“Pray Always”: Salem Witch Judge, by Eve LaPlante

November 12, 2007 at 6:22 pm (Book review, books, History)

salem-judge.jpg evelaplante-140-exp-eve1.jpg Eve LaPlante’s book is subtitled, “The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall.” Why did he need to repent? Because in 1692, he was one of five judges who condemned twenty innocent people to death for the practice of witchcraft. The chapters dealing directly with the witchcraft trials are entitled, “In Satan’s Grip,” “Speedy and Vigorous Prosecutions,” and “Reign of Terror.” They make exceedingly compelling reading. By the time I finished them, I had a pretty good idea just who was actually in Satan’s grip; it certainly was not Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor, Martha Carrier, or any of the other sixteen individuals who were tried and hanged as witches. (Because he refused to enter a plea, Giles Corey was subjected to the horrendous “peine fort et dure,” which meant he was pressed to death – slowly – between heavy stones.)

Yes, the Devil was indeed loose in Massachusetts. What caused these sober Puritans to subject their fellow citizens, many of whom were prosperous, pious and respectable, to such horrors? The immediate cause lay in the accusations and hysterical behavior of several adolescent and pre-adolescent girls in the community. The principal malefactors were Betty Parris, daughter of the Reverend Samuel Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams, who was also one of the Parris household. Six other girls also took part. They were in the courtroom during the trials, and when an accused person tried to speak in his or her own defense, they set up such a howling show that spectators were truly terrified. They feared that the Devil was right there in the room with them.

(How those names – Rebecca Nurse, John and Elizabeth Proctor, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams – take me back decades to my first encounter with Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible.)

New Englanders at this time still adhered to the very straight and narrow strictures of their Puritan religion. Every other household seemed to contain a minister. You were expected, actually required, to spend much time in church praying for forgiveness for your sins. In return for the ceaseless effort to purify yourself, you were assured of admittance into the Heavenly kingdom. The stricture “Pray always” was rigidly observed. For his part, Samuel Sewall, who up until the witch trials had led an apparently blameless life, regularly agonized over his imperfections and often feared himself to be at the very edge of damnation.

New England itself was beset with problems in the late 1600’s. Disputes involving land and other issues arose frequently among neighbors and within families. The region was harried by hostile Indians, whose actions were backed by the French. There was literally no defense against disease and early death, which were viewed as a punishment visited on the sinful survivors. Out of fourteen children born to Samuel and his wife wife Hannah, only three were alive at the time of his death in 1730. (One’s heart aches for poor Hannah. The majority of the children that she and her husband lost died in infancy. The idea of a woman enduring repeated “confinements” only to lose her babies so soon after birth is simply appalling. In addition to being extremely fertile, as well as of necessity robust in constitution, Hannah Sewall was a devoted wife to Samuel and a devout and observant practitioner of their shared faith. A major frustration encountered in reading about this period lies in the fact that Hannah left no first person accounts of her life, nor do any letters that she may have written survive.)

Because of these and other afflictions, New Englanders felt an urgent need to purge Satan from their midst. They thought the witchcraft persecutions might accomplish this, although there were those who right from the beginning had their doubts about the proceedings. They had to be very careful about what they said, though, lest they find themselves in the dock.

My one caveat about this book is that the title is misleading. Yes, Samuel Sewall was a “Salem witch judge,” and he did, years later, express a profound remorse for his role in the proceedings of the Oyer and Terminer Court, as it was called. But this book is about much more than his role in this notorious episode in American history. In an era when so many individuals, if they survived childhood, died as young adults, Sewall lived to be 77. LaPlante not only related in detail the story of his long and eventful life, she also recreates meticulously the times in which he lived. I particularly appreciated her efforts to understand and explain the psychology of these intensely God-fearing people, whose world view seems so very different from our own.

sewallmural.jpg [Samuel Sewall’s statement of repentance is read out in a New England meetinghouse. This mural in the Massachusetts State House was painted by Albert Herter in 1942.]

At the book’s conclusion, the author appends a chapter entitled “Exploring Samuel’s Sewall’s America and England.” I immediately wanted to follow in her footsteps. While many of the vestiges of Puritan New England have been paved over or otherwise destroyed, a surprising number can still be seen and visited. I’d particularly like to go to Plum Island, and The Great Marsh, which, thanks to the efforts of preservationists, “…now conveys an image of coastal New England when it was inhabited only by Native American tribes.” This was a place that Samuel Sewall loved; he even envisioned it as fitting ground for the Lord’s the Second Coming.

plum-island.jpg [A wildlife refuge on Plum Island]

The author had even better luck retracing Sewall’s steps in England, which he visited in 1688 and where the antiquarian spirit remains vigorous. If you’re a fellow bibliophile, you’ll especially want to go to Winchester to see ‘the library around the stairs’ housed in the fourteenth-century chantry at Winchester College. My favorite anecdote in the book has to do with Sewall’s visit to the Jews’ Burying Place at Mile End in London. Like many Puritans, he took a special interest in the Jewish people; the Puritans considered themselves to be covenanted people, as were the Jews:

“[Samuel Sewall] and the grave keeper had a friendly chat over glasses of beer amid the graves. As Samuel prepared to leave he said to the man, ‘I wish we might meet in Heaven.’

‘And drink a glass of beer together there,’ the grave keeper replied.”

Salem Witch Judge is a rich and complex volume, one that rewards careful reading. As for Eve LaPlante, telling this story is for her a return to her roots: she is a direct descendant of Samuel Sewall and currently lives with her family on land in New England that he once owned.

[I recommend Wikipedia’s entry on the subject of the Salem witchcraft trials.]


  1. The art of biography: life stories, and more « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] August 26, 2008 at 12:05 am (books) I was recently asked to take part in a program of book talks about biographies. This got me thinking about just what books rightly fall into that category. I didn’t have to think twice about some selections. I knew, for instance, that I would enjoy booktalking Kate Williams’s England’s Mistress, the story of Emma Hamilton’s rise from penury to fame – some would say notoriety – and wealth; and Eve LaPlante’s empathetic biography of her pious Puritan ancestor Samuel Sewall, who was, for his sins, a Salem Witch Judge. […]

  2. Passionate Presbyterians: Home, by Marilynne Robinson: a book discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] finer points of scripture. I was reminded of the seventeenth century Puritans that I encountered in Salem Witch Judge, Eve La Plante’s biography of her ancestor Samuel Sewell. But for Nancy, our discussion […]

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