Saturday, January 13, 2018

Witches by Stacy Schiff

We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. We have all believed that someone had nothing better to do than spend his day plotting against us. The seventeenth-century world appeared full of inexplicables, not unlike the automated, mindreading, algorithmically enhanced modern one. 

Though we tend not to conclude that specters have stolen our notes, we live with-and continue to relish- perplexity every day. We love to hear that when the flash of lightning struck the man at prayer, it carried away the book of Revelation but left the rest of the Bible intact. Even those of us who do not occupy the Puritans’ high spiritual plane are susceptible to what Mather termed the “diseases of astonishment.” Our appetite for the miraculous endures; we continue to want there to be something just beyond our ken. We hope to locate the secret powers we didn’t know we had, like the ruby slippers Dorothy finds on her feet and that Glinda has to tell her how to work. Where women are concerned, it is preferable that those powers manifest only when crisis strikes; the best heroine is the accidental one. Before and after the trials, New England feasted on sensational tales of female daring, the prowess its women displayed under Indian assault. Those captivity narratives provided something of a template for witchcraft. Everyone has a captivity narrative; today we call it memoir. Sometimes too we turn out to be captives of our ideas. Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers. 

Rich in shape-shifting humans, fantastical flights, rash wishes, beleaguered servants, evil stepmothers, bewitched hay, and enchanted apples, the crisis in Salem resembles another seventeenth-century genre as well: the fairy tale. It took place in the wilderness, the address to which the hunter transports you when instructed to cut out your lungs and liver, where wolves follow you home. Salem touches on what is unreal but by no means untrue; at its heart are unfulfilled wishes and unexpressed anxieties, rippling sexual undercurrents and raw terror. It unspools in that fertile, dreamlike expanse between the uncanny and the absurd.


Ministerial salaries ranged from sixty to a hundred pounds a year, more than suflicient-it put the minister among the topmost ranks of his parishioners-if collected. Voluntary contributions had given way to compulsory ones. resented by many in the community, a minority of them church members, all of them taxed. Regularly maligned and occasionally mauled, the fee-collecting constable fled from axes and vats of boiling water. The Salem constable suffered a painful run-in with a Warming pan.* The people‘s reluctance to support the clergy demoralized them; the ministers, Mather would thunder in 1693, felt cheated and Starved. In the course of a protracted campaign to secure his salary, Topsfield's minister announced to a town meeting that he hoped the parsonage would burn to the ground-with certain members of his congregation inside. Clergymen were keenly aware of what they earned, which they could not help but translate into self-worth. Cotton Mather at one point calculated his daily wage. Expectations were precariously high on both sides. In the mutual recriminations it was difficult to say which came first, the difficulties in collecting the ministerial salary or the griping about getting what one paid for from the pulpit. What felt like ingratitude to one party felt like extortion to the other. 

The spirited Salem potter who had queried Burroughs deplored the fact that the minister delivered what he liked, for which the community paid. The reverse was also true. Parishioners contributed whatever was on hand, which could mean a barrel of oysters, a bushel of peas, a pound of linen, a beehive.* Congregants paid in labor as well, planting a minister's beans or slaughtering his cow. This rather blurred the lines of command, terrifically distinct though they appeared to some. "Are you, sir, the parson who serves here?" asked a visitor to nearby Rowley. "I am, sir, the parson who rules here” came the reply. While the community rose when the minister entered the meetinghouse, where his family occupied a special pew, while farmers felt intimidated by their learned minister, it was unclear who precisely worked for whom. As a modern scholar put it, there was some confusion as to whether the pastor was the congregation’s employee, spiritual companion, or representative from “some nebulous and distant ecclesiastical galaxy.” 

While railing against the barbarous starving of clergymen, Cotton Mather had to admit that-in his plea for their maintenance-he artfully included passages “that might render the ministers themselves more deserving persons than, it may be, some of them are.” Even with a surfeit of pastors, a great deal of mediocre preaching went on. So did a lot of sleeping in the pews. The Puritan was intensely alert, preternaturally attentive, neurotically vigilant about the state of his soul. He was not invariably so at meeting. Some would “sit and sleep under the best preaching in the world,” clucked Increase Mather. Doubtless someone slumbered through that 1682 sermon too. (In fairness there may have been no better place to rest for a New England farmer, who had few opportunities to do so.) 


