The Witches: Salem, 1692

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.

And if you take away my life,” she threatened, “God will give you blood to drink.

Faith aside, witchcraft served an eminently useful purpose. The aggravating, the confounding, the humiliating all dissolved in its cauldron. It made sense of the unfortunate and the eerie, the sick child and the rancid butter along with the killer cat. What else, shrugged one husband, could have caused the black and blue marks on his wife’s arm?

For some of the things that plagued the seventeenth-century New Englander we have modern-day explanations. For others we do not. We have believed in any number of things—the tooth fairy, cold fusion, the benefits of smoking, the free lunch—that turn out not to exist. We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are. We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. We have all believed that someone had nothing better to do than spend his day plotting against us. The seventeenth-century world appeared full of inexplicables, not unlike the automated, mind-reading, algorithmically enhanced modern one.

IN 1692 THE Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.

It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in your past; Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt. It glares at us when fear paralyzes reason, when we overreact or overcorrect, when we hunt down or deliver up the alien or seditious.

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.

Only a small, supernatural figure remained at the scene of the crime.* He did resolve one mystery while in Salem: indeed the devil needs conscious human collusion to work evil.

Puberty,” it has been said, “is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness.

published, Beverly minister John Hale had produced

Salem is in part a story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.

The first known prosecution took place in Egypt around 1300 BC, for a crime that would today constitute practicing medicine without a license. (That supernatural medic was male.) Descended from Celtic horned gods and Teutonic folklore, Pan's distant ancestor the devil was not yet on the scene. He arrived with the New Testament, a volume notably free of witches. Nothing in the Bible connects the two, a job that fell, much later, to the church.

The Massachusetts elite had read everything in sight, some of it too closely. As would be said of logic-loving Ipswich minister John Wise, those men were not so much the masters as the victims of learning. They had read and reread bushels of witchcraft texts. They parsed legal code. They knew their history. They worked in the sterling name of reason.

The most reckless volume on the subject, the Malleus Maleficarum, or Witch Hammer, summoned a shelf of classical authorities to prove its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Weak as she was to devilish temptations, a woman could emerge dangerously, insatiably commanding. According to the indispensable Malleus, even in the absence of occult power, women constituted “a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment.” The

The sky over New England was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location or that you might find yourself pursued after nightfall by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home, bloody and disoriented, on all fours.

The witch hunt stands as a cobwebbed, crowd-sourced cautionary tale, a reminder that—as a minister at odds with the crisis noted—extreme right can blunder into extreme wrong.

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.

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

We all apologize, or fail to, in our own ways.

We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are. We

We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are. We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion.

We have believed in any number of things - the tooth fairy, cold fusion, and benefits of smoking, the free lunch - that turn out not to exist. We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don't know yet which ones they are.

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

When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.

Witchcraft tied up loose ends, accounting for the arbitrary, the eerie, and the unneighborly.

Women play the villains in fairy tales—what are you saying when you place the very emblem of lowly domestic duty between your legs and ride off, defying the bounds of community and laws of gravity?

You could not really bargain away your soul before it was established that you had one.