How Satan Came to Salem

The real story of the witch trials

Library of Congress

It began among children. In the village minister’s house, two little girls crawled under the furniture, made silly noises, spread their arms out like wings and tried to fly. The strangest thing—to any person who has spent more than 10 minutes on a grade-school playground—is that it was strange at all.

But standards of behavior for young girls were more exacting in 17th-century New England than they are today. The primary sources adopt a tone of perplexity. Nine-year-old Betty Parris, the parson’s daughter, and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, had always been model children, “well Educated and of good Behaviour,” according to one chronicle. Soon, word spread through Salem: They had been bewitched. Clergymen came, then constables.

This was in January and February 1692. By autumn, it had all developed into very grown-up business. Twenty men and women, ages 20 to 80, had been executed under the imprimatur of the highest officials in Massachusetts. (Contrary to popular memory, however, no one was burned alive. Nineteen people were hanged, and one man was pressed to death with large stones in a failed attempt to extract a confession.) As many as 165 more, in two dozen villages and towns, had been publicly accused of sorcery; they ranged from an American Indian slave to one of the richest merchants in the colony.

Then, suddenly, as 1692 turned into 1693, the executions stopped, the accusers fell silent, the jails emptied. Stolid farmers’ wives no longer gibbered and convulsed; New England skies were no longer vexed nightly by the aerial traffic of witches and demons. For the next 300 years and more, people were left wondering exactly what had happened.

If 17th-century accounts of the events in Salem seem convoluted, contradictory, and blinkered by the preoccupations of their era, so too do many of the later explanations. There have been feminist interpretations, of course, and Marxist ones, and Freudian ones. Arthur Miller, in the opening pages of The Crucible (1953), described the witch scare as a kind of reactionary political spasm in response to the changing conditions of early America, “a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among all classes when the balance began to turn toward greater individual freedom.” In the 1970s, a behavioral psychologist suggested that the Salem villagers’ rantings and ravings were caused by a hallucinogenic fungus on moldy rye bread—that colonial Massachusetts was, in effect, just having a really bad trip.

So maybe it’s a reflection of our own peculiar cultural moment that—especially in Stacy Schiff’s new retelling, The Witches: Salem, 1692—the old Salem saga now reads most compellingly as a kind of true-life version of young-adult fiction. Pint-size wizards, talking cats, bloody bite marks, supernatural battles between rival factions of preteens—it’s all straight out of the pages of J. K. Rowling or the Twilight series.

Little, Brown

Rarely do children get star turns in historical narratives. Indeed, previous generations of chroniclers often downplayed this element of the witchcraft drama. Miller, for instance, raised Abigail Williams’s age from 11 to 17. But The Witches gives us scenes like the one in the Salem town meetinghouse on April 11, 1692, when the middle-aged matrons Sarah Cloyce and Elizabeth Procter faced a chorus of girlish accusers. Abigail recounted seeing Cloyce act as deacon at a satanic sabbath ceremony behind the parsonage, where 40 witches drank a communion of blood. When Procter took the stand, Abigail reached out to strike her in the face, only to have her fist magically unclench in midair; as her fingers brushed against the older woman’s hood, Abigail howled in pain as if scorched.

Indeed the strongest evidence in the Salem courtroom that day, as on many others, was not verbal but visual. The gaping villagers and horrified clerics saw witches in action—or saw the awful effects that their black magic was apparently having on Abigail and 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr., a mesmerizing choreography of gestures and paroxysms. “Look to her! She will have a fit presently,” one girl would cry out, pointing to another, who would promptly commence convulsing. Schiff writes: “At other times they warned, ‘We shall all fall!’ and seven or eight girls would collapse, raving, to the floor. For their predictive power the eleven- and twelve-year-old were soon dubbed ‘the visionary girls.’ ” Presiding over the courtroom circus that day was the grave and incongruous figure of Thomas Danforth, the acting deputy governor of Massachusetts and Harvard’s longtime treasurer, one of several senior colonial officials who would quickly overshadow the local magistrates.

Almost anyone who has ever been 11 years old still knows how it feels to dwell in a world where ordinary play can tip suddenly into sadism; where whole empires of fantasy are built amid the geography of the everyday; where the dark corners in the house teem with prospective ghosts—and where the ultimate prize is getting a crowded roomful of adults to pay attention. A preteen has little sense of consequences for herself, much less for another person, let alone an entire village or province. What she does have, though, is an acute appreciation of the struggle for power—and, quite often, a well-honed skill at manipulating those who hold authority.

The age of Cotton Mather had more in common with the era of Harry Potter literature than might at first appear. “If we are looking for a time when the level of parental anxiety about children matches that in the early twenty-first century,” the British historian Hugh Cunningham has written, “it is perhaps among the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we will find it.” To the disciples of Calvin, no infant soul was too tiny to become a battleground between light and darkness. From Puritan presses in England streamed forth the first-ever flood of children’s literature; their J. K. Rowling was one James Janeway, whose runaway best seller A Token for Children, Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths, of Several Young Children (1671) was evidently every bit the lighthearted romp that its title suggests. Summing up what all good parents should teach their toddlers, one earlier Puritan was more concise: “Learn to die,” he wrote.

