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The Witches: Salem, 1692

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Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, author of the #1 bestseller Cleopatra, provides an electrifying, fresh view of the Salem witch trials.

The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent's life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched--at a politically tumultuous time--on the edge of what a visitor termed a "remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness." With devastating clarity, the textures and tension of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.

The Witches is Schiff's riveting account of a seminal episode, a primal American mystery unveiled--in crackling detail and lyrical prose--by one of our most acclaimed historians.

498 pages, Hardcover

First published October 27, 2015

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About the author

Stacy Schiff

18 books1,733 followers
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d'Amérique. All three were New York Times Notable Books; the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, and The Economist also named A Great Improvisation a Best Book of the Year. The biographies have been published in a host of foreign editions.

Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schiff has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

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Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,126 reviews1,202 followers
December 14, 2015
This book, a historical account of the Salem witch trials by an author whose prior work has been highly acclaimed, turned out to be a long-winded and tedious disappointment. I regret the many hours I spent slogging through it.

Schiff takes a textbook-like approach to the writing, throwing facts and assertions at the reader without connecting them through any meaningful narrative. We learn little about the accusers and victims; those curious about the lives, personalities, and motivations of the people most directly involved will be disappointed. There is more information about the witchcraft judges and the local ministers – in fact, perhaps the two most-discussed figures are Increase and Cotton Mather, prominent ministers who were not present for any of the events in Salem. Lengthy accounts of accusations and confessions are included, relating fanciful stories as if they were true: “Skimming groves of oak, mossy bogs, and a tangle of streams, Anne Foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole. . . . Before Foster on the pole sat Martha Carrier, half Foster’s age and the dauntless mother of four. Carrier had arranged the flight. She had persuaded Foster to accompany her; she knew the way.”

Many pages are spent paraphrasing such accusations, but very few on analysis. The book has no organizing principle or thesis, focuses on no key figures, and has almost nothing to say about why the events in Salem might have occurred. And the writing style makes for laborious reading; it alternates between drowning the reader in details whose import to the larger picture is unclear, and wallowing in wordy abstractions that utterly fail to enlighten. It is often repetitive, and sometimes jumps between ideas that have no apparent connection.

I give a second star because the book appears to be well-researched, and I did learn some information about colonial New England. It sheds light on the strains placed on the community, such as deadly Indian attacks nearby; many of the young accusers were refugees or orphans. We also learn a bit about life at the time.

But despite the lengthy bibliography, the author makes sweeping generalizations that hurt her credibility; for instance, she claims the Salem witch trials were one of few occasions that women played a key role in American history and that after Salem, women “went back to being invisible, where they remained, historically speaking, until a different scourge encouraged them to raise their voices, with suffrage and Prohibition.” Women were invisible and had no effect on history in all of the 18th and 19th centuries? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Louisa May Alcott, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, Belle Boyd, Dorothea Dix, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Van Lew, Sacagawea, and many more would beg to differ.

For that matter, the Salem witch trials themselves were a local event occurring in a few small towns; it would be hard to argue that any of the women or men involved had much impact on American history, especially compared with those listed above. Salem represents neither the first nor the last time people were executed for witchcraft in America, and while with its 20 executions, Salem claimed the greatest number of victims at once, it pales beside many European witch hunts. Perhaps my frustration with this book has soured me on this piece of history, but having read The Witches, it is even less clear to me why Salem has gained such a foothold in the national imagination.

Ultimately, Schiff can’t explain Salem, nor can she make it interesting. Instead, she gives us a 400+ page summary of her research, then explains that we have too little information to know why anything happened as it did. In other words, as far as I'm concerned, it's a whole lot of nothing. Those with a keen interest in the witch trials may find it worthwhile, but for the general reader looking to be informed and entertained by well-written, engaging historical accounts, this is one to avoid.

EDIT: The New York Times said it better: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/boo...
Profile Image for Matt.
919 reviews28.3k followers
October 24, 2021
“It began, over a week of inky black nights, with prickling sensations. Abigail Williams, the reverend’s blond, eleven-year-old niece, appears to have been afflicted first. Soon enough nine-year-old Betty Parris exhibited the same symptoms The cousins complained of bites and pinches by “invisible agents.” They barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid. Neither girl ran a fever; neither suffered from epilepsy. The paralyzed postures alternated with frantic, indecipherable gestures. The girls launched into “foolish, ridiculous speeches, which neither they themselves nor any others could make sense of.” They crept into holes or under chairs…Neither appeared to have time for prayer, though until January, both had been perfectly well behaved and well mannered. At night they slept like babies.”
- Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692

There are few events in American history that loom so large in relative proportion to size and impact than the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. All told, in less than a year, some 185 people in Salem were accused of witchcraft; there were 59 trials; of those trials there were 31 convictions; and of those convictions, nineteen people were hanged. (Giles Corey was pressed to death. There were no burnings).

In the grim mathematics of history, twenty deaths over the course of several months is not exceptional. Indeed, King Philip’s War had only recently ended by the time the Witch Trials began. That frontier conflict between New England colonists and Wampanoag Indians killed roughly one in ten military-age participants. Yet King Philip’s War is something you might hear about at bar trivia on Thursday night (“What is the bloodiest war, in proportion of population, in American history?”), while the Salem Witch Trials endure in popular culture.


One answer is that we might feel a certain smugness towards those morally upright, psychosexually tortured, Indian-shy Puritans who allowed themselves to be led by the nose by a gaggle of adolescent girls shrieking about neighbors flying on broomsticks. And yet, over 300 years later, we still cling to ridiculous beliefs ourselves, very often to our own detriment.

More likely, the lasting fascination with the Salem executions is the way it presents such a wonderfully blank canvas upon which to act out our own morality plays. We know some things about the trials, since the Puritans were inveterate scribblers. But there are huge gaps in the story. The chief scribe, Cotton Mather, wasn’t even an eyewitness. All the trials were transcribed, but those transcriptions were lost (likely when the American Revolution erupted in Boston). Some of the major participants in the story flit only briefly across the stage, and then are lost to the shadows of time. This is fertile ground to surmise, invent, and interpret, as Arthur Miller did to such great effect.

Stacy Schiff has fun with this reality The Witches, her highly entertaining look at the intersection of religion, group hysteria, and fuzzy logic. This is an engaging book, with bantering, oft-witty prose, that is also heavily researched and packed with annotated endnotes. It is solid history – Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize winner – that doesn’t take itself too seriously. On one page there might be a serious dissection of Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, while on the next there might be lighthearted comparisons to The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.

In telling this tale – which has been rendered in so many ways – Schiff has triple duty. She has to tell us what we know. She has to tell us what we don’t know. And she has to puncture lingering myths (the inflated role of Tituba, the fact that no witches were burned at the stake). That’s a lot of work for a writer-historian, especially one that also wants to entertain. She does it all with style.

For all its loose vibe, Schiff is meticulous with the evidence, and she is very careful (often within the narrative) to explain where her story is coming from. I liked how she created a psychological context for the Witch Trials. She explains the darkness of the nights, the boredom of daily life, and the constant, paralyzing fear of Indian attack. She displays an ability, a keen empathy, to imagine what it might have been like to live in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. She is careful to weigh the credibility of witnesses, the veracity of evidence, and to acknowledge when she has to speculate.

