LaPlante's Salem Witch Judge

Twenty people were put to death during the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, one of them pressed to death by heavy stones placed atop him until his ribs snapped and he suffocated. He just wouldn't enter a plea, even of not guilty to the charges. So long as he held his silence, authorities would not be able to seize his land or estates. He was, as the Puritans might have said, silent unto death.

Salem is synonymous with mass hsyteria. How is it that authorities put a score of people to death based on evidence that makes Halloween look like a national holiday?

Eve LaPlante's, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall (Harper Collins, 2008), provides answers.

Sewall was one of the judges who sentenced the convicted witches to death. He was also a lifelong diarist. Sewall, a distant relative of Sewall's, recreates Sewall's world. We see man not so much intoxicated by God, but living in the daily dread that he might not be among the elect. Damnation was ever present in Sewall's mind. Every sign, every act, was a token reflecting the hand of an omnipotent God. In his diary, Sewall reflects what I call the paradox of Puritanism: he writes intimately of his longing for God's approval, writing directly to the God he presumes can know his thoughts and innermost longings; yet this intimacy reflects the terror that God will reject the writer. I believe, Sewall writes, help thou my unbelief. The diary entries are really entreaties to a God that is neither seen nor heard but nonetheless believed to be ever present.

In the early 1690s, Boston and its environs were periodically swept by illness. Quarantines were not uncommon. Hardy Puritans who believed they had been transplanted here to establish a city on a hill, were left to wonder about why illness came from God to rebuke them. And so, too, with the French-Indian wars. Why did God permit Catholics and pagans to decimate God-fearing villages, burning houses, killing and capturing men, women and children? And what of infant death? As Sewall watched one child after another or his die shortly after childbirth, he felt chastened. Evil was afoot, he knew it. In the name of God, something must be done.

Fenster does a good job capturing the grim contours of Sewall's life and the broad pressures to do something, almost anything, to justify the harsh ways of God to men who put their faith in the unseen.

The witchcraft trials ended almost abruptly as they began. The evidence against the so-called witches was, you see, largely "spectral." What this meant is that folks were convicted based not on what they were themselves observed to have done, but based on what the Devil did when assuming a form similar to theirs. Often, witches were identified by hysterical young women, or folks who bore quotidian grudges against them. Sewall lacked legal training but nonetheless knew that spectral evidence had no foundation in law.

Years after the trials and executions, Sewall publicly repented of his role in the trials. He stood in an open church in the pew belonging to his family, and asked the forgiveness of God and his community. He was, apparently, the only judge to do so. Others went to the grave no doubt believing that they had battled the Prince of Darkness on this new frontier.

Fenster's book is well-researched and well-written. Her bibliography has me hungering to learn more. What's more, the book chastens. We may not be Puritans any longer, but I suspect we just as susceptible to mass illusion. Lawyers will appreciate anew the significance of the law of evidence. We really must insist that when a client's liberty and life is on the line, the state acts based on competent evidence. Fear and terror can be lethal.

Comments: (4)

  • God loves us all. And he is reaching out to us all...
    God loves us all. And he is reaching out to us all.
    His greatest wish is that we all return to him. It's
    easy to welcome the righteous, and it's easy to
    reject the sinners. That's what we all tend to do.
    As one theologian put it, "We are quick to
    moralize, and slow to love. We have been
    forgiven much and embraced by a compassionate
    God, but are too slow, if not totally unwilling, to
    be accepting, forgiving, compassionate, and
    God wants all of us to come home to him. That's
    why he sent Jesus to us.
    God doesn't take the easy way out. He doesn't
    turn away from us. We may turn away from him,
    but God will never turn away from us. And he
    doesn't give up on us, even when we have given
    up on ourselves.
    God Rolled Up His Sleeves. God got his hands
    dirty with me. I was as sinful as they come. I
    didn't deserve his help. I didn't deserve his love.
    Yet as filthy and repulsive as I was, God wasn't
    afraid to roll up his sleeves and reach down into
    that dark, dank pit of evil to give me--the
    greatest of sinners--a hand up to the light.
    Don't count on tomorrow. Cherish and live each day as if it were your last. Live the life that God has given to you to its fullest potential. And live each day that God has given you for his glory. Don't forget Jesus' teaching about the two greatest commandments: "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37,39). Not just sometimes, not just when you have the time and it is convenient. Every day!

    Michael Ross
    Posted on May 18, 2009 at 11:16 am by Anonymous
  • To the above commenter -- how is this relevant?
    To the above commenter -- how is this relevant?
    Posted on May 20, 2009 at 9:11 am by Feisty
  • He wrote that when he knew his execution was immin...
    He wrote that when he knew his execution was imminent. It gave him a special perspective on life and what the important things are. Although we will all be dead very soon, most of us don't know the moment when we will breathe our last breath. Since he did, at least within a few moments, he viewed life very differently than I do. He found a degree of meaning, of purpose by trying to alert the rest of us to the brevity and gift of life and each moment we have. I think it is relevant because to emphasize a goal like striving to live lives of love gets to the heart of a host of our dilemnas.
    Ironic, isn't it? I never liked hippies much. But, just a few years ago they sounded the drum. Love was where it was really at and many bought in to it. After many years I have decided they were right.
    Posted on May 20, 2009 at 10:14 am by Anonymous
  • "The basic thing," Jacques Lacan once said about p...
    "The basic thing," Jacques Lacan once said about psychoanalysis, "is that people finally realize they've been talking nonsense at full volume for years."
    Posted on May 20, 2009 at 10:29 am by Anonymous

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