I’ve always had a interest in the Salem witch trials, but never read anything in depth in them. That has changed now that I’ve read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.  While there is still a lot of missing documentation in the legal and historical record, Schiff does as complete a job as possible in pulling together a wealth of information into a coherent narrative timeline.

Schiff seeks an answer to the question of what brought about the bizarre chain of events that led to 20 accused witches being executed as a result of the 1692 trials. There isn’t a simple answer to be found. Superstition and religion bear a large part of the blame, as does petty bickering between residents of the area that resulted in accusations being thrown wildly around. The judicial structure of the Massachusetts colony was in flux at the time – the British governor had been ousted, and a new replacement wasn’t selected until the entire situation was out of control. The judges accepted evidence that only the ‘bewitched’ victims could see. The son of one judge was also part of the law enforcement apparatus – as the accused witches were jailed, he seized their property before the cases even went to trial.

A few months ago, I tried reading Schiff’s acclaimed biography, Cleopatra. I say tried, because I gave up on the book about 100 pages into it. Many of Cleopatra’s ancestors had the same or very similar names, so I found it very hard to keep up with the historical background in that book. The Witches has a different type of problem in than there are so many people involved in the story that they can become easily confused. If you have a mind for detail and a desire to find out more about the true history of the Salem trials, The Witches will be a great read.

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