Schiff also does a good job dealing with the larger forces at work (and I’m not talking about the Devil). A lot of things fed into the hysteria and reprisal at Salem, and even though nothing can be pointed at as the definitive answer to this calamity, it is reasonable to assume all of it played a part. There was, to begin, the local disputes over boundary lines, grazing rights, and who was going to provide the town’s minister with his allotted amount of firewood. The Puritans were a moody, prickly lot, quick to run to court. You can see how the quarrel between Salem Village (now Danvers) and Salem Town (now just Salem) played into the trials.

Politics also played a role. At the time of the Witch Trials, a new charter had just been approved for Massachusetts Bay. The old charter had been vacated in 1684 by King James II, who installed a governor who was ousted five years later, after which time the colony operated without any constitutional authority. The new governor, William Phips, arrived in the midst of the frenzy, and immediately set up a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the witches. (Legal Note: If hauled before a Court of Oyer and Terminer, you are screwed). In creating the court, he followed the prevailing political winds; likewise when he finally ended the court.

This is a thorny, complicated story, made more difficult – as Schiff points out – by the Puritan fondness for reusing the same names. The complexity can sometimes be made more pronounced by Schiff’s dizzying style. The Witches has many virtues, but organization is not one of them. Schiff has a tendency to be all over the place, trading a certain stylistic panache for a narrative more anchored in a firm chronology. It’s fun to read, but important concepts can be lost or under-stressed. There is also a certain amount of sloppiness. For instance, early on, Schiff writes “[a] wife and daughter denounced their husband and father,” and then, three lines later, contradicts herself by writing that “[o]nly fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed.” Also, the chipper digressions found in her footnotes eventually started to irritate by interrupting the flow of the story.

These are small complaints. This is the kind of book that drives academic historians to hate, probably because it’s bound to be so popular. There are other titles out there, if this isn’t for you. I’ve read Frances Hill’s A Delusion of Satan, which is 224 pages shorter than The Witches. A Delusion of Satan is perfectly readable, digestible, and informative. But it’s not memorable. It gave me the facts of Salem; it did not give me the essence.

There is nothing so lifeless in history as a hyper-religious, hyper-litigious, fun-hating, narrow-minded Puritan. It’s hard to bring such dour, sour, two-dimensional objects to life, especially with the paucity of sources at hand. It is Schiff’s great accomplishment that she manages to do so. Salem has always been a quintessentially human drama, rife with all the foibles, slights, vendettas, and assumptions that entails. Schiff captures that humanity, which is hard to do with any history, much less the unsmiling Puritans that stare at us from their portraits, which portraits are included – in color! – in this generous volume. I can understand that The Witches would be frustrating for someone looking for a traditional history of the Salem Witch Trials. But if you feel that historical writing should be art – with literary merit – as well as a sturdy vehicle for conveying facts, then this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 47 books128k followers
December 20, 2016
I have really been into non-fiction lately, and this is a TOME ladies and gentlemen. Impeccably researched, sometimes to it's fault, but fascinating and depressing at the same time. I particularly loved how I could really place myself in the world of 17th century America. And it is weirdly reflective of our culture right now in some ways? Where you see a whole society swept up in a fevor of attacking each other, against all logic. Truth was malleable, and innocent people were killed. It goes to show we have an amazing capacity to, as a group, let emotion trump logic. Often to sad consequences.
Profile Image for Miranda Reads.
1,589 reviews155k followers
December 9, 2020

When you predicted an apocalypse, you needed sooner or later to produce one.
Stacy Schiff attempts to provide a coherent review of an incoherent time.
IN 1692 THE Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.
Salem, Massachusetts is infamous even today for being the location of the most publicized witch hunts in America.

Schiff delves into records, unearths personal journals and interviews experts of today in an attempt to explain how neighbors, friends and families were so quick to turn on each other and commit their own flesh-and-blood to torture.

She speaks of the times and how that influenced the witch hunt - a strictly Puritan township that emphasized purity, faith, humility and a healthy respect for knowing one's place.
The witch hunt stands as a cobwebbed, crowd-sourced cautionary tale, a reminder that—as a minister at odds with the crisis noted—extreme right can blunder into extreme wrong.
Women were expected to know their place and to love being in it, witchcraft offered a means of escape and power.

In addition, witchcraft was also used as a catch-all to explain the unexplained.
Faith aside, witchcraft served an eminently useful purpose...It made sense of the unfortunate and the eerie, the sick child and the rancid butter along with the killer cat.
And why address larger problems, when you can use a such a convenient explanation?
Witchcraft tied up loose ends, accounting for the arbitrary, the eerie, and the unneighborly.
I enjoyed this one!

I remember being absolutely obsessed by the Salem witch trials in middle school and was horribly disappointed when I found so many conflicting stories and "evidence" that ultimately didn't pan out.

So, I was both surprised and and delighted to get such a well-rounded picture of what happened actually during this time.

Everything was cited and fully researched, any speculation was based on solid evidence - definitely something that made the book stand out.

The details did get a little too much about halfway through, and I could feel my interest waning slightly...but the author did pull the book together in the end.

Ultimately, Schiff provides an interesting, investigative look into inexplicable time in America's history.
We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are...
Audiobook Comments
Read by Eliza Foss and she really brought the book to life. She had excellent tone and pacing throughout!

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Profile Image for James.
Author 19 books3,579 followers
April 9, 2017
1 star to Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692. It is rare that I cannot finish a book especially when it's on a topic that I find fascinating, but after multiple attempts, I can't leave this sit on my night-table any longer. It mocks me because it has won...

The Salem Witch Trials are such an historic part of our country, and I've read numerous articles or viewed multiple TV shows or movies depicting this time period; however, this book fell short in capturing my attention. I'm sure for the right person it will have a higher ranking but I have to place it back on my shelf as a book to donate rather than truly finish.

A mix between reality and fantasy, it is too incongruous to stay focused. You go several pages focusing on a narrative describing the facts and then you are dropped into an imagination of what someone thinks a witch is doing. You're given so many facts to interpret followed by creative character descriptions that you have to keep readjusting your perspective to stay on track.

I think this book needs to be handled differently for me to enjoy it. It's a few books in one; perhaps it would have done better as 3 short stories in a single novel so that you have a creative story using the facts applied to a family for depicting what happened while separately you have a true account of what's known - the good and the bad and then a third one dedicated to all the things people didn't know about this time period in America.

I have heard good things about the author and will peruse something else she's written in the book store before committing to buying it. Good luck to anyone else who takes this book on -- just wasn't for me.

About Me
For those new to me or my reviews... here's the scoop: I read A LOT. I write A LOT. And now I blog A LOT. First the book review goes on Goodreads, and then I send it on over to my WordPress blog at https://thisismytruthnow.com, where you'll also find TV & Film reviews, the revealing and introspective 365 Daily Challenge and lots of blogging about places I've visited all over the world. And you can find all my social media profiles to get the details on the who/what/when/where and my pictures. Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Vote in the poll and ratings. Thanks for stopping by.
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
Want to read
January 19, 2016
i'm still chipping away at this book, but sean of the house decided he wanted to read it, too, so there's been a bit of a tug-o-war going on, but as soon as he turns his back, it's MINE again!