Children on the American frontier, more so even than their English cousins, grew up amid a rich-hued panorama of death. “Everyone knew a story about a dismembering or an abduction,” Schiff writes. “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.’ ” No wonder that devils seemed real, that hell might wait behind any parlor door.

Witchcraft in Salem would perhaps have remained a parsonage-size nightmare, though, had it not been for the adults. One moment children were playacting; the next, people’s grandparents were being publicly tortured to death. The crucial link was the Honorable Mr. Danforth and his ilk, the arbiters poised attentively at the edge of the schoolgirl tableau.

This is the greater mystery: How did those fantasizing children so easily pull thousands of sober adults into their enchanted wardrobe and out the other side? It’s here that Schiff’s book is especially successful.

Many 19th- and 20th-century popular accounts of the Salem trials harped on the judges’ superstitious ignorance, as if the 1692 hysteria were a stray pocket of medieval shadow amid the incipient dawn of the Enlightenment. John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, after all, appeared three years before Cotton Mather’s witch chronicle, Wonders of the Invisible World.

But Schiff points out that Mather, Danforth, and their colleagues were, if anything, too enlightened, at least by the standards of their era: “They were less out of their depths than they were swimming in information.” The whole scholarly infrastructure of the 17th century—books, universities, learned societies—helped disseminate accounts of witchcraft and its dangers to the far ends of the Christian world. The judges in Massachusetts, and probably also some of the accusers, were deeply influenced by accounts of a witch outbreak in distant Sweden some years earlier. Witchcraft was science, and vice versa; Locke believed in it, as did Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

Even after the Salem tumult subsided, very few New Englanders at any social level rejected the existence of witchcraft; many still maintained that Satan’s minions had been busy in Massachusetts, only among the accusers rather than the accused. Perhaps they were right. The devil could scarcely have planned things more neatly, especially as more and more adults joined the ranks of the complainants. “Who doesn’t have a bone to pick with a neighbor?,” Schiff writes. “There were as many reasons to accuse someone of witchcraft in 1692 as there were to denounce him under the Nazi occupation of France: envy, insecurity, political enmity, unrequited love, love that had run its course.”

Witchcraft certainly served the needs of colonial leaders like Mather and Danforth—until it didn’t. Recent political developments on both sides of the Atlantic were eroding the authority, spiritual and temporal, of the Puritan fathers. A touch of black magic couldn’t have come at a better time. To a modern reader, the witch scare seems like a sudden, disorienting irruption of the supernatural into everyday life. It probably felt that way to many in Salem, too, but at the same time it was also part of the daily grind of Puritanism, a reminder of the dark lord’s ubiquitous pluckings and pinchings.

Nor was it only New England’s elites, presiding over trials and prayers, who turned Satan’s doings to their own purposes. Once the Salem accusers had won credibility, it was as easy for them to point fingers at a rich man as a poor one. One of the most memorable courtroom moments in The Witches comes when the bewitched girls, “snapping and sneering,” encircle John Alden, the oldest son of the famous Pilgrim leader, to accuse him of everything from practicing sorcery to sleeping with Indian women. (Their motives are unclear, but these children have clearly been paying attention to their elders’ gossip.) When the sturdy sea captain and merchant—his hands bound, his sword confiscated—stands at the mercy of village children he has never before set eyes on, the scene reads as an American revolution of sorts. Indeed, what ultimately ended the witchcraft indictments may have been the growing fear that anybody might be next.

Schiff brings to bear a sensibility as different from the Puritans’ as can be imagined: gentle, ironic, broadly empathetic, with a keen eye for humor and nuance. There are no real demons in her telling, at any rate not in human form; even the judges are just insecure men stumbling through anxious times. Her account takes us deep into the political intrigues of the Massachusetts elite, struggling to regain its footing after new regimes in Britain successively revoked, then replaced, the colony’s founding charter—and, among other outrages, imposed a degree of religious pluralism on the Puritan theocracy.

“Witchcraft effectively aroused a lapsed, sluggish generation, though not as the clergy had anticipated,” Schiff writes. “When the spell broke, the torrent of recriminations swept away a rich layer of faith.” In the aftermath, letters and sermons were burned; whole sections were ripped from village minute books. The witchcraft court’s official records probably vanished somewhere underfoot in the Stamp Act chaos of 1765, when a Boston mob sacked the home of Massachusetts’s last royal governor.

But the Puritans—obsessive investigators and assiduous note-takers that they were—still left a rich trove of recorded details. When witchcraft was afoot, no scrap of evidence, no snippet of conversation, was too small to be filed away. Thanks to this, and to Schiff’s narrative gifts, the present-day reader flits above New England’s smoky chimneys and thatched rooftops, swoops into the locked studies of magistrates and clergymen; stalks among the jealousies and rivalries of village schemers; even dwells briefly in the innermost thoughts of schoolchildren dead three centuries and more. It is wizardry of a sort—in a flash of brimstone, a whole world made wondrously visible.