This month marks the 324th anniversary of the notorious 1692 witch trials in Salem, Mass. The trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, 14 of them women, and all but one by hanging.
What is it about this long ago event that continues to fascinate the general public, scholars, and authors? Was it truly a case of mass hysteria or did it have some other cause? How is it relevant to us today?
The Manatee County Public Library System has a selection of materials on the trials, including Stacy Schiff’s recent bestseller, “The Witches: Salem 1692.” Densely packed with detail and a large cast of characters, Schiff’s book requires commitment on the reader’s part, but it is one of the best books available on the subject and has made its way onto numerous “best books of 2015” lists.
A combination of narrative and historical research, Marilynne Roach’s “Six Women of Salem: The Untold Stories of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials” illuminates the lives of the accused, the accusers, and the afflicted, while vividly depicting this terrifying episode in American history. A volume in the series, “History Makers” by Stuart A. Kallen, “Figures of the Salem Witch Trials” provides a brief background about the trials and then focuses on five of the personalities at the center of it.
Marion Starkey’s “The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials”, originally published in 1949, is still a good record of what happened. Many books on this subject may be found in the 133.45 Dewey Decimal area. If the book isn’t on the shelf you may always place a request for it at a library, by phone or via the online catalog.
If you’re looking for a dramatic presentation of the trials, look no further than Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 play “The Crucible,” which has been filmed a few times, more recently as a 1996 film (available as a library DVD), starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. A DVD study guide to the play, which Miller wrote as an allegory of “McCarthyism” (the communist “witch hunt” hysteria of the 1950s instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy), is also available.
The young adult novels, “Invisible World: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials” by Suzanne Weyn and Julie Hearn’s “The Minister’s Daughter,” tell fictional stories set against a 17th century backdrop. There are also good general books on the trials to be found in the children’s area, such as Michael Burgan’s “The Salem Witch Trials,” part of the “We the People” series.
“Dear, America” is a popular children’s series in which novels are written in the form of a diary by a fictional girl or boy during an historical period or event. An example is, “I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials” by Lisa Rowe Fraustino.
David Breakfield is a reference librarian at the Manatee County Central Library. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday.