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Samuel Sewall Takes the Blame and Shame for the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Samuel Sewall will forever be remembered as a judge in the Salem witch trials in 1692-3, less so for his apology five years later. He also wrote an essay criticizing slavery in 1700 called The Selling of Joseph.

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall was born in England on March 28, 1652. When he was nine, he  moved with his family to Newbury, Mass. He earned two degrees from Harvard, a B.A. and an M.A. A wealthy young woman named Hannah Hull watched him during his oral exams and was quite taken by the 24-year-old student. She pursued him and they were married in February 1676. They had 14 children, but only a few lived to adulthood.

Sewall’s father-in-law, John Hull, was a wealthy merchant and mintmaster who treated the young couple well. He gave them 500 pounds as a wedding gift and let them move into his mansion in Boston. Sewall rose to prominence by getting involved in the Hull family’s political and economic endeavors.  He was named official printer of the colony in 1681. When his father-in-law died in 1683, Sewall was appointed to fill his place on the colony’s council of assistants. The council served as the upper chamber of the legislature and as a court of appeals.

Sewall was appointed in 1692 by Gov. Sir William  Phips to sit as a judge for the witchcraft trials on the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Phips appointed the court to bring to trial people accused of witchcraft. The court found 19 people guilty and executed them. The court was finally disbanded on Oct. 29, 1693.

Five years later Sewall stood before the congregation of the South Church in Boston while his confession was read by the Rev. Samuel Willard, who had strongly opposed the witch trials. The confession read:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order of this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative...

For many years he was chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature. He kept a journal from 1673 to 1729, which is considered one of the most important historical documents of the time.

Of the day of his birth, Sewall writes in his journal:

I was born at Bishop Stoke, March 28, 1652 ; so that the light of the Lord's Day was the first light that my Eyes saw, being born a little before day-break. I was baptised by Mr Rashly, (sometime Member of the Old Church in Boston) in Stoke Church May 4* 1652. Mr Rashly first preached a Sermon, and then baptised me. After which  an entertainment was made for him and many more.

Sewall's diary is a rich personal account of early American history. Other New England Historical Society stories about Sewall include his fear of Quakers, his account of the smallpox epidemic, his difficulty in getting a date as a widower, his dismay at the legalization of Christmas and his anxiety over taking an oath as a militia captain.