Stacy Schiff started her publishing career as an editor for Simon & Schuster, where she took on about an equal number of fiction and nonfiction titles. But then she really wanted to see a biography done on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a pilot and writer who penned the classic story The Little Prince. Originally she planned to find a writer for it, but she became so consumed by the subject that she decided to write the book herself. And that is how a biographer was born. “That always happens with biography—you become obsessed with someone else’s life,” says Schiff.
Schiff was born in Adams, Massachusetts, on the other side of the state from Salem, but she says she became interested in the Salem witch trials when she was a teen. She says, “Everybody goes through a Salem phase.” However, Schiff’s obsession grew into a five hundred–page book, The Witches: Salem, 1692.
Schiff is interested in giving women a voice, and much of her writing has focused on those who couldn’t tell their stories, such as Cleopatra and Véra Nabokov, determined to show what was the truth. Unfortunately, it was difficult for her to find a voice from any of the teenage accusers during the Salem witch trials. At that time, women were taught to read the Bible, but not to write. “Could one of these girls just have left a diary!” says Schiff. “To do this without them speaking for themselves just seems like writing a book with your hands tied behind your back.”
Schiff points out what was going on, though, around the time of the witch trials to give it context. Most of the teen girls during this period were traumatized by violence that they could not control. “The amount of pressure on these women were extraordinary,” says Schiff. “Everyone knew a story about a dismembering or an abduction. That was especially true of the convulsing Salem girls, of whom at least half were refugees from or had been orphaned by attacks in ‘the last Indian war.’”
Almost everybody in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 was a Puritan, and they were frightened on all sides by Native Americans, who came and went silently; the French; and the Quakers. Cotton Mather, who was a famous pot stirrer during the witchcraft trials, liked to compare them to all matters of beasts, says Schiff: “He routinely muddied the zoological waters: Indians comported themselves like roaring lions or savage bears, Quakers like ‘grievous wolves.’ The French, ‘dragons of the wilderness,’ completed the diabolical menagerie.”
The eerie event started when two young Salem girls were afflicted and witchcraft was blamed for their strange symptoms. Schiff says, “Their limbs are paralyzed, they contort, they’re going into trances, and they’re screaming—night and day, screeches. And one of their first acts after the witchcraft has been diagnosed is to interrupt a minister in meeting. And you can imagine how that went over in a place where women were meant to be submissive and meek and silent.” By the time the year drew to a close, nineteen people were hung for witchcraft and another pressed to death by stones.
More than a hundred people were accused of witchcraft, and the father-and-son ministers Increase and Cotton Mather both wrote books on the subject of witchcraft and how to tell a witch. The two disagreed in their dueling books Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, by Increase Mather, who believed it was better to err on the side of a witch going free rather than killing an innocent person, and The Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather’s book, which was more in the vein of the Old Testament “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Cotton Mather suffered a lot of fallout from his book, with people saying terrible things to him and behind his back. And the topic of the Salem witch trials faded from the public consciousness.
“It’s a little while before anyone is even willing to address the episode. The weight of the tragedy is clearly enormous. There will be a commission established by 1711 to weigh the claims of those families who had lost members. And at that point, you get this tremendous groundswell of people demanding justice, demanding that their prison fees, that their properties be returned to them. But then for the most part, you still get this chilling silence,” says Schiff.
While undertaking the project of writing The Witches: Salem, 1692, Schiff says, “I realized the only way to do justice to it, to make it seem real, was to begin by buying into the idea of witchcraft. Because if you just think of this as a weird, superstitious belief, which it wasn’t, then the whole thing doesn’t make sense.”
Though Schiff wasn’t able to find teenage girls’ diaries to help with her research, she did find the nine-volume Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts to be a gold mine of information. “It’s an irresistible anthology of infractions and abominations. Our Puritan ancestors filched marmalade from one another’s cellars, and defamed ministers (one was ‘more fit to be in a hog sty than in a pulpit’), and attacked constables with scissors, and stuffed hens down their breeches. Men turned wives out in the snow; women cracked pots over husbands’ heads. They drank until ‘they could not tell ink from liquor.’”
She was disturbed by what she uncovered while researching and writing the book for three years. Men were accused as well as women, and many relatives went against one another, giving false confessions. Daughters accused mothers and fathers while husbands turned in their wives. Schiff recounts one case where a young girl rode to jail with her brother on one side of her and a minister on the other—both had accused her of being a witch—and there was nothing she could do about it. “Anyone who really stands up to the authorities isn’t going to make it. Defiance comes at a price,” she says.