Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Samuel Sewall in Salem

It is 360 years since the birth of Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge who took part in the Salem witch trials but who later, famously, publicly apologised for doing so. He also published one of the first tracts calling for the abolition of slavery. He kept a diary for most of his life, which is considered a valuable social and historical record of life in Massachusetts before the American Revolution, though, frustratingly, it says little about the witch trials.

Sewall was born at Bishop Stoke, Hampshire, on 28 March 1652 but emigrated with his family to Newbury, Massachusetts, when only still young. He studied at Harvard, and then married Hannah Hull, from a wealthy family. Together they had many children. He began working as a merchant, but, in 1681, took a position running a printing press.

In 1692, he was appointed to the Court of Oyer and Terminer and was involved with the Salem witch trials. Later, he recanted his role during the trials, and publicly apologised. In 1700, he published The Selling of Joseph which argued against slavery, and earmarked him as one of the earliest of abolitionists. In 1717, he was appointed chief justice of Massachusetts. That same year, Hannah died and Sewall married twice more before his own death in 1730. For more biographical information see the Salem Witch Trials website, Perspectives in American Literature, or Wikipedia.

From the age of 21 until the year before he death, Sewall kept a journal. It was first published in three volumes in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society between 1879 and 1882, all of which are freely available at Internet Archive. Sewall’s diary is considered a unique insight into the life of a pious Puritan, and an important historical record documenting the early days of the Massachusetts community. A modern edition was edited by Mel Yazawa and published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux as The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall.

Here are some extracts from around the time of the Salem witch trials (with a few of the original editor’s notes).

11 April 1692
‘Went to Salem, where, in the Meeting-house, the persons accused of Witchcraft were examined; was a very great Assembly; ’twas awfull to see how the afflicted persons were agitated. Mr Noye pray’d at the beginning, and Mr Higginson conclude. [In the margin], Va, Va, Va, Witchcraft.’

[‘The references to the terrible paroxysm of delusion and cruelty connected with the subject of witchcraft in Salem village are not so frequent in Mr Sewall’s Journal as we should have expected to find them, but the {missing word} which he has made indicate his profound belief in the reality of the alleged enormity while the proceedings were going on, and subsequently, when the spell of the delusion was broken, his penitence and deep contrition for the share he had had in them.’]

19 September 1692
‘About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press’d to death for standing Mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.’

20 September 1692
‘Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stampd and press’d a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembred till Ane Putnam was told of it by said Corey’s Spectre the Sabbath- day night before the Execution.’

‘The Swan brings in a rich French Prize of about 300 Tuns, laden with Claret, White Wine, Brandy, Salt, Linen Paper, &c’

21 September 1692
‘A petition is sent to Town in behalf of Dorcas Hoar, who now confesses: Accordingly an order is sent to the Sheriff to forbear her Execution, notwithstanding her being in the Warrant to die to morrow. This is the first condemned person who has confess’d.’

[‘One of the most deplorable concurrences of the delusion, which so enthralled the minds and spirits of the community at this time, was the seemingly irrefutable confirmation of the reality of the alleged complicity with the Evil One, found in the confessions of so many accused persons. There were at least fifty-five, whose names are known to us, who gave this assurance of the guilt charged upon them, which was effectively used to stiffen the credulity of those who were most earnest in the work of prosecution, and to refute the doubts of those who were of a “Sadducean spirit.” Confession insured immunity from trial or imprisonment or execution.’]

26 October 1692
‘A Bill is sent in about calling a Fast, and Convocation of Ministers, that may be led in the right way as to the Witchcrafts. The season and manner of doing it, is such, that the Court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves thereby dismissed. 29 Nos. and 33 Yeas to the Bill. Capt. Bradstreet and Lieut. True, Wm. Huchins and several other interested persons there, in the affirmative.’

29 January 1693
‘A very sunshiny, hot, thawing day. Note. Just as we came out of the Meetinghouse at Noon, Savil Simson’s Chimny fell on fire, and blaz’d out much, which made many people stand gazing at it a pretty while, being so near the Meetinghouse.’

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