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Profile Image for Matt.
3,730 reviews12.8k followers
February 5, 2017
From a period of time so fraught with scandal and religious ferocity, Stacy Schiff is able to construct a powerful and well-paced book that offers readers insight into the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Admitting from the outset that much of the stereotypical views of witches--their pointy hats, bubbling cauldrons, warty chins, and evil cackles--was formulated much later by fiction writers, Schiff tries to get to the core of events in colonial New England and provide the reader with everything needed to place these events in proper context. Salem events took place primarily over a nine-month period, between January and September, 1692, though the idea and persecution of witches dates well-back in the colony and for centuries around the world. Witchcraft of the time related strongly to the practice of allowing the devil to use one's body as a vessel for his own devices, as Schiff notes, contrasting greatly with the strong puritanical nature of Salem and the New England environs. As such, the hunting out of witches and their subsequent trials became a long-standing biblical war, akin to that found in the Book of Revelations, on which the Puritans based their fervour. From the outset, Schiff provides the reader with a collection of characters, both puritanical leaders and those who were agents of the Devil, to play out these events, both standing firm to their set of beliefs. In developing the persona of the witch, Schiff focusses on the blunt and honest admission by some women (as well as a handful of men) who agreed to turn towards the Devil for assistance in their daily lives, or because they felt out of place amongst others in town. The book's focus is not to exemplify the vastly generic nature of witch hunting and persecution, but to show that those in Salem who were possessed had no problem admitting it. Schiff mentions a few traits seen in these individuals, such as the evil eye, marking across the skin, or a copy of a contractual agreement with the Devil, usually signed in blood. These traits separated the individuals from others and became the collection of foundational traits by which the religious elders judged others to be witches. Schiff notes that possession or witchcraft crossed ethnic and socio-economic lines, as well as varied in age, citing a girl of seven as being happy to admit that she is a tool of the Devil. Schiff surmises that it was the extrapolation of the aforementioned traits by judicial and religious leaders that created the frenzy of false accusations and the deaths of many who attested to their innocence. Familial and fraternal relationships with known or admitted witches tended to be seen as automatically guilty, as well as some oddities in the person (shakes, birthmarks, speaking oddly), though the puritanical fire and brimstone proved not to weed out the guilty, but to make an example for those placed before the authorities. Schiff notes various forms of torture to wean out admissions, which would sometimes come to offset the pain in which people were put. Most readers will see, like torturing prisoners, those in positions of power can usually get the answers they want if the barbarism is painful enough. Some trials were drawn out while others were brief affairs and required only a witness or two, but all guilty verdicts were handled in the same way; a death sentence for the convict. These public executions served also to scare people into reporting others who appeared possessed or professed to doing evil acts (and one can surmise that it was also to pack the pews for religious meetings). Throughout the tome, Schiff offers up wonderful detail of each point in the process , placing events it into historical context. While I might have expected more of a 'law and order' approach (hunt them out and bring them to trial in the latter part of the narrative), Schiff explores the different types of witches and their varied occult activities, grouping individuals in this manner and, on occasion, referring to a person in a few chapters, as their personal stories were quite complex. This was definitely a scary time in colonial America and Schiff effectively portrays it, without the bells and whistles of a Hollywood storyline. An interesting novel that seeks to open the eyes of the reader while trying to separate fact from inevitable fiction.

Having never read Schiff before, I was not sure how to approach this. Truth be told, when the book was recommended to me, I thought it would be more of a fictional account of the trials with a great deal of substantiated proof (a piece of historical fiction). Once I realised in the early going that this was a full-on historical and biographical account, I was pulled into the narrative and sought to learn as much as I could. Schiff admits that her research was stymied by not having the actual transcripts of the trials, but simply summaries and some court documents that have lasted over three centuries. To have the compendium of actual transcripts would have made for a much more riveting depiction, though Schiff is effective in portraying all that occurred and breathes life into those who were accused. There are two things that come forth in these accounts over all others; the religious might under which the colony was held at the time and the openness of those who were actually witches. Schiff portrays the clash and the trials lose their muster as being a strong judicial battle to find the traitors in the midst, especially since these individuals stand firm in their convictions of being strong-willed agents of the Devil. Schiff paces her tome out effectively, trying to offer up varying perspectives of those who were brought to trial and their different accusations, though since much of the narrative focussed on Salem, the same characters are interspersed within, seeing as it is likely that the witches would all interact on some level. The attention to detail that Schiff offers is second to none and I found myself enthralled in the details, though I will admit there were portions I found dry and drawn out. All that being said, Schiff knows how to present an effective biographical and historical piece on one of the most misunderstood short periods in time, while also dispelling many of the myths that surround both witches and the trials in this small New England community.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for this wonderful insight into this most scandalous subject. Rest assured, I will be coming back to read more of your work soon!

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Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,655 followers
January 18, 2016
The Salem witch trials is a fascinating subject, but I found this book to be a bit frustrating. I had enjoyed Stacy Schiff's previous work, Cleopatra, and was excited when I heard she was researching the infamous witch hunt of 1692.

However, The Witches is maddeningly detailed and excessively footnoted, and I think it's a case where Schiff couldn't see the forest for the trees. The best parts of the book were Chapter 1, in which Schiff wrote a good summary of the mass hysteria that happened in colonial Massachusetts, and the last few chapters, which finally provided some context and explanation for what occurred.

The majority of the book chronicles the numerous accusations of witchcraft and the trials and punishments, in addition to the minutiae of daily life and the neighborly bickering of the Puritans. But the author seemed so focused on creating a comprehensive historical account that the work became dense and opaque. It doesn't help that there is a huge cast of characters involved, and it's difficult to keep all the stories straight. (There is a detailed list of everyone at the front of the book, which is a nice reference.)

I would recommend this book to fans of history who don't mind doing some skimming during the dense parts.

Opening Passage
"In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice. Innocents indeed appeared to have hanged. But guilty parties had escaped. There was no vow never to forget; consigning nine months to oblivion seemed a more appropriate response. It worked, for a generation. We have been conjuring with Salem — our national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe, tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past — ever since. It crackles, flickers, and jolts its way through American history and literature."
Profile Image for Ariel .
262 reviews13 followers
February 17, 2016
It felt like this book would never end.


I like nonfiction, I love historical nonfiction. I also love details. Give me lots and lots of details and send me hopping down the rabbit hole on a research adventure and I'm a happy girl.

What I don't like is constant repetition of said details and nearly obsessive reiteration of scant sources that makes their scantiness blazingly obvious. I also don't want to hear over and over again how little there was to work with. I think it was primarily this last bit that grated so much about Schiff's writing. It came off as a college student's haphazardly cobbled together thesis with some passive remarks tossed in as if Schiff felt coerced into writing rather than any desire to expound upon its historical importance, cultural ramifications, reasons, or, at the very least, personal perspectives on available explanations floating around in the void. Such as the tensions brought to the fore by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed. Or any number of later authors that have worked on cracking the surrounding membrane of Salem and its trials.

