The Witches

Salem, 1692


By Stacy Schiff

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, The Witches is Stacy Schiff’s account of this fantastical story — the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.


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Cast of Characters


BAYLEY, JAMES, Salem village's first minister, 1673 to 1679. Thomas Putnam's brother-in-law; writhing, yelping Ann Putnam Jr.'s uncle.

BURROUGHS, GEORGE, forty-two, Bayley's beguiling, independent-minded successor in the village pulpit, 1679 to 1683. Departs abruptly; in 1692 a minister on the Maine frontier. Father of seven; combative and controlling.

LAWSON, DEODAT, Burroughs's mannerly, smooth-talking successor, village minister from 1684 to 1688.

PARRIS, SAMUEL, thirty-nine, the beleaguered clergyman at the center of the diabolical invasion. Father and uncle of the first bewitched girls; master of the first confessed witch; in the Salem pulpit from 1688 to 1696. Avid, unyielding, tactless.

The Parris family: ABIGAIL WILLIAMS, eleven, a fair-haired niece who interrupts sermons and catapults herself, barking, across rooms. BETTY PARRIS, nine, the sole Parris child to suffer symptoms of enchantment; never attends a trial. TWO ADDITIONAL CHILDREN, a ten-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter; unafflicted and lost to history. TITUBA, a kindly longtime Indian slave, the first to glimpse a diabolical pact and report a flight through the air. JOHN INDIAN, another slave, repeatedly bewitched. Understood to be Tituba's husband. ELIZABETH, the minister's Boston-born wife. About forty-four, afflicted late in the summer.


CHEEVER, EZEKIEL, thirty-seven, tailor and farmer, sometime court reporter and accuser.

GRIGGS, WILLIAM, seventy-one, doctor and village newcomer, a Putnam intimate.

HUTCHINSON, BENJAMIN, early twenties, adopted son of tavern owner Nathaniel Ingersoll. Valiantly, blindly impales specters on his pitchfork and rapier.

INGERSOLL, HANNAH, about sixty, the tavern owner's wife and a parsonage neighbor.

INGERSOLL, NATHANIEL, sixty, militia lieutenant, early village deacon, owner of the tavern in which accusations, hearings, judicial conferences, spectral stabbings, and much speculation takes place. A Putnam and Parris confidant.

NURSE, FRANCIS, seventy-four. Worldly-wise, steadfast husband of accused witch Rebecca Nurse. Displeased with his minister well before the crisis.

POPE, BATHSHUA, forty, a bewitched, sermon-interrupting matron. Lobs a shoe at a defendant; levitates in court.

PUTNAM, THOMAS, forty-year-old militia sergeant and veteran of King Philip's War. Court recorder, parish clerk, stout Parris supporter. Lives with four witchcraft victims; presses first charges and initiates nearly half the rest.

PUTNAM, EDWARD, thirty-eight, Thomas's younger brother, a church deacon. Cosigns first witchcraft accusations.

SIBLEY, MARY, a pregnant, concerned thirty-two-year-old parsonage neighbor. Suggests and supervises witch-cake baking in the Parris household.

WALCOTT, JONATHAN, fifty-three. A village militia captain and Putnam brother-in-law; Mary's father.


BIBBER, SARAH, a quarrelsome, meddlesome thirty-six-year-old village matron. Stabbed by pins in the courtroom.

CHURCHILL, SARAH, about twenty, a refugee and servant in the Jacobs household. Tries unsuccessfully to recant. Distantly related to Mary Walcott.

HOBBS, ABIGAIL, a headstrong, unruly Topsfield fourteen-year-old, earlier a servant in Maine. Second to confess to witchcraft; an accuser thereafter. Sends both parents to prison.

HUBBARD, ELIZABETH, sixteen, an orphan and a servant in the household of her uncle, Dr. Griggs. Among the five most frequent accusers.

LEWIS, MERCY, nineteen; a two-time refugee and orphan. Previously a Burroughs servant in Maine; in 1692 a Putnam servant in Salem. Reliably identifies invisible attackers and offers most detailed testimony; known as a "visionary girl."

PUTNAM, ANN, Jr., twelve, the eldest of six siblings. Can predict events and recall others that predate her birth. Sole accuser living at home with two parents.

PUTNAM, ANN, Sr., Ann Jr.'s pregnant, pious mother, about thirty. Incapacitated by ghosts and witches. Entranced; at one juncture carried bodily from the courtroom.

SHELDEN, SUSANNAH, an eighteen-year-old, two-time Maine refugee. Witnessed Indian atrocities; recently buried her father. Tends to reveal murders.

WALCOTT, MARY, sixteen, daughter of a village militia captain, living with her Putnam cousins. Also an Ingersoll niece. Charges at least seventy with witchcraft, far more than any other accuser.

WARREN, MARY, twenty, an orphaned refugee and a servant in the Procter household. Afflicted, accused, then afflicted. Strikingly pretty; endures bloody, extreme courtroom tortures.


ALDEN, JOHN, midsixties. Shrewd Boston-based fur trader, militia officer, sea captain. Longtime associate of Salem merchant Bartholomew Gedney; Willard parishioner; Samuel Sewall friend and neighbor.

BARKER, WILLIAM, forty-six, a silver-tongued farmer in debt.

BISHOP, BRIDGET, a Salem town widow in her early fifties; belligerent, provocative, brash. Confused at trial with Salem village's Sarah Bishop.

CARRIER, MARTHA, an abrasive mother of five in her late thirties; well before 1692 seemed a likely candidate for "queen of hell." Scoffs that the afflicted are "out of their wits." First arrested Andover witch.

CARRIER, RICHARD, eighteen, and ANDREW, sixteen. Martha's strapping sons, both tortured, after which Richard names more diabolical confederates than any other confessor.

CARY, ELIZABETH, early forties. Wife of a feisty Charlestown shipbuilder. Sails to Salem to clear her name; leaves in chains.

CLOYCE, SARAH, forty-four. Rebecca Nurse's much younger, ill-starred sister. A village church member; a Dane relative by her first marriage.

COLSON, ELIZABETH, gutsy Reading sixteen-year-old; only teenager to elude arrest, if temporarily.

COREY, GILES, a fearless, pugnacious farmer in his seventies. Initially accuses his wife; ultimately defies the court.

COREY, MARTHA, sixties, Giles's third wife. Straight-spined, stubborn, dogmatic. Makes the tour of Massachusetts prisons.

ENGLISH, PHILIP, forty-two, born Philippe l'Anglois, outspoken, sharp-elbowed Jersey native. Immensely successful immigrant entrepreneur; Salem town's richest merchant and a newly elected selectman.

ENGLISH, MARY, about forty, his wife. Daughter of a prominent Salem merchant and of a woman earlier accused of witchcraft. Escapes with her husband.

ESTY, MARY, fifty-eight, kindhearted Topsfield mother of seven, middle of the three Towne sisters. Charms even her jailers.

FOSTER, ANN, a quiet widow in her seventies. Mother of a murdered twenty-two-year-old; mother-in-law of an executed murderer. Picks up on early hints of flight and connects them to diabolical Sabbaths.

GOOD, SARAH, thirty-eight, local beggar woman, sullen, combative, unkempt. The first to be interrogated on suspicion of witchcraft; mother of an accused five-year-old.

HOAR, DORCAS, a mischief-making, fortune-telling fifty-eight-year-old widow with a gift for petty larceny. Singular-looking; easily frightens children.

HOW, ELIZABETH, early fifties, dutiful wife to a blind Topsfield farmer; a Dane, Carrier, and Nurse relative. Long suspected of witchcraft.

JACOBS, GEORGE, a jaunty, convivial, illiterate, elderly farmer.

JACOBS, MARGARET, seventeen, his articulate, soulful granddaughter. Confesses, recants, sobs mightily in Salem's dungeon.

LACEY, MARY, Jr., eighteen, a self-described disobedient daughter. Highly voluble, with a theatrical bent.

LACEY, MARY, Sr., forty, Mary Lacey Jr.'s mother and Ann Foster's daughter.

MARTIN, SUSANNAH, seventy-one, diminutive Amesbury widow, steely, self-possessed. Accused and cleared of witchcraft charges in 1669.

NURSE, REBECCA, seventy-one, a nearly deaf, sickly, sensitive great-grandmother. Presents the court with its greatest challenge.

OSBORNE, SARAH, about fifty, frail, among the first three suspects. Embroiled in a long-standing dispute with her Putnam in-laws.

PROCTER, ELIZABETH, forty-one, pregnant mother of five and stepmother to six. Temperamental, fond of reading. Granddaughter of a 1669 witch suspect.

PROCTER, JOHN, her older, outspoken husband, a bluff sixty-year-old farmer and tavern keeper. Swears the afflicted should hang. First 1692 man accused of witchcraft.

TOOTHAKER, MARY, forty-four, Billerica widow of an accused wizard. Ruminative, candid, petrified. Martha Carrier's sister; a niece of Reverend Dane.

WARDWELL, SAMUEL, forty-nine. A feckless fortune-teller and carpenter, at the bottom of the Andover tax lists. Colorfully confesses; later recants. Father of seven.

WILDS, SARAH, a hay-enchanting Topsfield carpenter's wife in her midsixties. Also accused sixteen years earlier; mother of the town constable.

WILLARD, JOHN, about thirty, village deputy constable, former Putnam farmhand. An abusive husband, reviled by his in-laws.


BRADSTREET, DUDLEY, the forty-four-year-old son of the colony's previous governor. Leading Andover citizen; justice of the peace; selectman, 1692 council member. Orders a slew of witchcraft arrests; flees when accused.

CORWIN, GEORGE, twenty-six, opportunistic high sheriff of Essex County. Nephew of two witchcraft justices and son-in-law of a third.

CORWIN, JONATHAN, fifty-two, town merchant and liquor retailer. Longtime Hathorne confederate and experienced justice of the peace; a fixture at the hearings. Related by marriage to Winthrop, Hathorne, and Sergeant.

DANFORTH, THOMAS, sixty-nine-year-old Charlestown landowner. Reversed a guilty verdict in an earlier witchcraft case; conducts first 1692 examination of wizards. Elicits initial report of witches' meeting; ultimately opposes trials.

GEDNEY, BARTHOLOMEW, fifty-two. Risk-taking sawmill owner and entrepreneur; a respected town physician, magistrate, militia major. A Corwin relative.

HATHORNE, JOHN, fifty-one, a high-handed, intimidating, prosperous local magistrate. Hails from one of Salem town's first families; a Putnam relative.

HERRICK, GEORGE, well-born, handsome Salem deputy sheriff in his thirties, an upholsterer by trade. Spends 1692 rounding up and transporting witches.

HIGGINSON, JOHN, Jr., forty-six, Reverend Higginson's eldest son, a militia officer, engaged in the fishing business. Newly appointed justice of the peace; a witch examiner.

PHIPS, Sir WILLIAM, forty-one, unschooled, enterprising, blustery sea captain and adventurer; newly appointed Massachusetts governor.

RICHARDS, JOHN, at sixty-seven, eldest member of the court. Related to three colleagues; applies for judicial direction. Boston merchant, Harvard College treasurer, leading Mather patron.

SALTONSTALL, NATHANIEL, fifty-three, a short-lived member of the court. Thought "the most popular and well principled" of Massachusetts military officers.

SERGEANT, PETER, a fabulously wealthy forty-five-year-old Boston merchant and witchcraft justice. Loaned Massachusetts funds; owner of a palatial home. A Samuel Sewall business partner.

