The Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer provides an account of a foundational American tragedy of mass hysteria and injustice.
At its best, the latest work from Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life, 2010, etc.) ably weaves together all the assorted facts and many personalities from the 1692 Salem witch trials and provides genuine insight into a 17th-century culture that was barely a few steps away from the Dark Ages. Religious belief and superstition passed for reality, science had no foothold whatsoever, and both common folk and their educated ministers could believe that local women rode broomsticks, turned into cats, and had the power to be in two places at once. Furthermore, it was a world in which an accusation was as good as a conviction, where seemingly possessed girls flailed and contorted themselves in court, while judges bore down upon helpless defendants with loaded questions. The accused, under the spell of their own culture, could likewise turn on themselves—and not just to save their skin. “Confession came naturally to a people who believed it the route to salvation, who submitted spiritual biographies when they entered into church membership, who did not entirely differentiate sin from crime,” writes the author. “By the craggy logic of the day, if you had been named, you must have been named for a reason. Little soul-searching was required to locate a kernel of guilt.” While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order, the book lacks either a sense of relevance or compelling narrative drive. The author writes in a sharp-eyed yet conversational tone, but she doesn't have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages. This is the type of book that yearns from the beginning for a fresh approach or a new angle.
As history, The Witches is intelligent and reliable; as a story, it’s a trudge over very well-trod ground.