LaPlante (American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, 2004, etc.) again plumbs her family lineage to reanimate the life of the only contrite Salem Witch Trial judge to make amends.
As the author’s sixth great-grandfather, Samuel Sewall was one of a number of merciless judges responsible for the executions of Salem women accused of witchcraft in the late 1600s. After emigrating to New England from his Hampshire, England, birthplace, the God-fearing family man and patient, loving father—sadly, a great majority of his children were stillborn—enjoyed societal prominence in his mid-30s as a powerful elected deputy magistrate on the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. Previously abandoning a ministry career, he pursued work in the printing business and then became fascinated with Colony politics. Well versed on Puritan religious protocol, Sewall concurred that “public punishment of a sinner was a public service,” and this belief and many others like it followed suit as he and his fellow magistrates judged the fates of colony members accused of witchcraft in Salem, the largest town on the Colony’s North Shore. LaPlante explains that as the French and Indian War began to erupt in the late 1690s and Sewall’s newborns continued to perish inexplicably, blame for this succession of personal and political unrests fell to an omnipresent “evil” that was believed to have pervaded their township. Hundreds accused of devil worship perished at the hands of the Court, but it was Sewall who, at age 40, looked back with repentance since he’d personally had the blood of more than 20 people on his hands—all condemned with little or no proof of their witchery. Sewall, aging and increasingly liberal-minded, would marry twice more and go on to denounce slavery and advocate equality for women. LaPlante’s insightful account is fortified with descriptions of conservative, puritanical New England and its history (including psalms recited by Sewall), creating a vivid sense of place and context.
A reformative, assenting spin on Salem’s hellfire and brimstone history.