By Monday afternoon, five women had accused Roy Moore of misdeeds, enough that the Republican Senate candidate could finally — without a whiff of intentional irony — compare his plight to the deadly persecutions of tens of thousands of women at the hands of delusional men.
“This is a witch hunt against a man who has had an impeccable career for over 30 years and has always been known as a man of high character,” Moore’s campaign said in a statement.
A witch hunt, against a man.
Well, of course it was — who else but a powerful man would fall victim to a witch hunt?
We remember the “witch hunt atmosphere” that Woody Allen warned about last month, after women began accusing Harvey Weinstein and various Hollywood actors and directors of abuse.
Back in 1998, the supposed victim was President Bill Clinton, accused of bewitching a 20-something-year-old-old intern in the Oval Office.
“This isn’t ‘All The President’s Men,’ it’s ‘The Crucible,’ ” Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal told the Guardian at the time. He was referring to Arthur Miller’s play about an infamous case in 1692, when droves of men in Salem, Mass., were accused of witchcraft, rounded up and . . .
Wait, that’s not quite how the history went.
One summer morning in Salem near the turn of the century, six women were stripped naked in a dank jail cell. On a man’s orders, every inch of their flesh was probed and prodded, sometimes with needles, in search of what the learned men of the day referred to as a “witch’s teat,” as Stacy Schiff writes in her book, “The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem.”
The exam went particularly poorly for Bridget Bishop, who had been indicted on five counts of witchcraft. “The midwives probed and pressed in tender areas, gauging sensitivity with pins or needles,” Schiff wrote. One reached between her vagina and anus, and announced a strange lump. Yet more proof of Satan.
Bishop’s reputation in the community had been shot long before her imprisonment, Schiff wrote. Years earlier she made the mistake of insulting her abusive husband on the Sabbath, and as punishment was gagged and forced to stand with him in the public market. She’d even been accused of witchcraft before — as had tens of thousands of women across the world before her — and been cleared the first time.
But on that June morning in 1692, Bishop was taken to the courtroom for her trial, which would be over by the afternoon. Unlike Roy Moore and Bill Clinton, she had no lawyer.
So she stood there — “filthy and haggard,” Schiff wrote — and listened to her sworn accusers, no few of whom were men.
The tailor testified to a “bedroom tryst” with her, after which he was visited by a monster. A sailor said he once saw Bishop melt out of his bedroom window. The miller’s son claimed nothing supernatural, but told the court that this 50-something widow showed him more attention “than was proper.”
Bishop was found guilty and led back to her cell for the second strip search of the day. The devil’s teat could not be found this time, but no matter, she was hanged a week later.
Such was the experience of one of 17 women killed in Salem’s trials, not to mention many more who survived their imprisonment and tortures in 1692. Seven men were killed, too, but they made up a small fraction of that particular witch hunt’s victims, as was the case with witch hunts around the world.
Of more than 100,000 people in Europe accused of witchcraft in the 1500s and 1600s, history professor Michelle D. Brock wrote in The Washington Post, half were executed. Eighty percent were women.
Of the others, she wrote, “often these were men who did not meet prescribed norms and expectations of masculinity within a patriarchal society.”
And this skewed death toll goes back to at least the dawn of the last millennium.
A woman who sold love charms in a town north of Rome was swept up in a 15th-century purge, accused of transforming into a fly, and sentenced to burn. Ronald Hutton wrote of the incident in his book “The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present” — among countless other cases. One day in Austria in 1115, 30 women were burned in a single town. Many persecutions were based on a Bible verse — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” — though various hysterias have looped in everything from fairy legends to ancient tales of a child-killing demoness named Lilith.
In the 15th-century “Malleus Maleficarum,” which is essentially a medieval manual for witch hunting, there’s a whole section devoted to the question: “Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions?”
Some have tried to figure out if there’s a reason for this bias, other than the background levels of misogyny in so many human cultures. One researcher wrote a book about a particular purge in Reformation-era Germany and noted the victims tended to be not just women, but older women.
As the Guardian wrote in its review of the book, this led to some interesting theories: “Witches, by virtue of being menopausal, were unable to contribute to the core activity of village life. And since they were mostly widows too, they were economically marginal and worryingly free from the rule of men.”
Others researchers have analyzed the specific breeds of misogyny that motivated the Middle Age’s leading demonologists, such as the author of the Maleficarum, “in order to understand why [he] felt it essential to link women to witchcraft.”
But these are scholarly theories about events long ago. The men who used to rule Europe and Salem are long gone, and their witch hunts have for the most part gone with them.
As the New York Times wrote, the reality of witch hunts was so poorly remembered by the mid-20th century that sandwich inventor Arnold Reuben could publicly apply the term to a health inspection at his deli.
Then came President Richard Nixon, who “described Watergate as a ‘witch hunt’ to his confidants, who promptly leaked the comment to the press,” the Times wrote.
And then witch hunts were everywhere: On the lips of Clinton’s defenders, and in President Trump’s Twitter feed, and now in Moore’s news release — in which his alleged persecutors are women who would have been 14 and 16 years old when they say he initiated sexual encounters or assaulted them.
And no, it’s not always a man who accuses a woman of hunting him. Sometimes modern-day women use the term, too.
But as the Times wrote, “male politicians are the ones who generally cry ‘witch hunt’ ” — just as their predecessors so often led them.