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From the Archives: In the Pocket of Satan

By (October 1, 2013) No Comment

Six Women of Salem:
The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch TrialsSix Women of Salem
by Marilynne K. Roach
DaCapo Press, 2013

The witch-hysteria that enveloped Salem Village from February 1692 to May 1693 had ample colonial precedents, and you only need to spend a week in any rural African or South American or northern Chinese village of fewer than a thousand inhabitants even now, in the 21st century, to know that it continues to have sequels. A woman is widowed, takes over her husband’s business and increases its success; she argues sharply with one of his laziest debtors; that debtor then dies of an aneurysm – jealousy, fear, and ignorance do their apparently hard-wired work, and that woman finds her life in danger. An impressionable teenage girl is confused by her first romantic thoughts about a dashing older school teacher and indulges in behavior no different than that seen at any One Direction concert – but it costs that school teacher his position and quite possibly his life. A peaceful, retiring scholar has, unbeknownst to himself, an internally bleeding tumor, the smell of which causes horses to scream along their pasture railings as the scholar walks by – embarrassing, yes, unless one power-drunk self-righteous alderman happens to witness it, in which case that scholar is accused of being ‘in the pocket of Satan.’ Darkness is much more organized than light, and it’s always ready.

But ubiquity somehow doesn’t lessen the talismanic power of those Salem Witch Trials. They’ve been memorialized, chronicled, and fictionalized almost from the very day their sordid dealings adjourned. The word ‘witch’ follows ‘Salem’ as promptly and naturally as ‘Avatar‘ follows ‘James Cameron’ or ‘shooting rampage’ follows ‘American.’

“Salem is a tourist destination now,” Marilynne Roach writers in her stunning new book Six Women of Salem. “The maritime trades, so important to Philip English, flowered in the heady days of the China trade and then moved to deeper water ports. The manufacturing that replaced this, in turn, faltered, and tourism filled the void.” It’s difficult to imagine what Roach – surely the world’s foremost authority on the famous witch trials and their most powerful historian – must feel when she walks Salem’s tacky-quaint streets, but surely there must be a low-key outrage. “The memories of the actual people involved in the original tragedy of 1692 can become lost, replaced by stereotypes, or disregarded,” she asserts. “They deserve to be acknowledged.”

Those people – the people of Salem Village, the 200 who stood accused of one supernatural thing or another, the bewildered, clutching magistrates, the nineteen hanged to death on Gallows Hill – took their journeys from ordinary life to cultural notoriety one step at a time, and the full horror of their world’s transformation was caught with amazing, crushing detail in Roach’s last book, the masterpiece The Salem Witch-Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Despite the surging ocean of prose written about the Salem Witch Trials, that book may well be the only truly definitive, necessary book for curious readers to have.

Roach’s new book attempts something very different and succeeds completely. Instead of steady, incremental, forensic envelopment, Six Women of Salem immediately immerses its readers in the events of that horrible, vertiginous year, a year which almost certainly started off as mere pranking by some mean-spirited girls but then grew into something much blacker and more complicated. Roach immerses her readers through her customary vivid, forceful writing, but she also takes a gamble that could garner her some dirty looks from her professional colleagues: she inserts stretches of historical fiction into her history as a kind of dramatic highlighting. She’s concentrating this time on the six women of the book’s title: strong-willed widow Bridget Bishop, educated businesswoman Mary English, elderly Rebecca Nurse, carping and scrimping Ann Putnam, “hired girl” Mary Warren, and of course the slave woman Tituba, and although her narrative encompasses the whole of the trials, she frequently extends her focus on these six women into the impressionistic end of the spectrum that Herodotus and Carlyle knew well but where modern historians aren’t supposed to go:

Reverend Noyes begins talking again. Rebecca hears only some of his words as he raises his voice to urge Sarah Good to confess for the good of her soul.

Exasperated at Good’s stubborn refusal, Noyes declares, “You are a witch. You know you are a witch.”

Good cuts off whatever he might say next. “You are a liar!” she shouts. “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard.”

Passages like that one take fewer liberties than might at first seem obvious; they are merely slight dramatizations of the actual court records (novelist and historian Allan Eckert did something similar in his spectacular 1992 biography of Tecumseh, A Sorrow in Our Hearts). Much riskier are the more wrenching, intimate scenes toward the end of the tragedy, such as the death of Bridget Bishop:

And then the bag comes down over her face, blots out the world beyond, stifling her breath in the heat. Slight gleams of daylight glare through the rough weave of the sack, which stinks of a barn. A man’s voice barks an order, and before she can figure out what he just said, her feet jerk out from under her and a terrible pressure slams into her throat and the base of her skull.

And then there is no support, nothing to hold onto or stand on. She strains against the cords that hold her hands useless, tries to kick her feet to find purchase, but there is nothing. Her head feels as if it will explode, and the little light through the sack darkens as darkness rushes toward her, into her. She is vaguely aware she is soiling herself, but pain and desperation overmatch embarrassment or shame. No, she thinks. No. Her consciousness is one great shout of NO.

And then, … and then …

Which Roach follows immediately with a quick, sobering return to the historian’s diction:

And beyond that is only speculation.

Hangmen then still used a slipknot rather than the later, more elaborate “hangman’s knot.” A quick snap of the neck was rare, so death came by a slower strangulation.

The alternations unquestionably work. The fictional segments are done with a fine eye and control, and the wisdom of narrowing the historical sections to focus on these six women is proved out: they become representative faces on the most crucial facets of the trials. Roach adopts as closely personal a vantage point as she can to her subjects, bringing readers in with her to the small details – and yet, despite talk of ‘scrying’ and invisible worlds, maintains her rational, skeptical reflexes:

In Andover Goodwife Rebecca Johnson and her daughter, following a British tradition, turned a sieve to know if her absent brother-in-law was still alive. This involved two questioners suspending a sieve, its cylindrical wooden side made from thin, bent wood, with the bottom mesh woven of horse hair, between the blades of shears – each person steadying the hoop with an index finger to the curve of the shear’s spring. They then asked the question and waited for the spirits – or their own muscle twinges – to twitch the arrangement. “By Saint Peter & Saint Paul,” Good Johnson had recited, “if Haggat be dead Let this sieve turn round.” And the sieve turned – though Haggat was actually still alive.

And as always in this kind of book, we return to that talismanic power, to wondering what it is about this particular outbreak of witch-hysteria that so pulls at the imagination. Roach has grappled with that power for years of scrupulous and compelling record-sifting (the bibliography of Six Women of Salem is, to state things gently, extensive), seeking as others have sought the root of it all:

Over the centuries critics and commentators, discarding witchcraft as a cause, have proposed that the accusers’ so-called afflictions were the product of the Devil’s deceptions, of their own conscious lies, of a natural mediumship, of clinical hysteria, of influenza, of ergot poisoning. “Fraud and imposture,” wrote Thomas Hutchinson in 1750, a continuing view that in its more extreme form supposes a massive conspiracy.

Most of the tens of thousands of tourists who visit Salem every year (traffic crests, naturally, at Halloween) know nothing of Hutchinson’s fraud and imposture and wouldn’t listen if you told them about it – after all, the percentage of Americans who believe in demons, spirits, and sorcery is if anything much higher in 2013 than it was in 1693, and the Salem Witch Trials have always been, among other things, first-rate entertainment (a super-sexy TV series debuts next year). But the seriously inquisitive now have another great book on the subject by Marilynne Roach. Those readers don’t have to wait until Halloween, and they shouldn’t.