The fourth or fifth time Hathorne asked who bewitched the children Good supplied an answer. She named Sarah Osborne, apprehended the same afternoon, her house turned upside down for evidence. Recovered the girls clarified that Osborne and Good together tortured them: Hathorne returned to the muttering. What was it Good said when slit stalked away from people’s houses? He implied that she was either tossing off an incantation or conferring with her devilish accomplice; Muttering qualified as something else too, New England code for all that was suspect and subversive. The word smacked of iniquities and insurrections. It led directly to anarchy; where murmuring broke out, mutiny could not be far behind. To the minds of their captives, Indians muttered. Cotton Mather had recently written off murmuring as “the devil’s music.” 


Witches managed to be two places at once or emerge dry from a wet road. They walked soundlessly over loose boards. They arrived too quickly, divined the contents of unopened letters, spun suspiciously fine linen, cultured uncommonly good cheese, knew secrets for bleaching cloth, smelled figs in someone else’s pocket, survived falls down stairs Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or they could be inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart. Indeed they often commit ted the capital offense of having more wit than their neighbors, as her former minister had said of the third Massachusetts woman hanged for witchcraft, in 1656. 

Compared to their European counterparts, New England witches were a tame bunch, their powers more ordinary than occult. They specialized in disordering the barn and kitchen. When the New England witch suspended natural laws, those laws tended to be agricultural ones. She had no talent for storms or weather of any kind; she neither called down plague nor burned Boston.i Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last three years They turned their enemies’ faces upside down and backward. They flew 


internationally. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest; they Stole babies and penises. They employed hedgehog familiars. The Massachusetts witch’s familiars---which she suckled, in a maternal relationship-were unexotic by comparison. She did not venture very far afield. Even in her transgressions she was puritanical. She rarely enjoyed sexual congress with the devil.* When she visited men in the night she seemed interested mostly in wringing their necks. Prior to 1692, the New England witch seldom flew to illicit meetings, more common in Scandinavia and Scotland. While there was plenty of roistering in New England, little of it occurred at witches’ Sabbaths, which seldom featured depravity, dancing, or voluptuous cakes and took place in broad daylight. Revelers listened to sermons there! (The Salem menu consisted primarily of bread, wine, and boiled meat.) The witch’s ultimate target, the point of all those pricks and pinches, was the soul rather than the body. And despite her prodigious powers, she did not break out of jail, something many less advantaged New Englanders managed with ease. Among the abundant proofs of her existence-~where proofs were needed-was the biblical injunction against her. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” commands Exodus, although there was some debate about that term; in Hebrew it more accurately denotes “poisoner.” As workers of magic, as diviners, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history. They tend to flourish when their literature does. The first known prosecution took place in Egypt around 1300 BC, for a crime that would today constitute practicing medicine without a license. (That supernatural medic was male.) Descended from Celtic horned gods and Teutonic folklore, Pan’s distant ancestor the devil was not yet on the scene. He arrived with the New Testament, a volume notably free of witches. Nothing in the Bible connects the two, a job that fell, much later, to the church. It took religion as well for anyone to propose satanic pacts, more popular in Scotland than in England. You could not really bargain away your soul before it was established that you had one. 

The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century as sorcery and heresy moved closer together; she came wholly into her own as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. In 1326 Pope john XXII charged his inquisitors with the task of clearing the land of devil worshippers; the next two centuries proved transformative. When she was not being burned alive, the witch adopted two practices under the Inquisition. In her Continental incarnation she attended lurid orgies, the elements of which coalesced early in the fifteenth century, in the western Alps. At the same time, probably in Germany, she began to fly, sometimes on a broom. Also as the magician molted into the witch, the witch-previously a unisex term-became a woman, understood to be more susceptible to satanic overtures, inherently more wicked, The most reckless volume on the subject, the Malleus Maleficarum, or Witch Hammer, summoned a shelf of classical authorities to prove its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Weak as she was to devilish temptations, a woman could emerge dangerously, insatiably commanding. According to the indispensable Malleus, even in the absence of occult power, women constituted “a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment.” 

The fifteenth century-the century of Joan of Arc-introduced the great contest between Christ and the devil. The all-powerful Reformation God required an all-powerful enemy; the witch came along for the ride. For reasons that appeared self-evident, the devil could not accomplish what Lawson would term his “venomous operations” without her. Frenzied prosecutions began at the end of that century with the publication of the Malleus, the volume that turned women into “necessary evils”; witchcraft literature and prosecutions had a habit of going hand in hand. And while Satan worship was a useful charge to level at a rival religious sect----Catholics hurled it at Protestants as v‘gonously as Protestants hurled it back-all agreed on the prosecution of witches." For their part, witches were perfectly ecumenical. They frequented Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist parishes. Exorcism alone remained a Roman Catholic monopoly. Nor had witches any preferred address. They were neither particularly English nor exclusively European. 

