Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Witches: Salem, 1692

I can tell you one thing...it would suck to be a Puritan!
I find myself liking nonfiction reading more and more, although I'm still picky about the subjects I choose. One aspect that will get me interested in a nonfiction piece is that it relates to a topic I teach. This is how I came to read The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff. As is common, I found this book in a review from a fellow blogger, this time from Katie @Doing Dewey. She was kind enough to send her ARC as well, which I've already sent on to Allison @The Book Wheel. So, you'll have a few more perspectives on this book soon enough.

My interest in The Witches comes from teaching Arthur Miller's The Crucible over the past four or five years. (I never quite reviewed The Crucible, but did do a more personal piece on it here.) In case you aren't familiar with The Crucible, it is Miller's somewhat fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials in the New World (not America for another 80+ years), where a group of teenage girls began accusing townspeople of witchcraft. The accusations spread like wildfire, the courts became a circus, and innocent people were jailed for months on end and some hanged - most in the name of envy and revenge it turns out. With every reading of The Crucible, my incredulousness grows. It's hard to understand how so many people can be so easily fooled. But then I recall Miller's purpose for writing The Crucible...he himself was accused similarly of being a Communist during the 1950's Red Scare era, now well known as McCarthyism. A general fearfulness of the infiltration of communism existed throughout the country, but it was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin who threw the country into a terror with his claims of communism infiltrating parts of the U.S. government. The result? A replay of the 1692 Salem witch trials. Granted, no one was hanged, but lives were effectively ruined as people were blacklisted from careers and asked to either confess or lead authorities to those who were communists. Miller was turned in by a friend in such a predicament, but refused to turn in anyone else to save himself. Miller took this forced sabbatical as an opportunity to research the events of 1692 and write his famous play, paralleling the U.S. government to the circus courts of hundreds of years ago. Miller: 1; U.S. government: 0

So what about this new book on the witch trials? I liked it. Let me first say, I did think there was a lot of repetition; however, the book follows the court records and people's personal writings through that year, so it's likely certain thoughts came up often. The repetition begins to serve as this crazy marker for how many opportunities the authorities had to turn this all around before it went too far. Schiff's statement highlighting the essence of the trials: "Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswered questions meets a set of unquestioned answers."

What I really liked about the book was that I now have the facts on the people appropriated by Miller as characters for The Crucible. I can see how the situations within The Crucible happened to various people, but for the sake of the story, Miller took the prominent names of the real Salem witch trials and attributed as many of the real life situations to them as possible, to give a full scope of what happened. I was also happy to see that the ending of the movie version of The Crucible (starring Daniel Day Lewis) was true to life. The innocents who are martyred on the scaffold recite The Lord's Prayer as they are prepared to hang. It is a chilling ending that never ceases to send ripples up and down my spine.

I like to think that when we are cognizant of our history, we have a better chance of not repeating the mistakes. But what is better known than the Salem witch trials? And yet we have Hitler and McCarthy effectively bringing about the similar events of brainwashing, mass fear, and sheer stupidity. At least we can be personally aware, even if it means only we will not succumb to such madness.

Any good books you've learned from lately?

Note: the following information was shared with me by my cousins (who did our genealogy years ago) after seeing my review on FB. I pieced the conversation together here for easier reading.

Jennine, we are descended from Lydia Wardell. Her brother-in-law, Samuel, was the last witch executed in Salem. Lydia and her husband were Quakers, which I believe was a political motivation behind her brother's execution. Although, that can never be proven. 

I just read the account in the book "The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England" by Diane Rapaport. The book says Lydia and her husband Eliakim (our ninth great grandfather) were Quakers and fined for missing the Puritan church services which were mandatory under Massachusetts colonial law (this is what the seperation of church and state is all about: no state-mandated religion). Her response was to come to church, but naked (or butt naked as the case may be). The church was the Newbury meetinghouse which probably also served as the courthouse in those days. In any event, yes, there is a long tradition in our family of strong, outspoken women.

As punishment, Lydia "was ordered to be severely whipped" which most likely happened at the public whipping post in the typical fashion which was, ironically, "naked to the waist."


  1. I can't wait to read this book! I have to admit, I skimmed the review a bit not because of spoilers (obviously, it's non-fiction!) but because I don't want to taint my reading experience. I'll be back, though!

  2. Thank you for sharing such great information. Story Books

  3. Hi Jennine!
    I have to say that I'm also into non-fiction lately, but I have chosen other subjects. However, I think that history would be benefitial for me because it's something I have never studied well.
    That said, I have to admit that I don't know much about the witches of Salem, but I loved your review because you have linked it to every mass kill in history due to their common cause: jealousy and fear.
    I haven't watched the film either (where have I been living, seriuosly?), so well, I have homework if I want to know more about the trials ;)

    1. Good, I'm glad I helped you understand. I prefer to learn history through this kind of nonfiction writing or historical fiction. It's easier to learn this way.

  4. Great review! I also found this a bit repetitive, but still interesting. It's awesome you have a personal connection to this part of history! Very cool.

    1. My Honors class started reading The Crucible this week, so I got to share that story - they loved it of course. It's pretty crazy.