Toil & trouble
A local author digs up common ground with her ancestor, witch trial judge Samuel Sewall
We look back today on the Salem witchcraft trials with a mixture of horror and fascination - those awful Puritans! But how would you feel toward the judges who sent innocent people to the gallows in 1692 if one of them was a relative?
Brookline writer Eve LaPlante faced that question when she set about writing "Salem Witch Judge," the new biography of her ancestor, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston. What she found surprised her.
"He was very much the way I think of myself and my friends," LaPlante said. "He was very human and understandable, in a certain way ordinary, and I can understand his motivations."
Today the witch is a figure of fun on Halloween, in her black dress and pointy hat, with a big nose and a wart, zipping across the moon on a broomstick. But to the Puritans, the agents of Satan were not harmless imaginary figures - they were as real as terrorists. Untold thousands of people accused of witchcraft were burned and hanged in Europe.
To the people in colonial Massachusetts, fearful of the great wilderness, the French, and the devil, the suspicion that disliked neighbors were witches in disguise, out to destroy the community, was perfectly reasonable. When the accusations began in January 1692, a special court of nine prominent judges was impaneled, and 40-year-old Samuel Sewall of Boston was named to it. Some members of the court, including William Stoughton and John Hathorne (one of whose descendents, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote "The Scarlet Letter"), were disposed to believe any accusation, on the flimsiest of evidence. Nineteen people were hanged, and one was pressed to death. The reign of terror went on for months, and the jails were filled with the accused and convicted. Finally, in September, Governor William Phips shut down the court and ordered prisoners released - after his wife was accused.
Eve LaPlante, 49, never expected to explore this history. After her parents' divorce when she was 3, she grew up in Brookline (on land once owned by Sewall) with her mother, Virginia LaPlante, an editor with Harvard University Press. As a child she heard stories about her colonial ancestors from her Aunt Charlotte, an enthusiastic family historian and Provincetown innkeeper. However, the stories did not excite LaPlante's pride in her forebears.
"I was really horrified by these people - Anne Hutchinson, Samuel Sewall, Simon Bradstreet, John Cotton," she said during an interview near Sewall's tomb in Boston's Old Granary Burying Ground. "They sounded creepy. One was a heretic. One was a judge who hanged people. I thought, Why would anyone want to be associated with these people?"
She majored in Irish poetry and music performance at Princeton, graduating in 1980. She taught for a year at a New Hampshire private school, then taught literature at an international school in Rome in 1984. She taught part-time at Brookline High School in the late 1980s. After she was married in 1990 she mostly combined freelance writing with raising her four children.
In 1993 she wrote her first book, "Seized," about temporal lobe epilepsy and its connection with the artistic mind. After more years of writing for magazines, she longed to try another book. One night over tea with her husband she suddenly remembered Aunt Charlotte's stories and wondered whether there might be a book in them. "I started to look into Anne Hutchinson and found it to be a fascinating story," she said.
Convicted of heresy, Hutchinson was banished, with her family, from the colony in 1637. She co-founded a colony in Rhode Island, and was killed in an Indian attack in 1643. "As a middle-aged mother, that was a good story for me to tell," LaPlante said, "because I was living her life in a sense - in my 40s, with a young family, trying to combine work and family life." Her 2004 book was "American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans."
Finding common ground with Samuel Sewall, she thought, would be harder. But when she delved into his career and his writings, especially his correspondence and the diary he kept from 1673 to 1730, her admiration grew, despite the events of 1692.
Five years after the witch hysteria, Sewall was stricken with remorse for his part in it. He stood up in church in January 1697, all eyes upon him, while a minister read his statement of shame and repentance. The scene is recorded in a 1942 painting on the wall of the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, with the caption "The dawn of tolerance in Massachusetts." He observed a day of repentance each year until his death in 1730. Though the killings were deplored privately by many, none of the other judges or officials ever publicly expressed regret. Stoughton, especially, had been furious with Phips for stopping the executions.
The same year, Sewall published "Phaenomena Quaedam Apocalyptica," which included a defense of the rights of Indians as children of God and exhorted the colonists to treat them justly. He even paid for several Indian youths to attend Harvard College. In 1700 he published "The Selling of Joseph," the first published denunciation of slavery in America, which rejected the biblical and historical arguments in support of slavery later made by Southern slaveholders before the Civil War. Finally, in 1725, he wrote and privately printed "Talitha Cumi," a defense of women's place (and by implication, their equality with men) in God's plan. He was also kindly disposed toward Jews and Catholics - almost unthinkable among the Puritans - and even had a friendly connection with a Jesuit in Maine.
LaPlante believes Sewall's repentance led to these later breaks with prevailing opinion. "That he could admit he was wrong and say so publicly is unusual," she said. At the time of the trials, he was a wealthy member of the establishment. "In hanging the witches, he was doing something completely acceptable in society, and advancing himself. But he said, 'We were all wrong,' then looked around and said, 'What else is wrong?' He speaks out against slavery, which was completely normal in Boston at the time. Then he speaks out about native Americans, and about women."
If LaPlante is right, the shock of the great witch hunt, horrifying as it was, led indirectly to the birth of the kind of enlightened, tolerant thinking that we associate with later generations of Americans, from Benjamin Franklin through Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony.
Her biological link notwithstanding, Eve LaPlante doesn't really think of Samuel Sewall as her ancestor. As her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, he is one of more than 500 in that position, with a minuscule share of her DNA. Still, she feels a closeness with his humanity, his courage, and his honesty, which to her seems a truer link even than DNA.
"When you write about someone," she said, "I think you have to feel some kinship, some positive feeling. I felt a lot of connection to him."
David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.