Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff approaches the history of the Salem Witches from a unique vector. She likens the pubescents who crafted ‘witch-mania‘ to modern day pop-stars. Irrespective of the century, the cohort thrives on attention.
In a fun and fabulous phone interview, Schiff explained nuances of her book “The Witches, Salem 1692″ .
Once the gossip-girls of 1692 were swept-up in notoriety ~ they craved more. Their tales of vexation became increasingly melodramatic; shadows were broom-sticked witches, bug-bites were the mark of Satan and inconvenient neighbors were clearly possessed by evil spirits. Just as Cinderella’s glass slipper transported her into a fairytale life, histrionics transitioned these adolescents into celeb~u~taunts of the season..
Schiff spelled out, while town-folk were taunted, the Village of Salem was in a bit of a PR campaign back-home with King William III. Those loyal to the crown considered Puritans in the New World incapable of governing themselves. Eager to polish their image with the King and keep peace in the Village, Salem’s town fathers met with the ‘afflicted girls’ before devising a plan to free Settlers of sorcery.
Atmospheric pressures developed into a perfect storm of social incoherence. Leaders fed by ambitions and superstitions suffered from group-think. They decided to try the accused in court. A witch-hunt was on!
Witch Trial transcripts were the People.com of the time. The more outrageous the stories, the more engaged Villagers became. Tossing the W-word around was a preemptive strike, a de-facto confirmation of the speaker’s virtue and simultaneous brand on a living annoyance. No one in Salem was safe.
“The Witches of 1692”, invites readers to time-travel into the community vulnerable to psychological manipulations. At the time, Salem’s most powerful men were an incestuous collection of theologians, lawyers and political activists. The social-influencers based legal decisions on literal interpretations of religious metaphor. The trials increased church attendance, an elixir for ministers who held the reins of other highly opportunistic men.
Copiously researched, “Witches” is a spellbinding account of history that swirled in a vortex of coordinated mean-spiritedness. Schiff explains how a theatrical mix of piety and anxiety morphed Salem’s courtrooms into caldrons of chaos.
This short-spelled American legend ended when scholarly dissenters prevailed legally. Ultimately, perhaps surprisingly, the author points to how the Salem Witch Trials shaped our system of jurisprudence and our National zeitgeist.
What’s missing from documentation is any notation of personal remorse by Villagers. Schiff said she found a palpable reluctance to discuss the root causes of and responses to the Witch Trials remain part the community mystic.
In 1992, a somber space, honoring the souls lost in the Witch Trails was dedicated in the heart of Salem. The monument’s 19 cantilevered benches are chiseled with each of the victim’s names. The memorial site abuts a colonial graveyard.
In 2015,Stacy Schiff wrote in the New York Times “First, Kill the Witches. Then,Celebrate Them“. In it, she questioned why Salem promotes a legacy that is psychologically incongruent.
Like any cohort accustom to attention, the “Village” still craves notoriety like a pop-star. Capitalizing on it’s fairytale cultural-allure Salem is comfortable casting it’s self as “The Witch City” yet sweeps-over the unpleasant realities of the Witch Trial DNA. Schiff suspects, surviving relatives want to avoid the stigma attached to atrocities invoking their family name.
But there are vital lessons to learn from the events of 1692. As a society, America still suffers from consequences made by group-thinking leaders willing to justify cancel-culture decisions with sanctimonious rhetoric. Rather than hiding from our National consciousness, consider reading “The Witches Salem, 1692“. It may turn out to be a vaccine that prevents future witch-hunts.
If you find yourself in Salem, now through March 20, 2022 the historic Peabody Essex Museum is presenting “The Salem Witch Trails : Reckoning and Reclaiming”. This provocative exhibit spans three centuries of thought on the definition of “witch”.
The first gallery features artifacts of families involved in the Witch Trials of 1692. A timeline of trial events wrap around the exhibit like a shroud.
An adjacent galley includes a virtual fashion show and spectacular evening gown created by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. ( a direct descendant of a Salem Witch) His sartorial statement honors voices of women past, present and future.
The final gallery is the work of photo-journalist Francis F.Denny. Like McQueen, Denny is also related to folks involved in the Witch Trails. Her family tree includes both a Salem Witch and a Witch Trail judge. The focus of this exhibit supports the agency of modern-women who embrace the label of Witch as a personal, spiritual force for good. This exhibition is a must-see.