As to what country engaged in the greatest hunts, the competition is fierce. Germany was slow to prosecute, afterward fanatical. A Lorrain inquisitor boasted that he had cleared the land of nine hundred witches in fifteen years. An Italian bested him with a thousand deaths in a year. One German town managed four hundred in a single day. Between 1580 and 1680, Great Britain dispensed with no fewer than four thousand witches. Several years after Salem, at least five accused witches perished in Scotland on the testimony of an eleven-year-old girl. Essex County, England, from which many Massachusetts Bay settlers hailed, proved especially prosecution-happy, though it convicted at a steady rate rather than in the flash-flood manner of Salem. A diabolical rooster figured among the many hunt victims, as did the mayor of a German city and several British clergymen. For the most part, English witches were hanged while French ones were burned. This posed a riddle for the Channel island of Guernsey when three witches turned up there in 1617. Ultimately, they were hanged according to British law, then burned, according to French. 

The witch made the trip from England to North America largely intact. With her came her Anglo-Saxon imps. Similarly, the contractual aspects-the devil’s mark, the book, the pace-represented Protestant preoccupations. The Sabbaths, like the flights, derived from the Continent; English witches evinced no interest in broomsticks. 


Following a prickly conversation with the governor in which he asserted that men drunkenness could be observed in six months in North America than in the course oh“ English lifetime, Increase Mather noted in his diary: "No wonder that New Btglsnd t5 visited when the head is so spirited.” At around the same time, his son complained that every other house in Boston was an alehouse. The Salem town minister shared their concern. The New England visitor eager to write the Puritans off as sanctimonious hypocrites found them "the worst of drunkards,“ muddy~brained at the end of each day W never so incapacitated as to desist from spouting Scripture. All exaggerated, to differs!“ ends. Strong cider was nonetheless as constant a feature of seventeenth-century New England as the belief in witchcraft. As one modern historian noted, “The 'Puritan’ who shuddered at the very sight (or thought) of a glass of beer or wine, not to mention hard liquor, did not live in colonial Massachusetts.”


On two other counts, a seventeenth-century villager might feel metaphorically bitten or stabbed. You were meant to be pierced to the marrow by good preaching. And Cotton Mather termed winters "very pinching and piercing things.” There seemed, he noted, to be more hours in a winter day, allowing more time to reflect. The Puritans had stripped the calendar of every festival and holiday, to wind up with a work year of three hundred days. It contributed to their astonishing productivity. And it also left them with what has been deemed the “dullest calendar in Western civilization.” The girls knew no respite during the most desolate, most interior months, the horizon low, the family oppressively close at hand. 

Did they believe they saw Deliverance Hobbs on the beam, John Procter on the marshal’s lap? They had spent a claustrophobic winter housebound, under ashen skies and drifted snow, between whitewashed walls, amid undecorated surroundings. Visual monotony has been known to produce hallucinations. (It is interesting that there were no olfactory hallucinations and only a rare disembodied voice.) It could not have been diihcult to cough up visions under the feverish circumstances. On intimate terms With the supernatural, a girl well versed in Scripture supplied them all the more readily. Prayer works to clarify the mental imagery, to privilege the imaginary world over the actual one, at which the adolescent excels already. It was probably no accident that the besteducated village girls participated most ardently in the crisis. In Sweden, too, an intelligent, outspoken, orphaned eleven-year-old stood at the center of the outbreak. Past the window flew warped versions of the girls' fears, Heating scenes from Scripture, linty household grudges, gurgling sins and guilts, the detritus of dreams and nightmares, scraps of gossip and political darts, a veritable Chagall of cats in the doorway and neighbors in the orchard. In a sense the afflicted engaged in a responsive reading; having been fed a liturgical diet of tigers and dragons, they answered with black cats and wild beasts. In other words, as a modern historian has noted of our synchronized imaginations, “the Virgin Mary was more likely to appear to a French peasant in the seventeenth century than to a lowland Scot.” The “bewitched” moreover made the imagery rhyme with their own stories. Susannah Shelden had survived Indian attack. She reported atrocities where Ann Putnam Sr. saw dead babies. Both delivered effigies of their apprehensions. It is true, as Brattle pointed out, that it is impossible to see with our eyes shut. But who can attest to what we see when we close them? 

