The Salem Witch Trials: Well, That Was Weird
My accusing you of witchcraft has nothing to do with the fact that your pig ate all my begonias. I swear.
The Salem Witch Trials have long lingered in the American consciousness, thanks to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and other cultural adaptations. Though many theories have come forth as to what caused the chaos in 1692 (ranging from teenage hysteria to toxic spores), historians have been loath to approach the subject in a broader sense due to one fact: There are so few surviving documents.
Even the evidence we hold as truth (as in, the trials were all because Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis were having an affair—oh wait, that was just in the movie) are mostly based on conjecture and hearsay, from memoirs and first-hand accounts that were published several years after the actual court proceedings.
In fact, there’s only one historian brave enough to take on the Salem Witch Trials: Stacy Schiff. You may recognize her name from her popular biography, Cleopatra: A Life, which was published in 2010. Similarly, there is not much in the way of primary documents pertaining to Cleopatra’s actual biography. But Schiff has the sensibility of a novelist, approaching the events in Salem with the same eye for narrative and of course, an voracious appetite for research. The resulting book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is an exhaustive account of the events leading up to the execution of 14 women, five men, and two dogs for the crime of witchcraft.
The Puritans were a superstitious bunch, which led to some comical reasons for crying witch. Like one man who was convinced his daughter’s death was directly caused by him forgetting her name in his morning prayers. “The devil not only provided a holiday from reason but expressed himself clearly; for all their perversity, his motives made sense,” Schiff writes. “You did not need to ask what you had done to deserve his disfavor … Amid glaring accountability, witchcraft broke up logical logjams. It ratified grudges, neutralized slights, relieved anxiety. It offered an airtight explanation when, literally, all hell broke loose.”
That, or, you know, these people (and dogs) were definitely in cahoots with the devil. Here are more wacky facts from The Witches:
1. The population of New England (in 1692, at the time of the Witch Trials) would fit into Yankee Stadium.
2. Colonists had no reliable news source from Europe and usually had no idea who was ruling their home country.
3. No one in Salem lived alone. Which brings a whole new meaning to lack of privacy.
4. Colonists were terrified of the indigenous people and believed them to be “an invisible enemy.”
5. Before 1692, a Salem doctor treated hysteria with “a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear.”
6. In one lifetime, “the average New Englander absorbed some 15,000 hours of sermons.”
7. Witches were usually seen as white people, “outliers and deviants … they were not people of color.”
8. As opposed to her European counterpart, a New England witch was more concerned with inflicting bodily harm rather than having sex with the Devil. #bummer
9. There were lots of bars in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, leading one colonist to remark: “No wonder that New England is visited when the head is so spirited.”
10. “The first person to confess to entering into a pact with Satan had prayed for help with his chores.” #understandable
11. In the Malleus Maleficarum, a book about witches written in 1486, author Heinrich Kramer writes, “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
12. It was commonly believed that witches had “familiars” or animals that carried their evil spirits: most commonly, a cat, toad, or yellow canary.
13. Colonists believed that witches could only cry three tears out of the left eye.