During the first two chapters I found myself debating the validity of never quitting on a book; I just couldn't get into Schiff's writing style. It seemed so jumbled and wordy. By the third chapter things started looking up and I began to enjoy bits. Unfortunately I found the book drifting back into the jumbled territory of the first two chapters more and more as it progressed.

I haven't read anything by Schiff before so I don't consider myself adequately versed in her writing style. I was wary of this work because I saw it had quite a lot of poor to flat out awful reviews but I had also seen so many great reviews on her Cleopatra project. So I figured it was just the weight of the detailing that put people off Witches and, as mentioned before, details make me a happy girl, so how bad could it be?


It was bad. For the most part, bad.

Schiff sets the scene pretty well for our foray into the depths of 1692 Salem and the political unrest engulfing it. She also pries out a great amount of character study, suppositional character study to be taken with a pinch of salt but a large amount nonetheless.

It's the delivery that kept falling flat for me. It was pandering, stuttering, anachronistic, and often offensive. (An indigenous warrior as "the swarthy terrorist in the backyard," really?) It felt as if Schiff was more than happy to slip in and out of dramatic biographical ramblings instead of "keeping the plot" and giving us anything fresh on Salem and its people. Making it seem much more risible than relevant in the whole.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,347 reviews4,864 followers
June 24, 2021

In "The Witches: Salem, 1692", Stacy Schiff provides a thorough exposition of what happened during the Salem, Massachusetts witch frenzy of 1692. The trouble seems to have begun when two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, took to twitching, convulsing, yipping, rolling around on the floor, being bitten, pinched, and pricked by spectral creatures, and so on. The attention this garnered the 'afflicted' young ladies soon inspired other girls to exhibit the same symptoms.

The stricken youngsters said witches were responsible for their symptoms and proceeded to accuse their families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of being the witches in question. Soon afterwards the accusers were seeing people morph into animals, observing women fly through the air on rods, watching turtles and birds suckling on churchgoers fingers, seeing women consort with the devil, etc.

Before long many members of Salem's Puritan community were accusing each other of witchcraft. The Puritans apparently came to believe the devil wanted to destroy them. Satan's supposed method: get people to sign his book (and become witches) by promising them new shoes, foreign travel, nice clothes, land, riches - whatever their hearts desired. The newly minted witches would then go out and turn others to the dark side. If the devil's plan was successful the Puritans would apparently suffer eternal damnation. Thus, the witches had to be ruthlessly eliminated from the population.

Local authorities - prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and others - not only believed these ideas, they were often the main proponents. Thus, accusations of witchcraft were taken very seriously. And an accusation was almost as good as a conviction. Almost every person arrested for being a witch confessed, usually because she/he was relentlessly badgered, ruthlessly tortured, or completely self-deluded. And accusations weren't reserved for adults. Some witches were as young as five years old.

Arrests for witchcraft resulted in hundreds of shackled, hungry people languishing in filthy, stinking, freezing prisons, often for many months.

To rub salt into the wound, the prisoners had to pay for their jail stay. Most of the accused were middle-aged to elderly women, but some men were suspected as well. Perhaps the most unlikely person accused was George Burroughs, a former Salem church minister.

The ongoing witch trials - not remotely fair by modern standards - resulted in 19 people being hanged, including Minister Burroughs - who maintained his innocence to the very end.

In addition, one man who refused to confess was pressed to death by stones (a horrible way to die) and two dogs were executed. Moreover, a number of people died in prison, succumbing to the fearsome conditions.

Once a person was convicted of witchcraft (and sometimes even before conviction), his/her possessions were looted by authorities and sometimes local residents - leaving remaining family members penniless, homeless, and starving. One might suspect that this opportunity for 'legal theft' provided a likely motive for false accusations.

Eventually, a semblance of sanity began to creep back into Salem and the imprisonments, trials, and hangings ebbed and ceased. By then the major culprits of the witch trials - the prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and Governor of Massachusetts - were having second and third thoughts. The highest officials (including famous Minister Cotton Mather) spent the next few years trying to explain, excuse, and justify what they'd done.

Sir William Phips, Governor of Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials

Minister Cotton Mather

By then though, people's reputations had been irreparably ruined, families had been impoverished and/or destroyed, and the town had suffered tremendous hardships. To this day descendants of the Salem Puritans seem abashed about the hysteria of the 1600s - though it's given rise to a lively tourist business.

The book is almost too thorough in its coverage of the topic. There are so many descriptions of people being accused, arrested, questioned, imprisoned, tried, and hanged (or eventually freed), that they blend together. After a while it's hard to remember who's who. In addition, the repetition is tedious.

I was also mystified by the numerous references to Sweden, which didn't seem to make much sense (or maybe I missed something). In any case I googled 'witchcraft/Sweden' and found that a frenetic witch hunt in Sweden resulted in the 1675 Torsåker witch trials.

Torsåker witch trial in Sweden

Convictions in Torsåker resulted in 71 witches being beheaded and burned in one day. Salem authorities were apparently familiar with the Swedish witch hunt (in any case they mentioned Sweden a lot), and this may well have influenced their beliefs and actions.

Like many people, I was somewhat acquainted with the Salem calamity from history classes in school. This book, however, gave me a real education in the subject. The author's research was clearly prodigious and I found the story interesting (despite the repetitions). I'd highly recommend the book to curious readers as well as history buffs.

You can follow my reviews at http://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot.com/
Profile Image for Bill.
308 reviews312 followers
December 25, 2015
stacy shiff has won many awards for her previous biographies/history, so i was really looking forward to this book. what a major disappointment! right from the very beginning, the writing was clunky and awkward, and never had any flow to it at all.

and then she calmly describes women riding broomsticks as if it really happened. for example, "ann foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole". she describes scenes like this as if they were historical fact.

on top of this, the book is just downright boring. i gave up after about 60 pages, but apparently it gets even worse later on when the trials are being described, with reams of documents being quoted verbatim. i would heartily recommend that you NOT read this book.
Profile Image for Shannon.
985 reviews29 followers
November 13, 2015
I feel like I missed something reading this book. Namely, the point. That might be because there is no point, or perhaps I did just miss it in some way. I expected this book to be like pretty much all history books, with an introduction and a thesis, something the author was trying to prove. I assumed (silly me) that the thesis of this book would have to do with what caused the trials. Was it a fungus on the bread, schizophrenia, or just bored girls? I think I just have missed it, because I never got a glimpse of what the author was trying to say. I have no idea what she believes actually caused the trails, though it's clear that she believes many of the accusations were for selfish reasons, which is probably what most historians believe. This is by far my biggest complaint with the book, but it isn't the only one.

I grew up as a huge fan of the Salem Witch Trials, going so far as to take a class on them in college. I've read several fictionalized versions of the events and at least two nonfiction, not including this, so I came into this with more interest in the subject than the average reader. I was bored to tears. The first few chapters were interesting, discussing how it all got started and who the main players would be, but then it went into basically reading court transcripts. I don't see why anyone would be interested in every little thing that happened, every person that was accused. Why do we need to know that? We don't, really, and since there's no overarching theme tying the book together, there really is no purpose to anything.

