Books

Salem Witch Judge by Eve LaPlante

Desmond Ryan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Sewall was a devout and prosperous Puritan whose diligently kept and richly detailed diary gives us an unrivaled view of life in colonial New England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.


Salem Witch Judge

Publisher: HarperCollins
Subtitle: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall
Author: Eve LaPlante
Price: $25.95
Length: 352
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780060786618
US publication date: 2007-10
Amazon

By undergoing seismic change, many men and women have repeatedly disproved F. Scott Fitzgerald's plainly empty assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. In the case of Samuel Sewall, his later years turned out to be an act of contrition.

Sewall, the devout and prosperous Puritan whose diligently kept and richly detailed diary gives us an unrivaled view of life in colonial New England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, would be the first to agree that his role as a judge in the Salem witch trials called for heavy penance.

In her affectionate and affecting retelling of Sewall's story, Eve LaPlante, a direct descendant of the jurist, offers us a refreshing contrast to the recurrent political theater of our time, when public men caught in flagrant abuses of power trot out self-serving evasions. Instead of the selective amnesia of Alberto Gonzalez and the spread-the-blame-around passive voice of "Mistakes were made," we can contemplate the rewarding, if painful, process of a man assuming full and sole responsibility for a terrible mistake.

In the paranoid summer of 1692, Sewall joined the other trial judges in a special court in condemning 20 men and women to death for witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged and one subjected to the barbaric cruelty of being pressed to death under heavy stones. The evidence was flimsy, often absurd, and the Salem witch case would forever stand as an emblem of state injustice.

Five years after the executions, Samuel Sewall stood up in his church and bowed his head as his minister read his apology. Sewall wished to accept "the blame and the shame of it."

Otherwise, his 1,000-page diary, which he kept from his student days at Harvard until the year before he died in 1730, is sparse on the matter of the Salem trials. LaPlante gives as much context as she can and suggests that the turn in public opinion against the witch trials did much to precipitate Sewall's repentance.

His sense of guilt and shame came at the midpoint of an energetic, successful and deeply devout life. Sewall was born in England in 1652 and immigrated with his family to the colonies at the age of nine. The Sewalls were already affluent before he married the daughter of Boston's wealthiest merchant and began his career in the law and government.

For LaPlante and, of course, her readers, Sewall's reticence about the Salem case in his diary is a source of frustration. It is to some extent compounded by Sewall's tendency to think of everything that happened in his life in terms of his profound religious faith and his ongoing struggle toward salvation.

Whatever the impulse that produced his plea for forgiveness, Sewall remained the only one of the trial judges to admit to the miscarriage of justice. The very act of open confession to his community seems to have had a catalytic effect. He remained a pillar of the establishment in colonial New England and he continued to work as a judge. But his attention and sympathies turned to those less fortunate -- especially the victims of the thriving slave trade.

LaPlante deftly sketches the background to the publication of The Selling of Joseph in 1700, in which Sewall proposed religious arguments against the slave trade in the colonies. It was the first abolitionist tract printed in the New World. Sewall deepened his unpopularity with his peers by also championing the rights of women and American Indians.

If you visit the Massachusetts State House today, you will find a mural depicting Sewall's apology. Perhaps we will never know all the reasons behind it, but LaPlante's portrait of a man whose second act became one of atonement as well as contrition is finely drawn and surely as close as we can hope to get.

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image