“We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are.”
Why do bad things happen to good people? Has there ever been a satisfactory answer to that question? The people of Salem thought they had one–bad things happen to good people because bad people–witches–make them happen. Cow suddenly dies? Lightning strikes your house? Child is stricken with a mysterious illness? Without a solid understanding of veterinary medicine, electricity, or germ theory these may well seem like magical events. Is it God punishing you, or is it Satan and his minions, trying to shake your faith? In 1692, the residents of Salem, Massachusetts had their hands full trying to figure that out.
The Witches: Salem, 1692 is an incredibly detailed account of the famous Salem witch trials. Using court documents and diaries, with direct quotes from trial participants and town residents, Stacy Schiff brings the trials–and the people who were part of them–to life. It’s a fascinating look at a terrifying, shameful moment in history. There was no defense if you were accused of witchcraft. If you denied it, you must be a liar–one had only to look at your supposed victim, contorting and shrieking before you on the courtroom floor, to see that.
Being accused of a crime you didn’t commit is a common theme in literature, movies, and nightmares, and the “witches” of Salem actually lived it. This book is very timely, given our current national obsession with Making a Murderer and the Serial podcast, and our discussions about guilt, innocence, doubt, memory, DNA evidence, coerced confessions. In 300 years, people may look back at our own courtroom procedures and shake their heads. They may marvel that we place any faith in fingerprints, DNA evidence–who knows what new scientific developments separate us and our descendants? Certainly the people of Salem deserve some pity and understanding. They were victims of their time. Their actions, however, were so heinous and reprehensible that, as Schiff puts it, “Few were innocent aside from those who had been hanged.” This is a thought-provoking book, and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the Salem witch trials.