Also, the author constantly states things in this way: "And then so and so flew overhead on her broom and used her gaze to break someone's arm." Really? She did? Because I'm pretty sure that doesn't happen. The author doesn't say, "So and so reported that... " or "It was written that.... " All the witchcraft and other paranormal things happened according to the writing in this book. I realize this may be a small thing to some readers, but it drove me nuts! Just another thing making me annoyed with this book.

I still think there's a possibility that my copy was missing a chapter or two, or perhaps there is a new trend in nonfiction to relate everything that happened without judgment. But if I didn't want to read theories or beliefs about an interesting topic, I'd read fiction. Or primary sources. Isn't the theses the real reason for reading books like this? It is to me. Again, maybe I'm just out of the loop and this is the kind of book people want to read these days.
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,658 reviews1,692 followers
July 28, 2017
Here are three things I know:

1. The Puritans were weirdos. Everything with them was witches. Everything. My notes are missing. IT WAS A WITCH. My daughter is moody. SHE’S A WITCH. My dog barfed on my rug. WIIIITCH!!!!!
2. The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow (European) is roughly 24 miles per hour.
3. I did not like this book.

I really don’t want to spend much time talking about this book because, a) I started (and finally finished) it so long ago that I barely remember why I disliked it so much, and b) It feels like a waste of time writing a huge review for a book that ultimately I cared about so little.

Here were the expectations I had for this book, that it subsequently failed to meet:

1. That it provide a start to finish outline of the events surrounding the witch trials, including the events leading up to it and events proceeding from it. You will only get this from the book if you take lots of notes the whole time, and are really good at extrapolating basic information from a tidal wave of minute, often useless, information.
2. An account of the main players. Again, this is technically there, but you have to be the world’s most patient human to access it. I spent hours listening to this audiobook, and right now the only person I can name and explain their role is Cotton Mather, and he wasn’t even there. (Which doesn’t stop Schiff from quoting him incessantly.)
3. Any kind of historical analysis. Of which there is almost none. The first chapter is basically it.
4. Some of narrative tying it all together. Again, none. This book was incredibly hard to follow.

I actually think I might know less about the witch trials now than when I started the book.

Probably the most frustrating part of this book was the style. Schiff writes it in close third person, almost like a novel, so that while you’re reading, you get absolutely no objective distance between what is happening and what it might mean. There was even a really extended scene that she writes as if a group of witches are actually flying around and cursing people, and then she never explains it. At one point she quotes Dumbledore YES THAT DUMBLEDORE in a footnote, as if it’s evidence. It’s just bizarre. I can’t figure out what she was going for. Was this her way of writing about a well-traveled subject? If so, all she did was confuse the issue.

I was frustrated and bored the whole time. And this is the same author who wrote Cleopatra: A Life (a book I very much enjoyed); the same author who once won a Pulitzer. It’s unreal.

Somebody please recommend me a book about the witch trials that has historical objectivity, analysis, and a clear narrative through-line. I would be much obliged to you.
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,204 followers
August 5, 2019
I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!
However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.
I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.
Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. *


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Profile Image for Kimber.
205 reviews57 followers
March 3, 2021
Parts enthralling, parts cumbersome. Schiff dazzles, and then she overwhelms. Sometimes it's quite exasperating. She throws around countless references - without further elaboration on the meaning. And then is overly detailed about the dozens of people who it is hard to keep track of. But the rewards...Schiff recreates the times of the Salem Witch Trials in a way that makes you feel that you are there and you feel close to understanding them as a people from our American past.And while she can be tedious some of her many details are welcome (if only she toned it down a bit!)She even brings wit and playfulness to a historical period of Puritan seriousness and such an era of violence, fear and hardship.So many in Salem were swept up by the hysteria that they were afraid to speak out lest they be accused. The modern phrase witch hunt conjures these feelings. Schiff's context weaves together the history in such a way that the history feels ever-present and real. She retells the stories from all sides. The magistrates and ministers bear the most responsibility for enabling these baseless claims and for not providing fair trials- favoring the accusers who were almost always teenagers. They fanned the flames of hysteria to perpetuate their own unchecked fanaticism.

The Witch Trials is still one of the most important lessons in American history. For we as a people are not as far removed from the Salem villagers as we may like to see ourselves.
Profile Image for The Colonial.
126 reviews34 followers
October 26, 2020
The nightmarish and—in almost all circumstances—ridiculous superstitions that were carried over from the Old World to the colony of Massachusetts are brilliantly discussed in historian Stacy Schiff’s retelling of the Salem Witch Trials. By using a multitude of late-seventeenth century primary source materials from the innocent, guilty, accusers, defendants, clergymen, and townspeople alike, Schiff’s narrative travels in the shape of a figure eight. Indeed, the text flows evenly and agreeably, where supposedly irrefutable accusations and alleged devil-worshiping activities are both acknowledged and countermanded, complete with factual evidence and skeptical reasoning.

From the opening pages, Schiff gives the reader a full-fledged background of the steps leading up to the eventual hangings and executions of fourteen women, five men, and two unfortunate dogs—all of whom are caught up in the conspiracies and superstitions of the age. What at first is perceived as an eerie historical topic instead becomes that of a thrilling mystery, with Schiff's chronicle being a fun and provocative take on how a small quiet town can have drastic long-term effects on an entire nation’s history through sheer ignorance, imagination, and lies. Schiff does a phenomenal job in describing the emotions, livelihoods, personalities, and religious leanings of each of the separate characters in her narrative—including such famous names as Samuel Sewall, Cotton and Increase Mather—as well as the more audaciously outspoken accusers and sound-minded skeptics during the ordeal:

Even before that trip, Brattle had chafed at New England provincialism. He tended to believe simple solutions the best ones, a novel idea in Boston; in many ways he seemed to have parachuted into 1692 from another century altogether. As much as he today makes his compatriots sound like an extinct species engaging in a medieval rite, he was no rabble-rouser. It was Brattle who prefaced his remarks with the caveat that he preferred to bite off his fingertips than cast aspersions on authority. He did not however believe men to be infallible. When they erred, it was essential to speak up.

Further on, Schiff extensively captures each and every one of the accusations, lies, consequences, and proceedings that played a crucial role in the trials of the alleged "witches" and their eventual sentencings—equally giving due credit to both primary and secondary resources used throughout her research. Her writing is highly appealing and full of the type of excitement and fearful drama necessary for a work of history on wickedness and dark tidings in Colonial America. The reader will come away with new insight and a comparative (albeit, negative) outlook of the Mather clan; a family whom historians were overly-favorable to for centuries. The book itself comes packed full of further study and sections outside of the main story: with a helpful 'Cast of Characters' and a map of Massachusetts Bay featured in the opening pages, as well as over twenty-five unique illustrations—each accompanied with a short, yet detailed description.

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Profile Image for Jennifer Nelson.
432 reviews35 followers
August 20, 2015
Received through FirstReads giveaway...In the past, I've found that accounts of the Salem witch trials all sound the same, with little life. This book contains so much detail, yet never becomes tedious, which is not an easy thing. It was nice to actually learn about the people as more than names, which is all that they are in most writing on this subject.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,901 reviews220 followers
August 15, 2020
Author Stacy Schiff digs deep into the historical records to provide a detailed account of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. This book explains what led a community to execute 14 women, 5 men, and 2 dogs. Schiff’s account is thorough. She follows each person, in chronological order, from being accused through indictment, trial, and punishment.