SEWALL, SAMUEL, a round Bostonian of forty, genial, sensitive, sophisticated, devout. Youngest member of the court and its clerk's brother.

SEWALL, STEPHEN, thirty-five-year-old court clerk and keeper of its papers. Salem town merchant and military officer; takes in bewitched Betty Parris.

STOUGHTON, WILLIAM, chief justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. A large, starched, small-eyed sixty-year-old. Highly discerning; expertly versed in theology; New England's most trusted judicial authority. A land speculator and lifelong bachelor.

WINTHROP, WAIT STILL, fifty-one, grandson of John Winthrop, Bay Colony founder. A major general and an influential landholder; apolitical, fashion-conscious, a reluctant public servant. Close to Samuel Sewall; a Mather intimate.


BARNARD, THOMAS, thirty-four, Andover's excitable orthodox associate minister. Arranges touch test.

DANE, FRANCIS, seventy-six, senior Andover minister, in that pulpit since 1648. Cautious regarding witchcraft; autocratic, uncompromising. No formal education.

HALE, JOHN, Charlestown-born Beverly minister, congenial, compassionate, fifty-six. Fascinated by the proceedings and with the mechanics of witchcraft. As a child, watched Massachusetts hang its first witch; a Noyes relative by marriage.

HIGGINSON, JOHN, seventy-six, in his thirty-third year in the Salem town pulpit. Sober, well spoken, highly respected.

MATHER, COTTON, twenty-nine, son of Increase Mather and assistant minister at Boston's Second Church. A Harvard student at eleven; a master of theology at eighteen. The rising star of the New England ministry, adroit, brilliant, prolific, a champion conversationalist.

MATHER, INCREASE, Second Church minister since 1664. At fifty-three, most prominent New England cleric and its leading intellectual; Harvard College president, 1685 to 1701. Procurer of the colony's new charter.

MOODY, JOSHUA, fifty-nine, First Church of Boston minister, a Willard schoolmate. Firmly believes in witchcraft; less convinced by Stoughton's court. Assists in escapes.

NOYES, NICHOLAS, forty-five, a Harvard schoolmate of Burroughs's, assistant minister to Higginson. A portly, ebullient bachelor, author of deadly doggerel. Samuel Sewall's closest friend in Salem town.

WILLARD, SAMUEL, fifty-two-year-old Third Church minister. With the Mathers, most eminent of Boston clerics. Erudite, diplomatic, clear-minded, discreet.


BRATTLE, THOMAS, accomplished scientist and logician, Anglican-leaning. Fresh from a trip to England spent largely in Samuel Sewall's company; attends various Salem hearings. A thirty-four-year-old bachelor.

CALEF, ROBERT, forty-four, a Boston textile merchant of some wit. Attended trials and at least one hanging; the Mathers' chief antagonist afterward.

MAULE, THOMAS, a contentious, quick-witted, forty-seven-year-old Salem town shopkeeper. Accused Bishop; later a Quaker and a cogent critic of the trials.

MILBORNE, WILLIAM, fifties, former Bermuda resident; a troublemaking Baptist minister with a background in law. Arrested for sedition.

PIKE, ROBERT, council member and militia captain, Salisbury's leading resident. Outspoken; midseventies; probably the first public official to voice concern about the trials.

WISE, JOHN, Ipswich's forty-year-old minister, a Parris contemporary and Harvard schoolmate. Bold, magnetic, articulate. A local hero; had served jail time for protesting government abuses.



We will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.


IN 1692 THE Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice. Innocents indeed appeared to have hanged. But guilty parties had escaped. There was no vow never to forget; consigning nine months to oblivion seemed a more appropriate response. It worked, for a generation. We have been conjuring with Salem—our national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past—ever since. It crackles, flickers, and jolts its way through American history and literature.

No one burned at the stake. No midwives died. The voodoo arrived later, with a nineteenth-century historian; the half-black slave with Longfellow; the casting of spells in the forest with Arthur Miller. (A movie delivered the chicken blood and the boiling cauldron.) Erudition plays a greater role in the story than ignorance. It is however true that fifty-five people confessed to witchcraft. A minister was hanged. And while we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having "wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously" engaged in sorcery, somewhere 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. So many stood accused that witnesses confused their witches. Even a careful chronicler afterward sent the wrong woman flying through the air on a singularly inauspicious flight.

The youngest of the witches was five, the eldest nearly eighty. A daughter accused her mother, who in turn accused her mother, who accused a neighbor and a minister. A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons-in-law their mothers-in-law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed. A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out. In Andover—the community most severely affected—one of every fifteen people was accused. The town's senior minister discovered he was related to no fewer than twenty witches. Ghosts escaped their graves to flit in and out of the courtroom, unnerving more than did the witches themselves. Through the episode surge several questions that touch the third rail of our fears: Who was conspiring against you? Might you be a witch and not know it? Can an innocent person be guilty? Could anyone, wondered a group of men late in the summer, think himself safe?

How did the idealistic Bay Colony arrive—three generations after its founding—in such a dark place? Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.* You can blame atmospheric conditions, or simply the weather: Historically, witchcraft accusations tended to spike in late winter. Over the years various parties have played the villain, some more convincingly than others. The Salem villagers searched too to explain what sent a constable with an arrest warrant to which door. The pattern was only slightly more obvious to them than it is to us, involving as it did subterranean fairy circles of credits and debits, whispered resentments, long-incubated grudges, and half-forgotten aversions. Even at the time, it was clear to some that Salem was a story of one thing behind which was a story about something else altogether. Much of its subtext is lost to us, like the jokes in Shakespeare.

America's tiny reign of terror, Salem represents one of the rare moments in our enlightened past when the candles are knocked out and everyone seems to be groping about in the dark, the place where all good stories begin. Easy to caricature—it is the only tragedy that has acquired its own annual, unrelated holiday—it is more difficult to comprehend. The irresistible locked-room mystery of the matter is what keeps us coming back to it. In three hundred years, we have not adequately penetrated nine months of Massachusetts history. If we knew more about Salem, we might attend to it less, a conundrum that touches on something of what propelled the witch panic in the first place. Things disturb us in the night. Sometimes they are our consciences. Sometimes they are our secrets. Sometimes they are our fears, translated from one idiom to another. Often what pinches and pricks, gnaws, claws, stabs, and suffocates, like a seventeenth-century witch, is the irritatingly unsolved puzzle in the next room.

The population of New England in 1692 would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, those families had sailed to North America to worship "with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were," as a minister at the heart of the crisis put it. They believed the Reformation incomplete, the Church of England insufficiently pure. They intended in North America to complete the task. On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization—a "New English Israel," as one clergyman termed it in 1689—from scratch. Nonconforming Protestants, they were double dissenters, twice in revolt. That did not make them popular people. They tended toward fissions and factions, strong opinions, righteous indignation. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence. Rigorous Calvinists, they had come a great distance to worship as they pleased; they were intolerant of those who did so differently. They were ardent, anxious, unbashful, incurably logical, not quite Americans, of as homogeneous a culture as has ever existed on this continent.

A visitor exaggerated when he reported that New Englanders could "neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end on it," but he was not far off. If there was a book in the house—as almost inevitably there was—it was the Bible. The early modern American thought, breathed, dreamed, disciplined, bartered, and hallucinated in biblical texts and imagery. Witchcraft judge Samuel Sewall would court an attractive widow with published sermons; she held him off with the Apostle Paul.*


On Sale
Oct 27, 2015
Page Count
512 pages

Stacy Schiff

About the Author

Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award; Cleopatra: A Life, winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography; and most recently, The Witches:Salem, 1692. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Government, she lives in New York City.

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