Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Dark Time in American History

I spent part of the months of April and May in what may be one of the darkest times in America’s past:  I was reading The Witches: Salem, 1692.  I came upon it while browsing the new books at my local library.  It was standing on the shelf, prominently placed at eye level.  I passed over it the first time but then remembered it was Women's History Month, picked it up for a quick flip through the pages, and took it home -- where it sat until mid-April.

I knew of the Salem witch trials but little about them until reading this book.  If that is the case with you and you only want a brief overview of that time and those events, I suggest you view Wikipedia's article Salem witch trials.  If, on the other hand, you'd like to delve deeply into the times, events, and lives of the people in Salem Village and several surrounding towns in 1692-1693, you might appreciate The Witches.

Nearly 80 people are introduced in the book, each with a story that weaves in and out of events and touches on the stories of others throughout the 400+ pages of text.  Individuals include ministers, villagers, accusers, accused, authorities, and skeptics.  (If you think you might need a cheat sheet, start it early.  A person identified on one page may appear again several paragraphs and six pages later, or a chapter or two later.)

As Schiff chronicles the events of the trials and their aftermath, she tells the background and history of individuals and their interactions in the community.  The reader learns about property sales and purchases, disputes over boundary lines, longstanding debts, etc.; court proceedings; marriages, deaths, and remarriages among families; interactions and feuds between different families and their ancestors; occupations; wealth and poverty and its rise and fall; and of the church's previous and current ministers and the difficulties they faced with their parishioners.  In short, nearly all aspects of life in that time and place are covered to some extend:  society, environment, religion, law, transportation, etc.  

A few things I learned from this book are that
  • Puritans may not have been as pure as one might imagine.  The behavior of some were not what I would call Christlike.  They believed in the Bible but they also subscribed to sorcery, superstition, and witchcraft to explain what they did not understand (even down to bruises on the arm).
  • To be accused of witchcraft and claim innocence was almost certain to land one in jail, or worse; to admit to witchcraft and repent may have saved one's life.
  • Torture was not omitted in the effort to obtain an admission of guilt.
  • Life was hard in the 1690s; life in prison was miserable.  Even small children were chained in dungeons.
  • One represented one's self in court.  The point of a trial was to establish the guilt of the accused, not to determine the facts.

Having read the book I still have a hard time understanding how things could have gone so far awry.  From the perspective of more than 300 years I can't help but wonder why they didn't question the initial accusers, 9- and 11-year-old girls.  And yet, I remind myself, people of that time did not have the advantage of psychology to help them understand the behavior of others or scientific knowledge to understand the world around them.  I kept hoping that a simple explanation for the accusations of witchcraft would be revealed -- rotten potatoes that caused bad dreams or some drug found in the water that caused hallucinations.  It wasn't until near the end that Schiff discussed possible explanations for behaviors and actions.

Aside from the witch trials, this book presented plenty of detail about life in that time period.  If you are interested in social history and happen to have ancestors from Salem (Village or Town) in the late 1600s, or even if you've found ancestors living in that time period in another place in America, you may be interested in this book.  It reinforced to me the ease of our lives in the 21st century; a gratitude for the freedoms we have in the United States; and a deeper appreciation for the wonders of modern sciences.  I'm grateful not to have lived through that dark time in America.


Copyright © 2016 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Oh it sounds like a fascinating book! Thanks for sharing!

    1. It was very interesting, Michelle. Sometimes it was hard to believe/understand what the people of that time were thinking.

  2. Outstanding review, Nancy. You always find thought-provoking books.

    1. Thanks, Wendy. If you read it I hope you'll let me know what you think.

  3. Wow! I JUST bought a nearly pristine hardback copy of this book at the recent Purcellville (Virginia) Library Book Fair for a mere $2.00. Although I was just finishing a book on FDR by Frances Perkins, his Labor Secretary, I could not help beginning The Witches too. I agree that so far this is a fascinating read and join you in recommending it.

    1. What a deal, John! Please let me know what you think after you've finished it. My comments about it were so brief, compared to the content of the book.

  4. As family historians, we should always read with the idea that we're going to find something that may help us understand our family better. Whether it's a book about the royals or a book about witches, or one describing how various textiles were made, there's always something to be learned. Well-researched fiction counts, too!


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