The Sunday Magazine

What can we learn from the horror of the Salem Witch Trials?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff brings her investigative chops and narrative skills to the shocking and terrible psychosis that led entire communities to believe outrageously impossible things. Why did friends betray each other, husbands turn on wives, and mothers sell out their own children? Ms. Schiff's book is called "The Witches: Salem, 1692."

Stacey Schiff's investigation of the Salem witch trials of 1692

Cover photograph of " The Witches: Salem 1692" by Stacey Schiff (Little, Brown)

One of the most infamous periods in American history began in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, when two young girls said they were being bitten and pinched by "invisible agents". That set off an astonishing firestorm of accusations, as neighbours, families and friends castigated each other for being in league with Satan. 

In the space of nine months, as many as 185 men and women in 25 villages and towns were said to be "wickedly, maliciously and feloniously" engaging in sorcery.The youngest was five, the oldest was nearly eighty. 

In the end, 14 women, 5 men, and 2 dogs were executed by hanging for witchcraft. It was a remarkable time - one which was as intense as it was short.  And it remains one of the few instances of women and girls playing a central role in American history.   

The Salem witch trials are a vivid illustration of what can happen when communities are overtaken by mass hysteria. 

Our ongoing fascination with what happened in Salem, is fuelled by movies, television, books and plays like Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," a dramatization of the witch trials that was written as an allegory for Republican Congressman Joseph McCarthy's crusade to seek out Communists living and working in the U.S. 

Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacey Schiff, author of "The Witches; Salem, 1692"
Writer and historian Stacy Schiff has taken an exhaustive look at this phenomenon in her latest book, The Witches, Salem, 1692. 

Ms. Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award; and Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in New York City.

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