Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Very American Historical True Horror Tale

THE WITCHES: Salem 1692
Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Audio
October 27, 2015

In the summer of 1692, after a long and bitter winter in Salem Village, Massachusetts, the forces of superstition, religious fervor, and paranoia erupted into the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Before the madness subsided, twenty men and women were executed for practicing witchcraft; one by "pressing". The hangings were gruesome enough, but the death of Giles Corey is in a league by itself. His body was crushed over the course of several days by rocks. All the hysteria was begun by the accusations of adolescent girls, whose numbers grew and accounts became increasingly ridiculous as time went on. The girls threw fits, talked about specters in the courtroom and gave absurd accounts of black masses and flying on "poles". The fact that spectators in the court could not see the ghosts seemed to bother no one.

The Puritans of Salem did have some reason for their paranoia. Raids by the natives were commonplace, with French collusion. The colonial government was inept insofar as it even existed.The Puritans of Salem were also known far and wide for their litigious and argumentative ways. A strong component of the Puritan belief system dictated that if things were going badly, someone must be to blame. Perhaps it was the sufferer's fault; he or she must have offended God if the crops failed or a pig died. Or it might be the doing of one's neighbor. Another feature of Puritan doctrine required watching and if need be, denouncing another's faults. The addition of the usual misogyny made the whole spectacle irresistible to the 17th-century mind. Indeed, there were men accused and executed, but those could be traced back to such things as land disputes and old grudges. Even a former preacher in Salem fell victim to the hysteria. Anything resembling proper judicial procedure flew out the window aided by what can only be described as "hanging judges". Mothers denounced daughters and sons, husbands denounced wives, ad infinitum. The act of refusing to confess and to name names was a near guarantee of a guilty verdict. By the time the madness passed, the Salem community was in ruins. Then the cover-ups began. The New Englanders were inveterate record keepers, but the records of the summer of 1692 are suspiciously scarce.

Stacy Schiff has given us an exhaustive- and I do mean exhaustive- account of the mindset of the times and the individual cases. I can't fault her on that, but I did find it rambling and confusing. There were so many characters involved that I was sometimes at sea. Her style is one that I can only describe as "chatty" for lack of a better word. It may be that is the fault of the narrator but I found her style inappropriate at times. She does convey the full horror of and injustice to the victims, caught in an inescapable trap. The description of the 72-year-old  Rebecca Nurse, dragged from her cell and excommunicated by her community is simply heartbreaking. To Rebecca, a devout and harmless woman, it must have been a punishment far worse than the hanging awaiting her.There is no real explanation for the actions of the girls or the credulousness of the populace. We have seen this happen many times in America, whenever we feel threatened. The internment of Japanese citizens in WWII, the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, and our present Islamaphobia are just a few examples. Rating The Witches is somewhat difficult for me. The material is well worth study, but I found the delivery somewhat lacking.

RATING- 3 Stars

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