By the time the older girls began to contort, additional forces had come into play. The five who were to become the most vociferous accusers stepped in only after Tituba’s high-voltage testimony. Every one was a servant. They had reached the age when one ecstatically ambushes the grown-ups, when dependence grades into revolt. They may have had an agenda, which they pursued more subtly than did Abigail Hobbs. They knew stresses the younger girls did not, having ventured farther into the forest of sin and temptation that Elizabeth Knapp so brilliantly charted. They were more attuned to adult collisions, demands, confidences, advances, to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Was there a sexual element at play? One can make what one will of the piercing and pecking and prick~ ing, of pitchforks thrown down, of backs arched suggestively upward and knees locked fiercely together. No concrete evidence survives. For the most part, men were the ones who complained of witches in their beds. But what about adolescence is not fraught with erotic fear and longing? The battle for a thrashing, moaning young woman’s soul certainly titillated some at her bedside. And male, ministering hands were by no means undesirable. In 1693 Margaret Rule dismissed the women gathered around her, but not the men. She pleaded with one young caller in particular; grasping his hands, she maneuvered him back into his seat. 

Hysteria is contagious and attention addictive; wanton self-abuse comes naturally to a teenager. It may have been difficult for a discontented, disenfranchised nineteen-year-old like Mercy Lewis to pass up.


The trials would take their place among those historical events that never happened until a generation or two after they did. Once they flickered back to life they refused to dim. Of all the portents and prophecies“ those of the visionary girls, the boastful specters, the Mathers, the Salem woman who forecast a second storm of witchcraft-only Thomas Brattle’s came true. Ages would not “wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.”* John Adams cited the trials as a "foul stain upon this country,” an irony for proceedings that had been intended to purify. The frenzy unleashed by a three pence duty on tea seemed to one 1773 Massachusetts lawyer absurd, "and more disgraceful, to the annals of America than that of witchcraft.” Salem came in especially handy over the second half of the nineteenth century; it provided an effective piece of shrapnel when North and South took aim at each other. Frederick Douglass asked how the belief in slavery was any bit less objectionable than that in sorcery. Abolition, argued others, was a hallucination on par with Salem witchcraft. The 1860 election of Lincoln struck terror in the slave-owning South, leading a popular magazine to screech: "The North, who having begun with burning witches, will end by burning us!” All could agree on one matter: when you wanted to reach the emotional high notes, you reached for Salem. New England’s enemies arguably did more than anyone to keep Salem alive, as for so long the church had sustained the devil. The South woke in the nineteenth century to the fact that "those bigoted, fanatical, mischief-making, would-be enlighteners” north of the Mason-Dixon Line wrote the schoolbooks, with lasting effects. Something needed to be done; the Salem misstep helped to remodel the New England past. In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln officially established Thanksgiving, Pilgrim feasts being preferable to Puritan fasts. Decades earlier, Daniel Webster had delivered his Plymouth Rock oration, and people who had not persecuted witches or left a paper trail~or left much of any kind of trail at all-became the ur-Americans. Blameless, if colorless, the Pilgrims made better ancestors than did peevish, intolerant, urban, upper-class witch hunters. For a century or so they replaced their fanatical cousins. 

It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in your past; Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt. It glares at us when fear paralyzes reason, when we overreact or overcorrect, when we hunt down or deliver up the alien or seditious. It endures in its lessons and our language. In the 17803, enemies of the Federalists accused that party of launching a “detestable and nefarious conspiracy” to restore the monarchy. Anti-Illuminists warned of prowling Jesuits, of the Catholic serpent already coiled about, with sinister political designs. "We must awake,” they warned in 1835, “or we are lost.” The judge sentencing the Rosenbergs for espionage in 1951 termed theirs a “diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” A network of subversives, night-and-day vigilance, the watchtowers of the nation, and reckless cruelty returned with the 1954 McCarthy hearings. It took very little in 1998 to turn Linda Tripp into the nosy Puritan neighbor and Ken Starr into a Witch hunter. 

English monarchs would continue to conspire-or appear to conspire-against the people. It is no surprise that the seventeenth-century Massachusetts authorities so often sounded like understudies for the Founding Fathers. Somewhere along the line those men had decided that obedience to God did not tally with allegiance to monarchs; it was less a love of democracy than a hatred of authority that is their chief contribution to the national DNA. As John Adams saw it, Massachusetts had compromised itself more by accepting Increase Mather‘s 1691 charter than by prosecuting witches. 

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