Schiff intermixes facts with the fabrications of the participants. For the majority of the book, she focuses more on what happened than why. These last few chapters cover the causes of the mass hysteria, including superstitions, lack of modern legal procedures, a judge abusing power, and children (and others) taking the opportunity to be the center of attention. It is lengthy, and sometimes feels repetitive, as many of the accusations against the so-called “witches” are similar.

I listened to the audiobook, competently read by Eliza Foss. I appreciated the inclusion of the footnotes in the narration. As may be expected, some content is quite disturbing. The reader feels for these people so unjustly convicted and killed.
Profile Image for Bob Schnell.
500 reviews11 followers
September 18, 2015
Advanced Reading Copy Review Due to be published October 27, 2015

Consider this a 3.5 star review.

Just in time for Halloween comes this expansive history of the Salem witch trials, the back story and the fallout. I can only say that I am exceedingly happy that I did not have to live in New England in 1692. Stacy Schiff brings the period to life, exposing the conditions and atmosphere that made Salem ripe for mass hysteria, paranoia and poor judgement. It was not a time for the weak of mind or constitution. Work and church were the order of the day and with no outlet for creativity or play, people (especially adolescent girls) let their imaginations run rampant into their reality. The constant threat of French and Indian attacks certainly helped to keep people continuously on edge.

The list of people indexed at the beginning of the book lets us know that this will be a dense, sometimes impenetrable tale told from many sources and viewpoints. A week-to-week timeline might have also been helpful. Once the trials and executions begin and the blanket of suspicion falls on a greater number of people you almost have to forget about keeping track and just read on for the basic story. Of course, to give each person their proper due would have taken a multi-volume series of books so you have to give credit to the author for being as thorough as possible in 500 pages while still being readable and engrossing. Her modern day analysis of why things happened as they did makes sense but we will never really know the truth since so many official sources of information were destroyed in an effort to wipe the whole unfortunate event from history. I'm no expert on this period of American history but I have to imagine that this will be required reading for anyone interested in the witch trials, New England in the 17th century or even the psychology of mobs.
Profile Image for lisa.
1,533 reviews
September 25, 2015
Yesterday my husband saw me with this book, and said, "You can't still be reading that. You've been at it for more than a month." I was lucky enough to get an ARC from Little Brown through a giveaway listed on Shelf Awareness, making me grateful enough to read every word of this book, or I might have given up on it.

However, as I slogged my way through it, I found parts of it very interesting. I am completely, totally fascinated with the Salem witch trials. I have read a lot of books about it, and if I were to ever do a research paper that would require a lot of dusty sources, Salem would be at the top of the list. I have read a lot of books where the authors made a vague mention of the fact that court transcriptions were badly kept, and extremely confusing to piece together, but Stacy Schiff makes an emphatic point that it can difficult to piece together the tenor of the trials because of the crazy transcripts, and missing pieces of the puzzle. It made sense then, all the books that I read that left me dissatisfied because the conclusions seemed like pure speculation. It also made sense why this book was a little dull to read. So many books that use Salem as a setting, or a piece of research, tend to fill in the cracks of history, and all those missing pieces, which makes for better reading, but is not the true facts of the trials. I could appreciate The Witches: Salem 1692 for this reason. (The author's copious notes in the back were great, but in my ARC edition were a little confusing to read since they were not numbered.)

The book focused a lot on the judges, the ministers, and the outlying characters of the Salem witch trials, including Increase and Cotton Mathers who wrote a lot about the trials, even though they witnessed only a little of the action first hand. The accusers and the accused of the trials were not discussed in nearly as much detail, which was a little disappointing to me, but I can understand there is not a lot of solid sources about them, and therefore hard for a researcher to paint an accurate picture of them. (Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach is an excellent book that focuses on 6 of the accused. Stacy Schiff references this book in her notes.) Because there was not a lot of information on the people most affected by being accused, or by being accusers, I was a little bored by this. It does talk a lot about things I hadn't much considered, such as the constant fear of violent Indian raids, and the frustration the congregation of Salem must have felt over the constant turnover of ministers. There was a little information about the politics of New England while it still answered to the crown of England, and how that affected the major deciders of fate in the trials. Schiff is very careful not to draw conclusions to what may have caused the people of Massachusetts to freak out over 1692 that lead to so much destruction in a community.

On the whole, I would say this is not a bad book, but you have to be very dedicated to, or interested in the Salem witch trials to make it through this. If you are not (even if you are) this book reads like a well-written, much noted, witty textbook; a good source, but a textbook nonetheless. This is not light reading. It is not easy to get through, it is not a quick read, and there is probably more in depth research out there. Just reading Schiff's sources impressed the heck out of me, and made want to read those papers for myself.
Profile Image for Cinzia DuBois.
Author 1 book2,752 followers
September 9, 2020

I’m in agreement with other 2 star reviewers of this book. A lack of thesis and bizarrely scatty yet overly detailed, dry writing isn’t an enticing combination. I’ll have to find a better book about the Salem Witch trials. If you’re interested in reading a good book about witch-hunting, read Goodare’s ‘The European Witch-hunt’

I only gave it two stars to credit the author's extensive research. This may be a useful research reference book for someone writing a dissertation on the subject. Just don't expect to quote her in your dissertation. Not if you don't want your marker to fall asleep...
Profile Image for Emily.
699 reviews2,025 followers
January 2, 2017
The Witches offers a somewhat compelling narrative telling of the Salem witch trials, but it fails to present any criticism or analysis. Schiff seems duty-bound to discuss only the facts of the case that have come down to us through the years - a difficult task given that most of the records from 1692 seem to have mysteriously vanished - and that means that she offers little interpretation or theories about what actually happened. This makes The Witches an atmospheric but ultimately frustrating read.

The book is written in an entirely narrative style, discussing the Salem events from start to finish. On one hand, this is great: it gives the reader a holistic overview, including several details that never make it into the more lurid accounts of the period (the testimonies and hangings of several men). On the other, this offers little room for analysis, which means that Schiff never gets into "what was actually going on with the bewitched girls physiologically?" until page 391. This is a huge miss and makes the middle third of the book quite slow and hard to read. A contemporary reader is already struggling to make sense of the seventeenth-century Puritan worldview, and the book only offers an ever-expanding cast of characters whose motivations are never quite clear. Again, it seems the lack of clarity is because Schiff is devoted to reporting only historical fact, but in this case it only muddles the narrative and keeps theories or conclusions tantalizingly out of reach. While I now know more about the writings of Increase and Cotton Mather - well-published ministers who can serve as primary sources even though they were nowhere near Salem at the time of the trials - I know exactly the same amount about how and why the witchcraft epidemic seized New England.

