A Devil’s Brew: Thoughts on The Witches, by Stacy Schiff

I’m still reading The Witches by Stacy Schiff. After the first third, I started to struggle, and set the book aside to read a few other things. Part of this choice is emotional. It’s difficult to be reminded, page after page, just how little women mattered; it’s hard to read a cool, scholarly accounting of an event that led to the community-sanctioned deaths of fifteen women for no good reason.

Part of it is Schiff’s writing. While the book is well-researched, it does not have the clarity and crispness that made Cleopatra such a joy to read. The Witches, like the events it covers, is a bit murky. Part of this is Schiff struggling with the dearth of records. Partly, though, even though I know this flies in the face of logic, I wish Stacy Schiff the scrupulous, meticulous historian would take a break and let the twenty-first century woman have a few minutes at the podium. I know that’s not the point; we’re not to let our twenty-first century sensibilities intrude on the seventeenth century mindset, but at the same time, I am a twenty-first century reader.

In some cases, Schiff leaves a fact on the table without comment; I wish she’d make a comment.

I’m hanging on, though. Two-thirds of the way through the book, some underlying factors that fed the Massachusetts Bay Colony witch-craze are obvious.

A Siege Mentality:

Life in the colony in the 1790s was tough. While families clawed out a living in a beautiful but harsh land, they also faced regular attacks, raids and ambushes from the local tribal peoples. During the period of the Salem trials, the colony was in a war with the Wabanaki Confederacy. Political leaders (often ministers) whipped up fear of the French. A bad harvest meant no crops; a harsh winter meant probably losing at least one child (and possibly an adult) to sickness. The Puritans may have seen themselves as “God’s Elect,” but God was not making their wilderness home welcoming.

For women, the siege was closer to home; much closer. This is one of the facts that Schiff lays out with no comment. Women were frequently sexually assaulted. Husbands had their rights and there is certainly no discussion of how vigorously some pursued that right, but a virtuous wife inside her own house was at risk of a sexual attack from a townsperson or a neighbor. Schiff relates a story of a man who attacked a woman while her husband was in the cellar getting more ale. Servant girls were unprotected, fair game; there is report after report of servants fighting off male servants or sons of the house, or strangers, where they are jumped as they go out to milk the cows or feed the pigs. This is noted in the diaries of the time (Puritans were great diarists, men and women), and not just in diaries. Landowners would file complaints against men who attacked servants; it was basically a form of property damage.

A constant sense of assault by the elements, by the hostile natives, by your national enemy, by your neighbors. That was life in Salem.

Post-Traumatic Stress:

The witch trials are famous for their cluster of young women, mostly teen-aged, who were the primary accusers and who held forth at each trial. Several of the accusers had survived ambushes and abductions. Some had seen family members slaughtered in front of them, or watched them die as the natives were dragging them off to a life of slavery. Is it likely that sensations of being paralyzed, of choking, of someone holding you down, pinching you, poking you, and being helpless to stop it, would be reasonable symptoms after a trauma?

No one knew what post-traumatic stress was. Survivors of abductions were either supposed to feel grateful that they had been allowed to survive, or search their souls to see what they had done that would have made a stern God inflict such a punishment on them.

Political Uncertainty:

Three years before the incidents in Salem, the Massachusetts Bay Colony revolted and overthrew its British governor (apparently the colony was always a problem child). In response, the King of England revoked their charter. This was not a good thing, and shortly before the witch-craze started, Increase Mather, a respected clergyman, sailed to England to negotiate a new charter with a still-unhappy monarch.

The colony had never liked England (they came to the Americas because they felt persecuted there), but they needed the economic and military protection of the crown. They were conflicted. They also knew that any new charter would have terms that were worse than the previous one. The colony’s success, identity, its very existence hung in question, in a state of limbo, and no one in the colony had any power in that situation.

A Surveillance State:

Puritans loved to tattle. No, that’s not fair, they felt spiritually obligated to tattle. The religion used pubic shaming, verbal and physical humiliation, and fear tactics as a spiritual tool. From an early age, young children were taught about horrible deaths and the vileness of hell so that they would fear a loss of virtue. Ministers, and others, used the Sunday Sabbath meetings to call attention to congregants’ failings.

Part of being a good neighbor, a devout person, meant not only monitoring your own behavior constantly, but watching your neighbors closely as well. There was nothing odd about a man heading home from the public house peering in a neighbor’s window (unless he was too busy hurrying inside to rape the woman who lived there), and they were encouraged to report what they saw.


Just generally, this was a rigid, repressed community, using fear as a control, gossip as an intelligence system, and holding up calamities as proof that a stern, judging God was unhappy with you. One Boston minister preached a sermon about how the loss of settler lives in a Wabanaki attack was proof that God was punishing the colonists for their lack of devotion.

Clearly, one thing that had to be stuffed down and suffocated if at all possible was imagination. The Puritans had hymms, they liked instrumental music, it seems, and some wrote poetry (most of the poets were ministers, and most poems were devotional). Art only existed in service to utility; useful objects could be made beautiful, but, except for some clothing, making an object just for the sake of beauty, or, God forbid, whimsy, seems to have been unacceptable. As I mentioned earlier, children were encouraged to imagine horrifying deaths, isolated and fearful, and a terrifying hell.

So, you’re living in a land filled with shadows and terrors, your afterlife will be filled with terrors, your sleep is filled with the terror of an awful thing that happened to you earlier, and there is no avenue for expressing any of these fears, this anger, this helplessness. Your chest is tight and you can’t breathe. You can’t move. It’s not your fault. Somebody must be doing it to you. Who? Well, didn’t Abigail look at you funny, the other day? It must be her.


Schiff doesn’t even mention this; it’s just too obvious to historians, I guess. There wasn’t a lot a drinkable water in the seventeenth century; and much of the water that was potable had a high mineral content and tasted bad. Most of the residents of Salem, except very young children, drank ale. The ale of their time didn’t have the alcohol content it does now, but it was a fermented beverage and it did have one. Folks drank ale during the day, and comfortably-well-off probably had wine with dinner. Basically, people were buzzed by mid-afternoon every single day. Maybe they built up some kind of a tolerance, but it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a factor in the mysterious disappearances (and reappearances) of tools and farm animals, and some of the questionable encounters.


Another thing to remember is that this was a belief system, and a time, that accepted manifestations of the Devil. It was a reasonable belief for the time. The colonists were logical, intelligent, literate people, whose logic system allowed for situations where a woman could turn into a black dog or come into your house invisibly (while she was shackled in a jail cell several miles away) and choke you. It’s not that crazy when you look at it in context.

Once the trials got started, other motives began to appear. The girl accusers enjoyed a degree of freedom and power that they knew they would never have again in their lives. People took the opportunity to settle scores and advance their own fortunes. Magistrates and ministers did some house-cleaning; the first woman executed was a beggar, probably a thief and definitely of Irish descent, an undesirable. She was hanged. Problem solved.

But before all that, there was a devil’s brew bubbling below the surface of the town of Salem. It probably just wasn’t the devil they thought.



This entry was posted in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *