‘The Witches: Salem, 1692’ and ‘We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s’
Reviews of two books about witch hunts, moral panic, and mass hysteria.
The Witches: Salem, 1692
by Stacy Schiff
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
by Richard Beck
Author and historian Stacy Schiff has you at the book’s opening sentences: “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.”
A lot of confusing history was packed into that short time, and it’s painted beautifully in the pages of The Witches: Salem, 1692. It was a time when Puritans, with proclivities for logic and literalness, set the stage for the rush to judgment now known as the Salem witch trials. Simmering just below the surface was a collective anger, fomented among neighbors who had grown in number too quickly and began to fight for space, money, and provisions. Some of them had to go. The witches, believed to have signed a contract with the devil to do his bidding, were natural targets.
Witches were easy to identify, according to many New Englanders: They made no noise when walking over loose boards, could craft suspiciously good cloth and cheese, asked too solicitously about a neighbor’s health, caused livestock to sicken and die, and survived falls down stairs. Some could assume spectral forms and fly to where they were going—usually to group witch meetings held in meadows—on sticks. They transformed into translucent cats and cast spells on people. They recruited others to serve the devil, bewitching them with a bite, a pinch, or a choke. For his part, Satan promised all manner of tangibles and intangibles: new finery, land and a house, travel abroad—and to at least one local, an impressive title: Queen of Hell.
All had a “witch’s tit” on their bodies—a freckle, mark, mole, or other blemish definitely proving the bond with Satan. Those still stumped by who was and who wasn’t in cahoots with the devil got plenty of help from the “visionary girls”—a gaggle of village females with a median age of 17 and supersensitivities for divining witches in their midst. The visionaries gyrated, twitched, bit their flesh, stamped their feet, and swooned in the presence of a real witch—talents that proved particularly useful during court hearings. The visionaries were the Kardashians of their day; the townspeople were riveted to their every movement as harbingers of witchcraft. Still, everyone was wary and edgy. Husbands turned in their wives, daughters accused mothers, siblings denounced one another, parishioners implicated ministers.
In all, between 144 and 185 people ranging in age from 5 to nearly 80 would be implicated as witches or wizards—some confessing, some merely accused.
Their trials were spectacular, with villagers crowding in for a good look and listen. Evidence was usually scant, though. The most conclusive evidence at trial: True witches tripped up when asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Witchcraft was mostly a womanly thing, though some men also died for the cause. But women in New England had early on been pinpointed as heretics and troublemakers. Assumed to be susceptible to Satan because of their weaker wills, they still ran the town inns and made up the majority of the religious congregations. Many of them were outspoken—and inconvenient.
There were few trained lawyers in New England then, and none with the legal moxie to mount a defense for any of those tried as witches. Massachusetts law prevented them from charging any fees for their work until years later, in 1704. The judges, who generally had no formal legal training, interrogated the accused and the witnesses. Inconsistencies in testimony were overlooked and expected; after all, the devil was notorious for addling brains. Those who testified most spectacularly seemed drawn to the klieg lights of the courtroom: a place to gain attention, settle a score with a neighbor who had coveted their land or their spouse. A kind of Puritan reality TV.
As many as 55 people confessed to being witches, proclaiming it their only route to salvation. Confessions usually came along after they spent months clapped in chains in dank prisons while awaiting trial, some motivated by the lie their lives would be saved in exchange for explanations of how and why the devil worked on them. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop, a woman in her early 50s. She faced five indictments for bewitching village girls, though the evidence against her mistakenly included wrongdoings of another accused by the name of Bishop. Nonetheless, she was convicted and hanged high on a gallows in the village square, a lesson for all to see. Something about the Puritans loved public punishment.
By 1693, it appeared the epidemic was over nearly as quickly as it began, with the governor designating February 23 of that year as a day of thanksgiving, celebrating the “restraint of enemies with the check given to the formidable assault of witchcrafts.”
Today’s reader is tempted to relegate the Salem witches and their trials safely to the pages of fairy tale books. But another new book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, reminds us that mass hysteria is a modern phenomenon, too. It details the allegations of sexual abuse by childcare workers that spread and spiked around the country a few decades ago. The book jacket copy even cashes in on the connection, proclaiming: “It would take years for people to realize what the defendants had said all along—that these prosecutions were the product of a decade-long outbreak of collective hysteria on par with the Salem witch trials.”
While other trials are mentioned, the book focuses on the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach that dominated California’s legal landscape for years. From preliminary hearing through the conclusion of the second trial, it lasted seven years—labeled the longest criminal trial in American history. It concerned allegations that preschool owner Virginia McMartin and other employees had engaged in sexual acts and satanic ritual abuse with children. A thumbnail of some of the statistics involved hint at the tolls it took:
- 405 children were interviewed by state authorities; 41 were named as complainants; 13 testified at trial.
- 7 defendants were initially indicted on 135 counts; only 2, Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey, were tried—on 65 counts.
- The cost to taxpayers was estimated at $15 million.
The jury deadlocked on 13 counts against Ray Buckey; all others were returned “not guilty.” In a retrial the jury again deadlocked, and the case was finally dismissed.
The McMartin case, which garnered international media attention, spawned a number of children’s rights groups, and inspired many changes in state and federal child abuse laws. But skeptics, including the book’s author Richard Beck, insist that the evidence underlying the case was specious. A key witness, Judy Johnson, the first parent to complain to doctors, police, and other parents that her son was being sexually abused was revealed to have acute paranoid schizophrenia. She died of complications of alcoholism before the 18-month preliminary hearing concluded. Some also charged that the investigators’ interviews of the children about their alleged abuse, which could last several hours, seemed abusive themselves. And some claimed the techniques used skewed the truth, too—prompting the jibe that therapists who used anatomically correct dolls to help elicit evidence pointed the way by saying: “Show me on the doll where the bad man touched you.”
And in this book’s telling, all the allegations and evidence were fanciful. Beck, the author, denigrates news reports asserting molestation occurred at McMartin or anywhere else. In his view, those who pled guilty were coerced or mistaken.
Beck, an editor at an online magazine called n+1, takes on therapists, legislators, and lawyers involved in guarding against child abuse and proclaims them all wrongheaded—often in annoyed, condescending tones. The book’s thesis seems to be that the 1980s, when molestation allegations soared throughout the country, were the perfect time for a cultural storm. Reagan-era conservatives sought to restore the sheen to domestic family life just as many feminists were reemerging to focus on fighting pornography and victimization. In short, there was a Puritanical sniff in the air, ripe for witch hunting.
Taken together, these two books leave the reader with a disturbing thought: In a time fraught with divisiveness and unrest—such as now—it could happen again.
Barbara Kate Repa is a lawyer, writer, and editor in San Francisco.