The Witches

This review appears in The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 2 (May 2016), pp. 98-99

The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. ix + 496 pp.; figures, notes, bibliography, index; clothbound, $32.00; paperbound, $30.00; eBook, $14.99.

download            Like many academic historians, I have a complicated relationship with works of popular history. When I was in high school I found the works of Barbara Tuchman inspiring; now, I’m afraid to reread them because they would probably make me cringe. Yet I envy the audiences that such historians attract, and the possibility of communicating the past to a broader public.

Stacy Schiff has been a particularly prolific and successful practitioner of popular historical biography, with subjects ranging from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra. When I heard she had written a book about the Salem witch trials, I suppressed a groan—hasn’t that been done?—but after reading Jane Kamensky’s scathing review in the New York Times Book Review last fall, I felt I had to read it. There aren’t all that many popular books on my chosen era of the late seventeenth century that I could justify ignoring one.

Schiff is a skilled and descriptive writer, bringing the “crow-black” nights of the edge of wilderness, the spring mud, the bone-cracking winter cold, and the dreary, dim interiors to vivid life. Yet she also emphasizes the strangeness of 1692 New England to modern eyes. Puritanism is both mysterious and repellent; early modern knowledge of science is laughable, its medicine bizarre. Although New England Puritans, with their love of litigation, held a “hypertrophied faith in reason,” they were nonetheless utterly superstitious, with stout beliefs in omens and a healthy respect for the spirits that swirled about them (103). To them, very little happened by chance.

Schiff bases her work on prodigious research in both primary and secondary sources, as well as interviews and e-mails with well-known academic historians of early America. Her account is mostly chronological, beginning with the first accusations in early 1692 and ending with the last trials in the fall of the same year.. In between, she strings together a coherent story from disparate narratives and interpretations. She relies particularly on biographical sketches of major players: the weak Samuel Parris, from whose house the first accusations came; rigid William Stoughton, a political survivor who presided over the trials; the hot-tempered George Burroughs, accused of being the witches’ ringleader; and the slippery and ambitious Mathers—Increase, the father, and his son Cotton—who exploited the crisis for their own ends. Striking vignettes emerge: the rumbling carts that brought the accused to be hung; the sound of Giles Corey’s groans as he was “pressed” to death; the shrieks and gyrations of the accusing girls.

Yet it comes across as surprisingly flat. We are not allowed to identify with these people. Critical elements of context are missing. By 1692—seventy-two  years after the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and sixty-two years after John Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts Bay—Puritans (who would not have called themselves that) were not the only religious sect in New England. Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers pop up in Schiff’s tale, but she never tells the reader who these people were or what they were doing there. In addition, the New Englanders of 1692 stood chronologically between the Puritanism of John Winthrop and the Methodist-inspired, emotion-soaked Great Awakening of the 1740s. Indeed, we can see Cotton Mather as straddling this divide, rather than as the deluded egomaniac of Schiff’s telling. What did it mean to be a “conservative” or “orthodox” Puritan in 1692?  We never find out. Similarly, early modern medical practice may sound weird and disgusting to Schiff, but it followed its own logic and was not simply a morass of superstition. She seems unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of a belief system she does not understand, that is not somehow “rational.”  Her discomfort emerges here and there in jolting anachronisms: the Wizard of Oz comes up several times, as does Hogwarts, and she refers to Salem as “the Lourdes of New England” (323).  Cotton Mather, she says, viewed Indians and Quakers as a “colluding axis of evil” (266).

If Schiff may be said to have a hero, it is Thomas Brattle, who criticized the way the Salem trials had been run (in October 1692, when they were over). He is Schiff’s model of a future-looking, rational man. But Brattle, like his mentor, the English chemist Robert Boyle, nonetheless believed in the existence of witches and demons, a fact that Schiff glosses over. And Cotton Mather was probably one of the few men in New England who could understand Brattle’s mathematical ideas; both were fellows of the Royal Society. Yet Schiff’s enmity against Mather is such that even his later advocacy of smallpox inoculation is viewed as an extension of his belief in demons. The other colonial fellow of note was John Winthrop Jr., son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who practiced alchemy, as did Boyle.

We will never know exactly why Salem erupted in witchcraft accusations in 1692, resulting in the execution of twenty people, mostly women. Scholars have offered many potential explanations, and it’s likely that many of those hold at least some truth. Schiff tells a good story, but at the end we are no closer to understanding Salem’s inhabitants than we were at the beginning. As historians, we should aim higher.


The Secret Horror of Dissection

The eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783) told his students that the practice of dissection “familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity.”(1)   A few decades  earlier, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) expressed more forcefully the “secret horror” that dissection, particularly of the human corpse, elicited in most of its practitioners.   His comments appeared in the “Description du Cabinet du Roy” (description of the Cabinet of the King), which began the third volume of Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), published in 1749.  Daubenton had studied dissection in the 1730s with François-Joseph Hunauld at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden, which housed the royal “cabinet” of natural history and anatomical specimens, including a room devoted entirely to skeletons.

Daubenton fig 1
Skeleton with rickets.  Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. I.   BNF


Buffon became intendant or director of the Garden in 1739, and a few years later summoned Daubenton (now qualified as a physician) from their hometown of Montbard near Dijon to help with the inventory of the collections.  Daubenton’s detailed inventory of the human remains at the Garden, which included skeletons, preserved body parts, and anatomical models in wax and other materials, occupied over half of volume III but is much less well known than the second half of Buffon’s “Histoire naturelle de l’homme” (Natural history of man, begun in volume II) that concluded the volume.  Daubenton began the section on anatomical models and waxes with this heartfelt plea for dissection, however horrific its seemed to its practitioners.  (The translation is mine, and I have kept Daubenton’s 18th-century punctuation.)

Daubenton fig viii
Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. VIII.  BNF

“Most men naturally have a secret horror for anatomical dissection: nearly all those whom I have seen enter for the first time into an anatomical theater have been seized with that kind of terror that the view of a cadaver, bloody & torn to shreds, imprints; this image of death seems to express at the same time a sensation of the most cruel pain: it is only by the force of habit that one is able to view in cold blood such hideous & terrible things: also they are only ordinarily those obligated by their status as anatomists, who study that science in dissecting the human body, others would be moved far away by the mere smell that a cadaver exhales when it is kept; that odor is even sometimes so penetrating, that the most experienced Anatomists  are affected by it to the point of succumbing to colics & other illnesses.  The difficulties that one experiences in order to have subjects on which to pursue this study, renders it as costly as it is tiresome; despite these obstacles anatomy has made very great progress in recent years, many authors have given us exact descriptions & faithful drawings of all the parts of the body: but what are these descriptions & images in comparison to the real things?  It is a shadow in place of the body.” (2)

Histoire naturelle, tome III pg. 210.  BNF

(1)William Hunter, “Introductory lecture to students” [circa 1780]. St Thomas’s Hospital, London, MS 55: 182.

(2) [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, with Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton], Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy, tome III. Paris : De l’Imprimerie Royale, 1749, p. 210

The featured image is Plate 9, Histoire Naturelle, tome III.  BNF.