Interview: Stacy Schiff, Author Of 'The Witches: Salem, 1692' Pulitizer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff's last book was a best-seller about Cleopatra. Now, the Massachusetts native is out with a history of a subject closer to home: the 1692 Salem witch trials.
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A Witch's Brew Of Fear And Fantasy: America's Tiny Reign Of Terror

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A Witch's Brew Of Fear And Fantasy: America's Tiny Reign Of Terror

A Witch's Brew Of Fear And Fantasy: America's Tiny Reign Of Terror

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's revisit one of the most mystifying episodes in American history, the Salem witch trials. That brief reign of terror is documented in a new book. And our colleague, Renee Montagne, looks back with the author.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For the pious Puritans of early America, witchcraft was a crime of the highest order, above murder and rape. And witch hunt was not just an expression. In 1692, 19 women and men were hanged and one pressed to death with stones after being found guilty of witchcraft. In her book, "The Witches," author Stacy Schiff follows the buildup of fear, finger-pointing and fantastic stories of casting spells and consorting with the devil - all set in motion by two young Salem girls in the grip of strange and disturbing symptoms.

STACY SCHIFF: Their limbs are paralyzed. They contort. They're going into trances. And they're screaming - night and day screeches. And one of their first acts after the witchcraft has been diagnosed is to interrupt a minister in meeting. And you can imagine how that went over in a place where women were meant be submissive and meek and silent.

MONTAGNE: Just to remind people, there's a passage in your book about how isolated these Puritans were. Read us that passage.

SCHIFF: OK. (Reading) New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, imagines most vividly where the sacred and the occult thrive. Their fears and fancies differed little from ours, even if the early American witch had as much in common with our pointy-hatted crone as Somali pirates do with Captain Hook. Their dark, however, was a very different dark. The sky over New England was crow black, pitch black, Bible black - so black it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location or that you might find yourself pursued after nightfall by a rabid black hog leaving you to crawl home bloody and disoriented on all fours. Indeed, eyeglasses were rare in 17th-century Massachusetts. Hard cider was the drink of choice. Still, the thoughtful, devout, literate New Englander could, in the Salem courtroom, at times sound as if he were on a low-grade acid trip.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) A low-grade acid trip. So much of this reads from our point of view as hallucinatory. But it does - this little description makes it a bit more understandable how the outrageous tales told by both the girls and eventually by many of those who were actually accused, how these could spin to the most outrageous tales. Give us an example.

SCHIFF: The first three people to be accused are sort of the obvious suspects, a woman who's been very litigious, a beggar woman and a slave. And when that slave, Tituba, who we know somewhat from Arthur Miller, confesses to witchcraft, grown men who have heard her testimony begin to see creatures in the night. And at one point, two men who've heard her testimony that day see a strange unnatural creature making unearthly noises by the side of the road. And when they get close to it, it seems to them to materialize as three women who then fly swiftly away. So the chill goes down the spine all around. It is no longer just the girls who seem to share this idea that something supernatural is at foot.

MONTAGNE: Into this brew comes a man whose name has come down in history, Cotton Mather, 29 years old, graduated from Harvard about age 15, never doubting his own perception. What did that do to what started out as, well, some girls pointing fingers and saying they'd been bewitched?

SCHIFF: Cotton Mather is all over this story. And I hesitate to make him in some way responsible for what happened because he's by no means single-handedly responsible. But he is, at that moment, one of the most eminent of Massachusetts's ministers, and he is the person many of the witchcraft justices will turn for advice. Because when the court has assembled to try these cases, the justices are uncertain as to how to weigh the evidence and how to, in some way, analyze this plague of witchcraft. And Mather will really advocate caution, but he also casts a vote at the same time for the invisible world, for this assault of evil angels. He believes very strongly that - proves New England's special mission. It proves the importance of New England that the devil has singled it out for this particular attack. He's very interesting after the trials because he will essentially say that they served everyone's purposes while ignoring the fact that 20 innocent people die.

MONTAGNE: One thing that surprised me about this is that is sort of where it - that story would seem to end. And yet, in fact, as you write, people in Salem started coming around to the idea that maybe they weren't witches. Families started eventually demanding redress and apologies.

SCHIFF: It's a little while before anyone is even willing to address the episode. The weight of the tragedy is clearly enormous. There will be a commission established by 1711 to weigh the claims of those families who had lost members. And at that point, you get this tremendous groundswell of people demanding justice, demanding that their prison fees, that their properties, be returned to them.

But then for the most part, you still get this chilling silence. We don't know, on a day-to-day basis, how this returns to normalcy. How did you go back to listening to a minister who had accused family members? How did you go back to listening to a sermon next to someone who had accused a member of your family?

It's very hard afterward for the experts to remain expert because they've been discredited. So we do know that there is a lasting legacy here in terms of undermining the state, undermining the church. The door has to be opened after this to religious toleration. The entire practice of Puritanism has been tainted in some way, and the authorities are no longer quite in the infallible position that they had been before 1692.

MONTAGNE: As it turns out, the man most identified with the Salem witch hunt would wage another crusade 30 years later. And it would be against another invisible world filled with agents of death and disease, agents that invade your body - in this case, viruses. Cotton Mather, during the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721, championed the previously unknown practice of inoculation, and as before, he was unbending in his belief.

SCHIFF: Well, it really cost him tremendously to advocate for inoculation, which everyone else thinks is as crazy as was witchcraft. And he'll be pilloried for this. A grenade is thrown into his window at his house. He'll be excoriated in the press for his position. I read in that, in a funny way, a strange repentance for Salem, but I may be pushing it there.

MONTAGNE: Stacy Schiff is the author of "The Witches: Salem, 1692." Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thank you, Renee.

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