The life and turbulent times of the only judge fully to recant the actions of a court that sent 19 accused witches to the gallows in colonial Massachusetts.
Since the copious diary of Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), spanning nearly 57 years, is a principal source of material regarding the motives and reasoning of those who convened the notorious Witch Trials in 1692, it has been well perused prior to being taken up by biographer, novelist and historian Francis (Creative Writing/Bath Spa Univ.; Prospect Hill, 2004, etc.). Yet his is both a sensitive and scholarly rendering, with far-reaching perspectives that bring Sewall off the page as he confronts both the material and spiritual worlds of his time. Francis ferrets out his subject’s anxieties, obsessions and anathemas (he was consoled in good measure though not entirely by the rigidly elaborate tenets of his Puritan faith) to conclude: “He was confident for much of the time but could be gauche and awkward too,” and though he was devout, he “loved the good things in life, especially music, food and drink.” While Sewall often stood unflinchingly in liberal opposition to clerics and leaders on such issues as the treatment of Indians (he favored fairness, education and conversion) and the rights of women, he also courted the in crowd and felt stress whenever his approaches seemed rebuffed. Tapped as a judge in the infamous proceedings that brought down death sentences on the basis of “spectral evidence,” his popularity and influence fed into the key decisions on the bench with no hint at how soon they would become onerous. Five years later, his uniquely unqualified apology was read to a congregation commemorating the victims of Salem’s trials. “Somehow, by the end of his life,” Francis asserts, “the former witchcraft judge had made himself a recognizably modern man.”
Fresh, insightfully written investigation of how colonial Puritanism’s core beliefs and ragged edges produced its most ungodly legacy.