The great success of this book is its depiction of Puritan life, and Schiff has a talent for atmosphere that permeates every page. The Puritans do live on the edge of a great wilderness that threatens to swallow them up, and the Wabanaki attack so often that men come home from meeting to find wives slain in their beds. Children die so frequently that Puritan parents reuse names. In these sections interesting analysis actually appears: "The Puritans had a natural Anglo-Saxon love of plot: as religion stood at the center of their lives, those became diabolical plots" and "... the girls appear starved for color, expressionist splashes of which light up their testimonies ... the Salem testimony explodes with ... bluebirds and canaries, yellow dogs, red rats, red meat, red bread, red books." Schiff discusses the endless generational clashes that defined New England life, from the shoddy line drawn between Topsfield and Salem to the seating arrangement of the pews in the meetinghouse. But she stops short of making any claims about how this affected the afflicted girls or if, indeed, the afflicted girls were lying to these aims (which it's hard not to jump to as a modern reader: if you want to propose a different, hysteria-based claim, do so!).

Even without the analysis that this book so desperately needs, I found it compelling because of the details that Schiff can bring to her narrative. While it's obviously incomplete because of missing records and because many of the main writers (ugh the Mathers) weren't on the scene, the trials are more complex than The Crucible would have you believe, in many interesting ways. For example:

*The afflicted girls of Salem were the main and oracular accusers of witches, but their contortions brought many long-standing feuds to light. Many young men provided testimony that convinced the court, mostly along the lines of "this person withered my turnips" or "this woman visited me in bed at night" or "I saw this person turn into a black hog." The night visitors are particularly interesting given how fraught the Puritan lifestyle was for young women, who were groped, pinched, and chased through their twenties.

*The witch trials bloomed into a full-on conspiracy that had hundreds of people imprisoned across several towns, and by September of 1692 a vast conspiracy run by the Devil - with George Burroughs and Martha Carrier at the head - was a common tale in court. As Schiff puts it, the skies over Essex are crowded with neighbors flying to nighttime rendezvous. Unusually, Salem hanged equally as many men as women, with Burroughs the minister as a notable exception to the norm, as witches were usually outcasts.

*The afflictions of the girls (and some full-grown women, after the fact) are so intense that it's lamentable that Schiff did not spend more time on them. "Mary Warren ... plucked pins from her body. She spat blood in the meetinghouse. Her tongue protruded from her mouth for so long it turned black. Her legs locked together and could not be separated by the strongest of men." Schiff mentions in the last part of the book that "hysteria" could have been the cause of the fits, and that closed, pious communities tend to produce the most imaginative hallucinations, but this is a disappointing and late comment on the central mystery of the witch trials, one that she never attempts to resolve.

*Giles Corey is pressed to death because when asked in court "How do you wish to be tried?" he refuses to say the words "By God and my country," which is legally required for the trial to proceed. The punishment for this is particularly medieval: Corey is pressed with an amount of stones and lead outside in the prison yard for multiple days before expiring. Given that his wife has already been convicted on spectral evidence and that death by hanging can take several hours, this sounds like a crazily reasonable route to me.

*The justices wielded an immense amount of power in the trials. The jury initially found Rebecca Nurse innocent of witchcraft, but upon pressure from the bench (and the afflicted girls, who went into convulsions at the verdict), this was overturned and she was eventually hanged. William Stoughton in particular is profiled as a zealot who drove the trials forward at any cause. He tried the innocent while letting confessed witches, against all precedent, sit in jail for months.

I'm still glad that I read this and I mostly found the narrative illuminating. Ultimately, though, I need to pick up another book to understand more contemporary and historical theories on the trials - both of which I would have expected to find here. This book would be particularly interesting for someone trying to write fiction set in this period, but it's otherwise unremarkable. I expect more from Stacy Schiff.
Profile Image for Carolyn Walsh .
1,478 reviews602 followers
December 3, 2015
I generally prefer non-fiction books, and liked Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra. So much research went into this book that it will probably be the authoritative book on this subject. The early settlers kept many records at the time but much was lost or destroyed in the aftermath of the trials. What is known is that the hysteria and accusations about being bewitched by a couple of teenaged girls lead to a mass hysteria by the villagers. Their stories were ridiculous but lead to many villagers being tried and approximately 20 being executed.
The Bible was upheld as the authority for everything in the everyday trials and tribulations of the early Puritan community, and misfortunes were due to the individual having sinned at some time or by the possession of evil spirits. The dangers of attacks by natives, grudges against neighbours, repression of any pleasurable activity or recreation outside of their regular churchgoing and hard work, their religious fervour, the hard, cold, primitive living conditions all lead to the horror of what happened in Salem. General paranoia prevailed.
I found the book exhaustive and exhausting. With so many characters involved, it was difficult for me to feel any connection with the accused or their accusers. What could have been a fascinating account became muddled and boring to me. It felt that I was lost in a textbook of details. I now feel that I now know less about this aberration in history than I knew before reading the book.
I realize the author has won literary awards, including the Pulitzer, and is much admired for her detailed research and writing, so am reluctant to give a negative review, but was not engaged in its meandering style or narration of events. 2.5 stars for all the research and hard work that went into this book.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,743 reviews2,271 followers
February 12, 2016
"The Witches: Salem, 1692" by Stacy Schiff is *obviously* a very well researched book. I found the beginning half of this book to be very interesting, especially since there's frequent mention of the contentiousness of the young teenage and pre-teen girls in Salem, 1692 - in the court records as accusers and as suspects. Since a pre-teen girl just happened to be running around my house, being periodically contentious I came away from reading this wondering how on earth the entire colony ending up procreating when this contentiousness seemed to be cause enough to cry "Witch!"
The beginning of the last half of this book includes a bit of a repeat of already visited scenarios. Not that they were necessarily the same exact group of people at the same time, but when you have three girls screaming and writhing every time anyone accused stands before them, it becomes somewhat of a "oh, here we go again". Schiff still wraps up "The Witches" nicely, with an overall view of an incredible period in time.
Profile Image for Angie.
1,097 reviews73 followers
March 8, 2016
Thorough non-fiction detailing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the time period and society right before and after.

A lot of what was discussed are actual transcripts of the the trials, what still exists anyway. Lots of listing of the individuals accused and the accusations put forth against them. It was a little dry for what I was expecting, but still a good read! It was very detailed and I appreciated that and all the research that must have gone into compiling all of it. I liked this book, and I feel like I have a complete knowledge of what is out there historically on the subject.

One thing I was a bit disappointed in was that she really didn't give much commentary on her thoughts/opinions on causes. In that way it was rather textbook-like. But not a reason to not read it! It was just something I noticed.

I listened to the audio version, so I'm not sure if the book form has much "bonus" type material. None was mentioned during the audio of the book.

I would recommend it to those wanting to know more about the Salem Witch Trials.

I would like to have a copy in my personal library to reference. I've long read/researched about the Trials (since high school and that was a long time ago! :)) I also enjoy reading historical fiction on this subject. It makes a great companion to the fictional reading!
Profile Image for Carolina Casas.
Author 1 book22 followers
November 13, 2015
I would classify this as one of the best books I've read in 2015, because it is so vivid and so well researched that you are transported back to 1692 and beyond. The books is more than just about the witches and warlocks that plagued the poor, young victims of Salem, but about the justice system and the beliefs that were involved in the proceedings. Nearly a century later, one of the founding fathers (John Adams) would refer to the incident as one of the most shameful chapters in American history, and others would look back and scoff at it. And yet -as Schiff points out- the belief in witchcraft remained a constant all the way to the twentieth century. Gone were the days of spectral evidence (as used in the Salem trials) but people could still be shamed or judged based on the belief that they had something to do with the devil or they were witches. Nowadays the town of Salem is a safe haven for Wiccans. I have been there. It is one of the best places to visit, there is a lot of history, old houses, museums and everyone is very friendly. But the stigma of what happened there remains, and as one contemporary (Brattle) wrote -when he as so many saw that things were going too far- something of that magnitude isn't likely to go away anytime soon.
The reason why is not so much the number of people that were hung (19), pressed to death (1) and the animals that were also killed; but the court procedures. I don't want to make this review political but I feel I have to because reading this biography, you see a lot of these attitudes going on today. These people really believed in the devil, and they really hated authority.
They didn't rebel against King and country because they believed in democracy or wanted to establish a Republic, neither did they believe that everyone should learn to read and write so people could think for themselves. On the contrary, these staunch Protestants firmly believed that God had chosen them for salvation. They believed (without a glimmer of doubt) that the Devil was in Salem and the more the Devil attacked them, the more special they were.
Cotton Mather was a Harvard educated young man, son of another educated man, who had the nerve to say that nothing was wrong with the trials (except when it came to spectral evidence which was somewhat hypocritical of him when he agreed with Stoughton view that it should be allowed as 'evidence') and continued on to incite others to accuse their neighbors if they believe that they were witches.
This contradicts the statement that knowledge is everything. Knowledge can be everything, when it is used for good and to open minds instead of closing them like so many well-educated men acting as jurors and consultants in the trials did.

As for the girls, many historians have tried to figure out what ailed them. Some have said it could have been a case of infected grain, or a virus. Schiff makes a great case saying it was likely hysteria, pointing out the studies that were done at the end of the nineteenth century and that are still being conducted today. In short, it was nothing more than mass delusion and the fact that the girls were the product of a highly patriarchal system that allowed them little freedom. The puritan maiden could not say or do anything without her guardian's permission (which consisted of the male head of the household), and most were not raised by their parents but instead were sent elsewhere to learn good manners. This happened to boys as well, however when they grew up and married and made a life of their own, they were free to act as they pleased so long as they didn't offend the church. Girls couldn't have that luxury. As wives, their lives were more restricted and filled with hardship. And the Indian attacks left a lot of children without parents, some of these were girls. So for them to see how much freedom their 'afflictions' earned them, was like a Godsend. They were no longer required to do house chores, nor to sit still during Mass, or behave properly. This by no means condones them, but it explains most of their actions. And they might have also deluded themselves into believing that the Devil was causing them (so they could have a clean conscience and not feel guilty of the people they send to jail and to their deaths). Puritans' religious fervor was extreme when it came to women. The way they were educated, they believed that anything they did was their fault, or not good enough for their men.

The last three chapters are tragic. The victims never got closure, some tried to move on but most of them could not get the stigma of being related to witches off them. Two of the victims didn't get their names cleared until 2001, and only one of the afflicted girls admitted that it was a lie brought about because of the devil. And as for the judges, some paid a high price but the most important and well-educated went on to be elected. Why? Because despite many holding grudges against them, belief triumphed over reason. And that is the ultimate lesson of this book and the Salem Witch Trials: when belief triumphs over reason.
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2,736 reviews941 followers
May 19, 2017
I have never read this author's previous books, but have to say that I probably won't read any of her other works if they are set up like this. History is a dry subject, but the way this was structured made it even more in my opinion.

Stacy Schiff takes a look at Salem, Massachusetts during it's witch hysteria in 1962. She starts off the book with all of the people/persons affected by the charges of witchcraft. From there, she lost me. Probably because it was just pages and pages of people I didn't know. I really wish that she had instead done a family tree of some sort for an appendix to the book so you could clearly see who was charged/accused/hanged/pressed, etc. Because reading it the way I did left it with no context.

Then Schiff starts off with the girls behind it all: Abigail Williams and Betty Parris. Abigail Williams and Betty Parris were related to Reverend Samuel Parris who ultimately accused people in Salem of witchcraft. Additionally, Reverend Parris's slave Tituba was accused of being a witch and she then in turn accused others as did Tituba's husband Indian John. It was one long winding road of neighbors and family accusing each other left and right. I think ultimately one has to wonder how did no one catch on to this whole thing being just a pack of lies? When I was reading through some of the accusations I just shook my head. I so would have been burned at the stake back then cause I would have been scoffing under my breath.

Schiff goes back and forth between the accusers, accused, and those who sat on the bench who judged. I have to say that I wish that Schiff had managed to either stick with going along with the dates in a linear fashion. Or if not do that, had focused on each person individually. There were so many people I ended up wishing to read more about, but we would jump from one person to another and I found myself getting confused sometimes trying to keep track of everyone.

The one person I was most impressed to read about was Giles Corey who refused to plead. Due to the laws at the time if you refused to plead guilty or not guilt you could not be tried. But instead of letting the person go, they would then threaten to press you to death (have rocks placed on top of you) and Giles Corey still refused to plead and was then pressed to death. Due to him refusing to plead the government at time could not take his land so it was able to pass onto his heirs. He was 81 years old.

The book should have really ended when the special court was dissolved. Instead we follow some people here and there to see what became of them.

The writing was really dry. I found myself getting bored a few times while reading. I just wish that they had broken up the long text with photos and other drawings that they included at the end of the book. It would have helped keep my interest a bit longer.

Also Schiff I think just starts throwing out multiple references to Freud and other people in order to get a handle on why these young girls would have accused someone and why would others then go on and accuse others. She also throws in historical references to other witch trials as well. And I think I saw a Joan of Arc reference too. As I said, it just made the book very dry and I got pretty bored while reading.

The ending has Salem in the modern era still not liking to talk about what happened before (Schiff mentions that Arthur Miller was rebuffed when going to the area to research his play "The Crucible") but has embraced witches as a mascot for the high school and has experienced a huge amount of tourism around Halloween.

The book then shows images/photos and goes into a lot of references. It actually ended around the 70 percent mark I think (via my Kindle) and so it's not as long as you think it is if you are reading it via electronic format. I will say that I wish that Schiff had included more pictures of things in modern Salem such as the witch's mascot, people celebrating Halloween, etc. it would have been a nice juxtaposition of the two time periods.

April 15: $20
April 17: $23. I read "The Wangs Vs the World", electronic pages 368.
April 24: $28. I read "Dream Wedding", electronic pages 512.
April 25: $28. Landed on BL and had to post a vacation photo or tell a story about a vacation.
April 29: $31. Read "Whitethorn Woods", 354 pages Kindle edition, $3.00
April 29: $34. Read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", 256 pages;$3.00.
May 4: $37. Read "The Ghost Brigades" Paperback, 346 pages; $3.00
May 8: $42. Read "American Gods" Hardcover, 465 pages; $5.00.
May 8: $45. Read "Moon Called" 298 pages Kindle edition; $3.00.
May 13: $50. Read "Solitude Creek" 434 pages electronic; $5.00.
May 14: $53. Read "No Country for Old Men" 320 pages Kindle edition; $3.00
May 19: $56. Read "The Witches: Salem, 1692" 384 ebook; $3.00.
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