Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff, author of the #1 bestseller Cleopatra, turns her penetrating gaze and distinctive voice to a subject closer to home, as she takes on the greatest unsolved American mystery: the Salem witch trials. Schiff’s fresh and startling account, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is as psychologically riveting as the trials were themselves historically seminal.
It began in 1692, during an exceptionally cold Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, after nineteen men and women—and two dogs—had been executed for witchcraft. The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the fledgling colony. Accusations flew—neighbors accused neighbors, children accused their parents, siblings each other. Vividly capturing the mood of seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Schiff paints an indelible portrait of a dark, unsettled time, when the colony braced itself daily against Indian attack and English oversight, when anxiety rippled everywhere just under the surface. She draws us effortlessly into a fascinating world, breathing new life into a long-misconstrued tale.
Aside from suffrage, the Salem witch trials represent the only moment when women played a central role in American history. Again, Schiff explores the troubling intersection between women and power. Her questions about the Salem settlers resonate deeply today: How do women express themselves when they are meant to be silent? How are their words interpreted or mangled? How does a society handle female self-expression and empowerment?
Drawing on years in the archives and hewing closely to extant papers and first-person accounts, Schiff examines the legal and social ramifications of the trials, the truth about witchcraft, the adolescent mind, and how in curious ways the events of 1692 shaped America’s future. She discovers stunning parallels between 1692 and our world today, between oral culture and an Internet one, noting the contagious nature of terror, bullying, and public shaming. The result is a gorgeously written, deeply nuanced, and powerful book that will stand as the definitive account of Salem.
After her talk, Schiff will sign books in the Newberry lobby. The Witches is available for purchase in the Newberry Bookstore. Your purchase of The Witches will help to support the Newberry Library, and this program’s featured author.
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Explore Newberry collection materials related to the Salem trials and to witchcraft.
Stacy Schiff is the author of Cleopatra: A Life, which won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography; Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize. In addition to all these awards and accolades, Schiff was presented with the Newberry Library Award in 2015.
Free and open to the public; no registration required.