Stacy Schiff and The Witches of Salem—skip it

As readers of the HP know, the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, were an anomaly; as we put it in the first post of our series on the Salem witch trials,

…the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no positive reaction in New England at the time. It was generally not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, despite the strenuous efforts of Cotton Mather. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself was set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions.

If you go to that series, you’ll see that we offer an interesting round-up of scholarly theories about why the outbreak of accusations happened and how/why they were allowed to get so out of hand.

Here, we address an article that appeared in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker magazine. We think it’s an article; the author, Stacy Schiff, is a novelist whose novel on the Salem witch trials is due out in October, but the item in question does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel. Instead, it is a queasy mix of fact and fiction whose purpose is very hard to discern. We will give it a shot.

The piece begins with a series of stark fallacies: that in 1692, “the population of New England would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship ‘with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were’… On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.”

This is astounding; where to begin?

First, by 1692 the population of New England was not majority Puritan; by that time, Massachusetts was at the end of a long process of losing its independence. In 1684, its independent charter had been revoked by the Lords of Trade; the practical outcome of this was that Massachusetts would lose its popularly elected legislation and governor (they would be replaced by royal appointees answerable only to England). Before this could fully take place, James II created the Dominion of New England, which we describe in depth here; suffice it to say that this basically removed local government in each of the affected colonies, threw all land titles into question, and enforced religious toleration.

In 1689, this Dominion was overthrown by local American colonists once they heard that the Glorious Revolution had taken place and removed James II from the throne. Between 1689 and 1692 the colonists were caught in the middle of the new King William III’s wars with France, as northern New England experienced attacks from French Canada that destroyed settlements and sent refugees fleeing south. In 1694, a new royal charter arrived at last in Boston, and the colony had a royally appointed governor and a popularly elected legislature.

That’s a lot of change, and what it adds up to is that by 1692 when the witch trials happened, Massachusetts was light years from the days of its founding generation in the 1630s. Its religious hegemony had been broken, and even within the original Congregational church there were sharp theological debates and a general drift away from traditional Puritan religion. The bar for joining a Congregational church as a full member (taking common) was lowered substantially, and in some churches removed altogether. Non-traditional Congregationalists were a strong minority throughout the colony, and a majority in the capital of Boston. Aside from that, there were growing Baptist and unreformed Anglican populations. Old social rules against things like public drunkenness were abruptly discontinued under the rule of the royally appointed governor.

So by 1692, the old Puritan colony was long-gone. No one felt they were on a providential mission anymore, and people in Boston only became more and more connected with London, enjoying the commerce and fashions and relaxed, luxury-appreciative lifestyle brought over by army officers, rich merchants, and others.

Next, no Puritan even in the 1630s ever thought they were “building a civilization from scratch”; it was the exact opposite. They were building on continental reformed Protestant traditions from Geneva and Holland and elsewhere to bring the Reformation to its logical conclusion, to act it out in a way that was not possible in a non-homogenous population. The Puritan founders hewed to English law and custom—clung to it, really, as a lifeline to the old country in an alien world.

Next, the Puritan founders hardly “defined themselves by what offended them” in America. America was their golden, God-sent opportunity to create a religious and political settlement that was everything they ever wanted, the glorious culmination of continental Reformation. In America, Puritans defined themselves by what they wanted, and what they believed was completely, wonderfully achievable.

Finally, the old, corny stereotype of “gritty” Yankees is laughable, and the idea that there is a straight line from the Massachusetts Bay to American independence has long been thoroughly debunked.

If all these errors are in the second paragraph of a piece that goes on for nine pages, that doesn’t bode well for the innocent reader. We tried to read it but gave up, as the piece veered between topics and people and times as if they were all one, and treated all with that condescending disgust that is so familiar to anyone who studies the Puritans. Clearly Schiff, like most people, sees the Salem massacre as typical of, rather than anomalous to, Puritans. She glides over topics to preserve that point of view: for instance, she goes on about how Puritans absolutely believed in witches (which they did) but elides (or does not know) that accusations of witch craft were a) relatively few, b) thoroughly investigated, c) usually thrown out of court, and d) when they weren’t thrown out, sent back to towns for mediation rather than criminal sentencing. All the reader of Schiff gets is a picture of ignorant, awful people who had no compunction about killing people as witches, perhaps on a daily basis.

She completely misunderstands Increase Mather’s warning to children that they would be horribly punished for disobedience to parents, takes on the putative “voice of the [ignorant] people” by saying things like “By the end of July, it was clear that …the Devil intended to topple the church and subvert the country”, lingers over descriptions of deaths by hanging and one by pressing, and mentions Governor William Phips putting an end to the court without saying that the prod to this action was that his own wife, in Boston, was accused!

It all ends with a lyrical description of Cotton Mather having a home-made bomb thrown through his window… but without any explanation of how 98% of the public were against the trials, this is meaningless.

Rather than allow Schiff to get free advertising for her novel, the New Yorker should have made it clear that this is a hybrid fiction-article piece meant to generate readership before anyone seeking real information on the witch hysteria made the mistake of reading it.