Forget broomsticks, Salem's witches flew on poles

'The Witches' by Stacy Schiff
'The Witches: Salem, 1692' by Stacy Schiff
Courtesy of Little, Brown

Forget what you think you know about the Salem witch trials.

No one was burned at the stake. Both women and men were accused. And no one was flying on a broomstick.

They were actually flying on poles.

Flying on poles kept popping up in the records Stacy Schiff uncovered while researching life in late 1600s New England. She came across them as she drilled down into every detail of the Salem chaos, including the exact position of the moon during rumored diabolical gatherings.

The result is "The Witches: Salem, 1692," Schiff's intricately detailed account of what gave rise to this baffling and horrifying chapter in American history.

Schiff joined MPR News' Kerri Miller for Talking Volumes to discuss "Witches," and the conditions in Massachusetts at the time. Her previous books include the biography "Cleopatra," and her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the life of Vera Nabokov.

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Watch the interview

Panic takes flight

Flying witches, Schiff noted, were new to New England at the time. Traditional English witches were never depicted as flying before 1692 — instead, that airborne embellishment came by way of Sweden, which had had a witch hunt of its own a few decades before.

The claims of flying began when an accused women in Salem confessed to soaring with the devil. This sparked a flurry of accusations and supposed sightings. "By mid-summer [1692], suddenly everybody is on poles or sticks or the devil's shoulders, and they're flying two to three to a stick," Schiff said.

And all the flying wasn't even happening at night. Schiff read through confession after confession that put the pole flights in broad day light.

"How disappointing is that?" Schiff joked. "Not only are they not flying on a broom, they're flying on a pole. And it's not even dark out!"

Behind the chaos

In "Witches," Schiff explores the political and psychological factors that gave rise to the panic. The town's proximity to the frontier played a role, as did a growing religious fervor.

"The feeling that an Indian raid could take place at any moment is very real," Schiff said. "The sense that the world around you is in a state of dislocation and that menace is in the air was very pronounced."

This created an impossible situation for the accused. The trials relied on supernatural evidence that couldn't be proved — or disproved.

"The peculiarity of the witchcraft accusations in 1692 is that you're being accused of deeds that happened in someone else's imagination," Schiff said.

To hear the full interview with Stacy Schiff on the Salem witch trials — including how the accused were targeted, and how the panic spread — use the audio player above or watch the video below.