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The Witches: Salem, 1692 Hardcover – October 27, 2015

2.8 out of 5 stars 394 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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An Amazon Best Book of November 2015: In 1692, at the edge of the New England wilderness, an entire village went insane. Everyone knows the story: The pre-teen daughters of the local minister are mysteriously overcome by convulsions, their uncontrollable screaming sending the superstitious community into fear and confusion. Lacking other explanations--adolescent rebellion, maybe?--Satanic influence is suspected, and accusations of witchcraft soon fly like enchanted broomsticks. The town is pitted against itself, and by the time the hysteria fades, 19 men and women are hanged, another pressed to death.

But what actually happened? Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Salem, 1692 steps back from more than three centuries of hyperbole and supposition, giving us our most complete account yet. It can't have been easy: As Schiff points out early in the book, the Puritans of Salem village were often assiduous diarists and record-keepers, but first-hand accounts of the months of the hysteria are mysteriously rare-and those that exist are mainly unreliable. To construct her history, Schiff went through the looking glass, compiling seemingly every fact available to create a historically accurate narrative of events while placing it within the cultural context of 17th century New England. The results are obvious: this book is dense with facts and a large cast of characters, and readers must commit. But Schiff keeps the proceedings rolling with wry humor and an eye for the peculiar-yet-illuminating detail. This isn't The Crucible or Blair Witch; it's light on sensationalism, but rife with real-life toil-and-trouble. The truth, as always, is strange enough.--Jon Foro


A USA Today "Top 10 Books of 2015" pick

A Time Magazine "Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2015" pick

An NPR "Great Reads for 2015" pick

A Boston Globe "Best Nonfiction Books of 2015" pick

A Washington Post "Notable Nonfiction of 2015" pick

A San Francisco Chronicle "Best Books of 2015" pick

An O, The Oprah Magazine "16 Books To Start 2016 Right" pick

A Bloomberg "Best Books of 2015" pick

A Chicago Tribune "The Best Books of 2015" pick

A Houston Chronicle "15 Notable Books of 2015" pick

A Bustle "11 Nonfiction Books By Women Every Book Club Should Read" pick

A BookPage "Best Books of 2015" pick

"An intoxicating brew of history.... It's unsettling, gripping stuff, rendered in the burnished sentences of a master prose stylist. Every page of The Witches is almost scandalously pleasurable." (4 Stars)
--Kevin Nance, USA Today

"Dazzling.... Schiff is at her best, infusing a historical event with as much life, mystery, and tragedy of any novelist."
--Nicole Jones, Vanity Fair

"[A] beautiful retelling of one of our ugliest tales."
--John Freeman, Boston Globe

"Her research is impeccable; no previous writer has scoured the documentary record to such great depth. Moreover, she has mastered the entire history of early New England.... This enables her to provide deep, richly textured background for specific moments and situations. Indeed, readers may experience her narrative as a virtual tour of the time and place. Her recreation of courtroom scenes is especially convincing; one feels, almost palpably, their pulsating mix of words, actions, and-above all-emotion.... Schiff's skills as a writer extend to such formal matters as structure, pacing, and point of view. The various parts of the narrative unfold in apparently seamless succession.... Now and again she inhabits her characters, yet she maintains throughout the authority of an omniscient narrator who is firmly in charge."
--John Demos, New York Review of Books

"Haunting.... The first major commercial nonfiction book on the subject in decades. By sidestepping most of the popular theories, The Witches stands out from much of the existing literature."
--Alexandra Alter, New York Times

"Investigated with relish."
--O, The Oprah Magazine

"History in the hands of Stacy Schiff is invariably full of life, light, shadow, surprise, clarity of insight, and so it is again and then some in her latest work, The Witches. Few writers combine as she does superb scholarship and an exceptional gift for language with amazing reach and agility of mind. This is a superb book."
--David McCullough,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Wright Brothers

"Sharp-eyed, discriminating, crisp."
--Hilary Mantel, Times Literary Supplement

"Schiff brings to bear a sensibility as different from the Puritans' as can be imagined: gentle, ironic, broadly empathetic, with a keen eye for humor and nuance.... Thanks to this, and to Schiff's narrative gifts, the present-day reader flits above New England's smoky chimneys and thatched rooftops.... It is a wizardry of a sort--in a flash of brimstone, a whole world made wondrously visible."
--Adam Goodheart, Atlantic

"Though the Salem story has been told many times, Schiff's splendidly written account brings it thrillingly to life."
--Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle

"Brilliantly assured.... Schiff's account is better written than any I have encountered."
--John Wilson, Christianity Today

"Masterful.... Schiff painstakingly reconstructs not just the events of 1692 but the world that birthed them."
--Elizabeth Hand, Los Angeles Times

"Haunting.... Schiff makes the dark an inviting place to linger."
--Maureen Corrigan, NPR

"This brilliant, compelling book is the most meticulously researched, effectively constructed, and beautifully written work I have read in a very long time. It is dramatic history and also a timeless thriller: who-or what-drove a New England town to madness three centuries ago, resulting in the deaths of nineteen men and women for 'witchcraft?' The answers are astonishing."
--Robert K. Massie, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Catherine the Great

"Riveting nonfiction."
--Entertainment Weekly

"Brings a fresh eye to the worst misogynist atrocity in American history."
--Megan O'Grady, Vogue.com

"[Schiff] brings her gifts to the confusions of Salem, piecing together a dramatic narrative from disparate and often tersely unrevealing sources."
--Ruth Franklin, Harper's

"Once again Stacy Schiff dazzles us. The Witches is a must read for anyone intrigued by this baffling and horrifying chapter from American's Puritan past. What Schiff uncovers is mesmerizing and shocking. Her meticulous research and lyrical writing lay bare an injustice that we should never forget--lest we repeat it."
--Patricia Cornwell, author of Depraved Heart

"Absorbing and enlightening."
--Nancy Klingener, Miami Herald

"Thoroughly researched and written in a compelling style."

"No stone [is] left unturned.... Schiff recreates the most chill-inducing, finger-pointing months in American history."
--Steph Opitz, Marie Claire

--Kristin Van Ogtrop, Time

"Brilliant.... Schiff writes movingly as well as wittily; this is a work of riveting storytelling as well as an authoritative history."
--Lara Feigel, Guardian

"Masterly.... Alternately absurd and heart-rending."

"Schiff's The Witches is an indelibly etched morality fable, the best recounting of the Salem hysteria in modern times. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Schiff makes the complex seem simple, crafting a taut narrative that takes in religion, politics, folklore, and the intricate texture of daily life in Massachusetts Bay, with particular attention to those 'wonder-working' women and girls who chose this moment to blow apart the Puritan utopia they'd helped to found. It's all here in one devilish, oracular book."
--Megan Marshall,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller

"The fullest and finest story ever told about Salem in 1692, and no one else could tell it with the otherworldly flair of Stacy Schiff."
--Joseph J. Ellis,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Quartet

"Compulsively readable."
--Nancy Rommelmann, Newsday

"With fresh feminist insight, Schiff plumbs the mindset of late-seventeenth-century New England to explain our original 'national crackup.'"
--Louisa Kamps, Elle

"[Schiff] reconstructs the time and place in remarkable detail.... [And] skillfully re-creates the visceral tensions at the heart of everyday life in the Massachusetts Bay settlement."
--Peter Manseau, Bookforum

--Lizzie Crocker, Daily Beast

"Schiff honors her subject's gaping documentary absences by fleshing out the actual world in which the witch panic took root and thrived, showing the full range of factors that influenced its participants...with gratifying vividness."
--Kate Bolick, New Republic

"[A] must-read."
--Joanna Coles, Cosmopolitan

"Schiff delves into the archive to remind us that one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history was also one of the few moments which featured regular women-not queens, not goddesses, but mothers and wives and daughters and servants-at the very center of drastic historical change. A wrenching, unforgettable read."
--Katherine Howe,
author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

"Diabolically entertaining."
--Judith Stone, More

"A comprehensive illumination of an unsettling period of American history that continues to captivate our cultural imagination."
--Nick Romeo, Christian Science Monitor

"A gripping, meticulously researched, sumptuously written history of the Salem witch trials and their historical context."
--Kevin Nance, Chicago Tribune

"A masterful modern reassessment of the deadly and tragic mania that gripped the colonies in the late 17th century."
--Globe and Mail

"A vivid investigation of the original American nightmare. Schiff brilliantly teases apart the strands of myth and history. In an age when superstition remains a vibrant and dangerous force, her book is, alas, also relevant."
--Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

"From Cleopatra to the Salem coven. From intelligent rule to hysteria, mayhem, and murder. The Salem witch trials offer Stacy Schiff an out-sized drama that seized Americans' imaginations more than 300 years ago. All of Schiff's books demonstrate her rigor as a historian and her dexterity as a stylist. The Witches proves she has something else: the instincts of a thriller writer. This book needs a seat belt."
--Kathryn Harrison, author of Joan of Arc

"Brilliant, exceptionally well-researched."
--Alden Mudge, BookPage

"Schiff writes with conviction and a strong sense of narrative, elevating the dry snooze of history to a new level. It's an endlessly fascinating read."
--Megan Reynolds, Gawker

"Compulsively readable.... The best-selling Schiff never disappoints."
--Margaret Flanagan, Booklist (Starred Review)

"[Schiff] writes with such spirit and agility that to read her books is something like watching a great dancer. To say that her latest book is fascinating and insightful is hardly sufficient. It's brilliant from start to finish."
--David McCullough, Favorite Reads of 2015

"Enchanting. Out of the shadows of the past come excitable young girls, pompous ministers, abusive judges, grieving parents, and angry neighbors, all of them caught up in a terrifying process that seemed to have no end: discovering who among them deserved death for being in league with Satan. The Witches is as close as we will ever come to understanding what happened in and around Salem in 1692. Courtrooms, streets, churches, farm yards, taverns, bedrooms-all became theater-like places where anger, anxiety, sorrow, and tragedy are entangled. An astonishing achievement."
--David D. Hall,
Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History, Harvard University

"Schiff's books are based on serious scholarly research, yet they're conveyed in bright, accessible prose... She displays the same sharp intelligence and eclectic interests that distinguish her body of work."
--Publishers Weekly, "Most Anticipated Books of the Fall"

"Schiff has beautifully combined remarkable story telling with historical accuracy and insight. She has opened up important new avenues for Salem scholarship."
--Bernard Rosenthal, editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (October 27, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316200603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316200608
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (394 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,420 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

From the Publisher

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Sparks on November 28, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If there's one historical event that the citizens of the United States had better never forget, it's the 1692 Salem Witch Craze, and historian Stacy Schiff's newest work could have gone a long way towards re-establishing the tragedies and injustices of the Witch Trials in the public consciousness--if the public could read it. In spite of all the laudatory blurbs provided to Amazon by the work's publisher, twice the number of Amazon Customer reviewers give it one or two stars than give it five. Three- and four-star reviews are in shortest supply. Sadly, there's a reason for this. "The Witches: Salem, 1692" is probably one of the most disorganized contemporary historical works that I've seen. The author begins by a caustic dismissal of perhaps the best known popular history of the Witch hysteria, Marion Starkey's 1949 "The Devil in Massachusetts", and undoubtedly the best known fictional portrayal, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible": "The Holocaust sent Marion Starkey toward Salem witchcraft in 1949. She produced the volume that would inspire Arthur Miller to write 'The Crucible' at the outset of the McCarthy crisis. Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Miller has largely made off with the story (p. 11)."

That sounds an awful lot like sour grapes, but to be fair, Stacy Schiff may have one legitimate gripe. She argues that most recent historians before her, including Starkey, have utilized sources that have been traditionally viewed as primary, but which are actually secondary, to begin the witchcraft story--namely, the monographs the ministers Increase and Cotton Mather penned one to five years after the craze had subsided.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. They seems to embody so many contradictions and unsolvable debates that sit at the core of American life, such as public good vs. the rights of the rights of the individual, individual courage vs. mob mentality, or religion vs. rationalism. Plus, the struggle to create a just legal system, public safety, the idea of capital punishment, what constitutes as legal evidence, presumption of innocence, and more. It was the first moral panic to hit American society, and we’ve been grappling with its meaning ever since—especially every time a new panic emerges. Sometimes these panics are relatively benign, but the experience with Sen. McCarthy or the McMartin Day Care controversy show us that witch craze-like hysteria is still very much with us today.

I was pleased to see Stacy Schiff’s new study of this disturbing chapter of American history. There are hundreds of works on the subject (fiction and non-fiction), but none of them is absolutely perfect. “Salem Possessed” by Boyer and Nissenbaum is a classic that delves deeply into the social roots of the 1692 panic, but for all its detail it feels incomplete for me--it does a brilliant job of explaining why such a craze *could* have happened, but is less successful on why it *did* happen. “The Crucible” is a brilliant work of theater, but it completely re-works events and people to make its own point. Any of the number of works looking for a single cause—food poisoning, lead poisoning, misogyny, etc.—usually feel needlessly reductionist… or sensationalist.

Schiff provides a different sort of work; for me it worked quite well, but readers should know what they’re getting into.

The strength is Schiff’s vivid writing.
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6 Comments 114 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
This book, a historical account of the Salem witch trials by an author whose prior work has been highly acclaimed, turned out to be a long-winded and tedious disappointment. I regret the many hours I spent slogging through it.

Schiff takes a textbook-like approach to the writing, throwing facts and assertions at the reader without connecting them through any meaningful narrative. We learn little about the accusers and victims; those curious about the lives, personalities, and motivations of the people most directly involved will be disappointed. There is more information about the witchcraft judges and the local ministers – in fact, perhaps the two most-discussed figures are Increase and Cotton Mather, prominent ministers who were not present for any of the events in Salem. Lengthy accounts of accusations and confessions are included, relating fanciful stories as if they were true: “Skimming groves of oak, mossy bogs, and a tangle of streams, Anne Foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole. . . . Before Foster on the pole sat Martha Carrier, half Foster’s age and the dauntless mother of four. Carrier had arranged the flight. She had persuaded Foster to accompany her; she knew the way.”

Many pages are spent paraphrasing such accusations, but very few on analysis. The book has no organizing principle or thesis, focuses on no key figures, and has almost nothing to say about why the events in Salem might have occurred. And the writing style makes for laborious reading; it alternates between drowning the reader in details whose import to the larger picture is unclear, and wallowing in wordy abstractions that utterly fail to enlighten. It is often repetitive, and sometimes jumps between ideas that have no apparent connection.
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