Reading Matters

Pulitzer-winning Stacy Schiff: ‘The Witches, Salem, 1692’

Some things that you learn early on – maybe in elementary school – stick with you all your life. Odd things. Things like details about the Panama Canal, about cypress knees (I grew up in Miami), about photosynthesis and, yes, about those poor witches of Salem, Mass.

Now here’s an October release I didn’t even know I was longing to read until I laid eyes on it: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” (Little, Brown, $32.) by the Pulitzer-winning Stacy Schiff, who wrote the bestselling “Cleopatra: A Life.”

Schiff explores a time when, however briefly, however tragically, women took center stage, and she explores what happens when women in 17th century Massachusetts exerted power and refused to be silent.

It was a time, Schiff tells us, when servants suffered regular physical and verbal abuse.

“They sought revenge,” she writes, “by raiding the cellar, stealing the kettle, or planting stones in the master’s bed.”

It was a time when neighbor turned against neighbor, sister against sister. Schiff tells us that “between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns before the crisis passed. Reports had it that more than seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts.”

It was not until 2001 that the last six of the Salem victims were pardoned. “They included Susannah Martin and Bridget Bishop, who had transformed themselves into gleaming lights and disturbed men in their beds, afterward spending weeks together in a stifling prison.”

How many more women – contemporary women and women throughout history – go still unpardoned, the innocent victims of men’s unconscious fantasies?