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Web extra: The American Way of Witch Hunting

The Witches: Salem, 1692

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Co.

498 pages, $32

By Thomas J. Reigstad

Fear. Panic. Anxiety. Three factors that shaped a dark period in North America’s history: the 1692 witch trials of Salem village and town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” Stacy Schiff vividly recreates the intense five-month stretch of public gullibility, ignorance and brutality. The hysteria, mob mentality and injustice that prevailed then seem eerily familiar to our current political and social landscapes, with today’s strong sentiments against refugees and intolerance toward certain religions.

In 1692, a handful of creepy but clever girls collaborated to falsely accuse their neighbors – adults and children, the pious and the profane – of engaging in witchcraft and pacts with the devil. From June through September, 14 women and five men were tried, convicted and executed.

The adolescent accusers wildly pointed to invisible Salem residents (specters) supposedly perched on courtroom rafters. They went into fits and convulsions. They charged townspeople with biting, choking, punching and pinching them. They claimed to have seen the adults riding on dogs under kitchen tables and flying on broomsticks to a local field for a mass meeting with the devil.

Puritan New England comes across as a paranoid, superstitious place, especially the rural fringe settlements like Salem. Fear reigned. Portents of evil and doom were believed. Schiff tells us that the colony of only 50,000 residents could easily fit into today’s Yankee Stadium.

Puritan settlers felt constantly under siege. Their religion preached that they were born in sin, lived in guilt and might never be saved. They dwelled amidst an untamed wilderness of menacing forests, vulnerable to raids by Native Americans, whom they viewed as satanic savages. They also felt threatened by the French, Roman Catholics, Baptists and Quakers. Not to mention the devil’s diabolical plots.

If you think the clergy was a calming presence, think again. The Mather boys, father Increase and handsome son Cotton, the famous ministerial team from Boston, stepped into the Salem mess and failed to distinguish themselves. Cotton predicted the coming of the Apocalypse and the Antichrist in three years and watched on his tall white steed while convicted witches were hanged. The Mathers published books and pamphlets confirming the existence of witches.

Schiff points out that over his career, Cotton Mather (more like “Blather”) produced 437 books.

Not until after the trials and executions had peaked, and Salem was roundly criticized by rational outsiders from Boston, New York, London and the Netherlands, did Cotton equivocate and suggest that, maybe, spectral evidence was not such a credible tool to use in prosecuting accused witches.

If you think the law was a calming presence, think again. Due process was ignored. Pregnant women, the ill, children and the elderly were accused of witchcraft, chained and thrown in Boston’s nasty Court Street jail, “a suburb of hell,” for months without formal charges lodged.

By the end of May 1692, with accusations flying in, a special court of nine justices was appointed to try the cases in Salem. By that time, 60 suspects were wallowing in prison cells. None of the justices had legal training. The judges were wealthy. Four of them were related by marriage. They immediately appealed to Cotton Mather for guidance – bad news for the suspects, indeed.

Three of the judges were Harvard graduates – Samuel Sewall, chief justice William Stoughton and Nathaniel Saltonstall, who quit after the first hanging because of reservations over the proceedings. One of the accused witches that they convicted and executed in August was a Salem pastor, George Burroughs, the only Harvard graduate ever to hang for witchcraft.

Once chief justice Stoughton decided that spectral evidence was enough, his court became a hanging factory. Trials were brief, proof was thin, but guilty verdicts were rendered. His court achieved a perfect conviction rate. The case of Rebecca Nurse was perhaps the most outrageous miscarriage of justice. After the jury pronounced the devout great-grandmother innocent of sorcery, Stoughton interceded. The jury reconsidered and found her guilty.

If you think the wrongly accused could count on friends and relatives to bail them out, think again. The witchcraft hysteria was contagious. Children accused parents. Spouses accused each other. Servants accused masters. If you spoke out in Salem to defend an accused witch, you risked being accused yourself.

Big crowds turned out for the public mass hangings, creating a carnival atmosphere. As soon as victims were executed, townspeople – even some justices – swarmed onto their estates for looting forays.

Amidst the frenzy, amazingly, the bewitched girls who did the accusing were never charged. They were treated as heroes for outing the community’s witches. They writhed and named names until the bitter end.

By the fall of 1692, the hysteria began to dissipate. Outsiders called the trials a travesty and the teenage accusers “blind, nonsensical girls.” As the winds shifted, so did the Mathers. Increase just wanted the trials to go away. Cotton was less strident than usual. Justice Stoughton signed eight more execution warrants, but Governor William Phips gave reprieves for all of them. In February, the governor declared the witchcraft epidemic to be over.

Shame soon replaced hysteria. Five years later, the colony observed a province-wide fast of repentance. Twelve of the Salem jurors asked for forgiveness. In 1711, the legislature exonerated most of the witches, clearing their names and reimbursing some families. Justice moved slowly, though – the last of the names weren’t pardoned until 2001.

Cotton Mather never expressed remorse for his role in the convictions.

Schiff, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 biography of Cleopatra, tells the sad, disturbing Salem story in a masterly way. Court scribes kept sketchy records during the Salem witch trials. And in the aftermath, key figures scrambled to sanitize or destroy diaries and official court papers. Despite the scarcity of primary sources, Schiff’s archival digging and superb writing skills produce a cautionary tale of how fear, panic and anxiety can transform a civilized society into a barbaric one.

It is no wonder that Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” found the Salem witch trials to be the perfect metaphor for a play about the anti-Communist persecutions of the 1950s. In the last chapter of “The Witches,” Schiff writes that when Miller was researching his play, no one in Salem would talk to him about 1692.

Thomas J. Reigstad is an emeritus professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State College and the author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” (Prometheus 2013).