interesting thing with history, we often apply one — a previous narrative to what we see in front of us, and that happens here, where you have the whole transference of one other — of another witchcraft crisis to 1692 Salem.

    And so you begin to see how the story builds and where the ideas, how the ideas and how the agendas converge in Salem.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's certainly different for you from your other books, where you're sort of focusing on particularly one person. Right?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right. Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is a community of people.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    This is a whole tapestry.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is a whole tapestry.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Was that interesting for you? Was it harder for you?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    It's fascinating, in that you can flit from one sensibility to the other. So, it's like going to a more crowded cocktail party, instead of having an intimate dinner with one person, which I loved.

    It's such an incredibly sort of sumptuous weave of personalities. It felt richer to me in many ways. But you do have to figure out who's going to carry your story forward, which of the victims you want to write about, which of the court confessions you feel the reader needs to hear and how much time to give each of those things.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There are, of course, all kinds of theories as to why this happened, how this could have happened. Where do you come out?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Well, I come up with a theory which I hope means you have to read the book to get to, but it's a perfect storm in many ways.

    Everyone here has an agenda. The agenda just isn't entirely clear. There are very much hidden agendas. The girls have their reasons. The ministers have their reasons. The civic authorities have their reasons. The villagers have their reasons. And all of those reasons at a particularly vulnerable and explosive time for the colony happen to converge.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I'm curious. Did you want to come to a reason? Did you want to figure it out or not? Because some things are kind of better left to — such a great story, right?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Right. Right.

    No, I mean, I think this is a — to me, this strikes me as a fairly honest and thorough resolution of the mystery of Salem. I think you come away thinking, now I see how this could have happened, how all of these things could have built one upon another.

    And I think there are a lot of fresh threads here too to the tapestry of how this has come to play. The simplistic explanations, alas, fail us when it comes to an incident as incredibly widespread as this one.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the fascination continues. We somehow feel this couldn't have happened in our country.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Yes, I think it's such an unlikely thing. We don't do this kind of thing. How could our enlightened Puritan ancestors have done such a thing?

    Part of it, I think, is that we see the resonance in modern times. And part of it is just the locked room mystery of the matter. How could this have happened and how come I don't really understand it? It's the kind of uncertainty that gnawed at the same people who in 1692 accused neighbors of witchcraft.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, of course, it's been taken up ever since, right, in books and plays and movies?

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    We really do — some of us never outgrow our obsession with it. Case in point.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the book is "The Witches."

    Stacy Schiff, thanks so much.

  • STACY SCHIFF:

    Thanks, Jeff.

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