Samuel Sewall served as one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692. This alone could have tarnished his reputation in the eyes of posterity. And yet, one historian thus characterizes him: "A strong, gentle, and great man was Samuel Sewall, great by almost every measure of greatness,—moral courage, honor, benevolence, learning, eloquence, intellectual force, and breadth and brightness." (FN 1) He earned this alternate reputation by "two humane and heroic acts [that] set him apart for all time ...." (FN 2) These were his public confession of guilt in the witchcraft tragedy, and his firm antislavery stance bolstered by the publication in 1700 of his tract The Selling of Joseph (see here).
Born at Bishop Stoke, Hampshire, England, in 1652, Sewall came to America in 1661 when his family settled in Newbury, Massachusetts. Graduating from Harvard in 1671, he married in 1676 Hannah Hull, the daughter of John Hull, America's first goldsmith, the colony mintmaster, and one of its wealthiest citizens. The couple moved into John Hull's home in Boston, where Sewall soon settled as a merchant. In 1677 he became a member of the Third (Old South) Church in Boston. In 1691 Sewall was named a member of the Governor's Council; he was elected annually to the position until June 1725, when he declined further service. On 6 December, 1692, he became a justice of the Superior Court of Judicature under the new charter and in 1718 was appointed chief justice, serving in that capacity until 1728. On 1 January, 1730, Sewall died at his home in Boston. (FN 3)
Sewall kept a diary from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730. As one of the Colony's prominent citizens, he knew all the notables of his place and time, and wrote about them, as well as about all aspects of his own daily life and activities. Scholars have found countless uses for this diary in studies of early America, for while many Puritans kept diaries, "Sewall set down the fullest existing record of how life was lived in his time. . . . Because of his devotion to record-keeping, more details and facts of his life are preserved than for most of his contemporaries, and we have nearly everything, even his weight." (FN 4) Two complete editions of the diary have been published. Between 1878 and 1882 the Historical Society issued the first one as part of its Collections series. In 1973 Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a two-volume edition edited by M. Halsey Thomas.
In the spring of 1692, the governor appointed Sewall as one of the magistrates to sit on the special Court of Oyer and Terminer, established to hear the cases of the accused witches in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex counties. Sewall occasionally made note of the trials and executions in his diary. The diary entry for 19 August, 1692, notes the execution of five persons at Salem for witchcraft. The Rev. Cotton Mather pronounced that "they all died by a righteous sentence." (FN 5) The diary entry for September 19 notes the curious case of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death "for standing mute." (FN 6) Corey refused to answer his indictment for witchcraft. Under English law a man who refused to answer could not be tried, but could be tortured until he either answered or died. Corey was "placed upon the ground with gradually increased weight piled on him. It took him two days to die." (FN 7)
In December 1696 Sewall drafted a proclamation for a fast day in Massachusetts Bay for all to do penance and make reparation for the sins of the witchcraft tragedy. On 14 January, 1697, Samuel Sewall stood in his pew in church while Rev. Samuel Willard read Sewall's petition confessing to his guilt and asking pardon of God and men for his role in the tragedy. Each year after that Sewall set aside a special day for fasting and prayer for forgiveness of his sins in the matter. (FN 8)
1. Tyler, Moses Coit. A History of American Literature. 2 vols. New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1878, p. 99.
2. Kaplan in Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph; a Memorial. Sidney Kaplan, ed. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1969, p. 28.
3. Thomas in Sewall, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674—1729. M. Halsey Thomas , ed. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973, pp. xxiii—xxviii.
4. Ibid., p. v.
5. Samuel Sewall, Diary, 19 August, 1792, MHS.
6. Ibid., 19 September, 1792, MHS.
7. Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: G. Braziller, 1969, pp. 153—154.
8. Ibid., pp. 207—210.